Thursday, March 29, 2012



We docked in Buenos Aires on Valentine's Day. The full (English) name of the city is "City of Our Lady Holy Mary of the Fair Winds" which probably won't fit on a soccer jersey. Buenos Aires is a leafy city the size of Chicago with a busy port, broad boulevards and many statues.

Our immediate mission there was to seek out the statue of Luis Maria Drago (1858-1921) who was an ancestor of Maria A., a friend of ours. We looked up his bio and learned that a doctrine was named after him. Essentially, as a jurist and the Argentine Foreign Minister, he declared, in response to a French and German naval blockade of Venezuela, that a foreign power could not, by armed intervention, force American republics to pay their debts, but rather they had to seek recourse through local courts. I'm guessing that the result of that doctrine was that European powers would no longer loan Argentina money, and maybe that accounted for the relative poverty of most Latin American countries. In any case, we found a picture of Drago's statue on the Internet, along with a general location, but unfortunately, our guide told us it would not going to be on our route.

On this midsummer day, we enjoyed the warm and humid weather. Along the wide boulevards, most people live in modern high rise apartment complexes, many of which show signs of wear. Unlike other Latin capitals, B.A. is not known for Spanish colonial architecture because it did not become a prominent city until the mid 19th Century, after the Spaniards left. Thus, the architecture was heavily influenced by French and Italian, but not Spanish, cultures.

The climate was more temperate than the North, and it was uneconomic for the colonial powers to import African labor for sugar cane as they did in Brazil and Columbia. B.A. developed its own unique culture. The portenos (citizens of B.A.) have achieved world renown for two things--tango and futbol (soccer), both of which require fancy footwork.

The Argentines have a national obsession about one other thing--the Falkland Islands which they call the Malvinas. All over the city one finds hand painted signs and graffiti with slogans like "Falklands are Malvinas. They were, are and will be Argentine." Also, "Malvinas are not English, they are Argentine." The slogans are written in Spanish, not generally spoken in the Falklands. When meeting an Argentine, anywhere in the country, it's probably best to avoid that subject completely.

Unlike most other cities, the major tourist attraction in B.A. is Recoleta Cemetery, located in the fashionable Recoleta neighborhood, near the zoo. In that cemetery, people line up to photograph the mausoleum of Eva Duarte Peron who is both revered and reviled by the Argentines. It's probably 50-50. Most tourists are familiar with the Broadway play Evita, and so they want to visit the scene. Recoleta Cemetery is like a small city--full of above ground mausoleums which are solidly built, better than most houses. Evita's body disappeared for 16 years, but now it is buried under several feet of concrete to prevent it from slipping away again.

We visited the famous Boca neighborhood which was originally settled by Italians who, like Americans, moved away to better neighborhoods as they prospered. The word "boca" means "mouth", and it was so named because it is situated near the mouth of the river. The city is built in the tidal estuary of the Plate River which is known for its muddy brown water. I'm not sure where the city obtains its water supply, but I was careful to drink bottled water. Boca is notable as the birthplace of the tango, the national dance.

Tango is an art form which originated about 100 years ago in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Tango songs feature sensual lyrics and body movements which attracted young males of that era, years before Elvis. Tango reminds me of a land version of synchronized swimming, as the performers dance as one. The dance became a worldwide phenomenon when a porteno named Carlos Gardel recorded a song called Mi Noche Triste (My Sad Night) which made him a superstar throughout Latin America. Gardel was killed in a plane crash in 1935 but, like Elvis, his likeness with his trademark fedora and fine clothes is seen all over town. His influence is reflected in the fact that Argentines love to dress in fine clothes and stroll down the boulevards and malls to see and be seen.

The vibrant culture of Boca is expressed in the colorful buildings in reds, greens and yellows. Street painters have created beautiful murals on the walls, many of which have revolutionary themes. Tourists love to soak up the culture there. I observed a large man dressed in a bright yellow suit and tie with a yellow hat who appeared to be the street boss. Many young local ladies approached us on the street to sell items, but it wasn't clear to me what they were selling. In any event, they were constantly waiting on this gentleman who was dispensing orders or advice. I wasn't about to ask too many questions.

For lunch we crowded into La Ventana Restaurant for a dinner and show. It was a large room with a stained glass ceiling. The tables were small and the round wooden chairs were uncomfortable. However, the food was excellent. We had large, thick prime steaks for which Argentina is so famous. Argentines are known for eating copious quantities of meat, and this restaurant is typical. The local red Malbec wine was smooth and excellent. For the appetizer, they served empenadas which are ground veal encased in dough. In the U.P. of Michigan, they call this popular dish pasties. The dessert was a delicious crepe of dulce de leche.

