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South America Lite

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 1998


In the port of Manaus, the scruffy Brazilian city that's used mostly as a jumping-off point by travelers who want to explore the Amazon, riverboats are crammed into a tiny corral, looking like abandoned bumper cars at an amusement park. Inside the low-slung vessels--which embody the traditional Amazon cruise experience and also serve as "buses" that take locals to river towns accessible only by water--the young and adventurous have hung tatty hammocks from ceiling hooks, each swinging a finger's length from the next. On these Amazon cruises, you're told to pack light, bring your own toilet paper and expect to share just about everything with your fellow passengers.

I've also arrived in Manaus to tour the Amazon. But my journey, alas, will not take place on one of these riverboats. I'll be exploring this storied river from the 1,200-passenger Royal Princess, a sleek and gleaming white cruise ship that moored at its own floating dock, as long as a city block. My visit to the Amazon will occupy just four days of a two-week sailing that will also visit the South American ports of Santarem, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

In contrast to the low-slung city, the Royal Princess soars nine decks high, towering over everything from the Manaus Opera House to the trees that line this stretch of the river. It seems all wrong here at this riverfront, where locals fry fish in listing stalls and industrial-size bags of cement and bunches of bananas sit in piles nearby, waiting for cargo ships. The Royal Princess looks like a woman who has worn a beaded gown to a steak fry. I feel a strange reluctance to board it, as though by submitting to such elegant mollycoddling I'm betraying not only my own desires, but the nature of the wild Amazon itself.

Which, of course, I am. Inside the ship, in my tiny view-obstructed cabin, I unpack my suitcases, hang silk pant suits and dressy evening gowns in the closet, plug in my laptop computer and run a bubble bath. I contemplate a pre-dinner martini in the Horizon Lounge on Deck 9, where I can see, from a comfortable distance, the vista of Manaus, a city that smolders with the raw energy of daily survival, a town we're warned not to visit after dark.

After dinner, I'll probably go see "My Best Friend's Wedding" in the Princess Theater.

Over the next 13 days, I traveled more than 4,272 nautical miles, alternating frantic sightseeing in port with utterly restful days at sea. The South American continent is not an easy one to explore overland because there's little rail or highway infrastructure. So a cruise turned out to be a terrific way to get a big, if brief and narrow, slice of South America.

The intinerary we followed on the Royal Princess was designed as a "port sampler"; brief day-long visits to places that ranged from the tiny Amazon river village of Boca de Valeria to the gorgeous yet crime-ridden city of Rio de Janeiro. The point is to give the cruise passengers a quick snapshot of places that they can then return to in order to explore on their own. For me, highlights included Rio, for the shopping and beaches; Montevideo, for its Uraguayan version of Baltimore's Lexington Market; and Buenos Aires, to explore its ranches, known as estancias.

The passengers were the friendliest I'd ever encountered on a cruise. The moderate size of the ship (1,200 passengers) facilitated mingling, as did the itinerary, which built in six full days at sea and offered plenty of opportunity to meet people. I found the passengers to be unusually gregarious during activities and meals. Also, our experiences visiting unusual places pretty remote from our daily experiences drew us together a bit. So in many important ways, a South American sailing makes for an enjoyable and pleasant vacation, particularly if you're inclined to creature comforts and only mild doses of adventure and cultural contact.

If, on the other hand, you're hoping for satisfying cultural explorations and a trip that shrewdly knits together the food, art, environment and lifestyle of the ports you visit, you're likely to be disappointed. Anyone really hoping to visit South America and absorb anything beyond its most obvious and accessible attractions and crafts should not consider a mainstream cruise ship.

Our first day in the Amazon, during an optional river excursion, we motor downstream in a riverboat, this one dressed up with black-and-white-striped awnings and comfortable chairs. We're headed to the "meeting of the waters," the much-touted attraction so named because the inky black Rio Negro and the mud yellow Rio Solimoes run side by side without mixing, like a Black and Tan beer, before joining as the Amazon. We hang our heads out of the boat to admire the spectacle briefly, then unpack the nifty blue nylon lunch sacks provided by Princess (included in our $87 shore-excursion fee). We eat deli fare and fruit flown in from the United States. We drink Coke.

