If it’s Tuesday, this must be Argentina…

Five Countries, 26 days, 9 planes, 1 boat and 44 travelling companions – a recipe for disaster or a cracking good holiday?

It all seemed like a good idea back in the New Year of 2023 when we first saw the trip advertised – a fully-organised tour of South America with all the highlights conquered in one go.

Fast forward fourteen months and there’s a packing dilemma. How to fit suitable clothing for exploring an entire continent with a variation in temperature from 30 degrees hot to zero degrees cold into 23 kgs worth of luggage. Part of the adventure included a twelve night cruise, but cocktail wear was the first thing to be discarded. Fortunately we were sailing with Celebrity Cruises and me and Mr T have sailed Celebrity before. No tuxedo required. The only jacket Mr T would need would be a warm snuggly waterproof thing for circumnavigating Cape Horn.

The day arrived and flight number one involved a short hop from Heathrow to Charles de Gaulle in Paris, where there was an unfortunate incident involving the tiled floor of the airport and my bottle of Bachs Rescue Remedy. I do not fly without Bachs Rescue Remedy in my hand luggage – or at least I didn’t. Now I had to complete another eight flights without it. Was this an omen? Clearly not because three films, a cat nap and some of the worst airplane food I’ve ever eaten later, we landed safely in Rio de Janeiro.

Rio was everything I expected it to be.  Copacabana beach teemed with bronzed bodies  jogging up and down in minimalist sportswear.

We took a tour to the statue of Christ the Redeemer, squeezed into tight lines with hundreds of other hot sweaty tourists. It was very much a case of tick the box and get me out of here. In the afternoon we took the cable car to the quieter Sugar Loaf mountain for more fantastic views of the city and the circling vultures and frigate birds, but as dusk fell our guide refused to let us off the coach to venture into the city centre. It wasn’t safe, he warned. In any case, we had an early morning pick up in preparation for the next leg of our journey…

Early morning pick ups were soon to become a recurring theme on this trip.  Flight number three was to Izuagu waterfalls in Brazil. I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of Izuagu before booking. Niagara, Victoria, Rainbow Falls, heard all about them, but Izuagu – the largest waterfall system in the world? Why are they not more famous? Izuagu Falls are amazing, spectacular, a total wow, no several wows moment – a system of over 250 waterfalls stretching for 2.7 km hidden in the depths of the rain forest. Add into the mix monkeys, coatimundis, iguanas and toucans…yes, more wows.

We spent one night on the Brazilian side of the Falls in Foz do Iguaçu and two nights on the Argentinian side at Puerto Iguazú, a lively border town where every other shop sells duty free liquor and gallon sized jars of olives. It was perfectly safe to venture out after dark in Argentina our guide assured us so we did – off to a local restaurant to sample a steak and a glass of Malbec, because it would have been rude not to.

We’d been warned about mosquitoes in Iguazu, but we saw none. That was because they’d all flown down to Buenos Aires ahead of us. We encountered more mozzies in our city centre hotel lobby than in three days in the rain forest. A whistle stop tour of the city’s top spots (and yes Eva Peron’s grave is one of them), followed by an evening tango show and we were starting to bond with our fellow travellers. There were 44 of us in our tour group from all walks of life, from all corners of the UK. At the dinner before the tango show we sat next to a couple who used to live in Nottingham. Our daughter lives in Nottingham we said. Turns out the guy used to play squash with her father-in-law. It really is a small world, although South America itself is very big, and we still had three countries to go…

Eva Peron’s grave

We boarded our cruise ship the next morning. At last a chance to unwind, and more importantly, unpack. Me & Mr T have a few cruises under our belt, but we were novices compared to others in our group. Personally, I was impressed with the facilities and entertainment on board the Celebrity Eclipse. Our first port of call was a short hop across the River Plate to Montevideo in Uruguay, which seemed a pleasant enough place to stroll around, before heading to the upmarket resort of Punte Del Este – the “Monaco of the South” apparently. Umm. I’ve been to Monaco. Not sure about that one.

