|South American Adventure|
Wednesday 11th January 2018
So, we're here in Cuzco after a long and tiring journey.
We set our alarms for 2.30am on Tuesday morning, were picked up by our taxi at 3.30am and arrived at Heathrow just after 4.30am.Our flight was due to depart at about 7.30am, but fog in Madrid held us up until 9am. Luckily, there was still more than an hour's contingency time still left for us to catch the Lima flight.
I hadn't really paid much attention to the flight schedule and hadn't realised that it would take us twelve hours to fly there from Madrid – probably just as well! Luckily, we were both so exhausted from our early start that we each slept for a quarter of the flight. We were with Iberia, an airline about which I'd never heard anything but bad reports, but there wasn't much to complain about. The food and drink offered was OK and the plane had a 2-4-2 configuration (we had two seats by a window), so we didn't have to disturb anyone when stretching our legs.
Getting through Immigration at Lima airport was a breeze and there was a very efficient tour guide waiting for us to gather 28 of us together and get us to our hotel by coach. By the time we were checked in, in our room and ready to sleep we'd been up for a straight 24.5 hours (discounting cat naps on the plane). We had to be ready to leave the hotel this morning at 6.10am local time, but due to the time difference we still got five or six hours sleep.
Our excellent guide talked to us all the way from the airport to the hotel. Since the collapse of the Shining Path terrorist group in recent years Peru's economy has improved a great deal, with a sharp upturn in tourism. This has allowed the government to contemplate building an underground railway in Lima. You would have thought that this might be a bad idea in a Ring of Fire earthquake zone, but apparently Lima only gets tremors. Our guide said, amusingly, 'Lima likes to dance'.
Then this morning it was back to Lima airport by coach for the flight to Cuzco. Loads of contingency time had been built into the schedule, it turned out, and we had a bit of a wait before taking off at 9.20am. Flying over the Andes was breaktaking. Everywhere looked so arid, but we were told that rain rarely falls in Lima and most of its water requirements are met from the mountains and from the Amazon area to the east.
The flight to Cuzco took only an hour and a half. As we entered the terminal building there was a basket of coca leaves and an invitation to each of us to take three. Chewing these leaves is said to help locals to cope with altitude sickness, although their narcotic content might have a bearing here. In the car park on our way to the coach a local was selling nicely-wrapped 'coca leaf toffees', so we had some of them too, and on arrival at the hotel we also had coca tea. Together with the prescribed Diamox that we've both been taking we're optimistic that we'll be OK coping with the altitude here. Sitting here in our hotel room I've checked the altitude – 3,348 metres!
We went out to explore Cuzco on foot, and almost immediately Gill noticed how thin the air is. The advice that we were given by the excellent guide in Lima this morning is to walk slowly, so that's what we did. The hotel is on the main street at the foot of a long slope so that was another reason to take it easy. At the top lies the main square with the massive cathedral on one side, and in spite of there being an entrance fee we decided to go in.
Building started in the mid sixteenth century and the building took a century to complete. It was built on the site of an Inca temple, which is what the Romans did wherever they went, i.e. obliterate the preceding religion by destroying its sacred site. Since completion it's been damaged by earthquakes several times, including twice in the past fifty years.
Heading through the main square for the much-praised San Pedro Market we were set upon every few yards by sellers of souvenirs, artworks, jewellery etc. most of whom gave up when we politely declined, but we did make a couple of them very happy by buying from them!
It was 'ponchos on' when the rain started, which was a shame, because earlier the sun had been really very warm indeed. We plodded back to our hotel, noting all the way the comforting and considerable police presence. Our guide this morning said that Cuzco is safe everywhere at least until 9pm, and so it seemed to us.
There's a nice restaurant close to the hotel so we had our (early) evening meal there. Gill had fish and I had chicken, both of which had been recommended by our guide as not too heavy for a first meal at altitude. We could also have gone for Alpaca, Llama or even roast Guinea Pig, but Gill said she'd walk out if I chose the latter. There wasn't much chance of that, as I still remember Sarah's pet Guinea Pig, Whortle, with affection.
It's now 7pm and darkness has fallen. We don't think we can hold out against overwhelming tiredness for much longer! Tomorrow we have an excursion to the Sacred Valley, starting at 8.30am – luxury!
Thursday 12th January 2018
Ollentaytambo (phonetically: Oi Yen Tye Tambo)
By 5am we'd had enough sleep so we got up, got ready in a leisurely way and had breakfast at 6.15am.
Our guide, Washington, collected all 28 of us at 8.30am and led us to our coach ready for our journey into the 'Sacred Valley' northwest of Cuzco. On the way he spoke constantly, explaining Peruvian history and culture. It almost seemed like he was uploading data to us!
Our first stop was at the market town of Pisac. It sits by the Urubamba river, which was flowing furiously, fuelled by meltwater from glaciers high in the mountains. On Sundays there's a huge farmer's market, and in the rest of the week its narrow streets are full of stalls displaying traditional goods aimed at tourists.
Washington took us to a larger store selling mainly jewellery and clothing. The proprietoress gave a brief talk on how to distinguish between genuine alpaca wool garments and cheapo stuff from China; also how to tell the difference between 100% silver and silver mixed with copper. We then had an hour to browse the store and the others in the area.
I have to say that street markets don't fill me with excitement and that I mooch around waiting for Gill to say that she's had enough. However, the local crafts on display in Peru are quite often simply beautiful, and the only problem is that as soon as you take an interest in anything the stallholder pounces. It's not the tourist season at the moment, which is good in a way since the streets aren't packed. However, it makes you much more visible, and you're constantly expressing sad regrets that you really don't want what they're offering. That doesn't always end the matter because then say, 'Ah, but I also have these!' which makes things trickier. But the funny thing is that on a couple occasions I've had to urge Gill to buy an item, a) because it's beautiful, b) because it's worth the meagre price quoted (she's surprisingly good at haggling as well), and c) so-and-so would LOVE it!
After an hour it was back to the coach and on to Ollentaytambo. By common agreement it was decided that we would do the rather difficult climb to the Temple of the Sun *before* lunch and then relax afterwards.
In the Andes, much use is made of terraces to extend available farming land on steep slopes. The first were constructed by the Wari a thousand years ago. These were the people who preceded the Incas and seem to have died out a couple of hundred years before the Incas arrived. The Incas took over and extended the terracing system that they found waiting for them, and at Ollentaytambo these terraces leading up to the Temple of the Sun were intended to feed the priesthood. However, before the temple was completed the Spanish turned up and work ceased. After all, they brought with them a new deity and its predecessors were forcibly consigned to the religious dustbin.
The temple site is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and has to be left pretty much 'as is'. So, there are no handrails on the steep, uneven stone steps and no protective railings to stop vistors toppling over the edge, just a piece of white cord at ankle height. Gill was uncertain whether she wanted to risk the climb, but I urged her to try since we'd come all this way to visit places like this. Luckily, there were people older and/or less mobile than us in our group, and so there was no pressure on anyone to go faster.
We had two very welcome ten minutes stops on the way up, during which Washington told us more about the history of the site and the local area. It was only when we got back to the hotel and Gill looked at the photo that I'd taken from the summit that she realised just how high we'd climbed – she'd tried not to look down from the top.
And at the summit, with fresh air whistling refreshingly around us, we marvelled at how the Incas had managed to haul huge, granite rocks weighing up to five tons down from the quarry on the mountainside opposite and up to the top of this one. It seems that, like the Egyptians, they'd used ramps and rollers, but this still begged the question of how many humans it took to do it at a time when average life expectancy was 40 years. The whole place was indeed, 'Worth seeing *and* worth going to see'.
The descent was surprisingly tricky and might have been a bit dangerous had the stone steps been wet with the forecasted rain that didn't arrive. If you don't have a head for heights it's difficult not to notice how small a mis-step it would take to lead to personal disaster.
Back on the coach we were driven to a nice restaurant only a few miles away where we had a delicious buffet lunch. On the way, Washington pointed out four little bubble-like 'pods' high above on the vertical face of the mountain that we were passing. These are called 'Skylodge Adventure Suites' and they're for rockclimbers. Apparently, it can take an experienced climber two hours to reach them from ground level and sometimes as long as a day. Coming back down is much quicker using a series of zip lines. Take a look on Google – it's only cables that hold them in place and they have no curtains that I can see ;o)
After lunch it was a 90 minute drive back to Cuzco, arriving at 5pm, giving us a chance to catch our breath back at the hotel. Unsurprisingly, we decided not to venture out again!
Tomorrow's a *big* day – we're off to Machu Picchu! We leave the hotel at 5.40am – gulp!! :o( We get driven back to a railway station near Ollentaytambo where we board a train that takes us close to Machu Picchu. We're staying there overnight, but can only take an overnight bag on the train. Strangely, it's mandatory to take our passports – not sure why. We spend all of Saturday there and until about 5pm on Sunday, when we re-trace our steps to our hotel in Cuzco for one more night before flying to Santiago in Chile on Monday.