Later, tour guides split us into smaller, eight-passenger boats, and we glide through Lake January, a nature preserve, and admire a succession of kids in canoes hawking so-called exotica--monkeys, snakes, parrots and sloths. It's essentially a pay-per-view zoo. On one canoe, a 6-month-old baby, plump and naked, sits a foot away from a crocodile that's sprawled across a series of planks. His 12-year-old brother holds his hand over the croc's eyes while we gape. The kids smile. As my fellow passengers raise their cameras, the kids hold out straw hats, upside down, for donations. Taking a picture costs $1.

A boat motors by and inside a man is holding an anaconda, as big around as a fat man's neck; unfurled and held aloft, it would tower over Michael Jordan. The man aggressively guides his boat alongside ours, but no one snaps a photo. Eventually he moves off in a flurry of latte-colored bubbles.

We turn down an igarape, or narrow stream, that's submerged in jungle gloom. Leafy vines interlock above us. Empty cans of Antartica, the local beer, cling to roots on the side of the bank. The zoo kids have disappeared and I relax. Finally, I'm experiencing the scenario I had imagined--utter peace, save for the gentle paddling of the boat and the occasional rustling of animals in the forest beyond.

Our pilot pulls ashore, where a narrow boardwalk disappears into the jungle. I jump out first, eager for even a few minutes alone in the jungle, and head briskly down the mile-long boardwalk. At the end, I'm alone and standing two stories above the jungle floor on a deck that overlooks a giant Victoria Regia water lily.

The zoo kids have abandoned their boats to meet us here with their menagerie, but they don't spot me yet. I observe the day's first un-rehearsed moment. One kid is tying his snake into loose knots. A girl walks her sloth on its leash. They all wear ball caps bearing insignia: Nike, Led Zeppelin, Syracuse University.

They see me and instantly, as though some off-camera director shouted "Action!" they assume upright postures, preening, smiling, pirouetting. The boy untwists his snake and whips off his cap. Behind me, I hear my shipmates plodding along the wooden walkway. I drop a dollar into a cap with a Chicago Bulls logo on it and head back to shore.

As the cruise progressed, my efforts to make anything like satisfying contact with South America were rarely successful. As a single woman traveling alone, I was intrigued by this itinerary and its entree to exotic places that I'd be unlikely to venture independently. South America, from the Amazon around the tip of Cape Horn to the Chilean fiords, is a growth destination for cruise lines. And not just the elite, small-ship companies like Silversea and Seabourn, who have been taking their extremely well-heeled clientele to exotic destinations for years. Increasingly, the big mass-market cruise lines are coming this way.

Princess has been sailing here for a decade but has increased from one annual cruise on a 600-passenger ship to this year's 11 sailings on the 1,200-passenger Royal Princess. Holland America and Norwegian are increasing capacity in South America as well. Unabashed mid-market cruiser Celebrity, whose ships have focused on the Caribbean and Bermuda, has just announced it will begin sailing there next year.

It would seem, then, that South America is perfectly placed to capture the "step-up" cruiser--a younger, more active customer who has already traveled widely on an independent basis, who tries a first cruise in the Caribbean, graduates quickly to Alaska and perhaps the Panama Canal or the Mediterranean and then starts looking for something more exotic.

This traveler is already changing the cruise experience, particularly at the entry levels. "Passengers want to understand the place they're visiting, really feel like they touched it," says Bill Rammos of Royal Caribbean International. "They don't want to be isolated." That's why in some destinations shore excursions have expanded beyond the traditional predictable, sedentary motor coach tour.

Cruise Alaska, and you can now go helicopter glacier-trekking and mountain biking in Ketchikan's rain forest. On Royal Caribbean, participants in Alaska salmon-fishing expeditions can bring their catch back to the ship--and ask the chef to prepare it. In the Caribbean, numerous cruise lines offer kayaking, rafting and sailing. Golf is increasingly popular as a port activity.

