Sunday, January 18, 2009

Around the Tip of South America

Anyone who has ever sailed around the tip of South America understands why they built the Panama Canal. Even in February—summer in that part of the world—the winds blow fierce and icy cold. And what is worse, the trip adds over 8,000 miles for those wanting to reach North America’s western shore. Makes you realize why the Spanish longed for a short cut as far back as the 16th century. My husband and I, along with another couple, cruised through the Panama this winter, but let me tell you about an earlier trip.

Two years ago we sailed on a cruise ship from Buenos Aires, Argentina on the Atlantic to Santiago, Chile on the Pacific. It was a delightful experience although much colder almost everywhere than I had expected. We completely sailed around Cape Horn which I hadn’t realized before was actually on an island. We were fortunate, on that particular day, that the seas were comparatively calm. The sun even peeked out behind the clouds a few times causing rainbows to form over the cape. Our waiter told us that, on the cruise two weeks earlier, the waves were sixty feet high and washed into the pool on the fourteenth deck of the ship. Although we have our sea legs to some extent now, we were glad to miss that one.

There were other worthwhile sights to see on that cruise. Three days after leaving warm and sunny Buenos Aires, we arrived at the windswept Falkland Islands, where we saw remnants of the war between Britain and Argentina. In unpopulated areas there were skeletons of helicopters, along with fields where live land minds still lay waiting to be dismantled. The country is beautiful in its starkness, but one wonders why anyone would go to war over it.

After circumnavigating Cape Horn, we sailed up the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina where, almost 18,000 kilometres from Alaska, the Pan American Highway come to an end. Touring through the countryside, we saw many dead tree stumps and numerous beaver damns. We learned that the beavers had been brought in from Canada and thrive here because there are no natural enemies. Apparently some enterprising soul thought that the cool year round temperatures would give them beautiful shiny coats. Not the case. Surprisingly, the weather, while cold in summer, wasn’t bitter enough in winter to give the beaver skins the gloss they need. So, while their fur is not that great, the animals continue to flourish and, sadly, are ruining the natural forests of the area. Just goes to show, it doesn’t pay to tamper with natural ecological systems.

Next week I’ll tell you about the journey through the fjords of Chile, touring some wonderful wineries in that country and our visit to the Magellan penguins at Punta Arenas.

(If you go here are a couple of mistakes to avoid. We should have picked a voyage that included a look at Antarctica. From what I hear and the pictures I’ve seen, it is so beautiful and unique that it is well-worth the extra money. Another mistake was to not opt for the tour to see the penguins in the Falkland Islands. At that time, visitors were able to actually mingle with them on the beach. I haven’t heard that they have changed that yet but, for ecological reasons, they may well do it. However, the people who did that tour say it was the most wonderful experience of everything on the cruise.)

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