Discovering Lima

DSC05064When we docked at Callao, the port for Lima (which is really just a southern suburb of this sprawling city), we knew this would be one of the historical highlights of the cruise.  Founded by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, Lima would become the capital of the Spanish South American Empire and rule over the entire continent, with the exception of Portuguese Brazil, for 300 years.  The modern city of ten million inhabitants still has remnants of Spanish colonial architecture that have managed to withstand the intermittent, devastating earthquakes that plague Peru to this day.  Not only cathedrals and monasteries from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but ornate Spanish baroque structures housing government offices line the streets and plazas in the center of the city.  Other parts of the city echo the belle époque of Paris, wedding-cake buildings with mansard roofs surrounding a circular plaza anchored by a very French-style fountain.


It is obligatory to start a tour of Lima with a visit to the Plaza Mayor, or Main Plaza, just two blocks from the banks of the Rio Rimac where Pizarro first planted the flag of Spain.  The Cathedral stands in imposing splendor along the east side of the plaza, with the bishop’s residence attached.  Twin bell towers loom over the massive sets of carved wooden doors, and the bells toll at peculiar times, for instance at 10:30 a.m. but not at 11:00.  Of course, our first day in Lima was a Sunday, so maybe the bells were calling the faithful to services.  If so, they were fighting a losing battle against the bicycle fair in the plaza and the Peruvian girls posing against the background of the fountain.


The predominant color of buildings in Lima is indisputably yellow, and not a pale insipid yellow, but a robust Spanish gold.  Not only commercial and residential buildings are painted this color; we saw several churches and other religious structures proudly sporting bright yellow walls.DSC04978


Interestingly, our first guide in Lima was a young apologist for the Spanish invaders: he insisted that the Spanish were not “the bad guys,” despite what we had been taught and despite their awkward habit of slaughtering the indigenous population whenever the two cultures came into contact.  But the fact that 85% of the population of Peru is Roman Catholic, and that the only literate Spaniards who accompanied the soldiers were members of the Catholic clergy (Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits) who wrote personal accounts of what they found in South America and sent them back to Spain, may explain the pro-European slant we detected in our tour guide.


What is indisputable is that the conquistadors plundered tons of gold and silver from the native peoples, took the beautiful and historically invaluable ornaments created by these pre-Columbian artists and melted them down into bars of metal easier to transport, and demolished the architecture that had stood for centuries because it must have been the work of the devil – how else could primitive peoples have built cities of such glorious splendor?  I’m afraid that I find the greed and arrogance of the Spanish invaders more appalling now than I did when I first read their history in my elementary schoolbooks.


DSC04910That said, some of the architectural vestiges of the colonial period are very interesting, in particular the former monasteries and convents, with their high-ceilinged galleries surrounding quiet courtyards edged with rose bushes and hydrangeas.  The Convento de Santo Domingo, which houses the tomb of Santa Rosa de Lima, the first saint of the Americas, is especially appealing; it breathes a sense of peace and contemplation even in the center of a busy city.DSC04914


Best of all was our visit to Casa de Aliaga, a 47-room house across from the Palacio del Gobierno, an ornate government building equivalent to the White House (on the site where Pizarro’s own house once stood).  Geronimo Aliaga was one of Pizarro’s captains and a close personal friend, and he built his house across the street in the mid-16th century conveniently close to the seat of power in Lima.  Aliaga was a shrewd businessman and made a huge fortune in trade, passing along his acumen to his children and grandchildren.


DSC04933Seventeen generations later, the Aliaga family still lives in the house, which has undergone gentle updating over the centuries but retains its graceful and elegant atmosphere.  The matriarch of the family, now 101 years old and in blooming health, occupies part of the house, as do her son, three of his adult children, and a couple of cousins.  A few of the public rooms, as well as the central courtyard, are open to the public; nonetheless, the family has dinner in the formal dining room five nights a week once the tourists have left the premises.DSC05080  The exterior of the house is unprepossessing, stretching the length and width of a city block but only two stories tall, with enclosed balconies overlooking the narrow street below; but the interior is spacious and charming, furnished with comfortable chairs and sofas that speak to the good taste and hospitality of the family over the generations.  The open-air courtyard, with its fountain and its giant 150-year-old ficus, brings gentle and cooling breezes into the heart of the house, DSC05093and the second-floor gallery that surrounds it provides shaded seating for guests and visitors.  As a special treat, a couple dressed in seventeenth-century Spanish finery strolled through the rooms, looking perfectly at home.  We loved the whole experience.DSC04943