Some cruise lines are also trying harder to tie the onboard experience into the destination. Holland America's South American cruises now feature nightly turn-down gifts such as mate, the hollowed-out gourd used to hold the strong tea brewed in Brazil and Argentina. On a Royal Caribbean voyage to St. Petersburg, crew members once stocked the ship's gift shop with authentic Russian military uniforms. Menus on some cruise lines are designed to reflect the itinerary, adding paella in Spanish ports, pasta in Italian ones.

Clearly, the cruise industry sees the next wave as a really great chance to combat the perception--particularly on cruises longer than seven days--that ships are merely floating retirement communities where the greatest adventure is trying to massage out the lines that deck chair slats leave on your legs by dinnertime. And if cruise lines are going to continue to find new ways to encourage regular patronage--and with all the new huge ships coming on line, they'll have to--they'll need to hook the active, independent passenger, too.

So it came as something of a surprise to me that Royal Princess made very little effort to provide genuine South American experiences on our sailing. I consistently found myself in a strange netherworld not readily apparent on other cruises--perhaps because the ports we visited on those ships were so Americanized. Onboard the Royal Princess, we could have been in any resort in America. Menu themes included Italian, Asian, French and Mexican, but never Brazilian or Argentinean--despite these countries' wonderful cuisines.

Beers of the day ranged from Coors to the Brits' Bass Ale to the Italian Peroni--but never Brazil's Brahma or Antartica. The onboard boutique promoted sales of Austrian crystal and Italian ceramics, but none of Brazil's crafts--mahogany serving spoons or petrified piranha or Argentina's lovely batiks. At the Riviera Club after dinner, cruise staff taught popular dances like the Electric Slide and the Alley Cat--but not the tango.

Onboard lectures were similarly disconnected. Dr. Al Green's lectures on "Sex After 60" and "Love of Self" were packed, as they are on most cruises. So was naturalist Brent Nixon's talk on, curiously, tropical coral reefs and humpback whales. Sea days featured workshops on the Asian art of origami and the Western art of napkin folding, along with ping-pong and afternoon tea. Worthy diversions, but I would have preferred at least a nominal effort to introduce us to the art and culture and cuisine and dance and environment of the places I'd paid more than four grand to visit.

Ah, so the port lectures at least would help connect us to the world we were visiting, right? Hearing that the port lecturer was a Brazilian, I hoped for lots of local lore and advice. But Joe May was an embarrassment, speaking feebly about tourist shopping areas and major churches and museums, the stuff you'd see in promotional brochures. He couldn't answer any question that wasn't covered in his script. On our approach to Rio, I asked May to recommend a neighborhood that was similar to Buenos Aires' Recoleta--vibrant, full of parks and sidewalk cafes and shops that cater to locals rather than tourists.

"Recoleta," he said brusquely, "is in Argentina."

"What I'm asking," I replied with exaggerated patience, "is whether there's anything similar here." No, he responded flatly.

Fortunately I found Ipanema on my own.

Rick James, vice president of marketing for Princess Cruises, admits that "the step-up cruiser is going to change" the nature of cruising, but he seems to feel there's no hurry. "Any time you move beyond a traditional seven-day cruise experience, getting up into the 10-, 11- and 14-day cruise, the demographics change," he says. "The age of your cruiser will get older, more because of time availability than anything else."

It's true that on this sailing, folks of my ilk--independent travelers far from retirement age, or others who hadn't let their retirements inhibit an adventurous spirit--were definitely a minority. But there were enough of us to matter. I spent time with Tim Waite, an entrepreneur, and his wife, Leanna, an operating room nurse, a classic "step up" couple who'd started off cruising on Windjammer; they were staying on the Princess after the rest of us got off in Argentina and continuing across the Atlantic for Barcelona for a total of 33 days on board. There was a businesswoman and cruise veteran from Baltimore who was looking for stress relief, two hot-to-party blondes who worked in the travel industry in Kansas City, and a family from Santa Rosa, Calif., who'd pulled their preteen son out of school because they felt the trip would be educational.

Among us, we occasionally kvetched about being the "overlooked passengers."

"Older people want to get on a bus," Tim Waite said, noting his frustration, in particular, with shore excursions. "They don't want the hassle of bartering with taxi drivers. These tours are geared to that crowd. Fine. But we do different things than sit on a bus."