We're having a simply wonderful time here in Peru. The people are lovely and their artwork and traditional costumes are beautifully colourful. Apart from guinea pig there don't seem to be two many culinary 'no-nos' for a European palate – even the use of chilli seems restrained. What a lovely country we're seeing!
Saturday 13th January 2018
Machu Picchu Choo-choo
On arrival at Machu Picchu station we handed over our luggage to staff of the Inkaterra Hotel where we'll be staying. Because there's so little space on the train we'd brought only a cabin bag and a laptop bag with us, leaving the majority of our luggage at the hotel in Cuzco.
Then we boarded a bus for the long drive up to the Machu Picchu site. Our guide had said that this saved us two hours of walking, but the subsequent journey would have taken us a day to walk, we're sure, with frequent breathless stops. The drive up the snaking road took over 20 minutes at never more than 15 kph ( there was a speed display above the driver's head) so we could estimate a 5 kilometre journey.
Why was Machu Picchu built and why did it remain undiscovered for so long? The Inca king of the time wanted a palace at a location with a better climate than Cuzco, where winters could be bitter. Machu Picchu has a consistently milder climate. The city was built between 1450 and 1540 but never finished because the Spanish conquistadores invaded Peru in the 1530s and started a vicious process of what can only be called ethnic cleansing.
The Inca king retreated with some of his people to Machu Picchu, covering up the trails they used so that the Spaniards couldn't follow. In fact, they never did find Machu Picchu, but at some later point discovered the king's successor, his son, took him to Cuzco and murdered him in the main square by tying ropes to his limbs and tearing him apart by attaching them to horses. Thus ended the Inca empire, and Machu Picchu faded into history.
In 1911 it was re-discovered by American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, who was looking for another Inca site but was told by some locals that there was a city in the jungle 'up there'. Nowadays, it receives 5,000 vistors a day, a number that has risen steeply since the neutralisation of the 'Shining Path' Marxist guerillas.
As you enter the site there's a huge 'reveal' as you turn a corner and there it is, the ruined city laid out below you exactly as you've seen it in travel pictures.It's utterly breathtaking. It's almost impossibly isolated, with towering peaks all around and an enormous tooth-like spire of rock that looms over the whole site from behind. The Urubamba river snakes through the dense jungle far, far below, on its way to the Amazon, of which it's a tributary.
We started by climbing even higher within the city to the former entrance gateway, where we were 2,500 metres above sea level. All around us were terraces for growing crops, now grassed over, some of them being grazed by llamas who seemed quite sure that we visitors had come specifically to offer them treats. Over the next couple of hours we slowly descended through the ruined city.
The stone walls had been cleverly built using smaller stones to fill gaps between the larger ones and stabilise them. This was the typical building style of the site, with only a few showpiece walls where the enormous granite blocks had been artfully carved to fit precisely together without the need for smaller stones to fill the gaps. Our guide said that it still wasn't clear how the Incas had managed to cut the granite so precisely.
This was another example of a site being worth seeing *and* worth going to see. One of the members of our group said that she had been very moved by the experience. It's certainly a 'bucket list' destination, and the effort required to travel to the site and move around it emphasises its glorious beauty.
We spent two and a half hours on-site going up and down very uneven granite steps without the aid of handrails and taking welcome breathers to listen to our very well-informed guides. At 1pm we took a bus back down the mountain. The weather had been wonderfully sunny for most of the time and I really caught the sun, which was possibly why I felt so exhausted for the last hour.
We had lunch back near the station and were then led to our hotel, which is a series of buildings set in cloud forest with unbelievably comfortable bedrooms. All around are looming mountain peaks - quite a location!
This evening we ate in the hotel's restaurant. The menu wouldn't have looked out of place in London's West End, quite frankly! We're both so utterly tired out that we expect to sleep right though to morning!
Sunday 14th January 2018
Back to Cuzco
One thing that I forgot to mention about the place where we've been staying while visiting Machu Picchu is that it's called Aguas Calientes. However, the Machu Picchu branding seems to take precedence. The whole town is squeezed on to the only patch of flat-ish land on the right bank of the Urubamba, with sheer rock walls plunging into it on the other side.
We slept for nine hours straight last night, then had a fairly early breakfast in the Inkaterra's spectacular restaurant. This overhangs the river and the railway line that enters the station close by.
As we all know, Paddington Bear came from 'deepest, darkest Peru'. It seems that Michael Bond knew his stuff, because 'spectacled bears' love this part of the world. Our hotel has a sanctuary that houses two bears that can't be returned to the wild, one because she can't fend for herself and the other because he's very elderly. So, in a way, Peru *does* have Nursing Homes of the type that accommodates Paddington's Aunt Lucy :o) For a modest fee that goes towards their care and food the hotel runs daily tours for residents only, and Gill booked one for us.
Together with one other couple a guide took us into the cloud forest that surrounds the hotel. What's the difference between s cloud forest and a rain forest? Answer: altitude. Cloud forests are found between 1,500 metres and 2,500 metres, and rain forests are lower.
There are two enclosures in the sanctuary, each housing a single bear. Kina is a female in her teens who was rescued with her sister. Her sister showed sign of being unhappy with the food she was being given and of being ready to fend for herself, so she was released into an intermediate area of the forest some distance away and was later released back to the wild. Kina, however, has lost any ability she ever had for finding food for herself. At 29 Pepe is a very old bear and moves around carefully, as if he has arthritis. Both of them had fresh fruit and alfafa in their enclosures, and it was fascinating to see how they deftly handled their food with their enormous paws. Sadly, neither is capable of ever surviving in the wild and so neither will be released. However, judging by the relish with which they were eating this morning, neither seems to mind captivity.
After seeing the bears we checked out of the hotel and went into the town to look around the market. While we were shopping there was heavy rainfall, which made us realise just how lucky we had been yesterday – getting around Machu Picchu walking on wet stones would have been tricky and good photos would have been impossible.
We had lunch in the Inkaterra's café then headed to the station at 4pm ready to catch the 4.45pm train. On the 90 minute journey the staff did a fashion show up and down the carriage, offering for sale various garments made of baby alpaca wool; in this context 'baby' means wool from the first ever shearing of an animal.
On the journey we were talking with a fellow guest who has a smart watch that, amongst other things like telling the time, monitors physical activity. He said that yesterday it recorded him walking 13 kilometres and climbing the equivalent of 175 flights of stairs! And it also told him that, since he arrived in Peru, he'd walked 55 kilometres and climbed 254 flights of stairs. We'll have done the same sorts of things as him, so it's hardly surprising that we've been so very tired, with complaining leg muscles!
On arrival back at Ollantaybamba we were picked up by coach for the two hour return trip to Cuzco and the hotel that we stayed in previously. We've both boggled at the skills of the coach drivers, slipping the coach deftly through narrow gaps, dodging potholes and stray dogs, and coping with the many dreadful speed bumps that are unlit, unmarked and a major hazard at night.
Back at the Sonesta hotel we're back in the same room as before, so we know where everything is. Tomorrow we fly via Lima to Santiago in Chile. By the way, the major earthquake today in southern Peru didn't affect us at all.
Monday 15th January 2018
Farewell to Peru
We've had the luxury of a late departure (11am) from our hotel in Cuzco. The sting in the tail is that it's going to take until 12.30am tomorrow Peru time (but 10.30pm Chilean time) to get to Santiago, having flown there via Lima. So, today we will be on the fourth and fifth flights of this adventure, with three more still to come!
Having returned to a 3,500 metre altitude we've both been feeling the effects; none of the headaches, thank goodness, but a degree of breathlessness that woke both of us in the night and made sleep difficult. The good news is that we should feel better in a pressurised aircraft and Lima, which is close to sea level should see the end of the problem.
We've enjoyed our time in Peru. The food has been good, with very little to object to, and we've fallen in love with Pisco Sours the way we did with Caipirinhas in Brazil! For me the aspects of Peruvian life that made me feel uncomfortable were the crumbling infrastructure, the rubbish on the streets, even in a major city like Cuzco, the huge number of stray dogs scrabbling for an existence and the sight of mothers and young children on the streets at night. There's a sense that the national government could do a great deal more to reduce poverty and signs everywhere that China is moving in on a poor nation.
But the memories that we'll hold on to longest will be the stunning Machu Picchu site and our wonderful hotel in Aguas Calientes.
We left the hotel at 11am and were driven by coach to Cuzco Airport where we took a one hour flight to Lima. Here we had enough time for lunch ahead of a three hour flight south to Santiago, capital of Chile. By the time we landed it was heading for midnight, Chilean time, which is two hours ahead of Peru and three hours behind GMT.
Our group was met by a local guide who accompanied us by coach to our hotel, the Hotel Plaza San Francisco. The Pope also arrived today and the various ceremonies that will go on around him will affect our day. We have a 3–4 hour City Tour starting at 10.30am and will have to work around his schedule!