Because of the location on the plaza of the presidential offices, there is a very visible police presence in this part of the city.  But despite their looking very serious and watchful, the police enjoy a high degree of respect in Peru.  And we even got a smile and a friendly wave from some officers standing quite casually behind their riot shields in front of the Cathedral.DSC04976


Unfortunately, Francisco Pizarro lacked the good sense and foresight that were clearly possessed by Geronimo Aliaga.  Pizarro had ruthlessly fought and subjugated the once-powerful Inca, leading the Spanish effort to demolish their highly-developed civilization in only one century.  He accumulated a great fortune from gold and silver held back from the massive wealth sent to Spain from its South American colonies.  When Pizarro was rewarded for his military and plundering success by the King of Spain with the title Marquesa, his close companion, Diego de Almagro, received a much lesser title.  This perceived injustice infuriated Almagro, since he had gone on battling the recalcitrant Inca while Pizarro lolled around Lima enjoying the good life.  Cool heads did not prevail, and the conflict between the two former friends resulted in Pizarro’s condemning Almagro to death.  The Spanish were not then noted for a “let bygones be bygones” philosophy, and on June 26, 1541, twenty armed men, led by Almagro’s son, set out to seek vengeance by assassinating Pizarro in his own palatial home.  They were successful, but Pizarro was a tough old bird (he was nearly seventy years old by then) and took three of his killers with him.


DSC05120One of our tours in Lima was conducted by a noted Peruvian historian, a man with a varied and fascinating background, holding degrees in anthropology and business administration.  He was a graduate of St. Mark’s University in Lima, the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere, where the country of Peru took shape when it finally achieved its independence.  We sat on long benches in the room where all the major issues confronting the formation of the new nation were discussed and resolved, and we could almost feel in the atmosphere of the chamber just how important and serious those decisions were.


In the port of Callao, we saw for the first time on the entire trip another cruise ship, the elegant condominium ship The World, on which we were fortunate enough to sail during her maiden season, when cruise segments were sold to passengers who wanted to experience something unique.  She was docked next to us for the two days we were in Lima, and we couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to sail on her again.  She no longer operates as a cruise ship with paying passengers, since she is entirely owned by the residents who own condos on board and does not market rentals.  The World is beautiful inside and out, with the condos designed by internationally-known interior designers, several five-star restaurants, an on-board market selling fresh produce and groceries, an excellent library, and a staff and crew outnumbering the passengers and providing superb service.


Lima boasts a couple of very upscale neighborhoods, Miraflores and San Isidro, where big-name boutiques and shops line wide boulevards, and high-rise condos loom over the seafront from very insubstantial-looking cliffs.  DSC05039Overlooking the sea is Love Park, where couples come to celebrate their engagement, their marriage, and their anniversary.  We felt a bit like voyeurs, watching all the happy young people having their pictures taken, two by two, against the vast blue background of the Pacific.  We enjoyed our stay in Lima, although we never had the chance to taste its famous cuisine – Peruvians pride themselves on the blend of different cultures in their country, both in racial mix and in food.  Spanish, indigenous Indian, African, and Chinese inhabitants have intermarried for centuries, giving Peru its distinctive face.  In Lima alone, there are 3,200 Chinese restaurants (called chifa), which perplexed Gerry:  If 85% of the population is Catholic, 10% belong to other Christian denominations, and the rest have no religious beliefs, how can the Chinese restaurants stay in business without any Jews?


Speaking of the Jews, we haven’t seen a single synagogue anywhere in the parts of South America we’ve visited – although there was a very prominently-situated mosque in Coquimbo, Chile, built by a local politician as a gesture of good will to Muslims in the country.  But as far as we know, there are no Muslims in Coquimbo; once a week, groups of Muslims make the trek from Santiago to attend services.  Lots of races in South America, but basically only one religion.  Every town or city has at least one cross on a hilltop, and there are Catholic churches everywhere you turn.  Our trip is taking place right at the end of the schools’ summer vacation, so we weren’t surprised to see lots of school-age kids in the parks and markets and on the beaches.  But we were struck by the enormous number of families with infants and toddlers.  Clearly, family planning is not a priority in this part of the world.  But we were given the opportunity to take tons of pictures of delightful young children, with their parents’ smiling permission, and Gerry will assemble a gallery of the best of those photos to add to this blog.



