The (Few) Pros and (Many) Cons of a Patagonian Cruise

Patagonia and the Falkland Islands have been on our bucket list for a while, and for some reason, a cruise seemed like a way to cover a lot of ground with minimal effort while have a few days off from cooking and the dishes. It also happened to be a way to move from Buenos Aires to Santiago. International airfare in South America is expensive; this would allow that price to be rolled up into the cruise. In the end, however, it was probably not worth the added cost, which worked out to more than 3x what we normally spend per day – despite the fact we bought the absolute cheapest ticket and spent as little money on board as possible.

We did see pretty things from the boat and get dropped off in gorgeous places, but that is the best I can say for our fifteen days on board the Norwegian Sun. I would have willingly spent more time in many of the ports, and cut out Punta del Este and Puerto Madryn. Puerto Chacobuco would be a great base for hiking, but we were in port such a short amount of time it was basically a wasted morning.

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All sorts of pretty land-based Patagonian sights

Our cabin was tiny, which I completely understand. It’s on a ship, after all. It was an interior room, meaning no windows. We tried to compensate for this utter lack of light by leaving the TV on at night and tuned to the live video feed from the front of the ship. This is a good idea in theory, but I am a light sleeper. Since the southern summer sun rises early, I’d wake at 5 a.m., as soon as the light shifted. This lasted about two days before we switched back to alarms. We did have enough space for our clothes, and the beds are sized so that luggage can disappear underneath. The woman who took care of our room was very kind, and commiserated with us on the days when we encountered larger waves and everyone was feeling a little woozy.

Unlike shorter Alaskan or Caribbean cruises, we had a total of six days at sea out of fifteen total days. We mistakenly looked forward to this as an opportunity to work. In the end it turned out the internet onboard was far too expensive for any meaningful connection (about $30/day, but only when paying for the 15-day package, so $450 total). Workspaces were few and far between when everyone else was on board and bored. Our room was too small for us to be set up comfortably, and by 9am, most public spaces on the ship were occupied by others also escaping their tiny quarters.

So maybe we take a break from work and let ourselves be entertained for those days. Turns out that the cruise didn’t really compensate for the lack of a port with extra activities on the ship. We could hang out in the casino, play poker, or attend a sales seminar – none of which appealed to us in the slightest. Trivia was the best option, which helped us amuse ourselves for about ninety minutes spread throughout the day. But after a week the questions began to repeat and it became an exercise in seeing how many we could remember correctly from earlier in the cruise (waaay too similar to fact-vomiting grade-school tests to be fun). The staff members running the few non-trivia games kept making jokes about how much better it would be if they had a budget and reminding us that there were no real prizes. But it rang bitter rather than funny, because it was true. We made the mistake of participating in the Newlywed/Longerwed Game. That one actually did come with a small, cheap bottle of champagne as a reward, but it was filmed and aired over and over on the internal TV channel. We were famous! This might have been fun on a 7-day cruise but by day 10 it gets a little wearing. Everyone assumed we were on a honeymoon (nope), had just gotten married (also no), are extroverts (lol), and were younger than we are (actually…that one is just fine).

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Such a big ship… how does it feel so small inside?, the jogging track was occasionally sparsely populated and my refuge

On our only previous cruise, a shorter trip to Alaska we took about five years ago, there were good musical acts and comedy troupe performances in the evenings. In this case, the acts in the theatre seemed to be desperate to kill time, and laughs were nowhere to be found. A couple musicians working on bar stages around the ship were better than the headliners, but usually not playing music to which we could relate. A trio called the Amber Strings was the best, playing classical as well as snippets from movie soundtracks.

My favorite stop was the library, which also hosted a book exchange. While there are a good number of beach reads and light lit on the shelves, I was happy to find recent award winners as well and caught up on a few that are hard to find overseas. The book exchange also yielded a couple good trades. But that seems like a cop-out after paying so much for the experience of the cruise and hoping for a wider variety of options.