As for the altitude-related breathlessness, the descent to 500 metres seems to have sorted it out – hooray!! And another bit of good news. After three Peruvian hotels with no kettle we've now just had our first cup of 'proper' tea since leaving home. Lovely!
Tuesday 16th January 2018
After all of the whizzing around of the last few days today was more relaxing.
We met in reception at 11am and were taken on a coach tour of Santiago by the guide who met us at the airport last night. We left the coach several times and walked through the city in bright, warm sunshine under a beautiful, clear blue sky. By the Presidential Palace there's a tall flagpole flying a simply enormous Chilean flag, reminiscent of the Mexican flag in the Zocalo in Mexico City.
In a neighbouring square there's a statue of Salvador Allende, the president who was murdered in 1973 during an American-sponsored military coup d'état, but we didn't see any tribute to Pinochet, the military dictator who followed him. Under his leadership Chile saw the executions of from 1,200 to 3,200 people, the internment of as many as 80,000 people and the torture of tens of thousands.
Interestingly, our guide, Marcello, maintained that Pinochet wasn't all bad, and that his policies had led to economic success for Chile. Sometimes you wonder whether your guide is treading a party line, fearful of the consequences of not doing so. This came across strongly when we were in Myanmar (Burma), where one of our guides spoke cautiously and the next day was contradicted by another guide who was more outspoken.
Marcello is a bit of a puzzle. At first his accent sounded Dutch or, possibly, South African, and he looks European and has reddish hair, which is very much a northwest European trait. He said that he was a natural-born Chilean, but later it emerged that he was born in southern Chile where, rather like Brazil, there is a small German ex-pat population, so maybe that explains it.
Walking around the city we kept coming up against crowd control barriers connected with the Pope's visit. It seems that the government is a bit twitchy, fearing demonstrations over the Catholic Churches failure to act on the issue of clerical sexual abuses – indeed three churches were fire-bombed in southern Chile early this morning. A recent study puts Chile's religiously unaffiliated population at 24%, which might also concern a government that doesn't want the papal visit to become a political embarrassment.
The Andes mountains, with glaciers, surround Santiago, and there's a large hill within the city area that's left as a park for recreation. From the top of the 650 metre high hill you get fabulous views all over the city, and it becomes clear that Chile is an awful lot wealthier than Peru. There's a 60+ story tower block nearing completion in the financial district that will be the tallest building in South America, and the road system is newly-built, with flyovers and underpasses. Walking the city streets we saw no litter lying about and everywhere seemed well-maintained and clean. There were still a few stray dogs, but even these seemed well-fed. One even cheerfully trotted along with us for an hour or so.
The last stop on the tour was by a street market, and most of us decided to leave the tour there rather than going back. Marcello recommended a fish restaurant nearby and that's where we had lunch. We had scallops with parmesan, crab stew and a trilogy of ceviche - shrimps/scallops/squid, sea bass and trout, all washed down with a Pisco Sour!
When we got back to our hotel we realised that there was no outdoor area where we could sit in the sun and read, so we went to a nearby park instead. As we eventually returned to the hotel at 6pm-ish it seemed that the locals were expecting the pope to drive by. This seemed plausible, because there were lots of armed police guarding the crowd control barriers and there was a distinct lack of traffic on the usually busy road outside our hotel. We sat in reception for a while with two more Pisco Sours before Gill went outside, just in case the Pope went by. And after another hour he did, swarmed by police motorcycles and travelling at speed in a normal car, not crawling along in a 'Popemobile', waving to the masses. Gill thought that this was a bit 'off', but, ironically perhaps, I thought that it was understandable given that he's 81 and had had a long and tiring day. If I'd been him I'd have been desperate to rest.
Tomorrow at 11am we'll be picked up and taken to the Emerald Princess for a 14 night cruise.
Wednesday 17th January 2018
Boarding the 'Emerald Princess'
We were picked up promptly for the two hour transfer to San Antonio on the coast.
Apparently, cruise ships used to use Valparaiso until union problems led to unacceptable delays in turning ships around, which led to missed flights for departing guests and problems in reaching the next port of call punctually. So, the port was removed from the list and San Antonio took its place.
Boarding here was one of the quickest we've ever experienced. You have to leave your tagged luggage before entering the terminal, fill in a mandatory health declaration document ('no, I don't have a cold/stomach upset/diarrhoea/etc.') then go to the very long check-in desk to register and receive your cruise card, before putting your hand luggage through the scanners. The snakey queue for the desk was already very long, but because, through previous cruises with Princess and P&O, we'd achieved 'Platinum' status we were able to use the 'Preferred Boarding' queue, where we had no one in front of us!
Our cabin was ready for us, so we dropped off our hand luggage. The cabin steward found that we'd arrived, went away and came back with two glasses of Champagne, another benefit of Platinum status! After that we grabbed lunch in a fairly crowded buffet, and when we returned to our cabin our main luggage was waiting for us. All in all, one of our better boarding experiences.
We sailed on the Emerald Princess' sister ship, Ruby Princess, a long time ago, but still explored to remind ourselves of where everything is. There's no shortage of pools to dip in, and they also have 'Movies Under The Stars', a huge open air screen showing recent films after dark. On Ruby Princess years ago we watched part of 'Mama Mia' but eventually gave up because of persistant rain :o)
Our cabin is directly opposite a 'Laundromat' that has two washing machines and two tumble driers. Because it'd be difficult to get through a month away from home as far as clean clothes are concerned Gill washed our first week's washing and now we're all set again.
In the main restaurant this evening each course arrived amazingly quickly, and even with a cup of tea at the end we were out again in an hour. The show in the theatre was a strange affair. There was the usual ship's 7-piece band, which was pretty good as these groups usually are, with supporting singers and dancers. There were two co-hosts – one English and one Brazilian speaking in Spanish – giving an idea of the language backgrounds of the passengers. We were told that there were 44 nationalities on board, with the top five being, in descending order, Americans, Argentinians, Britons, Canadians and Chileans. It was therefore a mystery why the main act was an English-speaking Canadian comedian. As soon as he started audience members began to leave, presumably because they couldn't understand English. To be honest, we'd have been tempted to leave as well because his act was pretty mediocre. Still, poor acts make the better acts even better by comparison ;o)
Tomorrow is a 'sea day', so we get the day off, as it were. Probably not a lot will happen other than Gill and I doing a lot of reading, so don't be surprised if you don't hear from us until Friday!
Thursday 18th January 2018
Wind and waves
We're heading southwards down the coast of Chile and things have been blowy and bumpy, although not enough to upset Gill :o)
We were told last night to expect three metre seas, which would normally be a cause for a little concern. The winds today have been whipping up the waves, but the sky has been clear. Consequently the sea has been attractively blue at times, but sitting on the open decks has been borderline uncomfortable, with the wind whipping around us. We stood it for an hour this morning, but then there was a lecture on Charles Darwin that drew us to the theatre.
Darwin was portrayed in sympathetic terms by the lecturer, who clearly knew her stuff. There were a couple of, 'Well, I didn't know that', moments to spice things up.
Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle had already made one voyage in that ship before the one that Darwin joined. At some point during the voyage the captain, who was prone to depression, committed suicide, and Fitzroy, taking command, brought the ship home, earning him a subsequent promotion to captaincy. The Beagle Channel that crosses Tierra del Fuego was named after this first voyage, not the second one that Darwin was on.
Fitzroy was anxious not to fall victim to the depression that had claimed his predecessor's life, and so he sought a 'Gentleman Scientist' to keep him company. Darwin's professor at Oxford recommended him, and Fitzroy interviewed him. He nearly turned Darwin down because he didn't like the shape of his nose, thinking that it indicated weakness – these were the days of Phrenology, no doubt! Darwin joined the Beagle for its second voyage in 1832, aged 22.
Maybe Fitzroy had a point, because Darwin had drifted a bit in his first 20 years, even being asked to leave one of his schools for being a 'dreamer' and insufficiently focused on his education. His father wanted him to study for doctorate in Divinity, but Darwin opted to study medicine in Edinburgh, which was cut short when he discovered that he couldn't stand the sight of blood – he once fainted during an operation. When he moved to Biology his life's course was set.
Fitzroy might have wanted a companion, but Darwin didn't exactly fit the bill because he was off the ship so often making notes and collecting samples. On at least one occasion he left the ship for several weeks in South America and trekked inland, re-joining the Beagle further along the coast. As he went he sent back to England examples of local flora and fauna, so that when he returned five years later he was already famous.
The crystallisation of his early thoughts on evolution has always been seen as being triggered by his studies of finches in the Galapagos Islands. He rationalised that the birds on each island couldn't have flown there from other islands, much less from the mainland, so that beak sizes had to be related to the local food supply. Thus emerged his thinking on the adaptation of creatures to their environment by natural selection. He was in the Galapagos area for only five weeks, and, strangely, his thinking might have altered had he stayed longer, because it is now recognised that finches' beaks can change radically even within a single year!
