Our 14-day cruise trip to South America was doomed from the start. We arrived in Rio just after the New Year with so much excitement about being in another hemisphere. It went downhill from there with a botched departure caused the ship to be late and then a medical emergency the following evening. The delays caused a snowball effect that changed the ship's itinerary. We just stayed calm and recognized that all is not lost. We were on a floating resort called a cruise ship.
There are, generally, two cruise routes to South America. One cruise concentrates on Brazil and the Amazon. The second is the southern route that starts from either Buenos Aires or Santiago to Cape Horn and back. The journey we took was the southern route, but instead of starting from Buenos Aires, it began in Rio de Janeiro.
Most cruises sail about a week after the New Year. This particular cruise was early, setting sail on January 3.
The cruise fare was also quite reasonable. An interior room went for less than $700 for the 14-day cruise. We thought it was such a good deal that my husband, who isn't a cruise person, decided to come along. He thought it was an excellent way to learn the tango! That's a joke, of course. My husband has two left feet.
We had less than three months to get organized, so we checked on two things. First, what was the airfare to Rio with a return from Santiago, Chile? Second, the visa.
A direct flight on Delta was around $1600 round trip. The price with a return from Santiago was the same. There was no flexibility in the cost or schedule, even when using the travel websites. We boarded on January 3, and going earlier would mean hitting up against New Year's when the fare was even higher. I guess the Brazilians like to party!
My friend, Trisha's airfare from Reagan National, connecting in Atlanta, was around $1200. Atlanta is an expensive hub, especially for direct flights. When traveling overseas, I try to take connecting flights through Washington DC, New York, or Detroit. The landing fees are the difference between airports. The smaller Delta hubs do not charge as much as Atlanta.
Second, do we need a visa? Well, we needed one for Brazil! To get a Brazilian visa, you can do it yourself or use a third-party service, recommended by the Brazilian Consulate. The cost of the permit was $160. It was almost double to use a service.
The visa application process involved applying online to receive a "reference number." The reference number, your passport, and required documents are sent to the Consulate designated for your state. In addition to the regular passport photos and passport, we needed to submit notarized copies of our driver's licenses, and notarized copies of our bank statements, together with postage paid USPS Priority Mail return label. The Consulate only accepts the USPS money order.
The process seemed like too much work and bureaucracy for an overnight stay in Rio! The only good news we had was that there was a consulate in Atlanta, so I could personally apply for the visa.
We heard worse stories from passengers on the cruise about the hoops they had to go through for the visa. Some bypassed Rio altogether and boarded in Buenos Aires.
Don't assume that just because it is summer in South America, it will be warm throughout the continent. It was sweltering in Rio. The heat on Copacabana Beach was searing. The climate turned more temperate going south to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, but it got progressively colder towards the tip of the continent. The temperatures in Ushuaia and Punta Arenas were in the low 40 degrees, but it felt much colder with the wind chill. On the trip, we sailed through the Chilean fjords and the Amalia glaciers. It was beautiful, but chilly.
Now Punta Arenas and Ushuaia are about a two-hour plane ride to Antarctica. Princess offered a $3000 side tour to the Chilean section of Antarctica. Quite a few passengers went on that tour. They took a two-hour flight each way, and a four-hour visit to the Chilean and Russian expeditions and a trip to an island to see the penguins. It seemed very expensive at the time, but it is the way to go if you wanted to check Antarctica off your list. By the way, you had to have select clothing to go on an expedition, and you couldn't taking anything to or from the area.
The weather was very changeable. It could be sunny, cloudy, windy, and wet all in the span of a few minutes. We experienced intense storms and strong winds in the Rio Plata and the Beagle Channel by the Cape. Some of the storms were so strong that it prevented us from boarding tenders or going ashore. Winds were so strong in the Beagle Channel one morning that guests were advised to stay in their cabins. We stayed in bed until noon, to keep from getting too nauseous.
So dress appropriately. You will need a sweater or two, a parka, umbrellas and a warm jacket for sure. For half the trip, you will be sailing around Cape Horn so that it will be cold and windy. You might want to add gloves, scarves, and a hat depending on your luggage capacity. I was able to layer clothes with what I had, but we had to purchase a sweatshirt in the cruise ship shop to keep warm.
The cruise will have three formal nights. I don't think I will fret too much about this next cruise. Minimally, they ask for a collared shirt, long pants, and shoes for men. For women, it can mean anything, but minimally, they recommend an outfit one would wear to a nice restaurant. Of course, part of the fun of cruising is dressing up, so bring whatever you want. No one cares. Passengers are all doing their own thing.
Can this be the cruise from hell? Sometimes, it felt that way.
It started in Rio! The cruise encountered one mishap after another. In Rio, Brazilian authorities insisted on using local employees for ground operations, including registration. It turned out to be a fiasco.
There was a lot of confusion. Lack of communication resulted in long lines and lots of complaints. There were not enough chairs in the registration building for the number of senior and very senior citizens joining the cruise. Princess management finally took over, and we saw some organization. We got to our cabin just after 6 PM. It took us about three hours to register, but many more waited close to six hours.
