Travel

Into the winds of Cape Horn

CruisesTravelWeather WarningsWeatherTourism and LeisureTropical WeatherSouth America

Valparaíso, Chile

The Pacific wasn't.

First, we were bucked up and down, then rolled side to side. In my cabin four decks above the sea, the bigger waves sent water sloshing around the portholes. It was like looking into a giant front-loading washing machine set on berserk.

Our ship, the Norwegian Dream, was 500 miles northwest of Cape Horn, off South America, on Day 11 of a two-week cruise around the cape. Now, we were in seas with waves topping out at 65 feet and winds somewhere beyond the maximum 92 mph the ship's wind indicator could register. We'd had no warning (the nearest weather station in the Pacific being about 3,000 miles northwest on Easter Island), the captain informed us apologetically that morning, and we couldn't head back into the Chilean fiords; their narrow inlets were too dangerous.

We'd just have to ride out this, uh, storm (the captain didn't use the H word, "hurricane," until the next day, when we were finally out of it), heading into the wind at full engine power just to stand still.

Those well enough to leave their cabins navigated hallways littered with remnants of room service trays intended for those who weren't. Stacks of seasickness bags (thankfully unused) graced stairways and elevators. In the mostly empty restaurants, servers and patrons gamely held on to what they could, as breakfast, at times, literally flew by. In a gift shop, a wall of liquor bottles crashed down on two clerks trying to salvage the inventory.

All outdoor decks were closed. In the lounges, plants and trees — and anything else that wasn't bolted down (including a tiny elderly woman from Oklahoma and her chair) — went horizontal. The bars that remained open secured what glasses remained and switched to plastic. The social director, acting as if nothing unusual was happening, came on the public address system to announce the day's schedule — and its alterations. Napkin folding would go on, but not bingo. The machine with the numbered balls couldn't handle the tilt.

The sound of breaking glass was everywhere.

Remote and beautiful extremesTHE cruise around Cape Horn began on the Atlantic side of South America.

Short of visiting Antarctica, this is the southernmost cruise voyage in the world, a route leading into lands of rugged and remote — and beautiful — extremes. First, you sail into the Roaring Forties — the latitudes from 40 to 50 degrees south famed for their wild seas. Then, it gets worse; you enter the Fifties, for which apparently no nickname is necessary.

You don't — if you know anything about geography and cruising — take a ship from Buenos Aires to Valparaíso for the weather. Well, not good weather, anyway.

Even in the best of summers (December to March here), this is a route for windscreens and raincoats, not sunscreen and swimwear. Most of the 1,700 passengers aboard the Norwegian Dream seemed to know this and expected the weather would be part of the experience.

Day 1: Our embarkation port, Buenos Aires, is safe, cosmopolitan, "European" and — especially for North Americans not known for their familiarity with lands far to our south — comfortable. Not at all the type of place where you'd expect to start on a cruise to the end of the Earth.

Day 2: Nor is Montevideo, Uruguay, the first stop on our 14-night itinerary and only 150 miles east across the broad Río de la Plata estuary from the Argentine capital. But the Uruguayan capital — with a more mestizo population than Buenos Aires and a historic center dominated by Colonial-style buildings — looked more like the South American cities we had expected. With a choice of city tours and excursions to the spiffy beach resorts of Punta del Este or a prosperous estancia (ranch), it was a long way from rugged or remote. And the early January midsummer weather was gorgeous. Then we headed south.

Into the winds.

Day 3: On our way to Patagonia, it was sunny and warm, our only day at sea with temperatures warm enough for poolside lounging. Like a moving car with its top down, a ship produces its own wind, but we also were starting to experience little gusts — 10, maybe 20 mph — from the side. And we were still in the Thirties.

Day 4: We didn't mind the wind this day either, now inside the Forties in hot, desert-like Puerto Madryn, a small, undistinguished Argentine city whose location halfway between Buenos Aires and the Cape has made it a prime cruise stop by default. Next door — and, here, the 2 1/2-hour drive each way over gravel roads qualifies — is Peninsula Valdes, "the richest land around," our guide told us. The area's prime wildlife attractions: strange birds like the tinamou (looking much like a rail), guanacos (a llama relative), rheas (like an ostrich, only smaller), and colonies of penguins (little ones — by the hundreds) and elephant seals (big ones — by the dozens). A long day of travel, perhaps, to see a few wild animals — and a few more domestic sheep — but how else to appreciate the vast, treeless expanse of Patagonia?