On the Beagle's return voyage it stopped at Ascension Island. Darwin and Joseph Hooker, the renowned botanist, reasoned that its barren landscape could be transformed by the planting of appropriate plants and trees, and now it's a very green place indeed.
Finally, Darwin's birthday – 12th February – is celebrated every year. We didn't know that!
After lunch we went to the theatre to see, 'Three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri' the film that won several Golden Globes and is predicted to do well at the Oscars. Afterwards, we made one final attempt to sit outside reading, but gave up and returned to our cabin. Here, on our balcony, it was marginally less windy, and our side of the ship (starboard = right) was facing the sun.
Tonight was a 'Formal Night', meaning dress up a bit. There was also the introduction by the British captain of his senior officers - traditionally the Hotel Director and Executive Chef get the loudest cheers. There was also a Princess 'Cascade of Champagne', a dreadfully wasteful ritual where a pyramid of wine glasses is constructed and champagne is poured into the topmost glass, with the excess overflowing into the glasses below and progressively filling them. Quite what then happens to all this champagne is unclear.
From there we went to dinner and bumped into eight other members of our party from last week. We took two adjoining tables and had a very pleasant evening together before catching the show in the theatre – mercifully, no comedian tonight ;o)
We've been pretty much out of contact today, which might be typical of future sea days. Tomorrow we're in Puerto Montt and I'm expecting to be able to get a signal on my mobile that I can share with Gill so that we can catch up with the outside world!
Friday 19th January 2018
It's been hot and sunny all day in Puerto Montt, but, unfortunately, this is not expected to continue as we head south.
Puerto Montt is a port city that gives access to the Patagonian fjords. It was founded in 1853 with a surprisingly large initial representation of German immigrants. At that time, Chile made attractive offers of passage and land ownership to Europeans. At the time, Germany didn't exist as a nation, and the various Kingdoms, Principalities, Bishoprics and free cities had yet to be amalgamated under Bismarck following crushing Prussian military victories over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1871). Emigration and a fresh start was therefore an attractive proposition.
The German emigrants mainly came from areas that are no longer part of Germany, e.g. Poland, Czech Republic. On our excursion this afternoon we visited a small museum that was set up to commemorate this community and exhibit portraits, photos, kitchen, household and agricultural items from that time. Later in the afternoon we visited Puerto Varas, situated on the region's second largest lake, and saw a huge Prussian eagle painted on a building that houses the German Association, so obviously the German community is still alive and kicking.
We also had a guided eco-walk is a protected woodlnd area. Our guide, Ingrid, spoke excellent English, but with an obvious German accent. The most memorable part of the walk focused on Alerci trees, which, like the American Redwood are very long-lived and grow very slowly – 1mm in trunk diameter in a year. We later saw a tree that had been confirmed as being 1,600 years old.
At Puerto Varas, looking across the lake, we could see three snow-capped volcanoes, one of which had erupted as recently as 2015. Indeed, Ingrid had seen the eruption and photographed it. It was a very sudden eruption indeed; the monitoring equipment placed on the mountain by vulcanologists had shown no tremors at all until one hour before it went off. The prevailing winds had blown a lot of the ash and debris across to Argentina.
The next couple of days promise to be quiet. Tomorrow is another sea day, and then on Sunday we sail into the fjords to see the Amalia Glacier. It'll mean getting up at 7am though!
Saturday 20th January 2018
Sea days can be a glorious opportunity to relax in hot sun and get some serious sun-bed reading done. When you're in the far south of Chile, heading towards Antarctica, there probably aren't many days like that, and we certainly didn't get one today! Having said that, it *was* sunny, but the wind was chilly, so we stayed inside quite a lot.
We did two trivia quizzes, with only moderate success because the questions were very focused on America, e.g. in which city and state was Walt Disney born? Answer, Chicago, Illinois. What's the name of the bridge that links Canada and the USA at Niagara Falls? Answer, the Rainbow Bridge. Not the sort of questions where you could make a decent guess. And the prize for the winning team? This morning, a Princess Cruises coaster and this afternoon a Princess Cruises water bottle ;o)
We attended another 'Enrichment Lecture' by the same lady who spoke about Darwin the other day. This one was about Ferdinand Magellan and how in the 1520s he sought a westbound route from the Atlantic across to the Spice Islands in what we now call Indonesia. He discovered the channel that is now known as the Straits of Magellan. He set off from Seville with a fleet of five small ships (all around 100 tons) and was plagued by unrest between the Portuguese and the Spanish in the fleet that culminated in mutiny.
By the time he discovered the channel that now bears his name he'd lost one ship that turned round and went back home, and a second due to shipwreck. Only one of the five ships made it back to Spain three years after leaving, with only 19 crew remaining from a total of 250 who'd set out. Magellan himself was killed by islanders in the Phillipines.
After lunch we watched a film on the open-air 'Movies Under The Stars' big screen. We had to wrap up warmly for that and we were still a bit chilly. The movie didn't help a great deal – 'Dr. Strange' starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a Marvel Comics super-hero was pretty well incomprehensible, relying far too much of state of the art CGI effects. Still, it was a novel experience!
This evening we've been sailing amongst rocky islands that have provided shelter from the wind and led to flatter seas. Tomorrow is pretty much another sea day, as we follow one of the inlets eastwards to the Amalia Glacier, take a look from the deck, turn around and come out again, heading towards the Straits of Magellan that we heard about at school!
Sunday 21st January 2018
We were up at 7am and went out on deck almost immediately for a quite amazing sight – the Amalia Glacier.
In the previous few hours the ship had woven a course through the Chilean fjords and had come to a halt in front of the glacier, giving passengers a chance for an hour to experience and photograph something most of us had never seen before. Gill said that when she and Liz had been on their Alaska cruise they'd seen a glacier, but from a greater distance. We were so close this morning that the sea was frozen from near the ship to the shore.
It looked like a huge wall of ice that filled the valley that it had been carving out for thousands of years. That the air temperature was so low didn't surprise us at all. There was snow on the surrounding mountain peaks and even a much smaller glacier in a neighbouring valley, but this appeared to be shrinking back up the slope. All of a sudden school lessons about glaciation came to mind, with words like 'Cwm' and 'Terminal Moraine' - it's funny what we remember from lessons 50-60 years ago!
After an hour the ship slowly swung around and re-traced its path westwards. For several hours the sea was fairly flat because our course was now southwards with sheltering islands either side of us, but by midday we were out in open sea again, with a fierce wind (just one step on the Beaufort Scale short of a hurricane!) battering the starboard side of the ship, which consequently started listing to starboard. The captain took to the PA system to reassure passengers that the crew were currently moving ballast around to re-balance the ship.
Ironically, this interrupted another excellent lecture in the theatre, this time on the various expeditions mounted by Ernest Shackleton in the Antarctic. On one of these, from 1914 to 1916, his ship became trapped in the ice in the Weddell Sea and eventually was crushed and sank. He led his crew over treacherous, icy terrain to the coast, dragging three lifeboats as they went.
He then set off with five companions in one of the boats, leaving 22 men to survive under the other two (upturned) lifeboats, eating whale and sealions and waiting for rescue. They made it to South Georgia, then hired a small Chilean vessel in which they went back to collect the men stranded on Antarctica. To his eternal glory not one of the men who set off with him from England died.
We also heard a talk this morning about Ushuaia, the Argentinian town that we reach on Tuesday. It has a population of 80,000, which is pretty amazing considering how far south it is! At the end of his presentation the lecturer showed us old black and white footage of three American warships struggling through very heavy seas – quite scary, really! And in his midday weather and navigation report the captain said that today we'd be facing five metre seas! I'm writing this at 3pm, and the ship is bucking around quite seriously, so we've retired to our cabin.
We joined two other couples who booked the same package as us (i.e. did Machu Picchu etc.) and had a third go at the Trivia Quiz together. Again, even with help we did badly, mainly because the questions were either laughably hard or aimed at an American audience. One asked for the definition of a word that looked a bit like 'Arachnophobia'. The answer was 'the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth' – ridiculous. Not that we're poor losers, of course ;o)
This evening at dinner we gambled on sharing a table with other people, and it worked out quite well. One couple was Canadian, but both had been born in the UK. The other couple were French (him) and German (her), so we had plenty of things to talk about having travelled in Canada, France and Germany!
Following two days at sea we now have two port days, the first of these being in Punta Arenas, our last stop in Chile. Gill's booked a city tour that includes a visit to a museum. And as I conclude today's update we're entering the Straits of Magellan, hoping for quieter waters!