I suppose this lack of activities is one reason the buffet and day-drinking were so popular. But, honestly, the buffet was only good for breakfast, and only because that meal included prepackaged cereal and yogurt so we could avoid the ‘freshly-made’ items. For lunch and dinner, the food served there was often cold and tasteless. Of course, this could be true in the sit-down dining rooms as well. Some of the dishes were clearly scraped together – I’d have warm curry surrounding already-cold rice. The chocolate volcano cake (probably the single best thing to eat on board) might arrive with a warm and still-gooey center or already resolidified and at room temperature. At one point I ordered grilled veggies, which arrived fresh-from-the-fridge cold and fresh-from-the-fridge slimy. To me, grilled implies some sort of residual heat should still be clinging to the eatables. Noticeable to our palates was a distinct lack of spice. Chorizo sauce at the tapas bar was the ONLY item we found that had any sort of spiciness whatsoever (and the guacamole there was passable as well). We debated bringing on hot sauce (tabasco doesn’t count as hot sauce, clearly), but didn’t want to sink the added expense when we knew we wouldn’t be able to bring it ashore in Chile.

Making thousands of meals each day, trying to not offend a diverse set of tastes, while working in the confines of what can be stored and cooked on a cruise ship severely limits the menu and lowers the average quality. The ceviche isn’t going to be genuine since raw fish is a health risk (one of the Peruvian staff warned us away after learning we’d been in Lima by saying we’d just be disappointed – he was right). We didn’t get norovirus or salmonella, so that at least was a plus. Worse than blandness would be being confined to a room while your one chance to see Stanley dissipates. Still, the menus were meat-heavy and seem to be centered on a steak-and-potatoes vision of a meal. That isn’t how we eat, and so much of the food felt gross to us; it all seemed to have a pervading gravy-flavored undertone (kind of how all McDonalds food tastes the same, except I actually like that one). But it was clear from eating a few times at the onboard restaurants (which cost extra) that good food can be made; we had decent duck and lamb chops, even a yummy tiramisu. The poor quality and ickily uneven temperatures in the included dining cost felt like a way to steer people toward feeling as though they had to spend more to get a decent meal.

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Some super-fun activities, tender boat, bottle of wine we brought on board

Drinking was another area where it felt like the goal was to wring every penny out of the passengers. Some people bought all-inclusive drink packages; setting themselves back about a thousand dollars each. We opted to not be lushes and simply drink sparingly. But even beer is about $8 and mixed drinks start at $10. We ordered one cocktail – a daily special – and it was simply poured out of a gallon jug rather than being made fresh. So much for value. The best deal is to buy wine for a few dollars a bottle on shore – thankfully wine in this corner of South America is a readily available bargain – and then pay $15 per bottle to bring them on the ship. Even with the high corkage fee, it was still half the cost to do this rather than order off the menus.

By the end of the cruise, I had the feeling the staff was just as annoyed at many of the shortcomings as we were. They already have a tough job – dealing with thousands of people, many though a language barrier (on both sides, the staff and many passengers speak English as a secondary language), in a service job, often thousands of miles from their homes and family, while living out of a room that is probably the size of our cabin for months at a time. That sucks. A lot. And you know that the average cruise ship employee isn’t paid a premium to compensate for these conditions. And they seem to try their hardest to work with what they are given.

Most of the lapses in service aren’t the individual employees fault – the constraints they work under put a lot out of their control. It seems to be coming in part from the overall focus on upselling and doing the bare minimum to make sure the company can say the cruise provided a particular service or event. For example, though this ship was spending months around South America, not enough Spanish-speaking staff had been hired. Naturally, this creates difficulties on both sides – passengers upset they can’t make their requests known, and staff who have a hard time understanding when the solution might be incredibly basic. To their credit, some staff members were learning Spanish and making attempts to bridge the communication gap. But trying to patch up language barriers after the fact is much harder than simply hiring or moving crew around in advance of the ship moving into a new continent.

