The Andes, the beaches, Buenos Aires and Rio: in the past three decades South America has gone from politically calamitous pariah to become a firm fixture on the international tourist circuit. The sheer natural diversity of the continent’s interior – its thriving cities and natural wonders – means that the closest most of the continent’s 100 million annual international visitors get to the water, is to one of the multitude of dream beaches that shore up this vast continental coastline.
And this is a pity. Sandwiched by the world’s two great oceans, a ragged stretch of Caribbean to the north, and Antarctica and the furious fifties to the south, cruises in this great southern continent are nothing if not epic. Add to this the fact that South America is shelled out by the largest river basin on earth, and you have a continent that, though not yet a must-stop on transcontinental cruises, soon will be.
Though the continent is studded with great cruise ports – Cartagena, Recife, Buenos Aires and Lima all vie with the great European coastal cities in terms of port facilities – this is no Mediterranean, at least not yet. Many of the largest cruise ships that ply the southern oceans are transcontinental – meaning that if your type of cruise is a floating five star Colossus then you’re as likely to embark in Miami or Southampton as Montevideo or Santiago. That said, as interest in the continent grows, fly cruising (jetting in to sail out) is beginning to boom, cutting down on days spent at sea, and etching out more time for excursions.
Some of the continent’s destinations, however, simply cannot be done from the loftiest suite of a leviathan. The Galapagos Islands and the Amazon river, while not infrequently included as part of an extended continental cruise, are much better done locally and in smaller vessels: wildlife will soon scram at the sight of a party of 2,000 people advancing. Local options for both of these are numerous and often spectacular. Indeed, it is among local operators that some of the most idiosyncratic and best experiences on this continent can be found.
Whether you’re on a budget, or looking to blow the kid’s inheritance, South America is where the future of cruising can be found.
Round the top: South America’s Caribbean coast
With the exception of Colombia’s Cartagena, South America’s stretch of the Caribbean is not much on the map for cruisers. Venezuela doesn’t look too promising a destination for the foreseeable future (which is a shame, as it’s a member of the megafauna group of countries with dense biodiversity and great natural beauty), and the Guianas are yet to find a footing on most cruise itineraries. As a result, cruises around the top of the South American continent are sparse, but benefit from having to pass through the majestic Panama Canal (which surely must be a bucket-list tick).
Cruises starting in Bridgetown and ending in Lima though infrequent are recommended, one of the highlights being the chance to stop off at the little-visited Colombia Pacific coast, where the jungle meets the surf in some of South America’s most dramatic tropical coastal scenery. Hapag-Lloyd’s bilingual English/German cruise is one of the best to book for this route.
Round the bottom: the Patagonian pleasure loop
Bruce Chatwin might have put Patagonia on the map for the English-speaking world, but Europeans have been flocking to this temperate stretch of sweeping farmland and soaring peaks for centuries. The vast plains of Argentine Patagonia, home to some of the world’s loneliest roads and most remote settlements, are cowboy country. Here cotton and beef are the mainstays of the economy and European communities persist in seeming insolation from the rest of the world: this is one of the few places outside Wales in which Welsh is spoken. To the south, and on the Chilean side, the Andes reach their peak and, whipped by the fierce winter weather, form majestic towers, some of the most stunning of which can be found in Torres del Paine National Park.
The coastline of southern South America is nothing if not dramatic, and is saddled with the names of nautical heroics. Península Valdés off the central Argentine coast is home to populations of humpbacks and southern right whales, and dense colonies of penguins and elephant seal. Ushuaia – the world’s top cruise port for Antarctica, Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle and Magellan Channels and Cape Horn – marks the end of the southern world, where the mountains merge with the snowmelt before dropping off into the vast dark depths of the southern ocean. Embarking from either Montevideo or Buenos Aires each southern summer – you would not want to be cruising these stretches of water come winter – cruises here often nip to the nearby Falklands before heading up the dazzling fjords of the Chilean coast and coming to a halt in either Santiago or Lima.
Holland America, Viking Ocean Cruises and Fred Olsen Cruise Liners all offer variations on a similar, sumptuous, theme. Navimag, the classic backpacker cruise through the fjords of southern Chile, is the best budget option.
The Pacific coast: where the mountains meet the surf
Cruising the Pacific coast of South America gives you a ringside seat to the continent’s most spectacular coastal scenery. Here, ice-capped peaks of the Andes meet the sea in jungle-clad cliffs that sweep into some of the best surfing spots in the world. Blue whales bubble up from the depths, albatrosses sail overhead, and the region’s renowned remote islands – Galapagos and Easter – offer a glimpse of what happens when life persists in almost total isolation from the rest of the world.
Pacific journeys tend to be epic and dramatic, less about cities and more about the natural beauty of this captivating continent. Classic routes tend to be either top down (Holland America offers a great half-continent, departing from Santiago and, via the Panama Canal, disembarking at Fort Lauderdale, Florida), or bottom up (Silversea departs Ushuaia for Valparaiso). Regent Seven Seas does the entire stretch and more, departing Los Angeles and arriving 38 days later after looping past Cape Horn in Buenos Aires.