Monday 22nd January 2018
We had a three hour city bus tour of Punto Arenas this morning in what our guide described as fine summer weather, by which he meant that it wasn't raining and the wind wasn't blowing. Warm it wasn't! :o)
There isn't a great deal to see here, although our guide was regretting that three hours wasn't really enough. Our first stop was at the cemetery, which was full of mausolea containing the wealthy of the city. Describing their lives was a good way of underlining the history of the city, which was based on immigration from Europe, mainly Spain, but also including Germany, Croatia, Italy and France. At the end of the 19th century fortunes were to be made from shipping and sheep, although the former fell away sharply with the opening of the Panama Canal.
After the surprisingly interesting cemetery tour we went to an open air museum that had a collection of machinery, tools and even buildings that had been used by settlers right through to the first half of last century. Moderately interesting :o)
Then it was off to a museum in the city. As elsewhere in South America, the incoming Europeans drove the local native population to extinction, as recently as the beginning of the 20th century. These people lived simple lives, wearing amazingly little to protect them from the weather. They relied heavily on a llama-like creature called Guanaca for their skins, wool and meat, and what did the Europeans offer in exchange? Alcohol and guns. Interesting but disturbing.
The penultimate stop was at viewpoint above the city from where we could see right across to Tierra del Fuego, and the final stop was in the very pleasant main square with its statue of Ferdinand Magellan. It was now midday, and rather than get back on the bus we opted to walk back to the pier. Punta Arena is a larger city than you'd expect to find so far south, with a population of over 120,000. We were told that wages are higher here than elsewhere in Chile as an incentive to people to stay here. Also that local unemployment is half that of the country as a whole.
On our way back to the pier we stopped off for a hot chocolate in a cosy café, and when we left the door had been wedged open because the outside temperature had risen to a balmy 14/15 degrees ;o)
Back on the ship, we went to the afternoon trivia quiz hoping to meet up with some of our Macchu Picchu companions, but when none arrived we had to go it alone. As you'd expect, the questions always reflect American lifestyle and interests, but this time we scored 17 out of 20 – woo hoooo!
There's a tango quintet on board who we first caught sight of last night when they were playing a lovely piece by Piazzolla, so we made a point of catching them pre-dinner this evening. What probably makes them so appealing is that the leader plays a bandoneon, which is a sort of accordion that gives their music a real tango feel.
At dinner we gambled again on sharing a table and ended up with a former trades unionist, Millwall-supporting print worker who thinks that Cannon and Ball are great entertainers. We managed to steer him away from politics and Brexit all evening, thank heavens!
As for the show in the theatre tonight it was far more suitable for a mixed-language audience than the disastrous comedian from last week. The act was a juggler who worked with juggling balls of varying sizes, clubs, bricks and umbrellas. It was a little more entertaining that it might sound. Actually, we learned tonight that the comedian made a second appearance a couple of nights ago, came on late and then stayed for only 15 minutes instead of the normal 45. We're really glad we skipped that show, because it's never pleasant to watch an act dying on stage.
Tomorrow we're in Ushuaia (Oosh-wye-yah), where Gill's ambitiously booked two excursions :o)
Tuesday 23rd January 2018
It's summer here at the moment, but you might not have thought so! Heavy winds delayed us docking, the sky was steel grey and the air was very chilly indeed!
Ushuaia (seemingly pronounced 'Oo-shire' by the locals) came into existence because of the brutal penal colony that was built here early in the 20th century. When it was closed on Peron's orders in 1947 the town had only 3,000 inhabitants, many of whom had work that was associated with the prison. The Argentinian government wanted to build a larger, stable population here, and so gave tax exemptions to companies as incentives to re-locate to this inhospitable area. Nowadays, the population has risen to 65-70,000, and the city continues to expand.
We took two excursions today. The first was 'The Southernmost Railway and Ensenada Bay'. A bus drove us to the edge of Ushuaia where we boarded a narrow gauge stream train that took us into the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The journey took about 40 minutes, and the recorded commentary focused on the grim conditions suffered by the prisoners of the penal colony. Their job was to fell timber that they then used to build the prison, and the railway's purpose was to carry the timber into town.
All along the route we noticed lots and lots of ancient chopped-off tree trunks of varying heights in what we were told had become known as the 'Cemetery of Trees'. These were trees that had been felled by the prisoners, and the height of the stump indicated the depth of snow at the time. That there was insufficient warm clothing made available for the prisoners was quite chilling in more ways than one!
On the way back to the city we stopped at Ensenada Bay to take photos across the Beagle Channel and of the 'Post Office At The End Of The World'. If we'd had time we'd have sent postcards home from there ;o)
We returned to the ship and 90 minutes later set out on our second excursion - the 'Beagle Channel Wildlife Cruise'. We knew we'd be on a catamaran, but in the event it turned out to be a very comfortable vessel with a heated lounge on the upper deck and easy access to an open area for taking photos. It was a delightfully relaxing trip during which was saw two varieties of cormorant, one of which looked like penguins to me! We also saw sea lions and a single albatross. Shafts of sunlight kept breaking through the gloomy sky, making our surrounding quite dramatic.
All passengers were supposed to be back on board by 7.30pm, and our (official) tour cut it very fine, getting us back just on the deadline. Just after 8pm the captain made an announcement that six passengers still hadn't made it back from their private tour, i.e. NOT arranged by Princess, and that he would give them 15 minutes more before casting off and leaving them to their fate. Later we heard that they'd made it by the skin of their teeth.
Wednesday 24th January 2018
We knew when we set out from home that we'd be sailing through the Beagle Channel and not around Cape Horn. “It's OK”, we said, “We're cutting across Tierra del Fuego instead”. Even when we boarded Emerald Princess and saw that today featured Cape Horn we took that with a pinch of salt.
Today's route took us directly southwards towards the Cape and then westwards for a while along the south side, with the plan to then turn around and sail away north-eastwards towards the Falklands. When we opened the curtains at 7.30 this morning we had a wonderfully dramatic view of the threatening coastline, and looked at it in sheer awe for ages, listening to a bilingual commentary from the bridge.
The wind had been blowing so strongly towards our side of the ship as we proceeded westwards that it was heeling heavily to port. Once again, the captain spoke over the PA system to reassure passengers that this was nothing to worry about, but then rather undermined himself by telling us that the wind was blowing at hurricane strength. Eventually, it was decided that, given the wind speed, it would be dangerous to perform the planned 180 degree turn to the west, and so a new course was set to go clockwise around the Cape, taking a little shelter as we went.
In the 1960s there were two single-handed round-the-world voyages in small craft made by Britons; first Francis Chichester and then Alec Rose. I remember at the time following the progress of their voyages with great interest, noting that they set off from the UK in late summer in order to round Cape Horn in the southern hemisphere's summer, when the local weather would be as calm as it would ever get. That's the weather that we saw this morning, and it was scary on our great big cruise ship, let alone on a tiny sailing boat!
Once we changed course, and especially once we were again sheltered by Cape Horn's islands, everything seemed a bit underwhelming by comparison! So, between 9.30am and 2pm we sat in three lectures. The first was a preview of our day in Port Stanley tomorrow, the second was on cruising and cruise ships, from the 19th century to the present, and the third centred on the perils of Cape Horn. The latter should have been the most interesting, but, unfortunately, the lecturer gave every impression of never having seen his presentation before, repeatedly stumbling over it and with long pauses as he wondered what to say next.
We had another go at the trivia quiz this afternoon, again with another couple from our Peru tour. We scored 14 out of 23 this time, but felt that we'd won a moral victory on the question, 'What was the film in which Charlie Chaplin had his first speaking role?' Most of the Americans present didn't know it was 'The Great Dictator, but we did -very satisfying!
It's another formal night tonight, so it's a 'posh frock' for Gill and jacket and tie for me. Granddaughter Ana would be extremely disappointed that I haven't packed a dinner jacket!
Thursday 25th January 2018
Port Stanley, Falklands
The total population of the Falklands is less than 3,500, and so today, with our ship plus the much smaller German 'Hanseatic' 'in town', that number was doubled!
Stanley was a complete surprise. As expected, the town is tiny, mostly around Ross Road, which runs along the shoreline. Gill had booked a walking tour, which might sound like overkill, but our guide was so informative that we learned far more about the Falklands than we could have done just walking around on our own.
The overriding memory for us will probably be the incredible, and genuine, friendliness of the locals. Tourism is the second greatest source of income for the islands (after Fishing and before Agriculture), and the arrival of a cruise ship (let alone two) is an opportunity not to be missed.
Some excursions went out of town to the battlefields of 1982's Falklands War or to visit the local penguins – there was even one to the far distant Argentinian Cemetery, but this was advertised on board only in Spanish. However, post-tour everyone seemed to congregate in the central area, visiting gift shops and cafés and enjoying the very pleasant sunshine.
Nearly all buildings are single storey and roofed in what our guide called, 'wiggly tin', i.e. corrugated iron. Apart from the cathedral and some victorian-looking terraced housing that were built of brick everything else was constructed from lightweight materials that were cheaper to ship.