After we stuffed ourselves, the show began. The entertainers included a 9 piece orchestra, 10 dancers, a bolador and 2 singers. In several of the sets, the dancers danced the tango with graceful improvisational moves. The bolador swung the 2 balls on the strings. The singers has fine voices. The entertainment was terrific, but it lasted about an hour too long. We had 500 people in a room sitting in uncomfortable chairs and it was getting stuffy in there. Fortunately, I was able to walk around without being too rude.

We returned to the Star Princess to celebrate Valentine's Day and renew our wedding vows in a mass ceremony. For Dianne and me, it was 25 years of bliss.


We sailed across the Rio de la Plata 140 miles or so to Uruguay which is the smallest Hispanic country in South America. The River Plate is about 100 miles wide at this point, which is wider than Lake Michigan. The capital city, Montevideo, is named after a 450 foot mountain (Cerro de Montevideo) which looms up behind the city. It is crowned with a fortress. As legend has it, the city was named by a Portuguese sailor who sighted it and called out "Monte vejo eu" ("I see a mountain"). There are several other stories of how the city got its name, but this one was the most colorful.

Montevideo is a city of 1.8 million people in a country with a total population of only 3.5 million. The city is clean and tidy for a large city with many skyscrapers. As in Buenos Aires, most of the people live in high rise apartment complexes. The fortunate ones live on the Rambla, the coastal avenue flanked by luxury high rises. The iconic ANTEL Telecommunications Tower, designed by Carlos Ott, is Uruguay's tallest building at 517 feet, and bears a resemblance to the Burj in Dubai, the world's tallest building.

At the harbor is the monument to the Graf Spee, a German battleship which was sunk in Montevideo Harbor at the beginning of World War II. The full story is a little more interesting. The Admiral Graf Spee was deployed to the South Atlantic in early 1939, before World War II broke out. Between September and December, 1939, it sank 9 allied merchant ships before 3 British cruisers confronted it at which became known as the Battle of River Plate. All the ships in the the battle were damaged, and the Graf Spee was forced to put into port in Montevideo, a neutral port. At that point, it gets better. The British deliberately broadcast a message on a frequency that they knew the Germans were monitoring. The message convinced the commander of the Graf Spee that a superior British force was quickly approaching to sink it. The actual British force was over 3000 miles away. The German commander conferred with his superiors and the decision was made to destroy the sensitive equipment and scuttle the ship. The sunken ship is still there. The German commander shot himself the next day.

Most of Uruguay, like neighboring Argentina, is pampas (grasslands) which are ideal for growing wheat and other grains and also cattle ranching. Indeed, the South American gauchos (cowboys) developed their culture in Uruguay in the 1700's. They quickly learned to round up wild horses and cattle, living off the land in their nomadic lifestyle. The term gaucho comes from the Indian word for orphan.

We took a motor coach about 50 miles outside of Montevideo to La Rabida, a family run 3500 acre estancia (ranch) which derives a nice income catering to greenhorn tourists. The ranch grows corn and soybeans as well as raising horses, sheep and cattle. They even raise nandu (rhea birds), large flightless birds resembling ostriches. The livestock are tended by gauchos.

Underlying most of the country is a large aquifer, the Raigon Aquifer, which provides fresh, sweet, life giving water which we found good to drink. The water is called el oro azul (the blue gold). No bottled water here!

Our Uruguayan hosts treated us to a picnic, or barbecue at the ranch. They collect some vintage vehicles like a horse drawn carriage, a Model A Ford and a Ford truck, both from the same era. They are operable, but we didn't ride in them. Instead our hosts took our group on a hayride on a tractor drawn wooden wagon. Each wagon carried about 20 of us. We sat on bales of hay. They took us for a mile or so down to the River Plate which, as I mentioned before, is very wide and you can't see the other side. It has a sandy beach and the locals often swim there. When we got back to the main buildings, the ranch hands were busy barbecuing asado beef, sausage, chicken and lamb. They even cooked kidneys and sweetbreads, which, by the way, tasted good. As in Argentina, we found the beef to be outstanding.

I went horseback riding and then horse drawn skin surfing, a strange sport in which a horse gallops away, dragging a large cowhide with a person on it. The cowhide slides easily on the grassy barnyard with little friction and it's a fun ride. You must hold on tightly or you'll roll off. I enjoyed it, but I could feel every bump in the pasture. Compare it to a flying carpet except it's on the ground.

