5 of the best cruise hotspots in South and Central America - Cruise International

5 of the best cruise hotspots in South and Central America

By Katie McGonagle | 15 Jul 2022

Sea lion in the Galapagos Islands. Picture: Gudkov Andrey/Shutterstock

Cruise holidays have been branded the ‘rising star’ of travel to Latin America, so we check out some of the best cruise hotspots in South and Central America to book now for 2023

 

Cruise holidays in South and Central America are on the rise again as the region bounces back post-pandemic and travellers seek longer, more adventurous holidays.

Colin Stewart, chairman of the Latin American Travel Association (Lata), told Cruise International: “I think [cruise] has been the rising star of the past few years in terms of untapped markets. We have seen growth in cruise over the past four or five years – obviously it took a bit of a hit in Covid, but I don’t think there’s ever been a healthier appetite for cruising.”

A Lata consumer poll of 1,051 people, which included Cruise International readers, found 18% of those surveyed had taken a holiday in the region in the past five years, with a quarter saying their trip included a cruise.

The biggest reasons for wanting to travel were to experience new places they hadn’t visited before, to explore the world and to make up for missed travel during the pandemic.

The sheer scale of South and Central America – spanning everything from the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica to the furthest reaches of the continent at Cape Horn, via verdant banks along the Amazon, one-of-a-kind wildlife in the Galapagos Islands and the historic feat of engineering that is the Panama Canal – means there’s no end of experiences on offer both by land and water. To set you on the right course, we check out some of the best places to explore on a cruise in South and Central America.

Chilean fjords

Chilean fjords. Picture: Shutterstock/kavram

Cruise through the fjords of Chilean Patagonia

Rugged, snow-blanketed mountains stretching towards the sky, bright white glaciers calving into an ice-scattered sea and penguins plunging from the rocky shore into frigid waters – these sights are not only the preserve of adventurers who cross the Drake Passage towards the remote reaches of Antarctica. They can also be found edging the southernmost shores of the South American continent, where the Chilean fjords offer a taste of expedition cruising without the time commitment.

Smaller cruise ships skim in and out of these glacier-carved fjords, following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin’s legendary journey on HMS Beagle. They include Scenic’s discovery yacht, Scenic Eclipse I, which has a Chilean Fjords & Cape Horn voyage from Santiago to Buenos Aires departing October 28, 2022, or the reverse journey departing March 5, 2023. The luxury yacht-style vessel will navigate through the smaller channels of the fjords, past jaw-dropping scenery and highlights including the only glacier in the world that is actually growing.

Admire the dramatic terrain of Tierra del Fuego – dubbed the Land of Fire by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, named for the fires he saw flickering along the coast – passing by elephant seals lounging on the beaches of Ainsworth Bay or tiny Magellanic penguins on Isla Magdalena. Sail down so-called Glacier Alley, surrounded by ice on all sides, and venture right to the edge of the world at Cape Horn, where there’s nothing but stormy seas from there to Antarctica.

 

Aerial photo of Swan Hellenic’s Minerva. Picture: Martin Bianco

Book an Antarctica adventure

There’s no doubt that seeing the White Continent is every adventurer’s dream, and with the region in the spotlight this year – as we mark Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 100th anniversary and the discovery of the wreck of the Endurance, remarkably intact despite being underwater for 106 years – interest has never been higher.

There are a number of new expedition ships on the horizon too. This year saw the launch of Viking’s expedition arm with debut vessel Viking Octantis, soon to be joined by Viking Polaris; Aurora Expeditions’ delayed launch of the Sylvia Earle, sister ship to the Greg Mortimer, was rescheduled to November; budget operator Intrepid Travel began its first season on Ocean Endeavour; and luxury line Seabourn brought purpose-built vessel Seabourn Venture into service in July, to be followed by Seabourn Pursuit in 2023.

Cultural expedition line Swan Hellenic, which was relaunched under new management late last year, will also be sailing sister ships Minerva and Vega in the region in winter 2022-23, with itineraries including an 18-day adventure in the footsteps of Shackleton, not only visiting Antarctica itself but also the Falklands and South Georgia Islands for the full experience. Specialist operator Polar Latitudes is also running a one-off voyage accompanied by Shackleton’s granddaughter later this year.

