Cruising in Patagonia

Cruising is a leisurely and comfortable way to take in the rugged marvels of Patagonia and the southernmost region of the world. Sailing through remote channels and reaching islands virtually untouched by man, you'll witness fjords, snowcapped mountains and granite peaks, and glacial lakes. You'll get a close look at elephant seals, migrating whales, colonies of Magellanic penguins, and cormorants from the comfort of your vessel and during shore excursions taken in Zodiacs (small motorized boats) led by naturalist guides. Far from the beaten path, you'll visit small fishing villages accessible only by sea, explore fantastic temperate rain forests, and enjoy the freshest seafood and local wines.

Most short cruises depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile. Longer and more luxurious itineraries typically depart from either Buenos Aires or Santiago.

When to Go

In the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, November through March is considered high season. However, the weather in Patagonia is unpredictable: strong winds and sudden storms are common. Summertime (December through February) is the best time to visit. Shoulder months—October, November, March, and April—tend to have cooler temperatures but also less wind. In winter, cruise companies all but hibernate for the season.

October (late spring). Best time to witness the whale migration and the immense colonies of elephant seals and sea lions in Península Valdés.

November (early summer). The natural nesting cycle of Magellanic penguins is November to February. Penguins arrive at the rookeries at the beginning of the month. Spring flowers are in full bloom. This is the best time to catch the bird nesting of finches, sparrows, condors, albatrosses, and other species.

December and January (high summer). The warmest months see penguin chicks hatch in Tierra del Fuego. Long daylight hours also mean great photography opportunities all over Patagonia.

February and March (late summer). Receding ice allows for easier exploration farther south. Whale-watching is at its best. Penguin colonies are very active, as the adults feed the chicks.

Booking Your Cruise

The majority of cruisers plan their trips four to six months ahead of time. Book a year ahead if you're planning to sail on a small adventure vessel, as popular itineraries may be full six to eight months ahead.

Consider booking shore excursions when you book your cruise to avoid disappointment later. You can even book your spa services pre-cruise to have your pick of popular times, such as sea days.

Although most travel is booked over the Internet nowadays, for cruises, booking with a travel agent who specializes in Patagonia cruises is still your best bet. Agents have strong relationships with the lines and have a better chance of getting you the cabin you want, possibly even a free upgrade. Cruise Lines International Association (www.cruising.org) lists recognized agents throughout the United States.

Cruise Itineraries

Choosing an itinerary is as important as choosing a cruise line or tour operator that fits your tastes and budget. We highlight possibilities that focus on specific areas, as well as typical departure points, and the tour operators that can take you there.

Antarctic Cruises

Founded to promote environmentally responsible travel to Antarctica, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (970/704–1047 www.iaato.org) is a good source of information, including suggested readings. Most companies operating Antarctica trips are members of this organization and display its logo in their brochures.

Season: November–March.

Location: Most cruises depart from Ushuaia, in Argentine Patagonia.

Cost: From $5,495 from Ushuaia; prices can get quite high.

Tour Operators: Abercrombie & Kent; Adventure Center; Big Five Tours & Expeditions; ElderTreks; G Adventures; Lindblad Expeditions; Mountain Travel-Sobek; Quark Expeditions; Travcoa; Wilderness Travel; Zegrahm Expeditions.

Overview: Ever since Lars-Eric Lindblad operated the first cruise to the "White Continent" in 1966, Antarctica has exerted an almost magnetic pull for serious travelers. From Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city, you'll sail for two (often rough) days through the Drake Passage. Most visits are to the Antarctic Peninsula, the continent's most accessible region. Accompanied by naturalists, you'll travel ashore in motorized rubber crafts called Zodiacs to view penguins and nesting seabirds. Some cruises visit research stations, and many call at the Falkland, South Orkney, South Shetland, or South Georgia islands. Certain operators offer sea kayaking and, at an extra cost, the chance to camp for a night on the ice.

Expedition vessels have been fitted with ice-strengthened hulls; many originally were built as polar-research vessels. It's wise to inquire about the qualifications of the onboard naturalists and historians, the maximum number of passengers carried, the ice-readiness of the vessel, onboard medical facilities, whether there is an open bridge policy, and the number of landings attempted per day.

Cruising the Tip of South America

Cruising the southern tip of South America and along Chile's western coast north to the Lake District reveals fjords, glaciers, lagoons, lakes, narrow channels, waterfalls, forested shorelines, fishing villages, and wildlife. While many tour operators include a one- or two-day boating excursion as part of their Patagonia itineraries, the companies listed below offer 4 to 12 nights aboard ship.

Season: September–April.

Locations: Chilean fjords; Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas, Chile; Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia, Argentina.

Cost: From $2,200 for a four-day, three-night cruise between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia.

Tour Operators: Abercrombie & Kent; Adventure Life; Big Five Tours & Expeditions; Cruceros Australis; International Expeditions; Lindblad Expeditions; Mountain Travel-Sobek; Wilderness Travel; Wildland Adventures.

Overview: Boarding your vessel in Punta Arenas, Chile, or Ushuaia, Argentina, you'll cruise the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel, visiting glaciers, penguin rookeries, and seal colonies before heading north along the fjords of Chile's western coast. With Abercrombie & Kent and Wildland Adventures, you'll savor the mountain scenery of Torres del Paine National Park for several days before or following the cruise, while Lindblad Expeditions, Mountain Travel-Sobek, and International Expeditions visit Tierra del Fuego National Park. Cruceros Australis and some other companies also include Cape Horn National Park. Most itineraries begin or end in Santiago or Punto Arenas in Chile, or Buenos Aires, El Calafate, or Ushuaia in Argentina.

Ocean Cruises

Some ships set sail in the Caribbean and stop at one or two islands before heading south; a few transit the Panama Canal en route. West Coast (U.S.) departures might include one or more Mexican ports before reaching South America. Fourteen- to 21-day cruises are the norm. Vessels vary in the degree of comfort or luxury as well as in what is or isn't included in the price. Guided shore excursions, gratuities, dinner beverages, and port taxes are often extra.

Season: October–April.

Locations: Many itineraries visit Argentina (Buenos Aires and Ushuaia), Brazil (Belém, Fortaleza, Rio de Janeiro, and Salvador), and Chile (Antofagasta, Arica, Cape Horn, Coquimbo, Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, and Valparaíso).

Cost: Prices vary according to the ship, cabin category, and itinerary.

Major Cruise Lines

Celebrity Cruises: Fjords, glaciers, and emerald lakes are the highlight of a cruise down the west coast of Chile and back up the Atlantic Coast to Buenos Aires. The 15-day cruise is offered December through February. 800/647–2251 www.celebrity.com.

Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines: Their February cruise from Buenos Aires to Lima prides itself on being intimate, friendly, and catering to retired couples. 845/421–3663 www.fredolsencruises.com.

Oceania Cruises: Patagonia (Buenos Aires to Valparaíso in January, and Lima to Buenos Aires in March) voyages with Oceania are as relaxed and elegant as a private country club—mahogany décor, plush carpeting and grand, sweeping staircases.800/254–5067 www.oceaniacruises.com.

Princess Cruises: Trips (in January and February) on this cruise line include eight ports of call in the Argentine and Chilean Patagonia regions. 800/774–6237 www.princess.com.

Seabourn Cruise Line: Patagonia cruises with Seabourn include visits to the Beagle Channel and the Chilean fjords; a couple cruises run November through February. www.seabourn.com.

Silversea Cruises: Voyages with Silversea dock in Uruguay, the Falkland Islands, and Ushuaia, among others, running November through January. 877/276–6816. www.silversea.com.

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