Onward to Peru

Early in the morning of our arrival in Peru, our ship maneuvered along a mountainous and austere coastline, escorted by solicitous tugs flying the Peruvian flag, into a tiny harbor almost entirely enclosed by a long jetty of rip-rap.  DSC04632The harbor was so minuscule that it seemed impossible for our ship to fit into the available water, but with the help of two busy tugboats, we swiveled 180 degrees and fetched up neatly against the pier, facing back toward the sea.  And suddenly we found ourselves at Matarani, the port closest to the city of Arequipa and subsequently to Cusco, high in the Andes.  Since we weren’t making the excursion to Machu Picchu (“Old Mountain” to the Inca), and I wasn’t feeling up to taking the nine-plus hour trip to Arequipa, we decided to stay on board and just relax.


DSC04634To our surprise, this turned out to be one of our favorite days of the cruise, beginning with the vista from our veranda as we sailed into port and ending with a perfect sunset.  DSC04636Matarani has no tourist facilities, nothing to come between us and the serene beauty of the mountains beyond the port or the sparkling sea cradling a small fishing fleet at anchor beyond the pier. DSC04653 In the harbor itself, tiny fishing boats lined up in a colorful array, welcoming dinghies from the larger boats as they entered the harbor one by one.  The air was soft and clear, and the entire day drifted past like a peaceful gift from nature.  And when the sun set in a cocoon of rose and gold and amethyst behind the fishing boats to our west as our ship sailed out of the harbor, we watched from our veranda in awe.  Sometimes the unexpected is the best.DSC04660


At Pisco, our next port to the north, we looked forward with anticipation to a tour for which we had been waitlisted and which we did not want to miss.  Luckily, we made the cut and climbed onto one of the buses headed for Paracas, a resort area on the beach.  We drove past shanties roofed with corrugated iron lining dirt streets, tumbledown hostels with hand-lettered signs dangling above their open doors, and eventually down a narrow road leading to an absolutely beautiful five-star resort hotel, with villas set in pristine landscaping along the seafront.  We walked down a pathway banked with perfectly pruned topiary and oleanders in full bloom to board big speedboats, thirty passengers at a time, and head out to the Ballestas Islands. DSC04677


Until 2009, these three islands, along with nineteen others, were valued solely as sources of guano, bird dung used as fertilizer.  Every seven years, for example, workmen (presumably without a sense of smell) were – and still are – housed on the islands while they collected guano and shipped it to the mainland and eventually overseas.  Then in 2009, the Peruvian government awoke to the fact that the area comprised a critical marine ecosystem that should be protected and preserved; and the National Reserve System of Islands, Islets and Coastal Guano Concentration Areas was established.  DSC04694The Ballestas Islands (North, Centre, and South) have been compared to the Galapagos Islands of Chile because of their concentration of birds and sea mammals, a comparison with which we agree.


This part of Peru was home to some of the earliest Andean civilizations, including the people who carved the famous Nazca Lines into vast expanses of a barren plain.  These geometric drawings of birds, animals, and symbols have baffled archeologists for a century, since they can really be seen only from the air, and the people who carved them could not fly.  Naturally, those who believe in visitors from outer space have a ready explanation for the mystery, but for now the rest of us remain in the dark.


DSC04680On the other hand, the indigenous Paracas people, who lived here from 200 to 800 A.D., carved on a hillside facing the sea the huge stylized “Candelabrum,” depicting an artifact used in religious rituals to hold sacred (and hallucinogenic) liquid in its cups.  The Paracas are also famous for their beautiful weaving, examples of which have survived more than a thousand years  because of the dry climate.

DSC04723As we approached the Ballestas Islands, we could see birds by the hundreds – even thousands – perched on the jagged cliffs, their white heads and necks identifying them as Peruvian boobies.  Clusters of grey-headed booby teenagers gathered on small rocky islets just far enough away from their parents to avoid being given a sharp peck or two to keep them in line.  DSC04734We had been warned to cover our heads and arms, since birds have a tendency to use human targets to practice their aim, and I was glad I’d worn a windbreaker with a hood once I found myself in the cross-hairs of one avian bombsight.