We did other dude ranch things like milking a cow and shearing sheep. We were entertained by a native folk dancing troupe with Uruguayan folk music. A fun and relaxing afternoon!

NEXT Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janiero--Switching over to Portuguese


Wednesday, March 21, 2012


We steamed toward Stanley, a town of about 1500 people. It is the only city or town in the whole country. The Falklands are comprised of 200 islands covering an area a little smaller than Connecticut with less than 3000 people. They are located about 375 miles east of the South American coast. The fiercely patriotic but friendly inhabitants used to be called "Kelpers" after the seaweed commonly found here. Now they are called "islanders". Most of the people are sheep farmers. The Falklands motto is "desire the right" which they feel sounds better than e pluribus unum. Desire was the ship on which John Davis discovered the islands in 1592.

The islands were named after Anthony Cary, Viscount Falkland, who was England's First Lord of the Admiralty when the islands were first settled in the 1690's. The name "Falkland" comes from Falkland Palace in County Fife, Scotland, where the Scottish monarchs lived. For what it's worth, the famed diarist Samuel Pepys who was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty had a low opinion of Viscount Falkland's abilities. But he was in the right place at the right time.

The French, the Spaniards and even the Argentines (after the Spanish were kicked out in 1821) also had short lived settlements in the islands. All failed, and the islands were uninhabited when the British settled in for good in 1833.

We approached the harbor and were impressed by the brightly painted houses with color roofs. From the dock we could see several pubs and gift shops. There are no trees. However, there are minefields left over from the 1982 war with Argentina. For that reason, you probably don't want to roam the countryside without a guide. In Argentina, people are still very sensitive about the Falkland Islands which they call the Malvinas. The Malvinas were actually named by the French settlers who had originally come from the city of Malo. If you buy a Falklands t-shirt or hat, it's not a good idea to wear it in Buenos Aires. They may shoot at you there.

In any event, the Falklands have a colorful coat of arms with a Union Jack and a sheep. Stanley has an airport, but you can't fly directly to Argentina from there. You have to fly to Chile first. At first glance, one wouldn't think these island are worth fighting over, but the possibility of commercial quantities of oil, as well as the rich fishing grounds could make them valuable in the future.

Stanley was founded in 1845 and named after the British Colonial Secretary Geoffrey Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby. Downtown Stanley covers a few blocks around the harbor. Despite what you hear in Argentina, it is definitely a British town. Argentina may claim the islands, but they have no presence here, and the people to a man consider themselves British. In fact, Prince William was here the same time we were. He serves in the British Navy, but the base is on the other side of the island, and we didn't see him. Unless he walks around with a crown on his head, I probably wouldn't recognize him anyway. Politically, the islanders would be conservative Republicans if they had such a party here.

The islands are pretty much self sufficient, but obviously are underpopulated. There is no unemployment, and many people work 2 or 3 jobs. Certain trades and occupations are needed here, and the government advertises for them within the British Commonwealth. The government pays for college for Falklands kids who achieve good grades, but they have to study something that would be useful in the Falklands. Philosophy and social work are probably out. As far as I could tell, and I looked it up, there are no lawyers in town other than the Attorney General who was sent from England. There is a small hospital, however.

For lunch, we had a choice of pubs like Miller's Bar and Deano's Bar, but we stopped in the Globe Tavern for fish and chips with ale. The tavern was richly adorned with Union Jacks on the ceiling, flags from the various British ships which visited the islands. The tavern even had a few slot machines. Obviously they are relying on tourism because if they had to rely on the locals, they would soon be out of business.

The climate in the Falklands is maritime. The summer weather is cool and damp, and the winter is about the same. It snows here, but in recent years, it has been light. It either rains or snows about 250 days per year, on the average. It's very windy, and the sun doesn't come out much. It's never been warmer than 75F or colder than 12F.

The treeless land is covered by granite outcroppings which makes traditional farming other than sheep herding, iffy. Large boulders are strewn all over the countryside, partly covered by tall grass. They were probably deposited by glaciers. We saw many peat bogs. They used to burn the peat for fuel in smoky fires. They even have a golf course, but we didn't visit it. The native diddle dee berries grow wild on bushes. The locals make these bittersweet red berries into diddle dee jam, popular with tourists.