Ultimately, Princess could learn a lesson from H. Stern. The Rio de Janeiro-based jewelry company, in an effort to encourage cruise ship passengers to shop at their stores in ports--in our case in Manaus, Recife, Rio and Buenos Aires--was the single greatest source of information and help for independent travelers of any age. In every port where it had a store, Stern salespeople would set up information desks where they'd dispense maps and advice. They offered free rides--no purchase, no pressure, they insisted, and this was pretty much true--to the company's stores, which were consistently located in each city's most vibrant neighborhoods (and near the best beaches). If you were lucky (or unlucky) enough to be considered a potential big spender, you were offered a private sedan and driver with the option of a personal city tour. The only caveat in using the company's sedan service was that you agreed to visit their stores, though there was no obligation to buy. (Only once did I see the system being abused, and then by a passenger: A honeymooning couple in their thirties took the ride to Recife, then skulked away to a nearby beach with no intention whatsoever of popping into the boutique.)

What initially seemed a commercialized irritant eventually became a lifesaver. I resisted H. Stern's ploy at first, heading off on my own, until a nearly disastrous experience occurred on a solo trip to Olinda, a 16th-century colonial town on a hilltop outside Recife. Princess excursion tours to this location were sold out, leaving half the passengers to fend for themselves.

After bargaining for a $15 cab ride with a taxi driver who on arrival made threatening demands for $20, I wandered aimlessly around town for a few minutes, with only the cursory history and map provided by Princess to guide me. I was quickly surrounded by "guides" bragging about their grasp of the English language. I spontaneously chose one, a 17-year old boy. We negotiated a city tour for $10 and he showed me some really cool stuff.

He took me on an interesting back-stairs tour, to see his friend Sergio Vilanova, an artist whose atelier is on Amparo, a street of galleries. Sergio's studio was closed to the public, but he opened it for me, proudly showing off the front-room gallery with his watercolors, which featured impending-storm blues and reds in pictures full of fish and big-breasted women. We went to Petrucio Olinda, an art gallery, and Atelier BG, which sells ceramics and dresses. At the Mercade da Ribera there were a dozen stalls selling lace tablecloths and candles. The houses along the street were still painted for Carnival, which had ended a few weeks ago.

We also visited the Convento de Sao Francisco, with its ornate carvings and gilt-edged ceilings; the highlights were the figure of an intricately carved Jesus set in the midst of a jacaranda chest that was the length of a city bus. The sacristy fearlessly melded Baroque and rococo flamboyance. Ironically, I was one of few Princess passengers to see the convent because the excursion buses were late and arrived after it had closed.

My guide took me to the part of town where "real" people lived. We walked uphill on a narrow dirt street, lined with modest porch-fronted cottages. A lizard darted across the street, the first genuinely wild animal I'd seen in Brazil, and strains of Frank Sinatra singing "Strangers in the Night" drifted out from an open door.

It didn't take long to figure out the only English my guy knew was "church" (we went to all 22 of them), "Delft tile" (the Portuguese decorated their churches with them) and "that's bee-yootiful." After a few leering stares from men, I found I valued my guide's presence more than his information.

Two hours after we started, I was hot, bored and tired from climbing hills as steep as staircases. I told my guide the tour was over. "Come here," he said, and led me, as I grumbled, thinking he didn't understand, to what I assumed would be yet another church. It was not. He had guided me to a deserted field, blocks from the lines of tour buses and the town square.

"Bourse," he commanded, and I knew enough Portuguese to understand he was telling me to give him my purse.

For the second time that day I confronted the unpleasant reality that some Brazilians think of tourists as automatic teller machines. I pretended I didn't understand, and began chattering maniacally about the beautiful churches as I led him, subtly, back toward town, toward people. It worked. Back in town, I reached into my purse and pulled out $30--thinking a 200 percent tip might get me out of trouble. Angrily he took the money, and I turned, walking rapidly away. I did not look behind me.

When I reached the market square, I dove into the first souvenir shop I saw. I walked alone for a while, unnerved. In this sunny colonial village I'd been transformed from a happy-go-lucky explorer to a tourist with her tail between her legs. The place suddenly felt seedy. I returned to Royal Princess well before lunch (this time the taxi driver did not threaten me). Later I ventured out again, but not alone; I slid into the back of an H. Stern sedan and spent 15 minutes looking at sapphire rings that cost the equivalent of my annual salary before I walked along the beach.

