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Way, way down south

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Donna Love swimming with a dolphin at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.  
My husband Ed and
I decided to book a cruise to another new part of the world.
This time it was a 30-day journey from San Francisco, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Yes,
15 ports of call and 10 countries were waiting for us and the other 3,100 passengers aboard the Star Princess. Besides never having gone here before, we are knowledge seekers and wanted to learn as much about each country - through lectures, tour guides, bus rides, mingling and taking pictures. We were ready.
We flew from Kelowna to San Francisco to board the cruise ship at Embarcadero port. People were leaving the ship with their luggage and people were arriving with their luggage. It was controlled chaos and we were part of it. Once in our stateroom, we could breathe a sigh of relief. From our balcony on the 11th floor, we looked out over the city and Alcatraz and waited for the ship start our journey.
I had three main goals on the trip - swim with the dolphins, buy some llama paraphernalia and walk with the penguins.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico was our first port of call and I was eager with anticipation. We took tender boats to shore and I went with the tour to the huge dolphin building to change and get ready to swim with a dolphin. We had to take off all jeweller and our glasses. Now, everything was a blur, but I consoled myself that at least my husband was watching and he could tell me what it looked like. I was the oldest in our group, the only senior citizen, and I was having the experience of a lifetime. Frieda, our female dolphin, was so firm and smooth and powerful. She was a magnificent creature and I felt so privileged to have taken hold of her fin and swum with her. During the cruise, I saw several pods of dolphins swim beside the ship and was always filled with awe.
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala was our next port. We had booked a tour to wander through a coffee plantation. As we were walking through the grass, I was getting bitten by tiny mosquitoes on my ankles and feet, something I hadn't anticipated. Two women immediately took off their backpacks and came to my rescue. They sprayed me with insect repellent and rubbed my legs with ointment, thank goodness. One lady was from New York and one was from Australia and I learned a new trick. Rub Vicks Vapo Rub on your legs and the insects will stay away. They don't like the smell.
I bought some as soon as we got back to the ship - good to know. We also tasted the best coffee we have ever had, so we bought some to take back home.
We also had time to shop. I love art and the creative talents other people can produce. In other countries, I have come back with rugs and paintings. This time, I went in search of weaving and found plenty to choose from. We bought mainly from one woman who works with her father on the throws and purses. When we were finished, she gave me a handmade doll as a gift so I wouldn't forget her. I gave her a kiss on the forehead and a hug and said I wouldn't.
San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua was next. We booked a river cruise after deciding we didn't want an all-day tour of the region - too long. Our tour guide took us on a walking tour of the town and we watched a special dance routine in the main square. After that, we travelled by bus for about two hours to the inlets of Lake
Nicaragua, the nineteenth largest lake in the world. We boated through the protected inlets with a magnificent view of an active volcano as our backdrop and arrived back on shore at nightfall. Nicaragua has a population of 5.8 million and is the largest country in Central America, but it has been ravaged by civil war for decades. The cost of the war broke the economy of the country so they are now trying to recover. They have a long way to go, unfortunately. Half the population is under 20 years of age. Town folks have an average of four to five children, while the country women have from eight to 15 babies each. This is the only country where this is occurring.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica was where we took an eco-friendly boat cruise to see beautiful exotic birds and crocodiles in their natural habitat. Costa Rica is home to a great number of volcanoes, more than 121 formations and six of them are active. Coffee is king here (and sugar canes) and the country has enjoyed almost six decades of peace. The beauty of the rainforests is why tourists come to this region. They have no army and the president is a woman. We purchased some beautiful wooden gifts made from the various trees of the rain forest.
Ecuador is the smallest Hispanic nation in South America and we landed at Manta, just 16 miles below the Equator. It is a hot and humid in this area and there are no fewer than 20 active volcanoes in the Ecuadorian Sierra alone.
