South America is the new Alaska. Really! For travelers in search of rugged natural beauty, breathtaking mountain peaks, fjords that stretch nearly forever, cosmopolitan cities, indigenous historic peoples and cultures, and vast tropical rainforests, South America is a cruise revelation.
This huge continent covers thousands of miles and extends from the equatorial tropics to the sub-Antarctic. It is exotic in a way that can't actually be matched by Alaska and that's for a couple of reasons.
The 14 countries and territories that comprise the continent are, of course, diverse. Some bear the imprimatur of colonial Spanish or Portuguese legacies, others that of indigenous tribes of Indians whose cultures continue their impact. Another reason? You'll experience no trace of cruise ship congestion, whether sailing in a fjord or docking in Buenos Aires. There's plenty of room for all the ships that call there.
The beauty of a cruise, as opposed to a land tour, of South America is that the region is simply too vast and too undeveloped in terms of a road or public transportation network to explore comfortably (that is, unless you favor backpacks and the antithesis of comfort traveling). Ships, beyond the major hotels, go where very few hotels exist and even folks who like a little edge in their travel may feel relieved to re-board their ship after spending a day trawling the Amazon's waterways or trudging through the dusty Argentinean pampas.
No matter which route you choose, and no matter how luxurious the ship, this is a more rugged cruise experience, a trip where comfortable walking shoes are much more important than black tie (though ships do offer the usual range of formal nights) and where your adventures outdoors. From paddling canoes up a tiny Amazonian tributary to hiking out to a peninsula to observe penguins, will be the most memorable experiences of the trip.
A cruise line's South American itinerary development executive offers these parting words of advice: "This is adventure cruising," he says, "and it's about education. Once you've left Buenos Aires or Montevideo you have kissed civilization goodbye and are headed into the wild blue yonder. From there, the penguins and killer whales don't come to us, we come to them."
best time for south america cruises
Because South America is in the southern hemisphere, its seasons are opposite of those in the northern hemisphere. As a result, cruise lines' South America season typically runs from November (late spring) to early May (mid-autumn). Regardless, prepare for varied climates that can change from hour to hour and day to day. The further south you go, and the farther from the equator, the less summer you'll experience. In December (the beginning of summer), the mountains of Ushuaia, for instance, were still gorgeously snow-peaked.
south america cruise itineraries
Generally, no matter which South American itinerary you choose, it will be longer than seven days. At first glance, what seems daunting about a cruise in South America is the distance. From the East Coast, a direct flight takes about 10 hours. Carriers like United Airlines and American Airlines typically fly overnight, so you leave late one evening and arrive early the next morning, a bit like going to Europe but without jet lag. But it can easily take 10 hours to get to Alaska, not to mention some points in Europe from the East Coast.
Voyages typically sail between the city of Manaus, the major metropolis of the vast Amazonas region, and either Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. Typically, cruise lines will charter a plane from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale for the trip to Manaus. Passengers will use commercial air on the other end. Want to avoid air entirely? In some cases, cruise lines will combine an Amazon trip with the Caribbean, for instance, Holland America offers a 28-day Amazon Explorer that sails roundtrip from Ft. Lauderdale.
Ports of Call - The main ports of call focus primarily on Brazil with a stop or two in Uruguay before winding up in Argentina. They range, primarily, from very undeveloped areas, where jungle sightseeing tours are the main draw, to small, rough-around-the-edges towns and cities. Typically, ships will stop in Santarem, Boca da Valeria, Recife, Belem, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Punta del Este and, finally, Buenos Aires.
Sights to See - The major attraction of this itinerary on the Amazon River portion is, of course, nature and the jungle. Cruise operators offer a variety of tours that range from canoe rides to wildlife experiences. A particular highlight, on the river not far from Manaus, is the Encontro das Aquas, or "meeting of the waters." This is not a port of call but rather the spot where the Amazon's black waters meet up with the tan waters and run side by side for miles without mixing. Once ships swing around into the Atlantic Ocean and head south, down the coast of Brazil, city attractions become more important. In particular, if your ship stops in Recife, try to take an excursion to Olinda, a wonderful Portuguese hilltop town that's a UNESCO World Heritage site. Rio de Janeiro, of course, is fabulous, cosmopolitan and completely exotic.
This voyage nearly always lasts 14 nights or more and travels between Buenos Aires and Valparaiso. The "horn" is the infamous Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the southernmost continent and the closest you may ever get to Antarctica, which is just 1,000 miles further south. The highlight of this itinerary, beyond a start or finish in Buenos Aires is, in order, the Chilean fjords, whose grandeur may well put Alaska's to shame, and Patagonia, a vast land of deserts and mountains that stretches between Argentina and Chile. Some cruises include Antarctica in their itineraries and if not sailing there directly, perhaps a day-long shore excursion, via plane, from Punta Arenas, Chile. Flight-wise, cruise lines use commercial airlines to transport passengers to and from the beginning and ending points of Buenos Aires and Santiago, which is a two-hour bus ride from the port of Valparaiso.
Ports of Call - Ports are pretty limited in variety because this region is so vast and relatively under-developed. From Buenos Aires, ships call at Puerto Madryn (big attraction: penguin spotting), Punta Arenas, Ushuaia, Puerto Montt and Valparaiso. Other stops may include Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.
Sights to See - Experiencing Patagonia the breadth and depth of its scenery, from flat, almost eerily-deserted pampas to a mountainous lakes district that looks like something out of the wildest parts of Scotland, is a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The major draws, nature-wise, are penguin colonies, killer whales and national glacier parks. Obviously, if Antarctica appeals to you and it is financially viable (a day trip from Punta Arenas can cost nearly $3,000 per person), then that's also a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
extending the trip
Because South America is so vast, and much of it lies in interior regions, there are many once-in-a-lifetime sights that can't be seen on a day-long port of call stop. This is a region where it's a particularly good idea to consider taking advantage of your cruise line's pre-and/or post-voyage experience.
Of particular note is the spectacular Iguazu Falls, which borders Argentina and Brazil, and includes an awesome rain forest park. A trip to Salvador de Bahia, in Brazil, which is a mystical place of native, Portuguese and African cultures. From Santiago, a trip to the Incan Empire of Machu Picchu.