Crime is virtually non-existent here, but they still have a police station and a prison – most civil offences seem to be related to alcohol consumption. People normally leave their homes and cars unlocked. There is no hard drugs problem and no rough sleeping. In fact, there is zero unemployment and many people have more than one job.
The climate here is unexpectedly mild. Temperatures rarely fall below 5 degrees C or exceed 21 degrees, and a typical summer's day sees around 16 degrees. Interestingly, Stanley has the same amount of sunshine as Kew Gardens, so solar power is an option here. Because they don't have a set-up similar to our National Grid any excess solar power can't be shared around, so it's used mainly for heating and cooking.
There's a primary school in Stanley, but settlements in other locations are visited by a teacher for two weeks, who then leaves homework to be completed before returning a month later. There's also a secondary school in Stanley, and pupils have to board locally up to GCSE exams. After that, they either get a job or they transfer to the UK for their 'A Levels' and can also stay on to do a degree course. All fees plus a grant are paid by the Falklands government, with no requirement to return. Our guide estimated that 60-70% do return.
Stanley has a hospital that covers most minor surgical needs. If more complex operations are required patients are transferred to Santiago in Chile, or even all the way back to the UK. There's a fully free NHS-style service that's covered by the Falklands' government.
There is a small influx of newcomers from around the world who like the lifestyle and decide to stay. Our guide came from the UK in 1998, stayed and married. Her husband was a third generation islander, but she pointed out one of the local policemen whose family have now lived here for seven generations. She described the local accent as 'colonial', meaning English modified by incomers from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
In 2013 there was a referendum, overseen by the UN, on whether the islanders wished to remain part of the UK. There was a 92% turnout and a 'Yes' vote of 99.8%, meaning that only three people voted against. She said that due to it being a secret ballot no one knows who they were ;o) They don't have political parties here, and can't vote in UK General Elections. Instead, they have a council of eight members that is elected for a four year term based on personal manifestos.
After our walk today we visited the excellent Museum, which houses displays of household equipment and products of yesteryear, many of which Gill and I also remember from our own childhoods. There was display of stuffed birds, including an albatross – we thought that Reuben would have been fascinated!
The most interesting and moving section was a film of the memories of people who had been children in 1982 concerning the Argentinian invasion. The whole occupation lasted 74 days, and apart from the 250 British service personnel who died there were also three local fatalities. There's plainly still a great deal of resentment against Argentina, and it's impossible to see any reason why the population should have the slightest interest in being absorbed by that nation.
We really enjoyed our six hours in Stanley, and could see why there's an appeal to living here, for its sense of community and stability. However, neither of us could cope with the isolation. The climate would also be a problem, even though it's not as miserable as we'd believed before today.
I can't imagine that we'll ever return, but if a future cruise brought us here we'd look forward to it immensely. It's a surprisingly lovely place!
Friday 26th January 2018
This cruise has had a nice mix of shore days and sea days. When we cruised from Tokyo to Shanghai a couple of years ago, we visited ports of call on six successive days, and that gave little opportunity for taking stock of what we'd seen. On this cruise, largely because of the great distance we've had to cover, there's been a 50/50 split of days on land and at sea.
Apart from being able to relax, sea days usually have films and lectures to entertain passengers. Today we've had a talk about tomorrow's visit to Puerto Madryn and we've watched 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' outdoors at Movies Under The Stars – a bit of nostalgic fun! However, the most interesting event was, 'South America with a Welsh Accent', a lecture delivered by the Englishwoman who's been by far the most interesting and fluent presenter on this cruise.
I say 'Englishwoman', but she has a perceptible Welsh accent - today we learned that she comes from South Wales. So, the development of the Welsh community in Patagonia is clearly a subject that's close to her heart, which explains the passion with which she spoke.
In 1865, at the invitation of the Argentinian government, 162 Welsh people sailed from Liverpool to Argentina, landing at the place that they subsequently called Port Madryn. They were looking to prevent their language and traditions becoming swamped by English, and therefore chose a country where the local language wasn't English.
In the first two years they suffered great handships because none of the immigrants had any experience in agriculture. However, they formed friendships with the local native people who helped them to adapt to their new environment. An irrigation scheme helped them to harness the local river and develop what has subsequently become the finest agricultural land in Argentina.
Today, around 50,000 people claim Welsh descent, although many of them don't speak the language. However, since the centenary celebrations in 1965 there has been something of a revival in interest in the Welsh heritage in Patagonia, also attracting tourism – there are even Eisteddfods, although these are bi-lingual.
This afternoon we had another go at the Trivia Quiz and scored 17 out of 21, so we're slowly improving! And this evening, after dinner we dropped in on the Liar's Club – sort of Call My Bluff. We have an early start tomorrow, so we've skipped tonight's show in the theatre.
Saturday 27th January 2018
Quiz question: which is the only region in the world where museums have bilingual labels in Spanish and Welsh?
Answer: Argentinian Patagonia.
Gill and I have been discussing just what an eye-opener this holiday has been: Machu Picchu, the Chilean coast, Darwin's travels, the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel, Cape Horn, the Falklands, and now the Welsh settlement of Patagonia.
We set off at 8am on a two hour coach trip out of Puerto Madryn, heading for Welsh Patagonia along the Pan-American Highway that stretches from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. It was sunny all day with clear blue skies, so a pleasant change from Cape Horn! The guide on our coach was typical of the people that we would keep meeting today, i.e. bilingual in Spanish and Welsh, plus excellent English. He had one Welsh grandmother and one German, and his name, implausibly at first, was Andrew Roberts :o) However, as soon as he started to talk you could hear that Welsh lilt in his voice.
Our destination was a town called Dolavon, in which there is a huge Welsh presence. We visited a small flour mill that had been built in the 19th century with materials imported from America. The significance of this is that from the early days of the settlement Welsh bread-making had been crucial, not only for the immigrants' nourishment but also because of the friendly links that it helped them to forge with the local native tribe, the Tehuelche.
These people found Welsh bread to be irresistible and traded fresh meat and animal hides for it. In fact, the relationship became so close that, as time went by, they would simply come into town and ask, in a mixture of Spanish and Welsh, for 'poco bara'. The Welsh, who felt indebted to them for their vital help in the early years, were happy to give it to them.
Andrew told a story about one of the Tehuelche saying to his grandmother as she went to chapel, 'You're not a Christian'. She insisted that she was, and was told, 'No you're not, you're a good person'. You can see the point when you bear in mind the way that the Spanish conquerors annihilated the local natives wherever they went in South America, and even more so when you hear that, in the end, the Argentinian regime in the early part of last century finally decided to wipe out the Tehuelche despite the objections of the Welsh.
We then went to a Welsh chapel, where one of Andrew's elderly female relatives spoke to us about community life. She asked if there were any Welsh-speakers amongst the 30-odd of us, and, to our amazement, there were six people who replied in Welsh, telling her where in Wales they came from. She was delighted. She read the 23rd Psalm to us from a Welsh Bible and then the equivalent text in Spanish, before she and Andrew sang a Welsh hymn to us, unaccompanied.
We've gathered that after WW2 Welsh went into something of a decline after the original pioneers had died off, but that the centenary celebrations in 1965 had re-kindled pride and interest in their ancestry, even amongst those who no longer spoke Welsh. Nowadays, there are even some Argentinian locals who are learning the language, and each year teachers come from Wales from March to September to teach in schools.
Following on from the example set by the Tehuelche, relations between the Welsh and the Argentinians have always been cordial and there have never been religious conflicts.
Then it was off to a local farm, where the farmer proudly displayed his fields of raspberries, strawberries, cherries, melons and peaches, all of which obviously thrive on his fertile and well-irrigated land. This whole area had been desert until the Welsh arrived and used the water of the Chubut River to bring the area to life. The river used to flood the land around it quite severely even into living memory but it has since been dammed to prevent this and to provide hydro-electric power.
We then moved across to a nearby town, Gaiman, where we had a 'Welsh Tea', with sandwiches, cakes, scones and jam, plus the best cups of tea since we left home! While we were eating, a dozen members of the local community, representing several local choirs, sang to us, in a hall with the names of many Welsh towns displayed on the walls, plus the emblems of the Welsh and Argentinian Rugby Unions. We could have been in the Valleys!
I think that we probably all knew that there had been a Welsh settlement of Patagonia, but in my mind this had been an isolated community that had by now virtually been absorbed into Argentina. I couldn't have been more wrong. 50,000 people associate themselves with Wales and Welsh lifestyles, even some with little or no Welsh DNA. Quite remarkable!
Now it's another Sea Day as we head to Montevideo in Uruguay. The temperature forecast for tomorrow is 24 degrees, so I imagine we'll be on deck quite a lot! ;o)
Sunday 28th January 2018
Final Sea Day
This is our last sea day, with only Montevideo (tomorrow) and Buenos Aires (Tuesday) still to come. On Wednesday we leave the ship for the final leg of this adventure.