The driver of our boat steered us into coves and along cliffs, until we began to see long stretches of beach completely covered with South American sea lions, mothers and babies on the sand and huge bulls patrolling at the water’s edge. DSC04757 One colony of these beautiful creatures numbered more than 500; we were there during the first weeks and months of the pups’ lives, so they were just learning to swim and hadn’t yet learned to fish.  Some of the adults, though, swam fearlessly around our boat, trying to get a closer look at these peculiar marine mammals who appeared to dislike water.DSC04848 - Copy


DSC04708The structure of the islands is very beautiful, with caves and arches carved from the rock by the constant motion of the sea.  The faces of the cliffs are sculpted with ledges where birds build their nests and raise their young, so when you look up at the island from your boat, you can watch them going about their daily lives as if they were performing living theater for your entertainment.DSC04775 - Copy


The Ballestas Islands are the breeding grounds not only for sea lions, but for many kinds of birds, some of which we were able to recognize.  DSC04765The Peruvian booby looks just like the blue-footed booby we saw in the Galapagos – except, of course, minus the blue feet.  Then there was the American oyster-catcher with its long red beak, Peruvian pelicans and glossy black vultures, seagulls and red-legged cormorants and terns skimming over the water, and a few other species we couldn’t identify on the fly, so to speak.  We’d hoped to see a condor, since they are commonly found in the area, but no such luck.  We did, however, see three Humboldt penguins having a quiet conference on a rock, which was a real treat.DSC04827 - Copy


On the way back to the dock, we noticed that the mountains to our right, which had been a rich café au lait earlier, seemed to glow with iridescent color: red and gold and green and purple, all shading from one to the other in the folds of earth on the hillsides.  We never knew what caused those colors, but it was as if an artist had dipped his brush in random pots of paint and swept it across the hills.DSC04861 - Copy


We agreed that this was one excursion we wouldn’t have missed for anything – it was like being on safari in Africa and seeing our first (and second and third and . . .) pride of lions in the wild.  There is something liberating about being so close to animals without a fence or a pane of glass to separate us from them.  It requires a level of mutual trust that has to be built without words.  We feel very fortunate to have had this experience once again.



Northward through Chile

Leaving behind Coquimbo and La Serena and their forlorn dogs, photogenic people, and fascinating early history, we looked forward to a day at sea before our next port.  On this cruise, we have the privilege of having three superb guest lecturers with us throughout our trip: Niki Sepsas, travel writer, guide, historian, and photographer; Dr. Herb Keyser, physician, musicologist and all-around renaissance man; and Dr. Norman Caisse, astronomer, professor, and member of the team that sent the first mission to the moon.  Each presentation is more fascinating than the preceding one, and each lecturer has his own unique skills.  Dr. Caisse also holds  star-gazing sessions on deck several nights during the cruise, acquainting his students with the stars of the Southern Hemisphere.


We love sea days, especially in the middle of a busy schedule – they give us the chance to recharge our energy and prepare for the next adventure.  And this first sea day was especially necessary for another, less pleasant reason:  As soon as we boarded the ship, what I had thought was just a nagging little cough resulting from seasonal allergies blossomed into a severe, bone-rattling cough and an upper respiratory infection that kept me from sleeping and sapped my strength.  When it worsened instead of improving, we began to be seriously concerned about my ability to handle the extreme altitudes we would experience in Cusco and Machu Picchu.  I went to see the ship’s doctor, an Italian physician who had formerly been a thoracic surgeon, and after an examination he strongly recommended that I cancel my excursion.  Reluctantly, I agreed when Gerry insisted that we do so, and we resigned ourselves to giving up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – at least for now.


So as we headed to Arica, Chile, we began to look for ways to fill the four days on board we would have missed during our land excursion.  Most of the tours on the cruise had been booked online in advance of our departure, and the more popular ones were already full.  But with polite persistence, Gerry was able to obtain places for us on two tours in which we were particularly interested, so nothing was lost.


DSC04518As we arrived in Arica, a long row of dozens of pelicans formed a welcoming committee and accompanied the ship as it pulled up to the dock.  I wondered if they had mistaken us for a very big fishing trawler and were hoping for scraps.  If so, they were sorely disappointed.