Our friendly and garrulous driver, Michael G. is a sixth generation farmer and sheep herder. We met his mother and father also. The farms here are very large. The G. family's farm covers 13,000 acres. Michael's ancestor came to the Falklands from England in 1850. He had booked passage on a ship to Australia, but the ship broke a rib just before sailing (Ships were wooden in those days.) He went to other ships in the harbor, but none were going to Australia. However, one was headed for the Falklands, and he had to settle for that.

His ancestor on his mother's side, a Kelper, was engaged to a woman in England. He told her that after they married, they would be moving to the Falklands. Her reply was "no freaking way"! However, her sister piped up, "I'll go!". And Michael is here today.

We did visit a large colony of penguins at Bluff Cove. Several species of penguins live in close proximity to each other. The penguin rookery is far from Stanley, and the highway is paved for the most part, but to get there, you have to drive, off road, through peat bogs, giant holes that would swallow a car, and ford a stream. A normal car would break down, but the guides drove us in 4-wheel drive Range Rovers. This was like taking a roller coaster ride. I sat in the front seat, so I could see every bump that was coming.

About 100 yards inland from the beach at Bluff Cove, Michael's family operates a cafe (pronounced "caff") called the Sea Cabbage Cafe. The whole family works in the business. Gourmet food it's not, but they serve coffee, tea and freshly baked pastries.

The penguins we saw were Gentoo and King penguins. The King penguins are black and white but have an orange spot around their necks. The Gentoos are just black and white. They all appear to get along together. As we previously saw in Isla Magdalena in Chile, the penguins are social animals with interesting rituals. They have no fear of humans, and although their area is marked off with little flags, the penguins pay no attention to them. There are rangers to answer questions, protect the penguins and prevent humans from scaring them. The penguins pose for pictures, and they'll approach you if you are still. The bottom line here is that there are many times more penguins and sheep than there are people in this stark but beautiful country.

NEXT: Buenos Aires and Montevideo--European influenced capitals.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012



After three days at sea, we were happy to pull into port. We had reached Tierra del Fuego, at the Southern tip of South America. This is an island, shared by Chile and Argentina. Although the two countries are neighbors, sharing thousands of miles of common border, they have not always had good relations. As recently as 1978, the two squared off and laid mines. Only the intervention of Pope John Paul II averted a war. The dispute was about three islands in the Beagle Channel which were awarded to Chile by an international tribunal. Argentina didn't take that well. Peace didn't reign until the fall of the Argentine junta after the Falklands War.

We landed in Punta Arenas (Sands Point) Chile, the Southernmost large city in the world. Punta Arenas has a population of about 131,000. They get a lot of rain, but usually it is just light showers. This was a major seaport until 1914 when the Panama Canal was built. Then ships just stopped coming here. They got a boost in 1940 when oil was discovered, and infrastructure was built, but today the main industry is tourism. The locals are somehow proud that there is no McDonalds' or other fast food restaurants. Everything here is named after Magellan, even the Magallanes Unimarc supermarket which we visited.

The city is built around a main park, Plaza de Armas which has a market where natives sell their handicrafts to the tourists. Dianne was able to negotiate a good price and purchased a fine fur hat and scarves. A few feet away, in the same park is a large statue of Magellan. The legend goes that if you rub the foot of the statue, you will return to Punta Arenas. I must have done so back in 1998, because here I was again--in the same park. I was careful not to touch it this time.

We booked a 2 hour ferry ride each way to Isla Magdelena to see the penguin and seabird rookery. Only 2 people live on this windswept island--basically to take care of the penguins and keep poachers out, and also to operate the lighthouse. The Magellanic penguins are small--about 2 feet tall, black and white (!) and very cute. Humans are allowed to roam the island but must stay on the path behind the roped off area. The penguins don't have any such restrictions, and they crossed in front of us many times. We were warned that if we crossed over the ropes, we might be fined or shot. Actually, the bigger problem would be breaking a leg in the many penguin burrows scattered around the island.

Wouldn't you know it, but Dianne's glove blew away in the gale force wind, right into the penguin area. We couldn't coax a penguin to retrieve the glove. Finally, our Danish friend, Regitze jumped the rope and quickly retrieved the glove. Nothing happened to her. No cami dudes, no black ops, nothing!

We observed the penguins for quite some time. Although they don't have Facebook yet, they appear to have a complicated social structure and they go through elaborate rituals. For example, the mother penguin waddles (runs) down to the water to search for food. The young penguin runs behind her in lockstep as if he were chasing her. Meanwhile, the male adult penguins sit on the eggs.