Another instance where it seemed like the crew should have been better prepared and given more support was at ports where tender boats were needed to get to shore. Each morning before the tenders started running, I woke up early to get a numbered ticket, usually between #4 an #6. Numbers 1-5 would be called in quick succession, usually before many people were awake or ready to make use to them. Once our group was called, we would go down as soon as we could. But whether we hurried or took our time, we were often kept waiting. Everyone who had purchased tours through Norwegian got priority, and wasn’t part of their numbering system. Keep in mind the Norwegian knows how many tours they’ve sold, how many boats it will take to get those people ashore, and approximately how long that will take. But inevitably we would end up waiting in long lines of irate ticket holders while the tour groups streamed past, and the staff continued to call numbers and add to the chaos. One particular morning, the wait turned into a full hour. The tour groups being boarded before us were already late as well, meaning they knew they were behind but still kept calling more numbers. One man went up to loudly complain that this was a disturbing way to be treated and that several elderly people in line should not be standing for this long. On some later tender-port days, they did put more boats into service, seemingly to stave off complaints, and let more time pass before calling the next group. But I can’t believe they didn’t know this would be an issue. It seemed like they simply hoped that not as many people would want to tender to shore on certain days. It felt like a terrible budget airline.

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Happy things we only saw from the ship: Whales! Glaciers! Double rainbows! Cape Horn!

I don’t want to detract from the ports – Stanley, Ushuaia, Montevideo, and Punta Arenas are incredible places that were absolutely worth going to. But to spend 4-8 hours in a place just to see a main sight or two is not our preferred travel style. We like spending longer periods, taking in the museums, markets, local food. There were some experiences we could only have on a boat – passing by Cape Horn, spending hours whale and bird watching, seeing waves spray over top the deck when the weather worsened. But a ferry from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas or down the Chilean coast might have given us the same opportunities for less. Thankfully, we will be heading back to Punta Arenas and Montevideo in the future, and we’ll be able to get to know those places on a deeper level. Many people on board seemed to prefer to travel by cruise, and if that is what they enjoy, more power to them. But for us it is an expensive and impractical way to explore and detracts rather than adds to the sense of a place. We’ve only tried one cruise line, and I imagine others might be better and offer different experiences, but we won’t be finding out for a while.

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Stanley, Falkland Islands

Our most anticipated stop on the cruise was Stanley in the Falkland Islands. The day was a windy gray, but that was expected given the location in the middle of the south Atlantic. Our ship was too large to dock at the small pier or even make it through the narrow passage to anchor in the interior Stanley Harbor. Instead, we floated a thirty minute tender boat ride away in Blanco Bay.

Our goal for the day was to hike to Gypsy Cove (and avoid the $20 per person shuttle fee and the many-times-more-expensive tours to the large colonies of penguins). The cove, and its small Magellanic penguin colony, is about 4 miles from the pier in Stanley. We asked at the information desk in front of the pier, and the woman behind the counter seemed a little skeptical of our intentions, but nonetheless provided us with a map and verified that a shore path covered much of the distance and the rest was on sidewalks or on gravel roads.

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Arriving amid splashes on the tender boat and an old waterfront pier

I searched the internet beforehand and wasn’t able to find directions, so I thought I’d summarize the path. Basically once you land at the main jetty, turn east (left as you walk on shore) and head down Crozier Place and along the shorefront on Ross Road East. Where the road begins to curve away from the water, a faint set of tire tracks continues. This is what you follow. It eventually turns from a vehicle path into just a walking track and follows the (slightly muddy) shore all the way to the single-lane bridge. Here we followed the road for a few minutes and then cut back to the shore on a path that headed down toward the wreck of the Lady Elizabeth. The trail follows the bay’s curve and then crosses over the top of a rock-topped hill where it rejoins the road for the final stretch to Gypsy Cove. The walk there took us about an hour and a half, though we had the wind behind us and good weather.