The Andes mountain chain defines the character of this country where is rises abruptly from the warm Caribbean and disappears into the chill, restless waters of the South Atlantic, just north of Antarctica. We visited Montecristi, the home of the famous Panama hat. You can pay as low as $20 or as high as hundreds of dollars for a hat depending on the weave. I bought one for myself for $20 - good enough! There are also many woven products you can buy and all are beautiful. Approximately 14 million people live in Ecuador.
Lima, Peru - once home to the Incan Empire - is a beautiful city of eight million inhabitants. Peru is one of two countries with the richest artistic and folk art traditions and there is an astonishing selection of arts and crafts - and our first sighting of alpaca and llama sweaters and jackets. We spent two days here as 80 passengers disembarked to visit Machu Picchu. The tour booked quickly, so the rest of us toured Lima instead.
Being that it was almost Christmas, we saw beautiful nativity scenes and people rushing about shopping. We visited the Indian Market for an afternoon where I found what I was looking for - llama paraphernalia. What we also found was Scotia Bank from Canada which was prominent in Lima. Extreme Communists are still a problem here and farmers are being killed because they own their land. The killers hide out in the jungles and are difficult to find. This has been going on at least a dozen years.
Coquimbo (La Serena), Chile is home to just under 300,000 and is a fast-growing area. It is our first of four stops in Chile at the northern end. Industries include fishing and exporting coal and seaweed to Japan. The Chilean navy is located here as well, and this is where Salvador Allende was assassinated by the CIA in the 1980s for being too communistic. It is now a prosperous tourist town with beaches all along the coast, condos for fellow South Americans and a university. This is where I saw our first Easter Island statue, brought over from the Island and put in a museum - amazing.
Valparaiso (Santiago), Chile is our halfway stop on our 30-day cruise. We have travelled 6,640 miles so far, and what an experience it has been. Half the passengers disembarked and about 400 new ones got on, mostly Spanish and Portuguese-speaking families with teenagers, deciding it was a great way to bring in the New Year onboard a cruise ship.
Valparaiso is a city of 300,000 and has a strong English influence. It is a hilly area with houses built on steep hillside rocks. There are beautiful beaches lined with hundreds of tall condo buildings. They export fruit, wine, coal and seaweed. Here, I saw another Easter Island statue outside the Fonck Museum. I thought that the best part of the cruise was over but I was wrong.
Puerto Montt, Chile - a city of 180,000 - was where we took a tour to see a settler museum in the hamlet of Frutillar, the legacy of German immigrants. We stopped at Puerto Varas, better known as the "City of Roses" and that's where I got down on my hands and knees to scoop up some soil at Lover's Park.
Our kids love it when we bring back soil, sand, gravel or rocks from all over the world. Don't want to disappoint them. Lots of seafood here and lots of rain - and three cruise ships here at the same time. Getting back on our ship was to be an ordeal with thousands of us waiting in a huge building and listening to the pouring rain on the roof - and it was cold. Again, it was controlled chaos for more than two hours, but everyone was eventually accounted for and we all got on the right ships.
Our scenic cruising led us to the Amalia Glacier of Chile. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field covered the entirety of southern Chile 10,000 years ago and helped form the fjords of southern Chile's Pacific Coast that are here today. After viewing this incredible sight, the ship navigated again through the fjords towards Punta Arenas, the gateway to Chilean Patagonia overlooking the Strait of Magellan, and considered the largest southernmost city on the South American mainland. This is the city where Ferdinand Magellan's ship was literally blown through the strait in 1520. He was relieved to reach
the calmer water to the west of the strait
that he gave it a name we still use - Pacific Ocean.
Ushuaia (Tierra Del Fuego), Argentina - literally, the end of the world and the Gateway to the Antarctic. We arrived at Ushuaia around noon, but before that, we cruised through melting glaciers as the ship wound its way through more fjords. We had never seen such a sight. As I was on the upper deck with hundreds of other passengers, we all heard a booming sound and watched as a large piece of ice fell into the already raging, melting waterfall into the sea. We were told this occurs about every 400 years. What an experience it was.