The weather, on this midsummer day was awful. It was cold and windy, perfect penguin weather. There are no trees to slow down the wind. It is 1/2 mile uphill to the lighthouse, against the wind, both ways. The winds essentially blow around the world without touching land, so they're pretty strong by the time they get here. The only comparable weather I've seen was Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, which is considered the windiest place in the world. I'm from Chicago, the Windy City, and I know wind, but this is crazy. It was even worse when we got to Cape Horn.

The next day, in the early morning hours, we sailed through the Straits of Magellan, and the Beagle Channel, taking in the beautiful and majestic glaciers. We set the alarm for 6 A.M. so as not to miss this magnificent scenery. We had a room with a balcony. The only problem was that our room was on the starboard (right) side of the ship, and the glaciers were on the port side. To view them, we had to go up to the top deck of the ship. Although it was cold, I couldn't wear a hat because it would blow away in the gale winds.

We took some spectacular shots of the glaciers which by and large are named after European countries. We saw the Espana Glacier, the Romanche Glacier, the Alemania Glacier, the Francia Glacier, the Italia Glacier and the Holanda Glacier. These glaciers are part of the Cordillera Darwin, a 1000 square mile mountain range mantled with a large ice field which stretches for about 50 miles along the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego Island. The highest point is Mount Darwin, named after Charles Darwin, the evolution guy born on Lincoln's Birthday, whose ship, the HMS Beagle gave its name to the channel. The HMS Beagle, with Darwin aboard, spent several years around 1831, charting the coastlines while Darwin studied the flora and fauna.


Our cruise continued on, a couple of hundred miles to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. It is a city of 80,000 perched on the shore and a hillside backed by snow capped mountains. On this day, February 9th, three cruise ships were docked in the port. The souvenir stores were doing a brisk business, particularly in onyx which is a plentiful stone around Ushuaia.

It was midsummer, and we were blessed with sunny mild weather. The temperature was about 15C (60F) although they had had a snowstorm 3 days before, according to our guide. Our tour guide was a lady who lived in New Jersey for many years and moved back to be with her family in Argentina. She spoke American English and was very informative.

The main industry in Ushuaia is outfitting Antarctic expeditions and eco-tourism. Originally the city was built to house a penal colony in the nearby mountains, but that closed many years ago. Now the penal colony is a popular tourist attraction, and you get up there on a small narrow gauge train, similar to what you'd see in an amusement park. We rode that train several years ago when we visited. Although I like old trains, there was no need to repeat that experience.

Instead, we took a bus tour through Tierra del Fuego National Park and walked around the beautiful Lago Roca (Lake Roca) on the Chile-Argentina border. We visited the end of Route 3, the Pan American Highway. You can pretty much drive the length of it and many people do, even on bicycles, but it takes awhile. The trip to Fairbanks, Alaska is about 11,000 miles. A large sign marks the end of the line. In fact, the city's motto is "fin del mundo" which means "end of the world".


We set out for Cape Horn which in Spanish is known as "Cabo de Hornos", which literally means "Cape of Ovens". Cape Horn was named in 1616 by the Dutch discoverer, Willem Schouten after his home town of Hoorn in the Netherlands--actually his voyage was financed by the merchants of Hoorn. His ship, also called the Hoorn, was wrecked in the voyage, and he had to complete the trip on the sister ship, the Eendracht.

We arrived the following morning at Cape Horn, 91 miles south of Ushuaia. We woke up at 7:15 to a partly cloudy day, unusual in this area. We went up to the top deck for some photo opportunities. I wore sandals and almost froze my toes off. The winds appeared to be close to 100 mph, and Dianne had to hang on to the mast to not blow away. We had been to Cape Horn several years ago, but it was enshrouded in fog, and we didn't get a good look at it. This time we did.

It consists of some rocky outcroppings and a 1500 foot mountain on which Chile maintains a small military base. There are no trees. The stark scenery is quite beautiful. For many tourists, it's something to check off on their bucket list, but it's about as isolated as one can get.

For yachtsmen, however, Cape Horn is the ultimate challenge, the yachting equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest, because of strong winds and currents, large waves as high as 100 feet, and even icebergs. This is the graveyard of sailing ships, and traditionally, sailors who rounded the Horn were entitled to wear one gold hooped earring in the left ear (the one facing the Horn on an Eastbound passage), and also get a tattoo of a full sailing ship.

We felt relatively safe on the gigantic Star Princess, although the ride is bumpy. Many passengers got seasick, but I was invigorated in the fresh air, eager for our next adventure.