Hurricane Adolph had prevented us from stopping at Mazatlán during our circumnavigation on board Pacific Bliss. That story is told in Maiden Voyage. I was happy to finally visit this historic city of 350,000 during our recent Mexican cruise.  

The city of Mazatlán is a popular cruise stop, so the officials make it very easy for passengers to find Plaza Machado, a picturesque square surrounded by art galleries and cafés. After Gunter and I disembarked from the Veendam and reached the main street, we were instructed to “walk the long blue line to the plaza” to avoid getting lost. We ambled past lush suburban landscapes, enchanted by masses of pink, carmine, and royal purple bougainvillea climbing the porches of pastel adobe homes.

The Blue Line, Mazlatlan

The Blue Line, Mazlatlan

We circled Plaza Machado and then walked toward the Moorish-style, 19th century cathedral.  Reaching high over the roofs of the city, its canary-colored spires beckoned us. While we rested on a bench in the adjacent park, I felt at peace. The Basilica displays a quiet beauty that’s not overpowering and needs no extra frills. Inside, I discovered that its inner beauty had somehow been juxtaposed to the outside.  All the interior light comes through stained glass and reflects off gold statues and images. An interesting detail: A Jewish family living in Mazatlán donated money toward the construction; the congregation was so happy that they decided to add a Star of David so that it could be seen through the top windows.

Back at Machado, we decided to have at traditional Mexican lunch at Pedro y Lola’s—knowing that we could sleep it off back at the ship! I ordered a strawberry daiquiri; Gunter ordered a Corona beer and chips served with a terrific, not-too-spicy avocado dip. The main course was shrimp tacos. This square is the jewel of the restored Centro Histórico. The west side of the square is flanked by the Teatro Angela Peralta, originally built in the 1800s, a beautifully restored building to house the arts. Adjacent is a Spanish-language exhibit explaining the history of Mazatlán.All of the restaurants lining the Plaza offer both indoor and outdoor sidewalk seating, reminding us a little of European cities.

There was no need to walk that blue line back! We opted for a cab instead.

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You’ve probably heard of “slow travel” but not of “slow cruising.” Previously, I thought of slow travel as being the type of travel we did when we traveled inland on trains, planes and caravans through Australia. And slow cruising was sailing our catamaran Pacific Bliss. During our recent Mexican Riviera Cruise, however, my husband Gunter and I created our own version of slow cruising, but on a Cruise Ship, no less.

For my birthday last January, Gunter wanted to take me away on a trip. But he knew I’d be working on my book, so he asked me how we could accomplish both goals. “Let’s just do something that doesn’t involve flying, changing time zones, or packing for different climates,” I suggested.

Gunter chose a Mexican Riviera Cruise on the Veendam. We’d cruised on around South America two years ago on board this smaller-size Holland-America ship (See that blog at https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/bigbucketcruise/). “This cruise has three sea days for you to write, lounging on our veranda deck while the ocean passes by,” he cajoled. “And only one of the three ports-of-call—Mazlatlan—will be a port where we have not visited together before. Should be easy and relaxing, only seven days.

Perfect!

We found that taking a vacation along with 1300 passengers need not be stressful. During the process, we developed a few guidelines for slow cruising:

  • Don’t sign up for shore excursions. Do your own thing, so that you can leave and return to the ship when you want. Avoid standing in long lines and crowding into packed elevators by departing after the tour groups have gone.
  • Do take advantage of the pool and Jacuzzi deck when it’s quiet—with most of the passengers off touring. Enjoy those hamburgers and drinks brought right to your lounge chair on deck.
  • Don’t dress for those pictures and formal nights each time they are offered. You can always go upstairs for casual dining.
  • Only mad dogs and Englishmen tour in the heat of the day. After your trip to shore, do come back to the ship to enjoy a well-deserved siesta in your air-conditioned room.
  • Get off the grid for as many days as you can. You’ll avoid roaming charges on your cell phone and you’ll escape the pressures of waiting in lines at internet cafes or paying per- minute fees on board for satellite connections.

Slow cruising can be an easy, pressure-free way to take a relaxing break. Remember, adversity is inevitable; stress is optional!

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Part VII of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

March 26: Punta Arenas is a dismal, desolate port, forgotten by the world. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to live here! But many do. With over 100,000 residents, it is the Magallanes Province’s largest city and lays claim to the title of the world’s southernmost city. It is more than 1,300 miles south of Santiago, Chile’s capital.