It's amazing how quickly the weather has improved as we've sailed north. On Wednesday we were shivering at Cape Horn and today we've been on the deck for most of the day, with the thermometer in the mid-20s. We only left so that we could take part in the daily trivia quiz, and again we scored 17.
Last night we went to one of the bars to see a very impressive French magician. We sat fairly close and still had no idea at all how he managed any of his tricks. The final one we'd never seen anywhere before. He persuaded three people in the audience to part with rings, pushed a pen through all three and, Abracadabra!, all three were looped through each other! He then took them around the audience to demonstrate this, asking their owners to confirm that they were indeed the owners of the rings. Back centre-stage he slipped them on to his pen again and they were once again separate rings.
Tonight's main theatre show was based on an hour-long series of clever magic tricks performed by the cast as part of their usual singing and dancing performances. The show, at 60 minutes long, was longer than most shows we've seen on ships, and the music ran seamlessly from beginning to end. The whole thing was conceived and directed by last night's French magician who'd obviously taught cast members to perform professional tricks as if they'd been doing them all their careers. The four piece band (drums, guitars and keyboards) was unbelievably and effortlessly slick, and for the first time ever on cruises I felt that what we saw tonight was genuinely of West End standard. Very impressive.
Monday 29th January 2018
We've been to Montevideo before and, for the want of a better excursion went on the 'Graf Spee' tour, visiting the various locations that were associated with the defeat of the German pocket battleship at the beginning of WW2. It was a pleasant city, but we didn't feel the need to visit it again, so we took advantage of the glorious weather to relax on deck again.
It was said to be around 24 degrees today, but it seemed significantly hotter than that in early afternoon. I was dodging backwards and forwards between sun and shade so much that at 3pm we gave up and opted for tea and biscuits in our cabin.
On several occasions in the past few days we've attended the afternoon Trivia Quiz of the off-chance that one of the other couples from our tour party might also join us. This afternoon we resolved that, if they didn't show, we'd go back to our cabin and relax. They didn't appear, but we were in the mood for a quiz and so we stayed.
We answered the twenty questions and were confident about all but three of our answers. Amazingly, we only got one answer wrong – 'What was the biggest-selling children's movie DVD of the 20th century?' We had no idea, but guessed 'Toy Story'. The answer was 'The Lion King'. That took us into a tie-breaker with a team of six people, who we matched on the first three questions with both correct and wrong answers.
The final question was something like, 'Which performer won all three top music awards at this year's Grammy's?' I didn't think we stood a chance, until Gill said that she'd been reading about the awards ceremony yesterday and “Wasn't it someone called Bruno?” “Bruno Mars?” I asked, knowing nothing whatsoever about him or his music'. We shrugged at each other and wrote it down … and won!! It was one of those moments that you remember for years ;o)
Thinking that today was our day we went to another quiz later – one on Harry Potter. Irritatingly, we got Harry's birthday wrong, but were beaten by another team that made no mistakes.
We have two more nights on board, arriving in Buenos Aires tomorrow morning. We haven't got an excursion booked, so might look for a Hop On, Hop Off bus.
Tuesday 30th January 2018
The temperature topped 30 degrees today, which made our open top bus tour a bit of an endurance test!
There was a free shuttle service from the ship to the dock entrance and another from there into the city. After a short amble we stumbled over a tourist information kiosk right next to a stop for the Hop On Hop Off bus – that was lucky! While we were waiting for the bus an armed policeman approached me. He had no English, but made it clear that I should take off my wrist watch for fear of robbery. I thanked him for his concern and followed his advice.
The bus trip at its full extent lasts for 3-4 hours, but the weather was too hot to contemplate doing the full tour. Halfway round we had to change buses,and we set off towards the La Boca district, where there are the brightly-painted shops selling handicrafts. On the way Gill referred to some tips that Lourdes had given us, one of which was that there was a bar/restaurant called El Obrero that she remembered fondly from her time here. I checked where it was and watched our approach on Google Maps, and to our pleasure the bus stop was right outside!
Inside it's pretty much a meeting/eating place for locals and supporters of Boca Juniors, whose La Bombonera stadium is nearby. There were scarves from several English clubs on the walls, including Arsenal and Newcastle, who must have played pre-season friendlies here.
I ordered a veal escalope, and when it arrived I was horrified – it was HUGE! It overhung the plate and had an enormous slice of bacon on top, and it was all covered in melted cheese. Oh yes, I'd also accidentally ordered big plate of chips! Gill was only marginally better off, with her large portion of lasagna. We battled nobly to do justice to what was in front of us, but both had to give up even before the halfway stage.
This left us with the embarrassing problem of how to explain ourselves. The best that I could manage was, “Delicioso, pero MUCHO”. The Waiter smiled indulgently, and almost proudly. I shook his hand in congratulation, which he seemed to like. He them asked us a question that Gill realised was about whether we'd like a 'doggy bag', to which I gambled with, “No. Crucero” and a sad expression, which he seemed to understand.
We had a half hour wait for the next bus, and both realised that what with the sun and the food we'd better think about returning to the ship. The various bus connections were slick and it was off one and straight on to the next, getting us back at 4.45pm.
Buenos Aires is a pleasant place, with very wide boulevards (up to 12 lanes, one way!) and lots of parks and open spaces. There is something of a frenzy about it, with people and cars bustling about, and in the theatre district there's a road that is said to 'never sleep'. The bus commentary mentioned the 1982 war with the UK, but later referred to 'the dark days' of military rule, during which the junta invaded the Falklands, arguably to boost its popularity.
This evening there was a performance in the theatre by the Buenos Aires Tango School that was as impressive and well-received as you'd hope. The first time that I ever saw a Tango show was here in Buenos Aires some years back at the end of another cruise. I hate dance of all varieties, but found Argentinian Tango to be really electrifying, and so it was again this evening. The timing and precision of the moves, quite apart from the way that the male dancers throw the women around and the extreme grace of those same women is something to behold.
We'll be up at 6am tomorrow, ready to disembark at 8am, find our new tour guide and take a coach to the airport. We then fly to Iguazu, ready for our tour both sides of the famous Falls on Thursday. The Emerald Princess has been OK, but it simply doesn't compare to the Azamara and Oceania ships for overall quality and cosiness. Then again it's a bit cheaper :o)
Wednesday 31st January 2018
We were up at 6am to finish packing, had breakfast and left the ship by 8am. Usually, you leave your main luggage outside the cabin the night before, go ashore at your pre-arranged time, find your bags and board a bus to the airport for your flight home. Because we had to meet our guide ashore at 8.30m we opted to take our own bags to avoid delay.
Like all other arrangements on this tour so far everything ran like clockwork, and the coach took us only a short distance to Buenos Aires' domestic airport. We had loads of time to go through security and wait before our 11.30am flight to Puerto Iguazu.
Coming in to land all we could see was dense forests until the last moment when the runway appeared. The guide who met us explained on the transfer coach that the whole Iguazu Falls area, shared by Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, is a World Heritage Site, where ecological sensitivity is very important.
He explained about tomorrow's excursion to the Falls. We start off by crossing into Brazil, where we see them from a distance and then re-enter Argentina for the close up view. There's an option, that we won't take, to get in a boat that actually goes under the Falls and where you're guaranteed to get very, VERY wet. Our reply? “No, but thank you for asking” :o)
We've been warned to watch out for monkeys and raccoons, both of which steal from visitors in search of food. Even taking plastic bags to wrap up food products doesn't work, because the little devils have worked that trick out as well. So, no food at the Falls. When we were in Costa Rica a few years ago we actually saw the little thieves at work, making daring sorties on the beach that we were visiting and dragging off bags!
The weather was absolutely scorching again, and we went a couple of hours by our hotel's rooftop pool before retreating to our room. This evening we toyed with walking into the local town to find a restaurant, but then realised that we would have to return in pitch darkness, so opted for the hotel's excellent buffet instead.
We leave the hotel at 7am tomorrow to go to the Falls, and it already sounds as if it'll be an unforgettable sight.
Thursday 1st Febuary 2018
It was a really early start (7am) and a really late finish 6.30pm) todayThe temperature rose this afternoon to beyond 30 degrees which made our walking around the falls progressively more challenging.
What sets the Iguaza Falls apart from the others is their extent, spreading over several kilometers with literally hundreds of separate falls, some enormous. As we drove from our hotel we crossed the Iguazu river that separates Argentina and Brazil, and in the distance we could see Paraguay; one of the few places in the world where the boundaries of three neighbouring nations are defined by rivers.
We started by crossing to Brazil. Our guide, Rodrigo, was impressive all day, taking care of all of the complexities of shepherding 30+ people into trains, across borders and around World Heritage sights. Crossing the border took little time, with Rod taking passports to Immigration Control, getting permits etc. One problem cropped up early on, with the American wife of one of our party not having a visa to enter Brazil and having to miss the Brazilian stage.
