All Ashore: South America Shore Excursions

Travel writers highlight their favorite South America Shore Excursions

Penguins steal the show in the Falkland Islands

On a two-week “Round Cape Horn” cruise, I, and a group of travel writers, visited eight ports, including the port of departure, Buenos Aires, and the disembarkation port, Valparaiso.

I asked the travel editors and writers for comments about their shore excursions along the way. With few exceptions, all shore excursions on our cruise got two thumbs up. “It was hard to choose a favorite,” says Michelle Dill, an editor at Alaska Airlines Magazine, “because I went on three shore excursions that were among the best I’ve ever done in nearly 15 cruises.”

Michelle Dill Michelle Dill, an editor with Alaska Airlines Magazine.
1) Day at the Estancia (duration 6.5 hours, cost $175 per person), Montevideo, Uruguay.

“What made this tour wonderful was the warm welcome of the family and the variety of activities. We had an hourlong lunch consisting of the region’s renowned grass-fed beef (from our hosts’ cattle) while a professional group performed traditional dances. Afterward, we rode through the farm where green parakeets flew past, and then continued down to a huge beach by the river. We returned to milk a cow, sheer a sheep — and my personal favorite, I galloped around a field for 30 minutes on one of their horses. I can’t say enough good things about this excursion. It was just a perfect day. On the way back to the ship, our guide asked, ‘How did you like your day?’ One passenger called out, ‘It was our best shore excursion ever. They treated us just like family.’ I have to agree.”

Punto Tumbo Penguins2) Punta Tombo Penguin Rookery (duration 6.5 hours, cost $124 per person), Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Note: This trip involves traveling by bus for about one hour on paved road and another 90 minutes on gravel road to Punta Tombo, home to an estimated 500,000 Magellanic penguins.

“I loved walking among the penguins and seeing them so close up. I sat down on a rock and had a mother and baby come right up to me, and the baby tugged on the pocket of my jacket. Where else could you experience that?”

king penguin3) A Day at the Beach with Royalty (duration 7 hours, cost $268 per person), Port Stanley, Falkland Islands.

“What an adventure to do a 4×4 ride through the peat bogs, get stuck in a big mud puddle, have to get pulled out and end up on this velvety sand beach where we were walking among King penguins, Gentoo penguins and Magellanic penguins. There were no fences or ropes separating us from the penguins and very few people. You’re just among the penguins, communing with them.”

Harry Shattuck, travel editor for the Houston Chronicle, and wife Joan
1) Montevideo (Uruguay) Highlights (duration 3.5 hours, cost $46 per person).
“We normally shy away from city bus tours, because too often you just stay on the bus except for ‘shopping’ stops. In Montevideo, the tour made six or seven stops, and we got good insight into the city’s history as well as its diverse neighborhoods. Those who wanted to stay in the city’s Old Town afterward for shopping had that option. We can easily recommend this city highlights tour.”

Chilean penguins2) Magdalena Island Penguin Reserve (duration 6.5 hours, cost $115 per person), Punta Arenas, Chile.

“We wanted to do a penguin tour but shied away from the others because the bumpy roads were a concern. The ferry ride seemed in advance to provide more comfort. Of course, we knew the ferry was not exactly luxurious or the sailing smooth, and several people told us the 2.5-hour bus ride to Punta Tombo Penguin Rookery had been easily tolerable. So in retrospect, we would have seen the penguins there instead. But since we didn’t, this tour — even given that it was a six-hour tender/bus/ferry and ferry/bus/tender ordeal for 60 minutes of penguin watching — probably was our favorite. One penguin tour on this cruise should be a minimum requirement.”

Note: Some passengers complained about this tour, because of the duration to reach the penguins — “a big investment,” one person in our group said, “for so little.” Also, once there, wind gusts of up to 50 mph made walking and standing difficult. Those who went instead on the “Penguin Caves” tour in Punta Arenas raved about it (duration 4 hours, $60 per person)

3) Beagle Channel Navigation and National Park (duration 5.5 hours, cost $120 per person), Ushuaia, Argentina.

“Sea lion observation here was terrific. Same with the Imperial Cormorants. Excellent photo opportunities. The first part takes about 2.5 hours by boat. Upper deck was windy and cold but good for photos. Inside decks had room for just about everyone. The second part (two hours at the national park) was not as good. We made a 45-minute stop at a park service area that had two shops, bar and restaurant. I’d have rather seen more of the flora and fauna. The guide kept pointing to ‘exotic’ (her word) animals like rabbits. A better combo (not offered) would have been the Beagle Channel Navigation and the Train Ride To The End of the World (duration 3.24 hours, cost $115 per person). I’d heard so much about the national park and was disappointed.”

Ralph & Dan’s Favorite Shore Excursions

I traveled with a buddy, and we had our own favorite shore excursions:

Ralph and Dan in Montevideo1) On Our Own in Montevideo (duration 5 hours, cost $0).

