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.