Think of South America, and taking a cruise rarely springs to mind. Taking a cruise is often considered a “tacky” or artificial way to travel in which the experience is shared with a bunch of equally artificial snobs, but not all cruises in South America are as such. Sometimes, it’s the best (or only) way to see certain parts of the continent…..
The Galapagos Islands has to be the best destination in South America for cruises. This is one case where taking a cruise is certainly the best way to see the islands - cruises last between 3 to 7 nights, and the cruise ships range from intimate 12 person boats to more traditional large cruise liners. A Galapagos Islands cruise is all about wildlife watching, and is the top destination in South America for wildlife viewing. The Galapagos Islands are perfect for a family cruise vacation.
Equally great for wildlife watching cruises, but slightly more painful on both your wallet and your stomach, are cruises to Antarctica. Antarctica cruises are generally at least 10 days long, and only operate during the summer months of November to March. The scenery is spectacularly dramatic, the wildlife has no fear of humans and the experience of travelling to Antarctica is right at the top of most people’s most memorable vacations. The only way to visit Antartica is by cruise ship - most depart from Ushuaia in southern Argentina.
There’s also dramatic scenery and cruises in Chile’s Southern Fjords. Puerto Montt and Balmaceda are often the starting points for such cruises in Chile - consider the Skorpios cruise boat. An alternative would be the 3 or 4 day Australis cruise around Cape Horn and Tierra del Fuego, the Southernmost points in South America. Such cruises are between Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina (and vice versa). You’ll see lots of wildlife and spectacular glaciers on any such cruises.
A popular way to see the Amazon region is by cruise ship. The are opportunities for Amazon cruises in Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. In my personal opinion, all are a complete waste of time. The whole point of visiting the Amazon rainforest is to experience it, and to truely experience the Amazon you should sleep in it, rather than sleeping away from it in an invasive “tourism bubble” cruise ship. Being woken at 5am by a monkey howling next to your window is all part of the Amazon travel experience - there are lots of excellent luxury rainforest lodges to choose from that offer a far more rewarding, and insightful opportunity for visiting the Amazon.
There are also a huge number of criuse companies offering more traditional luxury cruises in South America. Invariably, the route is from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, to Chile’s port of Valparaiso. Such cruises in South America offer a glimpse of the continent, which many people do thoroughly enjoy, but if you really want to know or experience South America, you need to properly mix with it’s local people, and that is not something you’ll be doing much of couped up with a bunch of bankers on a cruise ship.
To cruise, or not to cruise?
There are also a host of cruises in the Caribbean (many of which visit the Panama Canal) and around Mexico’s Maya Riviera. On the whole they are traditional cruises for the unadventurous who enjoy sharing their space with like minded people who want a glimpse of the world from a cosy cruise ship (not me).
If you’ve read this far, you’ll probably have gathered that I’m not a huge fan of cruises. I’d much rather promote responsible tourism, or a type of tourism where people gain a genuine insight into the country they visit. In most cases, taking a cruise offers neither. Consider the following when planning a trip to South America, one of the most colourful and friendliest places in the world. Reasons why traditional cruises suck:
1. They offer very few benefits to the countries you are visiting. The vast majority of the money you spend on your vacation will go to North American or European cruise companies, who already have far too much money in comparison to the local countries you will be visiting.
2. Cruises pollute the environment, and often in a very bad way. By taking a cruise, you may well be contributing to the wrecking of the local environment, such that in the future others cannot enjoy what you have already experienced.
3. Cruises offer an artificial travel experience. Maybe it’s down to personal tastes, but I don’t want to see lots of other tourists when I’m on vacation. One will only glimpse a destination on a day tour shared with numerous other tourists. You’ll follow a large group, led by a tour guide holding a coloured umbrella, who will offer almost no level of personalized service. You’ll all photograph the same sites, and experience the same things, and have little or no interaction with the local population. You’ll see interesting and often beautiful local people, you might even photograph them, but consider that the real show will be you. You’ll be the zoo. “What is this strange herd of pot bellied, camera wielding, sandals-over-socks wearing gringos who are following the leader with the red umbrella?” the locals will think. At the end of the day, you’ll retreat to the “tourist bubble” of a cruise ship, which will invariabaly be extremely overpriced, to spend your evening surrounded by other foreigners, rather than experiencing life with the fantastic local population.
Cruises suck (except those to the Galapagos and Antartica, which are very worthwile). Browse this site and you’ll find plenty of more rewarding travel opportunities in South America.