Cruising solo to South America

Jane Wilson takes a trip through vibrant countries filled with stunning scenery, captivating culture and delicious dining.

Gosh, they looked smart in their tuxedo-like coats, prim and proper, white chests gleaming in the sun although some waddled around like wind-up toys. They stared in silence, making me feel like an intruder invading their territory. Wallowing on the cushioned sand dunes of the Falklands Islands, this is one of the penguin capitals of the world where around a million nest every summer. These guys were my newfound acquaintances especially as I was travelling alone on my first voyage with Holland America Line and my first visit to South America.

Going solo

My solo adventure started in Buenos Aires where I boarded Holland America Line’s Oosterdam and where, impressively, there were no queues or crowds which I expected on embarkation. Smiles all around, I was welcomed aboard and better still, my luggage greeted me in my spacious veranda cabin. Managed by cheery cabin attendants, my room was decked in calming neutral colours with Elemis amenities and a step to a good-sized balcony to eavesdrop on the meditative sounds of the sea. This was my home for two weeks, comfortable, quiet, and if I wished, a great choice of on-demand movies with a considerate nod to the region too with March of the Penguins and Evita. Being one of close to 1,900 passengers onboard, the service levels were high with a crew of 800 bearing genuine smiles and first name greetings. The glamorous décor includes gold bannisters, a hanging globe in the atrium, sink-in chairs in cosy alcoves: understated elegance is the best way to describe it.

My South American itinerary

First stop… Buenos Aires, Argentina

It all started here in the birthplace of tango, where passion and rhythm are joined at the hip in a personal dialogue for two with performances that outshine any on Strictly Come Dancing. Here you can see performances in cafes, theatres or on the streets around the city. This Argentine capital is also the home of Malbec, Evita and empanadas. There’s so much to see in the capital and easy to explore on your own. I took a city tour which introduced me to the magnificent opera house, Teatro Colon, an iconic landmark where 50-minute backstage tours show off the stunning interior for around £40. I queued to enter Recoleta Cemetery which houses the grave of Eva Perón amidst paths of mausoleums and statues in ornate splendour. And roses galore (18,000 in fact) can be seen by strolling through the century-old Palermo Rose Garden with a poets’ garden and busts of famous writers including William Shakespeare. In contrast, La Boca area near the Riachuelo River, is a cauldron of noise with street artists, attractions and steakhouses which surround Caminito, a narrow alley fringed by brightly coloured zinc shacks that hark back to its immigrant days.

Montevideo, Uruguay

Carnival Museum
Carnival Museum

My next port visit was Montevideo. The city has undergone a renaissance with restaurants, bars and clubs opening in restored historic buildings. Ciudad Vieja is the old town bustling with art galleries, street craftsmen, music shows and a flea market along Sarandí street. Uruguay, the second-smallest country in South America, celebrates the longest carnival competition in the world lasting over 40 days every January. I visited the Carnival Museum to learn more and also enjoyed an uplifting stage performance from scary-painted faces of musicians in vivid costumes.

The Falkland Islands, Argentina

Back to Argentina and to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, a town dotted with red post boxes and phone booths, a post office and West Store which seemed to sell everything. Offering a taste of back home, fish n’chips was on offer as well as several pubs serving locally brewed beer. It’s steeped in natural and military history with a bronze bust of Margaret Thatcher located close to Liberation Monument, a tribute to the 255 British troops (and three female civilians) who gave their lives during the 1982 Falklands conflict. And there’s more on the Falklands War at The Dockyard Museum nearby.

But it was the gentoo penguins here that stole my heart, sliding playfully down the sand dunes on their backs in search of food from the sea. I had travelled to the blustery shore of Yorke Bay, ten minutes from Stanley in a private mini-van with others. If you want to see the king penguins you can book one of the ship’s excursions. The world’s largest colony of 1,200 adult king penguins outside of South Georgia Island is 50 miles away from Port Stanley on a private nature reserve. It’s a full-day tour, and a three-hour journey off-road and a bit pricey (£400). Alternatively, you can wander the streets on your own or do a Falklands Battlefield tour.

Ushuaia, Argentina

Sitting at the southernmost tip of Argentina, this port town is accessed only by the Beagle Channel. Ushuaia, once a penal colony, is a modern city and attracts exploration ships and tourists often starting their voyages around Cape Horn and trails around the jagged peaks of the nearby Dientes de Navarino. Travelling from Ushuaia by road I choose to take an organised alpine drive tour where views passed sawmills, beaver dams, through the winding mountain roads to Lake Escondido, labelled as the hidden lake due to low hanging clouds. Alternatively, you can also hop on the End of the World Train, a heritage railway experience passing through Tierra del Fuego National Park. If you visit don’t forget to collect a certificate from the tourist office to prove your visit to the end of the world. It’s said that this is the southernmost city in the world. Chile however argues it is Puerto Williams, a town on Navarino Island is the southernmost populated settlement in the world.

