Leaving the Americas



Cruisers galore in all different shapes and sizes. Tom surveys them from the top of the mast.

Antoine in his ideal cruising boat for the Beagle Channel - a 6.5 metre mini-tonner!

Tom returned to a very different Mar del Plata in November, than the one we left in September. Quite apart from the brief chaos of the protests against President Bush at the Summit of the Americas, the city was increasingly crowded with summer visitors and the marina with cruisers heading toward Chile. This year there were hardly any Brits and mostly Germans and French boats made up the numbers, with occasional Scandinavians and Dutch, even one boat from Turkey. Most were steel and more than a little rough around the edges. Virtually all were Europeans. What surprised us most, was how relatively inexperienced many were, yet as one of their earliest cruising grounds they were tackling the Canales, which we had found the most challenging cruising. We guessed they would either learn very quickly or have major problems. Interestingly, we did hear that several boats had major breakages on the trip down to Ushuaia. What they all shared was a strong spirit of adventure - none more so than Antoine, an enthusiastic young Frenchman on his way south single-handed in a diminutive mini-transat boat.




Fishing boats in Mar del Plata harbour

Salvatore, Luis and Alejandro, the helpful staff at the Yacht Club Argentino, who took such good care of Sunstone while we were away

Statue of a bull sea lion on the beach front

Though boat maintenance still took up some of each day there was more time to explore Mar del Plata, both its working side in the port area and the resort along the beach front. With Christmas approaching, we also got into the social whirl, primarily with other cruisers, but also with our Argentine friends, Norman and Hazel Jenkins, as well as Herman and Cristina Moro.

Vicky working on her annual Christmas cake

Asado at Herman and Cristina's

With Chistmas and New Year past, we were forcefully reminded that our remaining time in South America was measured in weeks rather than months. We pushed ahead rapidly with the remaining boat jobs, preparing once more to go to sea, this time for the longest single passage we had yet to undertake, the 3700 miles to Cape Town.


January - high spring tide for people on the beach- lowest water for boats in the harbour


Checking out the contents of the first aid kits and the boom fittings

 As always these days, we made sure that the hull and all the other external parts of the boat had fresh coats of varnish or paint. By the second week in January, Vicky felt that her regular exercises and our bike trips around the city had done enough to strengthen her hip that we could head off for more challenging pedestrian adventures. Once again we closed up Sunstone and headed to the Terminal de Autobuses, this time for the 22 hour trip to San Martin de Los Andes, right across the Pampas on the western side of Argentina. Fortunately much of the trip is inevitably in darkness, which is just as well, given the unrelieved tedium of the pampas scenery and some of the longest straight bits of road not built by the Romans. As you approach the Andes you enter the long valley of the Rio Colorado, where gradually the land rises either side two or three miles away. Between these escarpments the countryside becomes more lushly green and suddenly there are orchards and fruit farms everywhere. By the end of the valley you are entering the foothills of the Andes, and though the scenery is still more arid than the forests of Chile on the western side, there are groves of pines and distant glimpses of snow-capped mountains.


At San Martin we hired a small, very red car, which fortunately boasted a large engine, for whose every horse we were grateful during the more demanding parts of our travels during the following week. We headed first across the Andes into Chile across the Tromen pass in the shadow of Volcan Lanin. Almost simultaneously with our passing through the two border posts, we moved from the warm sunshine of Argentina into the cool drizzle of Chile, perfectly duplicating all but two of our January days of the previous year in the Canales. We made up in conviviality that evening what the weather lacked in warmth, staying with Wolfgang and Gaby at their farm in Villarrica, where we also met up with our cruising friends Mike and Cath from 'Breila' and Dario and Sabina of 'Pachamama' with new small crew member Serena.