We knew nothing about Arica except that it was the northernmost port in Chile, that the city lay under the shadow of the imposing rock formation known as El Morro, and that it hadn’t rained in Arica in over 40 years.  But what a rich history this small city and its environs has!  Arica lies on the sea, between two river valleys carved through sand and rock from the Andes to the Pacific: the Valle del Lluta to the north and the Valle del Azapa to the south.  Thousands of years B.C., the people who lived in the “highlands,” in the Andes Mountains and their foothills, would regularly make their way to the sea to trade with the people who lived on the coast.  The people from the highlands came with their llamas laden with trade goods, such as wool, leather, minerals, dried grain, and handicrafts.  The coastal people had fish, shellfish, vegetables, and other goods to trade.  Since neither of these cultures had a written language, there was no way for them to communicate with each other by messages.  DSC04523Instead, there are geoglyphs on steep hillsides along the river valleys.  I had seen pictures of these remarkable drawings of llamas and small animals and adults and children, but I never knew what they meant.  I assumed they were intended as some sort of historical record of a civilization.  But they appear always on the same side of the mountain or hillside, with the figures always facing the same direction: toward the sea.  They were made by scraping away the sand and dirt from the rock surface of the hills, making a sort of nest surrounded by sand, and then building a multi-layered heap of stones to outline and fill in the figures.  DSC04527They are elegant signposts strategically placed on the hills to point the highlands people the way to the sea.


In this increasingly fascinating place, once again we found ourselves in one of the best museums we’d seen in all our travels: the Museo Anthropologie, near the small town of San Miguel de Azapa.  Here we learned the ancient history of the Chinchorro people, who populated this area from 10,000 B.C. until they were subsumed by the Incas in the 15th century A.D.  In beautifully presented glass cases backed with paintings depicting the life of the people during a specified period of time, we followed their steady progress from extremely primitive hunter-gatherers to skilled fishermen, weavers of finely-wrought cloth and baskets, and artisans who created pottery that was as beautiful as it was utilitarian.  DSC04551Most interesting was their practice of mummifying their dead, using very specific and intricate procedures passed down from generation to generation by having the entire family involved in the ritual.  Since the Chinchorro had no written language, this was their only means of transmitting their history and customs to their children and grandchildren.


Everyone was particularly struck by one exhibit: the skeleton of a young person, probably a boy 13 or 14 years old, with a full set of perfect teeth, straight and white and undamaged by use or time.  We reflected that by the time most of us were his age, we had a mouthful of fillings and were undergoing orthodontia.


Despite lying at the edge of one of the world’s great deserts (ostensibly the driest on earth), Arica is surrounded by a thriving agriculture, thanks to the miracle of irrigation.  Fields of corn, beans, tomatoes, and greens give way to orchards of olive trees; in fact, the museum was built in part around a massive ancient olive press.


DSC04614El Morro was the site of the battle that settled the War of the Pacific, fought between Chile and Peru (abetted by its ally Bolivia).  When Chile achieved victory, it took territory from its enemies: Bolivia’s only access to the sea and Peru’s southernmost portion were lost in their defeat.  Later, Chile gave land back to Peru, but not to Bolivia, which remains landlocked.  The view from the promontory is very impressive, and its topography makes it hard to imagine how anyone could have scaled its walls and captured it from an enemy, but Chile managed to dislodge the Peruvian army from the fortress in just 55 minutes on June 7, 1880.  (Legend says that a Chilean “nurse” – there is some dispute about what exactly she did for the soldiers in her care – made up bottles of strong liquor spiked with gunpowder and passed them out to the Peruvian soldiers in charge of holding El Morro.  Drunk and hallucinating, the Peruvians were no match for the sober and determined Chileans.  Something to bear in mind . . .)


Arica proved to be a very interesting city, in part because of its beautiful cathedral, San Marcos de Arica, designed by the same Eiffel of the Paris Eiffel Tower fame.DSC04613  But it also enjoys a temperate climate – it’s known as the “City of Eternal Spring” – and has a friendly population.  Whenever we asked if we could take someone’s photo, the response was always a nod and a smile.  No beggars, no one pressuring you to buy something you didn’t want, no sense of urgency, just pleasant, helpful people justifiably proud of their city and their varied, beautiful country.

Starting our South American adventure

For years, we have talked about completing our circuit of South America, sailing from Valparaiso, Chile all the way up the west coast of the continent and through the Panama Canal before returning to the U.S. We’ve been up and down the east coast, once from Buenos Aires to Rio and up the Amazon River to Manaus, and once from B.A. around the tip of South America to Valparaiso. We’ve actually visited Ushuaia at the tip of the continent twice, first when we rounded Cape Horn en route to the Pacific coast and again when we sailed from that tiny Argentina port to Antarctica. But other than a couple of days in Quito, Ecuador before flying to the Galapagos, we’d never been further north than Santiago. This year, we decided to remedy that gap in our travel experience.