 

Observation Lounge, Silver Origin, Galapagos

Observation Lounge, Silver Origin

Cruise the Galapagos Islands

The big bucket-list items don’t end with Antarctica, and for many the pristine ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands is the big draw. This archipelago inspired Charles Darwin’s theories in On the Origin of Species and has gone on to inspire several cruise lines to create boutique vessels specifically to sail here, including Silversea Cruises’ Silver Origin and Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Flora.

Adventure cruise line Aqua Expeditions also launched the superyacht-style Aqua Mare, which holds just 16 guests, earlier this year to explore the islands’ eastern and western reaches on seven and 14-night journeys that boast the highest guide-to-guest ratio in the region. With two naturalists on board and excursions capped at eight guests per group, everyone will get a good vantage point to spot giant tortoises, iguanas, fur seals, frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies and more.

Many UK-based tour operators also offer a Galapagos cruise as part of a longer land-based tour around Ecuador or Peru, using smaller cruise providers that may not be household names to offer a local experience, available through the likes of Audley Travel, Journey Latin America, Cox & Kings, Cazenove & Loyd and Select Latin America. With just 70 vessels permitted to operate in the region at a time and strict rules regarding the use of local staff, local ingredients and interaction with wildlife, the area has been hailed as a leader in sustainable travel.

Niels Olsen, minister of tourism for Ecuador, said: “We prioritised vaccinations to the tourism sector so the Galapagos was the first archipelago in the Americas to be fully vaccinated. The Galapagos, for many years, has been a great example of how to operate and manage sustainable tourism. Most sailors come from the islands and they hand-pick people from the local towns. We are now trying to replicate that in other nationals parks in Ecuador.

“I think the Galapagos is an example worldwide of how to manage such a pristine and fragile ecosystem. It’s thanks to tourism that the Galapagos people are thriving so it’s a way to use tourism for conservation and sustainable development.”

 

Amazon River

Amazon River. Picture: Unsplash/Adam Smigielski

Sail along the Amazon

Pink dolphins and piranhas, enormous caiman lurking on the banks and spider monkeys twirling through the trees overhead – if you want to get off the beaten track, the Amazon is the place to do it, where every excursion turns into an adventure. A host of cruise lines include the Amazon on Latin America or Caribbean sailings, from the likes of Fred Olsen Cruise Line and Ambassador Cruise Line, whose second ship, Ambition, is set to sail here on a no-fly journey from London Tilbury, to luxury lines including Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn and Azamara.

Aqua Expeditions has launched new ship Aqua Nera – a sister vessel to Aria Amazon – taking guests deep into the Peruvian Amazon with naturalist guides on board to lead excursions to see the flora and fauna of the most biodiverse rainforest in the world. When you consider that fewer people visit this area of the Amazon in a year than go to Machu Picchu in a month, it’s clear this is one for the travel wish list.

If you want to head towards the Ecuadorian side of the Amazon, local operator Anakonda Amazon has two boats in the region, holding between 30 and 40 passengers, and is a champion of sustainable travel, both in protecting the local environment and working closely with the Indigenous population to ensure tourism benefits the local area.

 

Panama Canal

Panama Canal. Picture: Pixabay/Schliff

Transit the Panama Canal

These days, we rather relish the chance to sail around the tip of Cape Horn and through the Strait of Magellan (perhaps a little less the Drake Passage, depending on whether it’s ‘lake’ or ‘shake’ time), or through the icy reaches of the Arctic, but turn the clock back a century or so and the advent of the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914, changed the face of shipping forever. Instead of thousands of extra miles and weeks more time at sea travelling around the outermost reaches of the Americas, ships could cut through this nifty, narrow passageway from the Pacific to the Atlantic in just over 50 miles, or about 10 to 12 hours.

More than 100 years later, this marvel of engineering hasn’t lost its appeal as travellers still enjoy the thrill of squeezing along the man-made waterway on a cruise through the Caribbean or Central America. Norwegian Cruise Line has even signed an agreement with the Panama government to offer 12 voyages starting and ending in Panama in 2022 and 2023, traversing the canal as part of journeys visiting Costa Rica, Aruba, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic, Mexico and more.

Scenic has also included the Panama Canal as part of its collection of 2023-24 sailings on luxury yacht Scenic Eclipse I. The range features seven new itineraries, including four voyages in the Caribbean with a chance to transit the Panama Canal and visit smaller ports including the San Blas Islands.

Be sure to stop at the visitor centre in Miraflores, home to fascinating facts about its history, construction and the impact it had – and continues to have – on the global economy.

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