Overlooking the Strait of Magellan, this port city commands the historic route as the first city before (or after) rounding Cape Horn. The city flourished during the California Gold Rush when it was a haven for steamers rounding the cape. Although the Panama Canal dampened the traffic, the port achieved renewed prosperity as an early 20th century Chilean wool and mutton center. Modern Punta Arenas reflects a broad cultural mix—from Portuguese sailors to English sheep ranchers. Adventurers head for the Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine, “place of the blue water,” a breathtaking preserve with a primordial ecosystem. Tall granite pillars rise more than 8,500 feet, towering above the Patagonian steppes. Deep valleys are filled with sapphire lakes, gurgling rivers, cascading waterfalls, and massive glaciers. But the park is 275 miles north of the town, and we are here only for the day.  I buy this photo from the Veendam instead.

Torres Del Paine, Chile, taken by Veendam

Günter and I bundle ourselves in lots of layers and take a taxi into the city, swerving around rivers of water flooding the sides of the road. After we are let off downtown, we plod along a dreary main street torn apart by construction and floods, under a drizzly sky.

A muddy main street, Puntas Arenas, Chile

The hardy residents here consider themselves first as Magallanicos, and second as Chileans, which is hardly surprising, since in order to come to this stormy corner of the world, one either has to travel for days by bus across Argentine Patagonia, fly direct, or take a lengthy cruise through the southern seas. Our mission here is to rub the foot of the Magellan statue located in the main square. This is supposed to bring us good luck, which we need after having our backpack stolen in Buenos Aires!

Rubbing the foot of the Magellan statue brings good luck

March 27: Today, we are cruising through the Strait of Magellan, a navigable sea route south of the mainland of South America and north of Tierra del Fuego. Although it is the most important natural passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the strait is difficult to navigate because it is subject to high, unpredictable winds and currents. The strait is 570 km long and only 2 km wide at its narrowest point. Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to navigate the strait in 1520, during his global circumnavigation voyage.

Most of the strait is compelling, but the special attraction is the Amanda Glacier. After the disappointment of having to pass through Glacier Alley after sunset, (the ship was held up by the Argentinian port authorities), our captain wants to make sure that all passengers will have an excellent view of this glacier. He makes a 360 degree swing so that it can be viewed from all verandas. Wow! What a glorious sight!

Amanda Glacier

Part VI of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

March 25: The Veendam arrives in a moderate gale.

Ushuaia from the Sea

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Strait of Magellan, and the easternmost part of the Pacific Ocean. Although the city of Ushuaia is in Argentina, most of the main island actually belongs to Chile. At 55° latitude, it holds the distinction of being “the southernmost city in the world.”

Ushuaia, the Southernmost Town in the World

The indigenous people were the Yahgan and Alacalufes (canoe Indians). Surprisingly, despite the inclement weather, they wore little or no clothing. Constant fires kept them warm, hence the region’s name: Tierra del Fuego, land of fire.

I’d always wanted to go to Ushuaia. Stories about the ceaseless wind, the snow-capped Andes, and the magical light had fascinated me.

Even though Günter and I are still not feeling well, and have cancelled our tour here, a catamaran cruise through the Beagle Channel and a ride through the National Park, we bundle up to walk into the town. The wind blasts us so hard it almost knocks us over as we head down the gangplank and onto the pier. We make it to the town’s main drag and then Günter, who now has bronchitis, turns back.

Gunter on the pier near the ship, bundled for the walk

Lois, Bundled for the walk into town.

All the streets climb up the hill from the port, as in San Francisco.  The cross-streets filled with restaurants, bars, tourist and winter apparel shops protect me from the wind.

As I walk along the streets, I begin to fall in love with this southernmost town in the world. Yes, Ushuaia is remote, desolate, and moody as the sun appears and disappears behind the numerous clouds.  Yet the town turns out to be quite charming and picturesque. The colorful buildings are a mixture of architectural designs, from colonial European to ski resort styles with steep roofs. (Ski season here will begin in six weeks.) On the corner is the yellow, multi-storied Horn Hotel. On the facing block is a cozy, blue-shuttered bed-and-breakfast with white fretwork and a garden of struggling blue lupines. Towering over the town is the massive A-framed Albatross Hotel. And behind it all lie the snow-capped Andes. Ushuaia is frontier town with lots of character and a cosmopolitan center of 70,000, all rolled into one.

After exploring the town, I meander over to the sailboat anchorage to take some photos. I cannot imagine the courageous and hardy spirit it takes to sail here! Only 100 years ago, the only people crazy enough to come here were convicts in chains. Prison inmates built the town’s railway, hospital, and port. That prison is now a museum that I pass on the way back to the ship.

Delayed by the port authorities, The Veendam leaves too late to view Glacier Alley, but we do experience a few hours of daylight while winding through Darwin’s famous Beagle Channel.

The Beagle Channel at Sunset Viewed from our Veranda.

The Straits

Part V of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

Writing about Patagonia is one of those rites of passage for adventure travel writers.

Yet, Patagonia is not a specific region on the map. It has never been a separate country. Vast and vague, it is an undefined region that encompasses 900,000 square kilometers of southern Argentina and Chile. Some writers say that it can be effectively defined by its soil—made up of basalt pebbles left behind by glaciers—and its flora, a low bush called jarilla. Other writers, such as Bruce Chatwin, describe Patagonia by its climate, a wind that blows incessantly with terrific force from October to March “stripping men to the raw” and making small planes fly backward rather than forward. Paul Theroux simply refers to Patagonia as “travel book country,” the kind adventurers dream of because it combines wilderness, wide open spaces, and the grassy plains of the pampas with the majestic backdrop of the Andes. To summarize, Patagonia is all about light, space, and wind.

While the Veendam plows through the rough seas surrounding Tierra del Mundo, the end of the world, I read up on the inland areas that we will not see during this cruise. I have plenty of time, since both Günter and I are holed up in our cabin with terrific colds and coughs. I begin with Chatwin’s In Patagonia, and proceed to Simon Worrall’s River of Desire. To wrap it up, I read a novel on my Kindle called See Before You Die: Patagonia, by J.E.Leigh, whose heroine is a travel writer/photographer who takes a trip to—where else?—Patagonia.

Travelers from Darwin on have noted how the very bleakness of Patagonia seizes the imagination. In other words, nothingness supposedly forces the mind on itself. Well, here I can sit out on the balcony of our cabin here and view the nothingness of the sea. And while sailing Pacific Bliss, I remember the nothingness of days at sea, staring at blue on blue underneath the dome of the sky.  I can remember night after night underneath a canopy of stars.  Is nothingness on land any different?

In Patagonia, the writers say, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks more; the believers pray more and become closer to God; and the lonely become even lonelier, and sometimes commit suicide.  And everywhere, these eccentric personalities with fantastic stories turn up. Anything can happen. It seems to me, they could just as well be describing life at sea!

Perhaps Patagonia is just an ocean passage for landlubbers, substituting a horse for a boat!

Chatwin describes a poet he met who went to Patagonia for a visit and stayed for forty years. He cried, “Patagonia, she is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets you go.”

I could say the same about the sea!

Okay, so now I’ve dutifully written about Patagonia. I doubt that I’ll do it again.

Part III of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

I already knew that in one out of every four HA cruises around the southern tip of South America, a landing at the Falklands is not possible. This is not surprising. The Falklands experience some of the worst weather on the planet. Despite its dismal reputation, the climate during the austral summer (Dec-Feb) can be moderate, with temperatures occasionally reaching 75° F. But we are now in the southern autumn.

The total land mass of the islands is roughly equivalent to the state of Connecticut. The capital is Port Stanley, located on the Eastern Falkland Island, where two-thirds of the population of 2,500 live. Nearly everyone else who lives in “the camp,” the term for the countryside, is involved in sheep ranching.

Although we will see some sheep farms, our reason for taking a land tour is to see the penguins. We have observed small yellow and blue penguins in South Island, New Zealand but these are special: large in size and colored in the familiar Patagonia colors: black and white. We look forward to seeing these penguins—with their orange beaks and orange-and-yellow chests. In 1592, Sir Thomas Cavendish, a British explorer, sailed The Desire down the coast of Patagonia in search of the Straits of Magellan. It was in Puerto Deseado, that he described “a curious black-and-white bird that cannot fly but swims like a fish.” A Welshman on board named the bird based on the Welsh word for white head, “pen gwyn.”

I’m reading “River of Desire,” by Simon Worrall, on my Kindle. In Patagonia, Worrall says, people begin counting the speed of the wind from 50 kilometers (about 30 knots) an hour. That’s zero! A “concerning” wind is about 200. To prepare for cold, windy on-shore experiences, Günter and I have packed a duffel with our sailing jackets, fleeces, long silk underwear, gloves and caps.