When I complained to Princess's shore-excursion staff, I was chided; you would have been safer on a shore excursion. It was a bad response: Because shore tours in Recife were completely sold out, I couldn't have boarded a motor coach if I had wanted to. And they were wrong to suggest their tours are necessarily safe. In Rio de Janeiro, a man on a Princess-sponsored tour bus had his camera ripped from his shoulder as he boarded the motor coach. As for me, Rio was pleasantly uneventful. I shared an H. Stern sedan to Recoleta with a couple that regaled me with a tale about their last visit to Rio, when they rode a city bus up to the Corcovado mountain to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer and a thug tore the earrings right out of the woman's pierced ears. They too had retreated to the jewel merchant as a savior.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the South American cruise despite an increasing frustration that, in its attempt to create an onboard atmosphere of comfort and relaxation, Princess nearly ignored, or simply showed alarming ignorance about, the very exotic places it delivered us to.

Princess's James insists that onboard activities on this type of voyage are entertainment-oriented because Princess passengers research their destinations before leaving. Yeah, right. It's clear that for all its talk about targeting a more adventurous traveler and offering exotic port calls, the Royal Princess was totally unprepared for the realities that lapped just beyond its hull. There was just one South American guidebook in the ship's library to serve 1,200 passengers. In all the ports but one, it offered only guided motorcoach tours--no shuttle service to the town squares, as so many other lines do.

As we neared the channel that swept us into the Atlantic Ocean after four days on the Amazon, second-seating dinner was well underway. Over lobster thermidor, I asked my table mates, "What is your most vivid memory of the Amazon?" For me, it was my experience in Santarem: While most passengers went off on shore tours of a hammock factory, I spent the afternoon hanging out at a Brazilian cafe, eating salted smoked beef and black beans, sipping a Brahma and trying out my broken Portuguese on a very patient businessman who'd stopped in for lunch.

From my well-traveled table mates (six of the eight were retired), then, I hoped for interesting responses that might show me something I'd missed--a swim in an igarape, perhaps, a tasty fried piranha sandwich, an especially beautiful crucifix in the cathedral in Manaus.

"The water," they all said, one after the other, making the most superficial observation possible, "is brown." It was as if they'd watched the Amazon go by on TV. Then they returned to a discussion on the difference between British and American income tax regulations. And they were having a fine time.

The exchange reminded me of the "meeting of the waters," where the muddy yellow water and the deep black water run side by side, not mixing.

DETAILS: South America

Because cruise lines sail South American itineraries during the Southern Hemisphere's spring, summer and fall, its season ranges from November to April. Two common itineraries are Buenos Aires to Santiago, via Cape Horn, the Chilean Fjords, Falkland Islands and Strait of Magellan; and Buenos Aires to the Amazon, via Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro. There are also "re-positioning" cruises, in which ships transfer from or return to seasonal hubs in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean.

Mass market cruise lines that offer South American itineraries include Holland America, Princess, Norwegian, Regal and, beginning in 1999, Celebrity. Pricier lines include Seabourn, Cunard and Crystal. World cruises call in at South American ports as well. Generally, cruises range in length from 10 days to three weeks. Costs start at about $4,000 per person, double occupancy. For my two-week cruise as a solo traveler, I paid $4,300. This was a per-cabin, rather than per-person fare (which means two could travel for $2,150 apiece) because the cabin was considered "view obstructed." I did not have to pay a single supplement.

Often, flight arrangements for exotic destinations can be complex, and it's a good idea to buy the cruise line's air add-on package, so that overnight stays, if required, and transfers are provided by the line. In this case, I flew from BWI to Fort Lauderdale, overnighted there, and then departed the next morning for Manaus, a six-hour flight. The return flight was a bit more straightforward--an overnighter from Buenos Aires to New York's JFK to BWI.

The only South American country on our itinerary to require a visa is Brazil; you will not be allowed to board the ship without it, so make sure you get it before leaving home.

--Carolyn Spencer Brown

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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