Walking along the Brazilian side of the river the falls were only gradually revealed, with the 'Devil's Throat', the largest of the falls, coming last. As we walked along, high above the river, we saw many smaller waterfalls plunging down into it until the full majesty of the Iguazu Falls opened up. It's as if you could swivel through 180 degrees and see nothing but waterfalls.
There were raised mesh walkways that ventured out over the torrents, allowing us to both look down to the water crashing below and also look straight ahead at the wall of water cascading down to us. The fine spray that resulted was really refreshing in the very sunny conditions. You could get plastic ponchos to protect you from this, but, as one of our fellow guests said, “Ponchos are for wimps', and we agreed.
At the end of the walk, right by the Devil's Throat, there was a souvenir shop and also professional photographers who for the equivalent of £10 would take a photo of visitors with the falls behind and print it out in five minutes. You only have to look at ours to see our excitement at our morning's experience.
Mercifully, after walking downhill most of the way, there was a lift to return us to road level and our waiting coach. As we gathered together at the top we were descended upon by a crowd of inquisitive, fearless raccoons. Their main diet is worms and foliage gathered from the jungle all around, but they've learned that humans often have far more tasty food with them, so they try to steal it.
There are signs everywhere warning visitors not to approach the monkeys and raccoons because they steal and are also liable to bite. One of our party had just bought an ice cream cone when it was swiped from her and carried away at speed. I sat on a high wall thinking I'd be safe and one of the little tinkers actually climbed the wall to see if I had anything to eat!
We got back in the bus, left Brazil and went back to the Argentinian side of the falls. By now it was midday and increasingly hot, so many of us were ready for refreshments, but there were three separate trails around the falls on the agenda. First we had to board a narrow guage railway that took us deep into the rainforest. The trails all started as woodland walks that then ventured out over the water on those mesh walkways that I mentioned earlier until you were as close to dramatically rushing water as it was possible to get. The air was full of butterflies and the calmer stretches of flowing water had enormous catfish on the prowl.
It's hard to convey just how impressive it is to see all of these falls all around you. Niagara has the mighty Horseshoe Falls, but after looking at them for half an hour that's about it. Iguazu has so many rushing torrents that it almost seems beyond belief that so very much flowing water can possibly result from nothing but rainfall.
Having completed the first trail there was now growing dissent about doing the second and third. Indeed, several of the less mobile members of our party bailed out and returned by train to the entrance a couple of kilometers away. The remaining stalwarts, us included, completed the second trail, which we had to admit was well worth it, but only half a dozen decided to do the third.
The amount of wildlife that we saw both sides of the border was impressive. Apart from the ubiquitous raccoons we saw a bird-eating tarantula, a millipede, a toucan, a lizard and some inquisitive monkeys. It's clearly a rich habitat for wildlife.
We returned to the entrance by train, and our coach turned up right on time. By the time we got back to our hotel we were utterly exhausted and desperate to dive into the shower. Before dinner we had drinks from the bar – a Pisco Sour for Gill and a Caipirinha for me. Both were perfect and an excellent pre-dinner pick-me-up!
What an amazing day!
Friday 2nd Febuary 2018
Back to Buenos Aires
We checked out at 10am for our midday internal flight back to Buenos Aires.
At breakfast an Argentinian guest was wearing a ' The Malvinas are Argentinian' T-shirt, with the Falklands overlaid with the blue and white of the national flag. Given that the UK claimed the Falklands in 1833 at a time when even Spain wasn't claiming sovereignty and Argentina was riven by civil war their claim seems absurd. The fact that oil has been discovered in the area probably goes further to explain Argentinian demands, but you can hardly expect the Islanders to feel anything but hostility to the brutal invasion of 1982 by a military dictatorship.
The flight back to Buenoa Aires took 90 minutes. We were told that the alternative is an 18 hour bus journey, which probably demonstrates what the roads are like!
Our hotel is OK-ish. It feels as if it's needed a complete re-fresh for at least the past decade. It only has an emergency staircase and a couple of lifts that take no more than three people. Having said that our room is huge! There's a very nice bedroom plus a sitting room with a six-seater conference table, two armchairs, a fridge and sink. Most importantly, it has a kettle, so fresh English tea is once again on the menu :o)
This evening we went for a walk along the street of the 9th July, the day of Argentina's independence from Spain in 1816. In the middle distance was the Obelisk, constructed in 1936 to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city, and in the distance was the image of 'Evita' picked out in outline high on the facade of a tall building. We've never seen such a wide road 10-12 lanes in one direction, which means that as a pedestrian you have to take great care when crossing!
Having walked so very far in recent days, and not feeling dreadfully hungry, we returned to our hotel and went to its restaurant. We both ordered Onion Soup and Caiprinhas both of which were superb.
Tomorrow we have two events that are part of our package; a city bus tour in the morning with our local guide, and a dinner and Tango show in the evening that should be wonderful.
Saturday 3rd February 2018
Our adventure draws to a close
Our guide (German – that's his name, not his nationality!, and it's pronounced like 'Hermann') came for us with a coach at 9am and we set off for a four hour city tour.
The first stop was supposed to be at the administrative centre around Casa Rosada, the Presidential Offices, but the current roadworks made it very difficult for us to walk around the square. German therefore proposed that we should go straight to the La Boca district around the old port area and come back to the Casa Rosada later on.
La Boca is very much a poor neighbourhood that probably hasn't even seen better days - all port activities seem to have ended there many years ago. Nowadays it's a bit like an elderly streetwalker, i.e. very much for residents who can't afford better, looking shabby but making up for it with bright colours ;o)
We were here once before at the end of a cruise and found it an entrancing sight. Most buildings are two-storey only, faced with corrugated iron ('wiggly tin') that's looking a bit beaten, and painted in blocks of vibrant colours. Many of the shops were offering local crafts that were aimed squarely at tourists, many of them Tango-related. In today's bright sunshine under the clearest of blue skies you could almost overlook the partial delapidation of the area.
Which brings us to Tango. German was very clear – Tango isn't primarily Argentinian or even a Buenos Aires thing. It all started in La Boca in the late 19th century amongst dock workers, and, amazingly, featured two men together showing their masculinity in dance. In fact, its origin, with stamping and legs flying around, was more or less a dockers' ankle-kicking event! It was only with the music of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) that Tango reached its present format in the years after WW2.
Returning to the Casa Rosada we briefly admired the pink building and wondered about its colour. Legend has it that when it was built, at the very end of the 19th century, there was a concern about possible damage from humidity, so that cows' or pigs' blood was mixed with the paint, hence its pink appearance. Hmmmm! we thought, sceptically.
The final stop was at the La Recoleta Cemetery. This is a sizable, Italian-style necropolis in which many major figures from Argentina's past are interred in elaborate mausolea. The most famous of these nowadays is Eva (Evita) Peron. She became, even post mortem, a political embarrassment to the regime of the day, and her remains eventually came to rest in Italy in a secret location. Juan Peron was exiled to Spain, but returned to Argentina where he died in 1974.
After his death his third wife arranged the return to Buenos Aires of Evita's remains and these were interred with Juan's, deep in the Duarte family mausoleum in La Recoleta. German guided us to this tomb, which we would never have found otherwise in the maze of narrow pathways. It might be the Duarte family tomb, but the bronze plates outside seem to be mainly about Evita.
As we left the cemetery we could opt either to go back to our hotel on the coach of make our own way back. Given that there was a craft market in the park nearby there was only one course for Gill – we opted to walk! A gentle walk 'homewards' along tidy, treelined streets brought us to a bakery near to our hotel where we bought a quiche to share in our room to keep us going until tonight.
At 8pm a coach picked us up for the short journey to the Café de los Angelitos for the final event of this adventure – dinner followed by a Tango show. The meal was quite good, given that it was served at speed so that it was over before the show started, and was made better still by us not having to pay for the wine that kept arriving.
The show started at about 10.20pm and went on for 80 minutes, leaving us to wonder how the dancers had the energy. We were all sat at refectory tables set at right angles to the stage, and Gill and I were right at the front. The stage was surprisingly compact, given that, at times, there were ten dancers throwing themselves around on it and high kicking. The band was at a much higher level at the back of the stage, out of the way of the performers and was a standard Tango format, i.e. piano, guitar, bandoneon (accordion) bass and violin, and supported the dancers superbly. We had a wonderful time.
It was after midnight when we got back to the hotel. Since our group of 31 people starts to break up tomorrow, with half of us returning to Heathrow, there was talk of a farewell drink in the bar, but we politely declined.
So, that's pretty much the end of our South American Adventure. Tomorrow, we leave the hotel at 10am and transfer to the international airport ready for our 2pm flight back to Heathrow. The prospect of a 12+ hours flight isn't very appealing, so we're hoping for a better selection of films with BA than we got with Iberia! We're braced for cold weather in London, but then again we've experienced Cape Horn! And we're also hoping that the cats will forgive us for another long absence!