Eye on flora of South America

During a 17-day February-March ’04 South America cruise aboard the Amsterdam of Holland America Line (Seattle, WA; 800/426-0327) and on land tours that we booked separately, I was interested in observing the different types of flowers, plants and trees in each country visited.

We flew into Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Feb. 19, and the agent from the local tour company was awaiting us at the gate. We were taken by private car to the Luxor Regente, a newly renovated hotel in a good location near the Ipanema end of Copacabana Beach.

It was comfortable, not fancy, with a good buffet breakfast. Few North Americans were staying there; the other guests were mostly South Americans coming to enjoy Carnival. The hotel had an excellent dinner buffet as well.

This 2-night hotel stay was part of a land package we had purchased from Avanti Destinations (Portland, OR; phone 503/295-1100 or visit the parent company website, www. raileurope.com) through Park Place Travel in Walnut Creek, California. We felt this package was much better than what was offered by the cruise line.

Along with a half-day “Historic City” tour, a half-day “Petropolis” tour and delivery to the pier in Rio de Janeiro, the package also included, at the end of our cruise in Valparaiso, Chile, a ride from the pier to Santiago for a 2-night stay at the Radisson Royal Santiago Hotel, along with a half-day city tour and delivery to the airport. Selecting the Radisson increased the fees, but it was a lovely hotel in a safe locale with great service.

The Avanti land package cost $952, including insurance for the package portion of the trip as well as entrance fees at the sites visited.

Rio de Janeiro has both beaches and the unique Tijuca National Park, the largest urban expanse of tropical forest on the planet. The train trip to the top of Corcovado Mountain to see the famous “Christ the Redeemer” statue (best enjoyed in early morning due to smog later) goes through this tropical forest, part of Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest. (Note: although many guidebooks state that the statue can be reached only by climbing 225 steps to the upper level, this is no longer true. There is now an elevator.)

Many of the huge plants are recognizable as the house plants that we enjoy in our homes in temperate zones. Colorful impatiens covered the forest floor in shady spots. In one pond there were many royal water platters, huge water lilies that grow in the tropics. Rio’s Botanical Garden, which has the largest botanical collection relating to the Amazon, has a long pathway lined with tall royal palm trees.

The other tour touted in Rio is to Sugar Loaf, where Italian bubble cars for 75 move up the stone monolith in two stages. The panoramic view of the city below is better there, with more viewing platforms than at the “Christ the Redeemer” statue.

We embarked the Amsterdam in Rio, and the tropical sun stayed with us as we sailed south. All the cities we visited had many trees plus parks filled with statues of heroes.

The ship stopped at Montevideo, Uruguay. This is where we first saw the large trees covered with pink blossoms that our guide described as “drunken trees.” The trunks had protruding spikes.

In nearby cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, a city described as the Paris of South America due to its wide boulevards, cafés and French-style architecture, we saw many of these large, blooming trees among the skyscrapers.

Walking through the Plaza San Martín, a park of several city blocks, we found an interesting focal point: a huge gomero tree. Said to be at least 300 years old, it was so huge that many of its branches were propped up due to their weight. In the heat of the summer months it was a calming place to relax in its shade. A few jacaranda trees were still in bloom.

Most Americans did not know of the Falkland Islands, with its remote capital, Port Stanley, until 1982 when Argentina and Great Britain fought for its possession. This tiny spot is a bit of England, and due to its location where the cold Antarctic winds blow, it was surprising to see flowers in bloom. It was 50°-55°F but summertime for them. Large lupines were in full bloom as were calendulas and snapdragons.

The port itself is home to a shipwreck graveyard, where numerous ships sank as they attempted to round Cape Horn. Victory Green in Port Stanley, with cannons and a memorial from the war with Argentina, was definitely a windy spot.

As we sailed southward toward Cape Horn, the weather became colder. At Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, we boarded a catamaran to see seals, many seabirds, such as the large black-browed albatross, and gentoo, Magellanic and king penguins. There weren’t any flowers to see at the “End of the World.”

The next day the Amsterdam cruised through one of the world’s most scenic passages among glaciers and fjords, the same seen by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520. The only city on the Strait of Magellan is Punta Arenas, an important export center for Patagonia wool.

The ship stopped at Puerto Montt, gateway to the Lake District of Chile. German colonists settled in this city, and the architecture still shows high-pitched roofs and ornate balconies on buildings.

Here it was surprising to see roses blooming along most city streets. These hardy people live close to thermal springs, waterfalls and towering volcanoes. Among Chile’s strange plant life is the umbrella-leafed naica and multitrunked ulmo. One lichen-covered tree had the name of hirusuta, aptly named, as it was indeed hairy.

Our cruise of 17 days on the Amsterdam, with 5-star food and service, was fabulous. I hope others will enjoy it as my husband and I did.

At the port of Valparaíso, as part of our land arrangements, a private car picked us up for the 2-hour drive to Santiago. The driver took us on a detour high in the mountains to look down upon the vineyards in the valley before delivering us to the lovely Radisson Royal Hotel, where the service was especially good, as was the buffet breakfast.

The city is in a beautiful location with the snowcapped Andes as a background. It has many plazas and grand thoroughfares surrounded by parks. A worthwhile museum to visit is the Pre-Columbian Museum, whose artifacts include textiles, paintings, figurines and ceramics from Mexico to Chile. It is a spacious museum with exhibits well lighted.

We hired the hotel car and were driven to small courts and narrow streets where the architecture looked Italian and French. We found this to be a better value than buying two bus tours at $33 each.

The pollution of the many buses is diluted somewhat by the many, many trees that fill the parks. There were roses and geraniums still blooming in the city, as well as late-blooming plants; it was early fall there. Here we saw the Mediterranean plants; these grow in only five parts of the world.

As a traveler interested in plants of the world, this South America trip was most rewarding.

Walnut Creek, CA