While it’s possible to combine the coastline with some of the remote islands, the best cruises do one or the other but not both. Sailing into the Galapagos Islands from the seventh floor deck along with a thousand other people is no way to do these islands justice. Galapagos cruises are best when they are small and start in situ: Responsible Travel boast an excellent selection of locally-run vessels that depart frequently – flying from mainland Ecuador into one of the two airports in the Galapagos. Though most people fly in and out of Easter Island, Regent Seven Seas offers an epic Polynesian adventure which stops off at Easter Island after sailing around French Polynesia, before making its way to Lima, Peru.
The Atlantic coast: for the cities of the south
The Atlantic coast, while generally less dramatic than its Pacific counterpart, is home to many of the great South American cities and has a monopoly on its best beaches. São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Buenos Aires are among the legendary haunts and firm fixtures on the Atlantic-side cruise itineraries that throng with life, and culture and music and art.
Cruises on the Atlantic also need not require weeks at sea: the most popular South American route between Rio and Buenos Aires, taking in Sao Paulo, the upmarket Uruguayan beach resort of Punta del Este, and Montevideo can be crammed into eight days with Azmara Club Cruises, or 10 with a slightly expanded itinerary from Silversea.
Those with more time, a bigger budget, and the desire to see more of the dazzling coastline of Brazil will want to book onto Hapag-Lloyd’s bilingual English/German awe-inspiring Buenos Aires to Belem. A similar itinerary, but with an epic ocean crossing, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines starts in Southampton following in the footsteps of the Portuguese empire, stopping off at Lisbon, Madeira, Cape Verde before making landfall in Salvador before continuing its way down the coast to Buenos Aires.
The southern South American Atlantic is likely top of the list for all those fed on the nautical adventures of some of the world’s greatest explorers – many of whom found fame rounding Cape Horn. The coast of Argentina is also one of the few places in the world where the oceans are still teaming with life, large populations of plankton providing the foundation for significant fish stocks and colonies of whale, seal, penguins.
One of the best cruises in this region is with Hapag-Lloyd, starting in Montevideo and moving straight on to Península Valdés, the Falklands, and Punta Arenas (in Chile) before winding up in Ushuaia. Sadly, the cruise is in German, but boasts a fluent English-speaking crew.
One of the least-travelled and more exciting transatlantic routes is run by Ponant with National Geographic. Starting in Recife, the cruise heads first to the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, bucolic tropical Brazilian islands drenched with endemic animal and plant life, the Atlantic answer to the Galapagos. From there it is transatlantic to the wild islands off the coast of Guinea Bissau before disembarking in Dakar, Senegal. As with all cruises partnering with National Geographic Expeditions, the cruise is replete with photographic experts and naturalists who can help you frame that perfect shot.
Upriver: entering Amazonia
Some say it is the Nile: the desert river that reputedly gave birth to Western civilization. The magic of the Mississippi is for most undeniable. But, as anyone who has ever cruised the Amazon will tell you, there is nothing quite like sailing on this superlative stretch of water drawn from a jungle the size of Australia.
Amazon river cruises can be roughly divided into two kinds: those that motor up from the mouth, and those that sail down from nearer the source. The former accommodate transatlantic vessels (at its mouth, the Amazon is five times wider than parts of the English Channel) and get as far as the Brazilian Amazonian port city of Manaus. While this can be a great way to take in the vastness of the river itself, to see the wildlife for which this region is famed, passengers will have to decant into smaller motorised canoes to navigate the igarapés, small channels in the Amazon backwaters which bring you much closer to the life of the jungle.
Cruise and Maritime offer a loop from London Tilbury, through Rotterdam, Portugal, Madeira and Cape Verde before heading straight up the Amazon, stopping at various ports before reaching Manaus. The return journey curls into the Caribbean, stopping off at French Guiana, Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia and Antigua and Barbuda before heading back to the big smoke.
Another popular loop is run by Oceania Cruises departing from Miami and heading down the Lesser Antilles before striking west up the Amazon to Manaus. Those wanting to combine the Amazon with a little more of the South American Atlantic coast will want to book onto Seabourn’s Brazilian adventure, which departs Buenos Aires stopping off at several Brazilian coastal cities before making its way to Manaus.
Smaller ships can be the best means by which to ply these epic waters, and are able to sail up Amazon river tributaries rich with wildlife and sparse when it comes to other tourist traffic. Some of the best depart the Peruvian city of Iquitos. The three ships in the Delfin fleet – the first Relais & Châteaux cruises in the world – and Aqua Expedition’s Aria Amazon are among the most sumptuous (and pricey) taking the well-heeled on cruises lasting between three and seven nights to the biodiversity-packed Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria. Ecuador’s Anakonda sails into the awe-inspiring Parque Nacional Yasuní: possibly the best cruise to be had on the river.
Complete loop: circling the southern continent
For some, seeing only a relatively small section of this vast continent’s coastline is like asking for the bill after the starter. For these, only a complete loop will do.
Most complete loop cruises differ little when it comes to itinerary. But if you are going to spend this long aboard then you need to ensure you’re on the right ship. P&O’s Aurora is a classic British cruise ship and annually makes the voyage from Southampton across the Atlantic, down to Cape Horn and then back up the Pacific coast, through the Panama Canal for a classic Caribbean adventure before making once again for British shores.
Cunard’s epic 78-night adventure on the Queen Victoria departs Southampton each January and follows a similar itinerary to the Aurora, but with an added sail up the Amazon to Manaus in possibly the grandest way to see this continent from the sea.