A lot of places around the world claim that their weather changes quickly, but in the Falklands the conditions really vary with astonishing speed. We arrived with light rain and a slight wind that got faster and colder throughout the hike. At Gypsy Cove it started to rain in large splashes. We got a lift back into Stanley as some people from the boat who had rented a vehicle took pity on us. That turned out to be good luck as the rain got heavier and continued for the next couple of hours. We had enough layers, rain coats, and an umbrella that would have gotten up back on our own, but it would have been a wet and chilly ninety minutes.

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On the way to Gypsy Cove – boats now bad at floating and a King penguin

We were lucky enough to spot other kinds of birds on our way to see the Magellanic penguins. I’m not a birder by any means, but based on signs and some fast internet searching, we passed a couple of night herons looking for lunch in the shallows, large turkey vultures, and a molting King penguin. The King had chosen a quietish beach on which to get his new set of feathers – we kept a decent distance for taking a few photos. Later we learned if they are annoyed by crowds they will try to go back in the water but will often die due to exposure. They also don’t eat as they molt and regrow feathers; they gain quite a bit of weight in advance and go into a semi-hibernation and if they are fed their body will go into organ failure.

There are several boats along the path that are sunken or beached and being slowly abraded by the elements. The largest and most-photographed is the Lady Elizabeth, which was stranded in Stanley decades ago after being declared unseaworthy and is now rusting in Whalebone Cove. Yorke Bay, also passed on the way, is full of hummocky sand dunes and mines places there by Argentinian soldiers during the Falklands War. The area is still off limits and has become something of a safe zone for animals.

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Rocky landscape, turkey vultures (I think), still-mined Yorke Bay

Gypsy Cove did provide penguins, though here you cannot get as close to them as you can at the large colonies in other parts of the islands. Still, we saw several Magellanic penguins right away, coming back ashore after hunting. With some patience, we saw at least a dozen others, including some that were on the slopes of the hill and much closer to the viewing areas. On land they seem out of place, like toddlers learning to navigate stairs for the first time, but the water was clear enough that we could also seem them swimming with graceful turns that confirm they are more at home in the water.

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Magellanic penguins in the water and on land (and one photobombing gull), local plant life

Back in the city (Stanley is technically a city even though it has just over 2,000 inhabitants), we saw the British war memorial, Christ Church Cathedral, the West Store Supermarket, and inside of the Globe Tavern. The Tavern was dry and had beer, and it was hard to argue with prices that weren’t that inflated despite the Islands’ lonely location. The store and bar even kindly take US dollars.

Stanley is quiet and very picturesque. It looks much like any other small town you might find in the US or England, through just about every driveway houses a Range Rover with bumpers covered in British and Falkland Islands flags. Many people also keep horses for riding and racing. I imagine it would be a very peaceful place to live, though any small town comes with pros and cons.

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British memorial to the Falkland War, Anglican Cathedral, inside the Globe Tavern

I want to say at little more about the West Store – it is one of the best-provisioned I’ve been inside in a long time, especially for its size. There were Poptarts (multiple flavors)! Doritos! Chocolate bars! Nutella! Thai noodle mixes! Hot sauces! Donuts! A decent selection of Margaret Atwood books! Of course, it serves as THE STORE for the islands, so it also has all the staples a grocery and drug store need. Based on its contents, I could eat quite happily in the Islands even though the weather might get wearing after a while.

The Coasts of Argentina and Uruguay

In a break from our usual kind of travel, we took a two-week cruise from Buenos Aires around Cape Horn and up to Santiago, Chile.  We covered the eastern coast of South America by going a little northward to Uruguay before heading southward to other cities in Argentina and the Falkland Islands (which I’ll talk about in a separate post).