We left Rio between 8-9 PM instead of 6 PM. Passengers were talking about the boarding fiasco but were in good spirits. The cruise schedule showed that we would be "at sea" for the next two days to get to Buenos Aires and Montevideo on the Rio Plata.
On the first day at sea, there was an onboard announcement for a request for type O or AB Negative blood donation. How does one need a blood transfusion on a cruise? A few hours later, the ship's captain informed us that there was a medical emergency, and the closest medical facility was in Brazil. It meant having to retrace our route two hours to meet up with the boat, ferry or helicopter (or combination) to transport the patient and his or her family to a hospital.
I recall it was about 10 PM when the transfer occurred. All the decks were closed to protect the patient's privacy, but we could see the boat's lights at a distance. It took a while to complete the transfer, and we don't know why a helicopter was not used. Princess was able to keep everything confidential, so no one knew the exact circumstance of the medical emergency except that we were in the middle of nowhere in the ocean trying to save a life.
We were now two days behind schedule. Thus our arrival in Buenos Aires was a day late. First, passengers were boarding and disembarking in Buenos Aires. Secondly, there was a rush to contact shore excursions or re-book flights. We all wished we had the use of our cell phones. Unfortunately, we were limited to the boat-to-shore telephone lines. Princess Passenger Services offered the free use of international calling, but there was still a whole lot of unhappy passengers, especially those who missed flight connections.
For us, we had booked our shore excursions with Delta Sky Cruises, and it was easy to contact local reps or the main office in Florida once we had access to a telephone line. In the middle of all this, the captain informed us that the patient we helped transport to Brazil passed away.
Our visit to Buenos Aires went fine. We met our tour guide for a city tour. The problem was Montevideo scheduled for that evening. Montevideo was a critical refueling stop and ship servicing stop. No berths were available that evening, and the first availability was at 6 PM the following day. It meant another day's delay.
As we approached Montevideo harbor on the Rio Plata, the water levels on the river were too low, which means we had to "park" until water levels rose the next morning.
We expected to reach the harbor at about 8 PM, which meant we would not be able to disembark in Montevideo.
The majority of passengers insisted on going ashore, even it was just for a few minutes. At 8 PM, the first wave of passengers exited the boat (no tenders required) when a massive thunderstorm gave way. We were in the second wave of passengers to get off, but we had to wait for the first wave to get back, all soaked to the bone.
We were undeterred, of course. We had parkas on and carried umbrellas to walk a few yards to the pier. The wind was so strong that our umbrellas were useless. We took shelter at a nearby internet café to wait out the storm.
The café made a killing that night because it had the ubiquitous gift shop to tempt the all too willing cruise passengers. The internet café accepted US dollars, so greenbacks flying back and forth for t-shirts or sweets or hats.
The rain finally subsided enough for us to venture outside of the pier. There was not much to see, but we took a lot of photos, anyway.
My husband was fascinated with the berthing of this gigantic cruise ship. It required making a 90-degree turn, which was not too tricky going in. Backing out was a little more challenging. It is like backing out a semi-circle in minimal space. It was being guided by a ferry on the port and the bow. We watched this rather than watch a show in the theater.
Ship officials announced that we had to cancel the trip to the Falkland Islands due to the unavailability of berths. We were proceeding directly to Ushuaia in Argentina and Punta Arenas in Chile.
I don't remember precisely when Princess offered the first compensation for the trip cancellations. For passengers boarding in Buenos Aires, there was a cash offer and a 50% discount for a future cruise in 2017. For all others, it was a 50% discount for a future cruise in 2017. Passengers were comparing compensation packages in secret meetings throughout the boat. We did not attend any of the meetings, but I'm sure many did.
As we headed south of the continent, it got progressively colder, and the sea choppier. We had heard that cruises to the tip are usually choppy, with some cruised being canceled. We had experienced rough swells in the Rio Plata, but the roughest swells were in the open ocean, coming out of the Strait of Magellan. The swell started about 7 AM, and it was still going on until about noon. I spent my time writing and listening to music to keep my mind off what was happening. We were trying to get to the Amalia glaciers, as a side trip to compensate for all the canceled stops.
Princess offered all the passengers on board an enhanced compensation package as a goodwill gesture to the many new and loyal passengers. Everyone would get a 50% cash rebate on the cost of their cruise and a 50% discount on a future cruise through 2018. It was a generous offer, and I think everyone was satisfied. We heard that Princess canceled this itinerary and schedule for future cruises. I would not blame them if they bypassed Brazil altogether!
My husband was happy to get back on land once we reached Valparaiso, Chile. Valparaiso was the last stop and our disembarking point. We were taking a private tour of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, before being dropped off at our hotel in Santiago.
Our takeaway from this cruise was that we would look at the number of days at sea in future journeys. Half our voyage was at sea, partially because of the medical emergency and weather conditions. We did not see much of the cities we were able to visit. A four-hour visit to Buenos Aires was hardly enough, and there were few options in terms of the cruise excursions.
But that is what a cruise is. It is a floating resort with short ports of call visits. If you just want to relax, laze by the pool with a drink or see a show and not have to worry about packing and unpacking, cruises are for you.