Here we were at the bottom of South America and ready for an excursion to Beagle Channel. It was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. but the sun didn't set until 10:30 p.m., so we had the afternoon to do some exploring by ourselves. We decided to buy some postcards and have them stamped and mailed "from the end of the world." We stood in a long, long line-up to have this privilege, but it was worth it. Seventeen postcards with stamps cost us $70, and the post office did a lot of business this day with three other cruise ships docked here.
We took a catamaran for our Beagle Channel excursion. It was named after Darwin's ship, The Beagle. The weather was horrid, cold, and rainy, but we stopped at three islands where we could get right up to the rocks and photograph to our hearts content, for those of us who love to take pictures. I got some fabulous shots of the sea lions and two species of cormorant birds.
Cape Horn - scenic cruising - rounding the Cape. It was the thrill I hadn't imagined. We were told we had exceptional weather for that day, relatively calm seas, and we got as close as the ship had ever gotten. Lucky for us we didn't encounter gale force winds, which this area is known for. My brother told me our great grandfather Love had rounded Cape Horn in 1850 on his way from P.E.I .to California during the gold rush days. I figure I'm the second Love to take the journey, but this time on a cruise ship.
At last, we arrived in Stanley, Falkland Islands, where I have booked an excursion to walk with the Magellanic (Gentoo) and King penguins. This was my best experience ever on this cruise. We took tender boats to Stanley and from there a small bus which took us north. A fleet of Land Rovers took us from this point to the open sea where we traversed through bog, rocks, mud and no roads at all. It was raining, extremely windy, and cold. The guide dropped us all off and said, "See you in an hour." What?
It was freezing outside. I lasted about a half hour walking through the mud, penguin poop and vomit. I got some fantastic shots even in the driving wind and rain. I was lucky in that one of the guides offered me a ride to the cafe by the sea. After two cups of coffee and some home-baked goodies, I went back to the penguins for more photos and then we waited for our rides back to the bus. What a ride it was. The 4x4's go in a convoy so if one gets stuck in a rut, everyone stops. This happened to the vehicle in front of us, so we got a first-hand look at what happened. It was hooked up to a winch and towed out. Then we got stuck, but our driver was able to back up and try again. On the way back to the cruise ship, I met a woman from Vancouver, who was a nurse at UBC. What a great day it was,
Ed wanted to see penguins at this point, so we booked a tour at Puerto Madryn, Argentina, our last stop to see the cute things. We went to Punta Tombo, 100 miles south of Puerto Madryn, which is the site of the largest Magallenic penguin rookery in the world.
There are as many as half a million penguins there and spread across the whole rookery by the sea. These ones are called Jackass penguins because when they 'talk,' they sound like a donkey braying - quite the racket.
Once there, we had to walk a long distance, but it was worth it. They are oblivious to humans for the most part and the walkway that we had to stay on was constantly being crossed by penguins on their way to their nests or the sea to get food for their young. There were holes in the gravel everywhere where they nested with their young ones. It was a privilege to see them.
Montevideo, Uruguay - our last stop before Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was formally founded by the Spanish in 1726, but almost entirely made up of European extraction, chiefly Spanish and Italian stock. It is the home to the birthplace of the symbol of the Pampas - the traditional Argentinean cowboy - the gaucho. Uruguay has often been called the Switzerland of South America with its once high standard of living and extraordinary democratic institutions. Nice place with a lot of building going on right now.
However, our guide said the new developments are being paid for by "black money," or drug money, as we call it. Anyone who tries to stop them is assassinated, so it's a real problem.
Buenos Aires, Argentina - we said goodbye to the ship and took a tour of the city where the tango dance was invented. It is a huge and beautiful city and we saw as much of it as we could in a short time. We saw the famous soccer stadium and had some time to shop. Argentina is known for its excellent beef and leather products - superb leather, for sure. We were pretty much shopped out, but I bought some small leather goods to take home.
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