Sailing away from Buenos Aires, a tug in the BA port, arriving in Montevideo

Our first stop was Montevideo, Uruguay, just a few hours across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. I’ve never been so quickly enchanted by a city as I was here. It has about a million and a half people people compared to BA’s 13 million and feels a lot homier. We walked through the touristy market and souvenir vendors next to the cruise dock to the more local areas of town. Part of the city lies on a peninsula ringed by a wide boardwalk which we followed right to one of the most popular beaches.

Montevideo street art and market

I don’t know if it was due to the summer weekend (large swaths of South America close for Saturday and Sunday) or because we had just been living in the center of a much larger city, but Montevideo’s streets felt remarkable quiet. The main shopping district and plazas were full of activity, but just a few blocks over it was peaceful. We came across a farmer’s market on a tree-lined street not too far away from the house we will be renting in another couple months. It even had a cheese truck, so I’ll be set. We spent the rest of the hot afternoon drinking light local beers at a parilla, envying the order of grilled meats the table next to us was devouring.

Ship graveyard in Montevideo, the hand in Punta del Este, PdE’s hotel- and boat-filled waterfront

A bit further up Uruguay’s coast is Punta del Este, the country’s main ocean-front resort.  This might have been where everyone from the capital was at – there are hundreds of hotels and sandy beaches forested by umbrellas, and all seemed filled to capacity. We were only there for a few hours and that was probably enough.  Once you’ve window shopped, eaten gelato (Freddo’s!), hung out at the beach, and seen the giant hand, there isn’t much else to do. Since it is built for tourists, prices tend to be higher as well. I will say that their Disco grocery caters to more diverse/tourist tastes than most, meaning that they had peanut butter and Nutella, and even some spicy sauces. Sadly, since Chile is strict about bringing food into the country, I didn’t even bother to stock up.

Puerto Madryn’s tideflats, light & clouds at sea

Now turning southward, we skipped all the way down the seaboard to Puerto Madryn, Argentina. This was the first opportunity to see penguins, though we didn’t pay for any of the tours that went to the colony.  There are a few hotels and a new shopping center near pier and some tour sales, but off the main street it felt like a small town. We stumbled onto La Abuela Dorotea, a shop offering wine and chocolate at cheap prices. Naturally we bought both. Aside from this little bit of purchasing, we walked along the tide flats. The beach here has a very shallow incline and low tide makes it grow hundreds of meters wider. The space gets turned into impromptu sports fields and a running track. It also means that the pier has to be more than a kilometer long to reach deep enough water for the cruise ship to dock.

Ushuaia claims the end of the world and the Malvinas, view from the top of town

At the very bottom of Argentina is Ushuaia, the traditional jumping-off point for Antarctic expeditions. The main pier was full of other cruises, most heading south at very high prices. Right outside the port and along the waterfront are signs asserting Argentina’s claim to the Falklands, here called the Islas Malvinas.  A memorial to the 1982 war features a map of the islands in cutout, as though missing from their map. Despite these claims, we heard the Falklands described as more English than England, a claim that certainly held up while we were there. 

The town is surrounded by the Martial Mountains, a welcome relief after months of flat terrain. A couple subdivisions even splash up the nearest slopes.  We worked our way up a maze of staircases until our path upward was blocked by an large, angry looking dog and we decided our current view was good enough. Clouds and fog are pretty much the daily standard, so only the closest mountains occasionally popped into view, their summits white with relatively fresh snow. Another good vista is from the waterfront near the Aeroclub.  Our landscape-looking options pretty much complete, and since ship drinking is expensive, we searched out a local bar and thankfully ended up at Klobber. Turned out they weren’t technically open yet, meaning the kitchen was closed, but they were more than willing to pour us their beers. The father and son running the pub were also the brewers, working out of Rio Grande. Their stout is excellent – the best we’ve had in Latin America. With some alcohol behind us, we made our way back to the ship so we could head into Chile. 

Boat art, Falklands War memorial, Klobber Beer, it’s a long way from where we’d been