The most compelling reason, of course, to make this journey was our lifelong desire to see Machu Picchu, the spectacular Incan ruins high in the Peruvian Andes rediscovered only a hundred years ago by a Princeton academic named Hiram Bingham. We found a cruise on Silversea Cruises with an excellent itinerary and an optional four-day land excursion to Arequipa (the “White City”), Cusco, and Machu Picchu, and booked passage on the Silver Spirit. Our only concern was our ability to handle the drastic changes in altitude from sea level to 11,000 feet at Cusco, followed by 7,900 at Machu Picchu and back to 11,000 for another night in Cusco before flying back to the ship. But we did everything we could to prepare, including asking our doctor for a prescription for a drug that helps to alleviate, if not prevent, the symptoms of altitude sickness; and we resolved to drink plenty of water throughout the excursion to stay hydrated. Most important, we planned to drink the coca tea on offer everywhere at high altitudes in Peru, or even to chew coca leaves, if necessary, as the locals do. But we were warned not to try to smuggle any of that exotic plant life into the U.S. – processed coca leaves, after all, produce cocaine and are quickly sniffed out by those very businesslike dogs at immigration checkpoints.

The ship sailed from Valparaiso, although all the passengers flew into the airport in Santiago, the capital of Chile, 75 miles from the port. Our overnight flight left Miami at 9:30 p.m. and arrived eight and a half hours later in Santiago. One of the interesting things we’d learned years ago about the geography of the Western Hemisphere is that all of South America lies to the east of the North American continent. So flying from Miami to a city in Chile means that you wind up at least one time zone east of where you started. Very confusing – but you can look it up!

All of our luggage arrived safely and on the same flight as we did, which is always a comforting start to a long trip. Something new since we were last in Chile: each U.S. citizen arriving in the country has to pay a “reciprocity visa entry fee” of $160 per person before going through passport control. This fee is not the same for citizens of all countries. For instance, Canadians pay $132, Australians $95, and Mexicans $23. I don’t know whether we Americans are being punished for something our government did that displeased Chile, or previous American tourists behaved badly, or what. Anyway, we paid up and were allowed in.

Santiago is a very large and very flat city that lies in a plain between mountain ranges, principally the Andes. And just as in U.S. cities with similar topography, the air is badly polluted and hazy. Even the magnificent mountains that loom over the landscape are mostly obscured by a veil of pollution, especially in the summer months. So it was a welcome change, once we boarded our bus for Valparaiso, to escape the city and head out through the central Chilean wine country toward the coast. Acres of carefully tended and groomed vineyards stretched out across gently undulating land and climbed up terraced hillsides, as we passed beautiful wineries and their whitewashed palatial buildings. The contrast between the vineyards, with each vine carefully trimmed and trained and with not a weed to be seen between the rows, and the highway verges littered with trash, broken bottles, garbage, and hundreds of white plastic bags blowing in the wind was unsettling. We remember when it was the usual practice in the U.S. to toss trash, including lighted cigarette butts, out of the windows of our cars without a second thought. Nowadays that would be unthinkable, not to mention unlawful, anywhere in the country. Unfortunately, South American countries haven’t got the message.

DSC04557At the pier in Valparaiso, our ship awaited us, beautiful and gleaming white in the bright sun. The Silver Spirit is the largest and newest of the five ships in Silversea’s “Classic Fleet,” carrying 540 passengers (the other four carry either 296 or 382 guests). Her lines are elegant and classic, very unlike the awkward big boxes most cruise lines have chosen to build in order to carry several thousand passengers. We have sailed on a few of those ships, but don’t enjoy the experience and won’t repeat it. Our preference is always a small ship with an interesting itinerary, spacious and comfortable cabins, excellent food, good enrichment lectures, and the level of service we’ve come to expect over our years of travel. This ship provides all of that and more. We rarely stay up for the late-night entertainment offered on most ships, but we enjoy the occasional daytime concerts and performances by classical musicians on board. I remember one cruise several years ago that featured a young Polish pianist whose specialty was Chopin; his concerts were packed with appreciative audiences. On our current cruise, a young woman violinist who performed with Lord of the Dance is on the schedule; and although she looks intriguing (she has even played while standing on her head!), we probably won’t make it to one of her shows.