Day 5: Remarkably, on our second full day at sea, as we headed due south to the Fifties and the Falkland Islands, the temperatures fell quickly into the 50s, but the seas were mild and the wind was at our back.

Day 6: We were lucky when we got to the Falklands and anchored offshore. Not that it wasn't windy — it was — but just, officially, a "strong breeze" (that's 25 to 31 mph, if you're counting). The dock at the port of Stanley is too small for big ships, so our good fortune was that we were actually able to take the tenders to land.

Lots of ships, we discovered, come to the Falklands during the short summer cruising season, but many can't get passengers ashore because of rough seas. That was something the cruise brochures hadn't told us.

By Falkland standards, it truly was a nice summer day: temperatures in the low 50s, that little "breeze" and only a sprinkling of rain — with a midafternoon burst of glorious sun. The town's scraggly evergreens, however, testified to the constant force of the wind, their limbs permanently sculpted into lopsided coiffures.

Stanley's main street is, mostly, a one-sided affair, with shops facing the harbor and a park across the road. Some passengers took short, inexpensive (especially compared to the ship, which offered no tours here) excursions to a penguin colony and other sights offered at the dock. But most of our seaborne mob milled around a picturesque church, shopped in the few gift shops, checked menus at the lunch rooms of small hotels and bought exotic stamps.

Day 7: Another full day at sea. We cruised for the first time into Chilean waters for an early evening date with Cape Horn, the marquee event of the trip and a place name that put fear into the hearts of sailors for centuries.

Amazingly, as we slowly trolled along the small islands leading to the cape, the wind died down to practically nothing. It was overcast and in the upper 40s — good weather here at almost 54 degrees south. Antarctica, the coldest and windiest place on our planet, is a straight shot 700 miles across the Drake Passage.

But after two hours of this unexpected calm, as the captain finally wheeled us around the Cape at our closest point and the crew prepared for a "baptism" ceremony involving water from the "three" oceans (the ersatz "Antarctic" is the third), the winds suddenly picked up, the gray skies let loose and, five minutes after a dry calm, we were in a driving rain with 30 mph winds.

Now we could see why, in the days before the Panama Canal, it could take ships weeks, even months, to round the horn. If they made it.

We reversed course and, during the night, returned to more sheltered waters, entering the Beagle Channel (named after the ship on which Charles Darwin, Mr. Evolution, sailed the world in the 1830s) on our way to Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city — population about 50,000 — on the Argentine side of the main island of Tierra del Fuego. (Chile claims the southernmost "town," across the channel at Puerto Williams.) The ship, the captain told us, would dock a bit early to take advantage of the tides and the calmer, predawn winds.

Day 8: Ushuaia turned out to be a colorful city in a spectacular setting on this archipelago named "land of fire" for all the natives' fires that early explorers spotted as they sailed by.

The city is a major jumping-off spot for adventure travelers, but with our limited time in port, our half-day tours were relatively tame. The tour, to nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park, was pleasant enough, with visits to a gorgeous mountain lake and a bay where the last main highway in South America ends.

Back aboard for a 1 p.m. departure, the talk was less of what we'd seen than what was next: the glaciers, the fiords, the Andes. All were on our afternoon agenda.

Sailing west out of Ushuaia on the inland passage, we saw a small settlement, then a few scattered cabins before running out of civilization. It would be three days before we'd see another sign of human life. About 3:30 p.m., we started to pass our first glacier, most of us watching — it was bright, but cold and windy outside — from the comfort of the lounges.

For several hours, the ship passed glaciers — tagged "Hollandia," "Italia" and other Eurocentric names — while staffers provided commentaries in the three languages of our cruise, English, Spanish and German. We were hushed and awed by these frozen rivers of ice, moving in super slow-motion down from their mountain cirques, their glacial blues even more staggeringly beautiful than the pictures we'd seen.

That evening we threaded through the western islands of Tierra del Fuego and entered the Strait of Magellan.

