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Around the bend

Cruising to The End of the World

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I’m sitting in a hot, low-lit hall in the heart of Buenos Aires watching men and women tango. It is nearly midnight and the room is packed. Watching the sensual twirling bodies and flashing legs is mesmerizing. This is the real thing.

It is tough to equate this skilled display with the lessons my wife and I took a few days earlier, aboard the Star Princess, a cruise ship sailing from Valparaiso, Chile, around Cape Horn up to Buenos Aires. Led by a couple of Argentine tango experts, the sessions were fun and we quickly made progress -- though the sea was so rough that every time the ship rolled we all tottered while attempting to keep our one-to-eight-step routine. By the end, my wife and I were confident we could tango with the best of them -- until we saw the pros dance.

Learning to tango was one reason we decided to take the South American trip. The other was to sail around Cape Horn.

After a Toronto to Santiago flight, we drove to Valparaiso, one of Chile's most important seaports. The 90-minute trip took us from the Andes mountains to desert hills to tropical forests to pine forests to lush valleys full of wineries, all squeezed between the spine of the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.

The Star Princess was late arriving due to bad weather, and we headed right back into the choppy seas and grey skies that were to continue for most of the six-day voyage down the coast of Chile as it steadily got colder. It was January -- summer down there -- but when you get to Patagonia (the southernmost region of Chile and Argentina), the remote landscape is shrouded in mist and dark clouds much of the time. The grim weather suited the dramatic coastline of spectacular fiords with the snow-capped Andes in the background.

After taking on a pilot, the ship threaded her way through channels with black mountains on each side and endless waterfalls bursting from the rock.

An announcement alerted us when we were about to sail past the spectacular blue light glaciers. We spent hours on our balcony trussed up in layers of sweaters and parkas sailing through this dark, brooding landscape in the wildest and most inhospitable part of Chilean Patagonia as we headed down to The End of the World.

There were a couple of stops. One was Punta Arenas, where we visited the Otway Bay Magellanic Penguin Colony. It was like gazing on a town of little people wearing tuxes. Various lines of four or five penguins marched in all directions; others would just stand looking back at us; woolly babies peered out of burrows; a noisy mob of penguins thrashed around in the ocean.

After a slow sail through the Beagle Channel we arrived at Ushuaia -- dubbed The Last Town in the World ---- on the island of Tierra del Fuego, named the Land of Fire by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan when he saw flames rising all over the island. (These were lit by the Yamana Indians to ward off the cold.) For us it was more like the Land of Fog and Rain -- what was billed as a scenic tour to Hidden Lake failed to find the lake.

As we sailed away and the bleak island faded into the mist, we were told we would be rounding Cape Horn at 6 a.m. the next day. We forced ourselves not to work our way through the wine list as was usual at dinner, and set the alarm. Six days after leaving Valparaiso, the big moment was approaching.

We were up at 5:30 a.m. and, wearing almost all the clothes we packed, joined a few other hardy types, cameras at the ready, on the open deck. The rough seas were luckily still with us -- who wants to round the Cape on a calm day?

The wind had strengthened to around 80 kilometres an hour, making it difficult to stand as the ship rolled in the swells. Then, out of the gloom, a collection of black rocks appeared. Frozen fingers attempted to focus cameras while staying upright.

False alarm. An announcement from the bridge advised that this wasn't Cape Horn, which was still 20 minutes away.

We sailed on, in daylight now, though it was still dark and overcast. And finally, there it was: The End of the World -- a stark, rocky headland that went down in steps to the ocean. We could just make out the lighthouse buildings and the round iron monument on the lower rocks. A patch of sky cleared, lighting up the cliffs. A huge rainbow curved down to meet the very tip of the Cape. The captain said somebody smiled on us to provide this glorious -- and rare -- Cape Horn experience.

As the Cape began to recede, more passengers, roused by the ship's speakers, appeared on deck, hoping for a sighting.

But the black shapes had faded into the grey, leaving only the ghost of an outline.

But I'd seen it. And I have a certificate signed by the captain to prove I sailed around it.

Now we were on the Atlantic side, and the rough seas continued making it too risky for the large ship to call at the Falkland islands.

Instead, we sailed north over the next few days calling at a small resort town in Argentina and Montevideo in Uruguay before arriving in Buenos Aires.

We had found the Miravida Soho Hotel ( online. It is in the Palermo Soho district, a trendy area of artists and designers, and the fashion centre of the city, packed with boutiques, restaurants and cafes. It was a good choice. The rest of BA is a colourful chaotic adventure that we'd explore each day before returning to a calm Palermo cafe to sit under a cool tree and sample the excellent Mendoza wines. And there was time to sober up before heading out to dinner around 10 p.m. with the locals.

Four days in BA is not enough. There is so much to see and do ---- magnificent Spanish colonial buildings and spectacularly angular modern towers. La Boca, one of the oldest barrios, where the original houses of the early immigrants still stand, gives a glimpse of the city before it became a hot destination. Another, San Telmo, is a paradise for antique hunters. If it's posh you want, visit Recoleta, close to the city centre, a place of big hotels and wide avenues. Its ornate cemetery is home to many of Argentina's most famous, including Eva Peron.

But it was our home base, Palermo, with its parks and lakes, that was the greenest and most pleasant. With temperatures in the 30s, the canopy of trees kept the streets and patios cool while we worked our way around the funky boutiques and cafes where people sit for hours in animated discussion.

There seems to be a lot of passion in Buenos Aires. Which brings me back to the hot, dark hall where we are watching the tango artists put on their dazzling display. Afterward, we practise our eight-step routine. My wife considers trying to put her leg on my shoulder -- but we think this might require medical attention afterwards and we don't know if dancing is covered by our travel insurance. We came to South America to dance the tango. And we have. Sort of.

-- Postmedia News


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2010 E7

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