We had got to know Wolfgang well the previous summer, but only via the SSB in his role as controller of the Patagonian Cruisers Net, which he manages with a wonderful balance of efficiency and humanity. Only the week before our visit he had picked up the fact that one of the boats, which often checked-in, had not done so for some time. He alerted the Chilean Armada which launched a search and found the boat and its crew, who had been surviving ashore for two weeks, following a gas explosion aboard. In an area like the Canales, with few inhabitants and wild weather, Wolfgang's service to cruisers is a wonderful reassurance that there might be assistance available if it is needed.

Beautiful Volcan Villarrica, glowing in evening light, with a wisp of smoke rising from its vent

Vicky dressed as a caballiera, in somewhat modified gaucho attire

These were examples of the better bridges and roads on our travels in the Chilean Andes

 From Villarrica we drove through beautiful farming country in unaccustomed sunshine, past sparkling lakes, lush pastures and even lusher green woodland to Ian and Maggy Staples Farm near Los Lagos, for a further Ocean Cruising Club gathering with Mike and Cath also in attendance. Here, Vicky got a rare opportunity to go riding and we caught up on the progress of Ian and Maggy's honey project. By this time Vicky was also champing at the bit, but in this case for a proper hike, so we set off on the trail to the Three Lakes in the National Park near Pucon. We just about managed to reach the height of all three before our weary legs demanded a return to lower levels. This being an insufficient adventure, Vicky then navigated us via a succession of 'black' roads toward the ferry on Lago Panguipulli. Goats might have been happy to call these roads, but our small red car was at times on the verge of giving up the unequal struggle. However, neither boulders nor knee-deep pools could keep us from making the only ferry which would allow us to cross the border back into Argentina before nightfall. If you think the exotic cruising can be challenging, try taking a land-tour with Vicky in the navigators seat!


Back in Argentina we took things a little easier - though every thing is relative. On successive days we tackled an 'easy' lakeside ramble, which only had us plunging in and out of ravines, and then headed up the track which ends on the slopes of Volcan Lanin. Fortunately we were not equipped with the climbing ropes and crampons necessary for the last part of this trek and so stayed below the tree-line, where there were in any case quite enough obstacles to a gentle stroll of the kind that Tom prefers. The compensations throughout these tribulations were the wonderful scenery. Despite the fact that this was the height of the tourist and holiday season in the area, we found the trails virtually deserted, especially in the morning - the Argentines not being notably early risers. Each evening we returned to our little B&B in Junin tired but happy. On our last day in the area we returned to the bustle of San Martin, took a genuinely gentle lakeside stroll and prepared for the long trek back to Mar del Plata.


We had assumed that while it would be necessary to book our trip to San Martin ahead, it would not be necessary to book ahead for the trip back. We were wrong. In the end we had to go the long way via Buenos Aires. The Retiro bus station in Buenos Aires the following morning, after torrential thunderstorms the night before, was a scene of splendid Latin chaos. Nevertheless, it has to be said that most buses departed on time, even if arrivals were somewhat delayed; this was hardly surprising when buses were arriving from all corners of the country at the rate of two or three a minute.


Our two years in Central and South America taught us a great deal more than a smattering of Spanish. All cultures seem to contain paradoxes and contradictions. Latin American cultures are no exception and in addition the countries themselves are quite different. The exuberance and racial diversity of Brazil contrasts sharply to the quiet, formally polite attitudes of Chile. Walking the streets of Argentine towns and cities you could easily be in Spain or Italy, while in Ecuador the faces around you are predominantly Indian, with their dignified stoicism, broken by occasional flashing smiles. Sadly it was only toward the end of our stay in Latin America that our Spanish improved to the point that we could do more than hold halting exchanges. Unfortunately, this is true for most cruisers, with the result that few of us get to know any Latin Americans who are not well educated and for the most part well travelled. There are frustrations in Latin American attitudes to time-keeping and efficiency for those raised with the Protestant Ethic, but these are compensated by the warmth, hospitality and generosity we generally met. Despite the mostly self-imposed limitations of our experience, we enjoyed our time in South America.