Day 9: Patagonia, the Falklands, Cape Horn, the Drake Passage, the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, the Strait of Magellan. Here we were, knocking off one exotic landmark location after another. Then, at Punta Arenas, Chile, we had two more world-famous destinations from which to choose. Both are pricey — and priceless: a "flightseeing" trip over Antarctica ($1,395) or a flight-and-bus tour to Torres del Paine ($829), South America's most iconic national park.

A tough choice, but I chose the 12-hour excursion to "the Towers" (Torres), which involved a 130-mile flight in small planes to Puerto Natales, a two-hour bus ride into the park, a few hours in the park itself, then the return.

Eva, our guide, gave us a primer on the area, where few trees, plants or animals can survive the cold (there are no months without freezes), the wind (40 mph, on average) and the rain (240 inches a year). But we'd see the hardier inhabitants — guanacos, rheas, condors and some weather-beaten sheep and cattle. If we were lucky, we'd even see the Towers — three jagged granite peaks poking into the sky.

Of course, we saw the animals, and the park's lakes, one colored a supernatural turquoise by its rock sediments. We looked, through rain and clouds, for the Towers, spotting their base and even, very briefly, the crevices between the three peaks. Though the sun popped out for a minute here and there, that was as much of the Torres as we would see.

We may have been disappointed, but as Eva philosophized, "You will remember this day, because nobody remembers the perfect trip."

Day 10: This day at sea, cruising north through the islands along the Chilean coast, wasn't quite as spectacular as our encounter with the European glaciers. But the weather was a bit warmer, and the fiords were still beautiful. We even stopped for ice, plucking a 2-ton "cube" out of the water beside a glacier. Then, in his evening announcement, the captain warned us that we'd be hitting open seas about 2 a.m. and should expect "four or five hours" of moderate roughness.

Day 11: You already know what happened on this day, but it did tend to make the rest of the cruise anticlimactic.

Day 12: The captain finally used the word "hurricane," noting that wind speeds above 74 mph qualify as such. We would miss our stop in Puerto Chacabuco. To make up time, we'd head on a scenic route for our last stop, Puerto Montt, where we'd arrive on schedule — Day 13 — for tours in the Lake District — and experience our first day of 60-degree weather since leaving Puerto Madryn.

We'd have a final day — Day 14 — at sea, then disembark — Day 15 in the historic seafaring city of Valparaíso, two hours from Santiago.

And we would talk about the once-in-a-lifetime things we'd seen and experienced. Especially — once it was over — the hurricane.

Eva was right.

It had been a cruise to remember.

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Rocking the boat around the Horn

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, direct flights (stop, no change of planes) to Buenos Aires are available on Lan Chile; connecting flights (change of planes) are available on American, Varig, United and Lan Chile airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $850. To Santiago, Chile, direct flights are available on Lan Chile; connecting flights on Varig, Delta, American and COPA airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $971. The lowest airfare often can be obtained in conjunction with your cruise ticket.

CRUISE DETAILS:

Most cruises that "round the Cape" alternate departures between Buenos Aires and Valparaíso (near Santiago), Chile, with return to the other city. Many cruise lines, from luxury to budget, sail this route during the summer (late November to early March). I booked my 14-night January cruise on a moderately priced Norwegian Cruise Line ship in early September 2002 to get a promotional cruise-only rate of $1,799 without port fees and taxes (an additional $386) for an outside cabin. With single supplement (which varies), my total cruise cost was $2,764. Insurance ($286) was extra. Price comparisons to the coming season (2003-04) are difficult because January cruises on NCL's Norwegian Crown (which replaces the Dream on this routing) are already sold out. Prices for a 15-day cruise departing Buenos Aires on Dec. 28 start at $1,949 inside. Information: (800) 327-7030, http://www.ncl.com .

Expect cool, windy and sometimes rainy conditions for most of the cruise. Except for the hurricane, which is rare, and one other semi-rocky day, we experienced nothing worse than what you'd get on a Caribbean cruise.

You'll see more from your cabin from starboard (right) on cruises leaving Buenos Aires and port (left) on cruises leaving Santiago.

— Randy Curwen


Randy Curwen is travel editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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