On Thursday, March 22, Veendam Captain Frank van der Hoeven announces that our ship may or may not land in the Falklands, depending on whether he is able to anchor there: “We are experiencing Force 7 winds, a light SW gale, at 33 knots. If the winds there come from the right direction, we might be sheltered from the long fetch by the land mass of South America. Then we can board using tenders.” Later that day, the Captain orders the stabilizers to be put out. These are 18’ long and 8’ wide. He has to reduce speed to use them, so we will be late in arriving.

On Friday, March 23, at 0805, the captain announces that he is regrettably canceling the stop and proceeding for two days directly to round Cape Horn. Several boats already there are “wallowing in the wind,” he says. They report Force 9 winds, 50+ knots from the SW—not promising. Outside our veranda window, we can see racing whitecaps and spindrift. We do not even want to open our sliding glass door to the balcony! The whining of the wind is constant—sometimes a high whistle, sometimes groaning with the gusts. Surprisingly, with the stabilizers out, the ride on this cruise ship is not too rough. Günter and I can only imagine what it would have been like in our 43’ yacht!

By noon, there is another Captain’s Announcement: The wind is down to Force 8, with swells lessening to 16’. He expects that we will round Cape Horn by 6 p.m. on Saturday. He has altered course directly to the Horn waypoint, proceeding more slowly to ensure our comfort. “Here the warm Brazilian current meets the cold 2.5-knot Falklands current,” he adds, “causing rough seas.” He expects the winds to lessen as we reach the Cape.

Sailing around the world on our own yacht, we have learned to accept the winds and currents and to “go with the flow.”  The political situation in the Falklands, though, has piqued our interest and we continue to follow the news. While in Buenos Aires, the English translation of the local newspapers contained daily headlines about a new conflict between the Brits, who own the Falklands, and the Argentineans, who have been taught in their schools that these desolate islands are rightfully theirs.  The headlines scream, “Malvinas Stand-Off.” Some articles report that by reasserting its claim to the islands, the current government led by liberal President Christina Fernandez Kirchner is gaining the popularity it had lost.

It’s amazing how little we hear about worldwide events in the U.S. I had not heard about any conflict in the Falklands since the struggle for control ended in 1982. This ratcheting up of tensions is the run-up to the 30th anniversary of that war on April 2, 2012.

Some history here: It was the French navigators who gave the islands their Spanish name, Isla Malvinas. Beginning in the mid-1700s, the Falklands have been the source of many battles between countries fighting for control. The islands themselves were strategically important for those ships rounding The Cape before the Canal was built, but they continued to languish economically until the wool business became lucrative.

Thirty years ago, Argentina seized the Falklands and the U.K. invaded to get them back. Britain claimed that the islanders had a right to self-determination; the British population wanted to remain British, of course. The Argentineans were no match for British troops, although both sides suffered serious losses: 255 U.K. servicemen were killed; 649 Argentineans died in the conflict.

Although there is a lot of talk about Argentinean pride and the islanders” right to self-determination, it is the discovery of oil that has caused current tensions. Three oil companies want to drill in these tempestuous seas, especially because oil is being depleted in the North Sea.

While we were in Buenos Aires, it was reported that a cruise ship that had already stopped in the Falklands was denied entry into Buenos Aires or any Argentinean ports. That problem does not pertain to our ship because we are going the opposite way. The Argentineans are also upset with Peru for conducting standard military exercises with a British ship.

Later during our voyage, the Veendam is two hours late leaving Ushuaia, Argentina because it has been held up by the port captain. Reportedly, our captain was asked to sign a statement saying that the Veendam would never again include the Falklands on her itinerary. He did not have the authority to sign, and had to wait for an answer from the head office. Of course, the corporation would not consent to the request, but the ship agreed to pay a “port fee” to be able to sail away.

Captain Frank apologized again and again that, because of the delay, we would miss viewing much of the fjords and would not reach the world-renowned Ushuaia glaciers before sunset. I could hear the controlled anger in his voice.

On our own yacht, we often repeated the phrase, “Pacific Bliss is not a train, not a plane, and not a cruise ship,” in answer to questions and complaints about schedules. But now, we realize that even a cruise ship can miss scheduled stops because of wind, weather, and geopolitics.