We headed straight from the ship to the market near the dock. Actually, it was more of a food court housed in an old building with interesting architecture, large stone floors and a dozen or so food vendors each trying with equal and unrestrained relish to get us to take a seat in their restaurants.

The restaurants were attractive grills, with the grill surface tilted toward the bar so that passersby would be tempted by the sights and smells of meats and vegetables. Before stopping, however, we walked through the old town, into the city center and around the sea wall, returning to the market three hours later for a “light” lunch of chorizo, grilled peppers and a large “Patricia” beer that we shared. Cost: $5 each. No need to change money here, because the restaurants accept dollars.

2) Falkland Island Birding (duration 3.5 hours, cost $64 per person), Port Stanley, Falkland Islands.

When someone mentioned Argentina to our tour guide Arthur, he replied, “Where’s that?” It was political joke, of course. Arthur was here in 1982 when Argentina and Britain clashed over who had the right to possess and administer this small group of islands 300 miles from South America’s coast. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Falklanders almost never mention Argentina.

British to the core, Port Stanley is a remarkably bite-sized chunk of England — with fish and chips, red phone booths and convivial pubs. Cars drive on the opposite side of the road, and we had to take care more than once when stepping off the curb as vehicles nearly clipped our shoulders because we had been watching for them in the wrong direction.

On the morning we arrived, nearly 2,000 cruise passengers invaded this town of fewer than 3,000 residents. People were walking toe to heel along the sidewalks and poking their heads into the few shops.

Last year, when a fierce wind kicked up and made tender back to their ship too much of a danger, passengers were forced to take accommodations with local residents until the ship could return the next morning. On the cruise the week before ours, winds made it too risky for tender service, so the captain made the decision to skip the port. Consider yourself lucky to make landfall in the Falklands.

We arrived safely for a birding excursion. Against a headwind and in light rain, we saw quite a few birds, as well as reminders that many mines were still in the area where we were walking (not to worry, the areas where mines are suspected are fenced off).

TIP: Our guide told us the best time to come to see birds is in December, shortly after breeding season.

3) Cape Horn (no excursion available, but the ship holds its position for an hour or so for viewing)

Hours before arriving at Cape Horn, we headed to the Cosmos Lounge for panoramic views of our approach to the Horn. We took our seats and prepared for our adventure to the legendary Cape — until moments later when line-dancing lessons began. The stereo blasted country songs as a large group moved in unison across the dance floor. The music switched to “Hot, Hot, Hot!” as we approached the world’s most feared stretch of sea. Welcome to Cape Horn — on a cruise ship.

No severe weather or waves here, none of the stuff you hear about that makes grown men whimper. Several passengers expressed disappointment that the weather and waves had not been more dramatic.

Tierra Mayor4) Tierra Mayor Trekking (duration 4 hours, $62 per person) Ushuaia, Argentina

We arrived to good weather, no wind, no rain, except for occasional light sprinkles during the day. Ushuaia was much larger — and touristy — than we had expected. Far from a remote outpost, Ushuaia was bit like Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at the tip of South America.

We transferred by bus — a group of only 14 — over the mountains and into the valley for Tierra Mayor Trekking. Our guide Maria lives in the valley in a small house with no electricity or running water — her family drinks water from the stream. She uses batteries and a converter for lights and has no television, no internet and correspondingly perhaps, no stress.

Night skies here are filled with stars, Maria told us. In winter, full moons illuminate the snow-covered valley. Even in summer, the mountain peaks are snow covered. We listened to her stories of living in this remote region as we followed her through a peat bog where beavers had been busy building dams. It was the natural beauty and simplicity that made this excursion so special. Afterward, we returned to a lodge for Maté (the South American tea-like beverage) and light snacks before heading back to town where we had a few hours to sightsee and shop before setting sail.

Fly Fishing5) Fly Fishing on River Maullin (duration 6 hours, $275 per person) Puerto Montt, Chile

We arrived to gorgeous weather and a quick transfer of our group of only six to Rio Maullin Lodge, about a 40-minute ride from the docks. Once there, we would flyfish from boats, two to a boat with a guide. Gear was provided, and either a spinning reel or a fly rod depending on your preference. A hearty breakfast also was provided as was lunch, which included the popular Pisco Sours and Chilean wines. We caught no fish, although three members from our party caught five between them. That we came up empty did not matter. The owner’s hospitality was so warm and genuine, and the experience so novel: Our guide Paulina had practiced but never spoken English with others. The authenticity of this excursion made it something to cherish.

Join the Conversation

Marcel Ayoub says:

I am searching for a transport facility for 4 persons with a driver/guide (French or English) to visit Montevideo from 7:00am to 4:00pm.
Departure and return point: Terminal De Pasajeros Benito Quinquela Martin.
If you have this facility I will appreciate if you send me the conditions of your engagement. If not, please send me, if possible, name and address of companies doing this service.
Thanks and best regards
Marcel Ayoub
Québec, Canada

st maarten says:

I’ve been fortunate (or unfortunate) to experience ‘the elements’ at Cape Horn. Definately something I won’t forget in a hurry!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *