Our Cruise to South America

November/December 2008

For pictures, see my Picasa folder

Strike!

I suppose I shouldn't have looked at the Internet on the Friday before our Sunday departure. “Air France en grève (– on strike)” said the headline - “Zonk” went my good mood - we had to make two connecting scheduled flights to get to Nice via Paris Orly, plus a cruise bus from Nice to Savona in Italy, our embarkation point. Something was bound to go wrong!

 

I looked up the Air France scheduled flights and found a number of cancellations – about 40% of flights were being cancelled due to a dispute over raising the Air France aircrew retirement age from 60 to 65. So I pondered the possibility of driving the few hundred kilometres to Nice – then rang the lovely Murielle at Thomas Cook Villeneuve for advice. She contacted Costa Cruises and told me to stick to the itinerary and Costa would fix whatever went wrong.

 

On Saturday we left Tessel Bas and the pussycats to Kathy, house and cat-sitter and part-time saint, who kindly drove us to Agen railway station. The TGV whisked us efficiently to Toulouse, where I discovered that “Gare Routière” means “Bus Station” and was the departure point of the shuttle bus to the airport. A short walk from the airport found the “L'Atrium” hotel, which proved to be devoid of any kind of atrium, consisted of little furnished huts, served a medium-disgusting dinner, but was cheap and handy for the airport. During the day Costa Cruises phoned us with a flight change to 08:45 as the 07:45 was cancelled.

We got to the airport at 06:45 and were told after an hour's wait that the 08:45 was also cancelled so we rang Costa on a mobile number they had given us and re-booked on the 09:45, convinced that we'd be stranded at Orly with no onward flight, no hotel and no holiday as the Costa Magica steamed out of Savona without us. Rarely have I felt so powerless and anxious.

 

As we landed at Orly there was an announcement on the aircraft’s PA system asking us to report to the flight crew – at the plane door was a smart young man with a Costa badge who whisked us through Orly, scattering tourists in our wake as we picked up our baggage and joined the queue for the first Nice flight that ran that day – full marks to Costa for that!

At Nice there was a bus full of French people who had been bussed down from Nantes, who were remarkably tolerant of these “Parisiens” who had kept them waiting. We relaxed for the first time in three days as the coach drove us along the attractive corniche to Savona and our departure.

Embarkation

The Costa Magica turned out to be broadly similar to the Costa Mediterranea, in which we toured the Caribbean; different décor as the Modena glass was replaced by gold and beige fibreglass, but a similar atmosphere, reinforced by a strong presence of Italians, Portuguese-speaking Brazilians and French, with only a token presence of English-speakers.

A day at sea in the Mediterranean ended in our first “Gala Night”, where I got a chance to wear the new jacket and trousers that Xine insisted I bought. The show afterwards, “Magic Moments” was an impressive production for such a venue and the largely amateur performers.

Malaga

Our first port of call was Malaga – we'd been there before, horse riding in the hills, so we kept to a simple tour of the town. The weather was already pleasantly warm. We had a search for shaving cream and handkerchiefs that “Someone” had omitted to pack in the traumatic pre-embarkation phase; however we spotted some shaving cream in the port shop as we returned.

Casablanca

In Casablanca we had to visit the Medina – I love souks and Moroccan souks in particular; they are so friendly and almost everyone speaks French, so communication is no problem. So I was relieved of many Euros for my “mouchoirs” - but in a very friendly way!

Tenerife

Santa Cruz in Tenerife was rather wet – we walked round the shopping area during a dry spell, but dashed for the boat when the rain resumed – we were clearly in the rain shadow of the local mountain.

Mindelo

Mindelo is a small island in the Cape Verde islands, with a very laid-back and somewhat neglected feel to it. As usual I was amazed to see a ship in excess of 100,000 tonnes park gently alongside a jetty that looked like it would crumble in a strong wind.

By now the weather was both hot and humid, so the half-hour walk from the jetty to the town demanded a drink in a local bar – after ship prices I was amazed that a beer and a Coke was only just over two Euros.

The Atlantic

Leaving Mindelo, we set out for our longest stretch of three days without a port of call as we cross to Brazil. We filled them with our little routine of morning run, swim, spa pool, read, lunch and read some more, check on the emails in the internet café, which leaves us time to visit the evening show in the impressive 1800-seat theatre and afterwards take dinner.

Cuisine

The ship food is excellent – obviously Italian-biased, but with international variations. One can eat at virtually any time of day, in any of several buffets and restaurants. Not good for the waistline! The restaurants are usually informal, apart from one or two gala nights per voyage, which give Xine a chance to dress up; I wear a jacket but I didn't bring a tie!

Fortaleza

We took the “Cultural Fortaleza” tour to see our first city in Brazil. I was ashamed to say that this large place with some 1.5 million souls was unknown to me, and amazed to find that Portugal and the most southerly part of Brazil were roughly equidistant at about 5000 km. We visited a “zone artisanale”, quaintly set in an old prison, where Xine bought some pantacourts and a blouse for a ridiculously low sum (they took euros!). Then a tour of some of the beautiful old Portuguese buildings, such as the theatre, complete with its original cane-bottom chairs, and some of the newer buildings such as the cultural centre and planetarium. We stood on the Ponte dos Ingleses, otherwise known as the metallic bridge, which was strange, as it was largely made out of wood and was a pier, not a bridge.

Recife

Recife I had heard of – after all it has a population of three million – but there were fewer high-rise buildings and more lush greenery and colourfully painted old buildings. There was yet another visit to yet another converted prison building, followed by a boat trip on the Capibaribe river through what was rather optimistically-titled “the Venice of Brazil” but which was nevertheless quite interesting. Our departure from Recife was stirring – a big ship leaving port still creates a buzz, but everyone was on deck partying under the stars of the warm, tropical night and admiring the lights of Recife on their black velvet background. Three earth-trembling blasts on the ship's siren and Andrea Bocelli at full volume singing “Time to Say Goodbye” got us well under way.

Maceió

Next morning found us anchored in Maceió; this time we got out of town to a remote island beach, so we drove through the luxuriant tropical vegetation and exotic fruit plantations to a traditional boat, which took us to Gunga's Beach. This saw the ceremonial dunking of Ian's corpulent presence in the warmest bit of the Atlantic Ocean he's ever experienced. The sun was intense and although not excessively hot only half an hour's exposure put him in lobster emulation mode.

Salvador-Bahia

Waking up to the sight of Salvador-Bahia outside the cabin window (well, “portholes” are round aren't they?) was a little disappointing, as the sky was cloudy after overnight rain. We took a trip through the wide spectrum of Bahian sights; wonderful, restored colonial buildings, the seedy jumble of the favelas (shanty towns), the impressive town beach with Sunday trippers, miles of scruffy, grimy streets blackened with mould and ultra-modern high-rise buildings. The town had character and an exciting buzz about it (maybe from the Heath Robinson street wiring). In the afternoon the clouds cleared to show the city and its bays off to their best advantage, but we were glad to get out of the high humidity and 30 degree temperatures on our return to the ship.

Ilhéus

Ilhéus proved to be smaller and generally more attractive then the other cities we had visited, with fewer high-rise blocks, fewer favelas and long stretches of beach. A drive of some 40 minutes South took us to the Hotel Canabrava; a resort hotel with an impressive pool and a travel-brochure beach; with coconut palms leaning over a long strand of fine sandy beach, thatched sunshades and brown people sipping pena colada. We stayed there most of the day, with a very nice lunch of Brazilian specialities – fried chicken, beans of all kinds, fish, octopus and delicious salads and sweets. It was a pleasant, relaxing day.

Rio de Janeiro

All my life I've wanted to go to Rio de Janeiro, so it was with some excitement I got up early at 06:00 to see the ship enter the famous harbour. Oh dear - mist and rain and very poor visibility spoiled the realisation!

Our tour of the sights started with the Sugar Loaf Mountain, which was shrouded in mist and drenched with torrential rain. Fortunately the clouds lifted and the rain stopped as we were leaving the top, so by the time we got to the top of Corcovado Mountain and the statue of Christ the Redeemer, the panorama of Rio and its surrounding islands was revealed in all its splendour. We had a look at the famous but rather windswept beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana – sadly bereft of “girls from Ipanema”.

We decided that we liked Rio; despite the iffy weather it wasn't a disappointment and is definitely a place of which we'd like to see more. Unlike some of the other cities, it's smart and sophisticated and is devoid of that “third world” feel, despite the ever-present favelas on the surrounding hilltops.

Sao Paulo

Santos was the last port of call; a fair-sized city in its own right it acts as the port for the enormous conurbation of Sao Paulo. The logistics of disembarking some 3000 passengers, bussing them three hours to Sao Paulo airport and distributing them to several different countries took most of the day and we had a four-hour wait at the airport before we could get the overnight Air France goat-class red-eye to CdG. I hate overnight flights, I can never sleep and I watched the seatback TV until the person in front reclined their seat into my face.

Return

The wait at CdG for the Toulouse flight gave me the opportunity to type some of this – CdG has good WiFi coverage, but, as usual, you need to get the credit card out to take advantage of it. I could also admire the impressive span of the inverted-boat-hull glass roofs of Terminal 2F.

The flight to Toulouse barely gets to altitude before the descent starts, so we were soon on the fast train to Agen where lovely Kathy picked us up, took us home and fed us a nourishing soup.

Postscript

A cruise allows you only to briefly dip a toe into the cultures and customs of the ports visited, as a “taster” for later visits. We liked Brazil and would like to see more, particularly Rio. The country is more advanced than I expected, but an indelible impression is that the majority of the wealth is in the hands of a small and largely corrupt few, so there is considerable poverty and the associated crime. The ever-present favelas, shantytowns clinging to the hilltops, many built without permission, electricity, water or sanitation, are evidence of a big social problem that is too big to be soluble either in a short time or by the current regime. Perhaps a cruise is a safe way of seeing at least some of Brazil – it’s reassuring to return to one’s big, floating hotel to sleep.