After that we had a sea day and our first encounter with the Eclipse resident naturalist, Milos, a man who spends 11 months of the year sailing with Celebrity delivering talks. Eleven months on a cruise ship? He had to be mad, and he was, in a very congenial sort of way. No sooner had he given his first lecture than right on cue little dolphins jumped through the waves along side the ship. Our next stop was Puerto Madryn in Argentina where we took an excursion to the UNESCO world heritage site of the Valdes Peninsula, a 3000 square metre nature reserve in the hope of spotting the odd Orca or two gliding along the coast. And how lucky we were. We arrived after a two hour coach journey for our two hour slot of whale watching and within fifteen minutes spotted a pod of half a dozen Orcas.

Elephant seals on the beach

Our cruise was turning into a mega episode of Springwatch – elephant seals, sealions, llamas, dolphins, albatrosses, and now Orcas. After Puerto Madryn we had another couple of sea days, but our second sea day was due to be super exciting because we were going around Cape Horn, and Cape Horn, as we had now learned from our lessons with Milos, was not a cape in the true geological sense, but an island, and if the weather was good, the captain was going to sail completely around the island so that we could see Cape Horn from all sides. It was finally time to bring out the snuggly waterproofs, the hats and the gloves, because boy was it cold, and although it is wonderful to say we’ve sailed around Cape Horn, to be honest, it’s a rock, and it looks pretty much the same from every angle.

Onwards to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, and a short excursion to the Tierra del Fuego National Park – barren but beautiful.

Back on board we admired the glaciers along the Beagle Channel, followed by a day in Punta Arenas, Chile, where we went Condor spotting. These huge scavenger birds nested a two hour drive out of town, and on that two hour drive we saw nothing but scrubland and a few local ostrich, but my inner Michaela Strachan knew it was worth it. From Punta Arenas we joined the humpback whales and sealions navigating the straights of Magellan where the waters got decidedly choppier.

After two more sea days we were impatient to disembark and begin the final leg of our South American tour. The cruise ended at Valparaiso in Chile, and Sunday morning in Valparaiso means one big car boot sale. The streets were rammed with traders but there was no time for bargain hunting because we were heading straight to Santiago and a brief overnight stay before flying onto Cusco in Peru for what was for most members of the group the main reason for booking the whole tour – a trip to the Sacred Valley and the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Cusco is 3,400 metres above sea level. That’s very high, and yes we did suffer with altitude sickness – all the pain of a hangover with none of the pleasure of having drunk yourself silly the night before.

In Cusco there was the opportunity to play with alpacas, eat alpacas, and of course, if an alpaca steak isn’t enough, you can also sample the local delicacy of guinea pig. Not for me, though. The journey to Machu Picchu itself involved a bus, a very bouncy train ride, and then another bus, but Machu Picchu was everything I’d imagined, a magical spiritual place shrouded in mist, but for all its history, all its magnificence, it didn’t outshine Iguazu Falls. I’ll be honest, I don’t think anything ever will.

Our tour of the continent ended in Lima, another frenetic and decidedly frustrating city tour we could probably have all done without, followed by a thoroughly enjoyable boat trip to Palomino Island, where Mr T braved the pungent water to frolic with the sealions. I stayed on board. Somebody had to take the photographs. And we saw penguins. The final tick of the box.

Last night drinks in the hotel bar was a fun but poignant affair. After twenty six days of being together on plane, train, bus and boat, it felt rather sad and surreal to be saying goodbye to our travelling companions. You never know quite who or what you’re going to get when you sign up for these things, but I really don’t think we could have found a nicer bunch of people to share our South American experience with.

Our final flight back to Heathrow involved a stop-over at our favourite airport,  Schipol in Amsterdam, which almost felt like home. I’ve realised I can now fly without reaching for Bachs Rescue Remedy but I couldn’t pass through the Netherlands without purchasing a chunk of Old Amsterdam cheese.

If Peru’s most famous bear can have marmalade sandwiches I can have cheese!

And finally, an apology to regular blog followers for the lack of posts since the start of 2024. It’s been a bit of a year. I always knew there were going to be challenges and writing would have to take a back seat. The books are still out there on Amazon – as always – and ideas still whirr around in my head, but just for now, Rosie Travers Author is having a break!

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