Punta Arenas, Chile

Sitting on Chile’s southern tip, Punta Arenas is a centre for adventure with everything from kayaking the Strait of Magellan to trekking through the woods of Patagonia. Here I checked out more of my penguin friends on Isla Magdalena via a catamaran ride. Over 120,000 Magellanic penguins enjoy this protected island all to themselves. It was declared a Natural Monument in 1982. After the trip I joined two Canadian ladies for a stroll around the town returning to the ship in time for afternoon tea. The city plays an important role in geographic, political and economic affairs in South America’s Southern Cone, which is formed by Chile and neighbouring Argentina.

Puerto Montt, Chile

Often called the gateway to glacial lakes, volcanic landscapes and surrounding national parks, Puerto Montt is the capital of the Los Lagos region of Chile. This port is home to a German settlement and the indigenous communities of the Mapuche people. Nearby is the city of Roses, Puerto Varas, with gardens, a main square and a historical monument overlooking Lake Llanquihue, one of Chile’s largest lakes. The snow-covered Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes form the backdrop. The country scenery is picturesque with oxen-ploughed fields weather-beaten clapboard barns and churches. It’s perfect for outdoor adventures from river rafting, fishing and boat trips on Lake Todos los Santos.

San Antonio (Santiago), Chile

This port serves Chile’s capital, Santiago, a city with Spanish colonial charm and a vivacious spirit, 70 miles away. I choose a visit to Valparaiso and enjoyed coastal views before my journey to the airport, but you can add extra days to explore the city if you wish.

Life onboard

Life onboard is as busy as you want it to be. I didn’t stop from the moment I rose to witness the sunrise, to the last note played in the ‘Rolling Stones Lounge’. During the day there’s a host of scheduled activities from a ‘digital tech for travellers’ tutorial, a Spanish language course (hola!), or you can blend your own tipple in a mixology demo. There’s more… learn to line dance, jiggle your hips with salsa moves or master the Tango; play bridge, poker or ping pong; or enjoy a sing-along with the pianist. For solitude there’s the library with daily crosswords to tax you. Presentations not to be missed are the destination talks which provide helpful tips, history and recommendations which draw large audiences eager to learn about the port visits. And don’t miss the captain’s appearance on stage – I am now well-versed in weather patterns and also have an in-depth view of the behind the scenes of the ‘city on the sea’ and fascinated by its sustainable conservation programme. The ship’s handy mobile app Navigator will manage your events, bookings and spend.

Wining and dining

This was my first experience of having my own stash of wine behind the bar, on tap, labelled with my name. There are a number of drinks packages available and travelling alone I opted for the minimum four-bottle deal. There are various bars and four restaurants which include two specialty restaurants. The Pinnacle Grill features a selection of 28-day wet-aged USDA prime steaks but be warned, portions are large. Canaletto is an Italian affair serving classic signature dishes. Entertainment varies from the main theatre performances to the high-octave Rolling Stones Lounge.

The Observation Deck

Surrounded by charts, touchscreens and live data zooming directly from the bridge, this is the best area to secure a seat for narrated scenic cruising. Put your feet up with a cappuccino and a cookie while lapping up spectacular panoramic views during daylight cruising through the Avenue of the Glaciers (Glacier Alley). This awe-inspiring experience which stretches along the Beagle Channel in the territory of Tierra del Fuego is a maze of inlets, islands and narrow waterways rich in biodiversity.

Health and wellbeing

The overwhelming benefit of cruising is the quietude of the open seas, the mesmerising effect of nature’s reflections on the waves and nothingness out to the horizon. Total relaxation is promoted by the Greenhouse Spa & Salon® which has ten treatments rooms and 20 staff on hand. There’s a medi-spa and the thermal suite with an indoor hydrotherapy pool and steam rooms, (one without essential oils for those with allergies). To meet all needs, a well-equipped gym has a number of treadmills set to a walking pace and a wide list of activity classes for all levels.

Thinking of cruising solo?

If you feel cruises are lonely, think again. The first organised social event was a meet-up for solo travellers and the perfect timing to link up with others for that shawl of comfort and confidence. Solo cruising has so many advantages. I explored three countries from my bucket list continent, at my own pace. I made new friends, heard fascinating life stories, honed new skills (I can speak a few more words in Spanish) and practised the art of travelling alone. And although it comes with an additional single supplement, I appreciated the double space of my cabin and just being in the moment and travelling with myself.

So, would I do it again? In a heartbeat, here’s to my next cruise…

About Holland America Line

Holland America Line’s fleet of 11 ships offers more than 500 cruises to more than 470 ports in 98 countries, territories or dependencies around the world. From shorter getaways to 128-day itineraries, the company’s cruises visit all seven continents, with highlights including Antarctica explorations, South America circumnavigations and Australia & New Zealand and Asia voyages; three annual Grand Voyages; and popular sailings to the Caribbean, Alaska, Mexico, Canada & New England, Europe and the Panama Canal.

Next steps

To plan and book your next cruise holiday with Holland America Line call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678.

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Jane Wilson

Founder & editor of the Wellness Traveller

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