Our stateroom (every cabin on a Silversea ship is called a suite) is on the port side and midship, so we are usually facing the dock in port. This gives us the chance to watch the captain on the flying bridge as he oversees our arrival and departure, and to wave goodbye to the locals who often come down to the pier to see the ship sail away. In Valparaiso, we had an enthusiastic crowd seeing us off, clustered beside a tiny marina crammed with small, colorful boats.  One of the first things we always notice in South America is the riot of color exhibited in the painted houses and boats, whether ferries, tour boats, fishing boats, or pleasure craft.  Set against often spectacular scenery, this creates vibrant and artistic “pictures in the mind” that typify the many cultures of the continent.


As  we sailed out of the port, we passed what looked like the entire Chilean navy, docked three-deep at a long pier, flags flying and at least some engines running.  It occurred to me to ask if Chile was about to engage in maneuvers, or was the country perhaps contemplating something more serious?DSC04384


We reached our first port the morning after sailing and disembarked in Coquimbo, Chile for a guided tour.  Coquimbo is a busy commercial port whose principal claim to fame is the nearby Horseshoe Bay, where 16th-century English pirate ships took shelter between raids on the Spanish galleons bearing plundered gold back to Spain.  Sir Francis Drake, best known of the English privateers (and a special favorite – although piracy was technically outlawed in England at the time – of Queen Elizabeth I), visited Horseshoe Bay in 1578.  Local legend has it that there is still a treasure somewhere on the beach or in the rocks left behind by the pirates, but diligent searching has yielded no joy.


Coquimbo’s other notable distinction – not one the city would prefer – is the enormous number of stray dogs everywhere you go.  They are beautiful creatures and appear healthy and well fed, many of them mixes of German shepherd, yellow Labrador, golden retriever, and other large breeds.  DSC04409Our guide assured us that they are not dangerous or aggressive, and in fact we never heard a single bark.  Some of them might not even have been strays, just loose-running pets; but it was very sad to see them watching us with hopeful faces, then turning away discouraged when we got back on the bus.


Adjacent to Coquimbo is the regional capital La Serena, where vestiges of Spanish colonial architecture still line the streets.  Serious young musicians play classical music on the sidewalks, a string duo here, a string quintet there, and passers-by pause to listen.  DSC04447Early in our trip, it became clear that many of our best photos were going to be pictures of people – children, old people, craftsmen, musicians, everyone whose face caught our interest.  In La Serena, that trend began in earnest.


In the covered market in the center of the town, vendors’ stalls were filled with local arts and crafts: alpaca sweaters, brightly-colored woven shawls and ponchos, endearing little stuffed toy llamas with sweet faces and bright saddle cloths, carved wooden figures, key chains and magnets and pins decorated with ceramic art, and huge jars packed with pickled mangos stacked six feet high.DSC04461  Most of the sellers were clearly a mixture of Spanish and indigenous background, with the latter predominating, and they tended toward unsmiling, watchful seriousness without seeming unfriendly.  Very few of the local people we encountered spoke English, even to tell us the amount of money an item cost in pesos, which was somewhat surprising since Chile prides itself on its strong support of public education.  Maybe this means that Spanish-speaking countries are counting on the Spanish language supplanting English as the universal language of commerce in the near future.


The most interesting stop in La Serena was, despite our general skepticism about the value of local museums, the extremely well-curated Museo Arqueologico, where exhibits traced the pre-Colombian history of this part of the world and its people.  After we had made our way (with some difficulty, since the museum’s director refuses to translate any of its descriptive signs into English, despite the fact that English-speaking tourists comprise by far the largest number of museum-goers) through the galleries, we came into the centerpiece of the museum – and, indeed, of any museum we’ve ever seen: one of the giant stone sculptures from Easter Island. DSC04489 We hadn’t realized that Easter Island is part of Chile, just as the Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador, but it is.  This particular head was a gift to the people of Chile from the island, and it is incredibly impressive.  It is far from the largest of the Easter Island statues, but the features are remarkably lifelike and human.  The expression is solemn, the eyes focused and intense, the bearing noble and dignified.  When you think about the massive size of these sculptures and the very primitive society that created them and then somehow moved them across the island to places that had special significance, the achievement becomes astounding.


Northern Chile is very different from the southern part of this long, narrow country.  The landscape is dry and barren, although rivers flow from the mountains to the sea and provide water.  But you have to find beauty in deserts and rocks – and fascination in ancient history – to appreciate this part of Chile.  Luckily, we do.