South American Cruise
By Kathy Dunn © 2001

Kathy Dunn and her parents tour the port cities of South America on a Holland America's Ryndam cruise.

I have just returned from a 17-day South America cruise with my parents around Cape Horn  on the Holland America (HAL) Ryndam (11/13-12/1/01).  My mother is quadriplegic due to MS. This was my parents 27th cruise and my 11th.

Prior to our departure, we found Katy Ludwig and Jennifer McCloskey (Manager), at the HAL Access & Compliance Office most helpful and willing to both answer questions about access and to provide us with unusually good information.  We often find that information about the specific accessibility features of a modified cabin is lacking on both cruise line websites and in their brochures.  When we inquired about the bathroom features on the Ryndam (cabin 704), Ms. Ludwig arranged for someone on the ship to take digital photos of the bathroom set up and e-mail them to us the next day.  Ms. McCloskey was also able to answer questions about HAL policy on access to/from the ship in ports and use of the new HAL tender lift, which we were able to use.

We also did not use any HAL tours, since none are accessible and they were expensive.  We used primarily arrangements through South Star Tours in California info@southstartours.com
Tel. 800 643-4468) except as noted below.

After a total of 15 hours of flying from LA through Miami we arrived in Santiago, Chile. We had not been informed by HAL about the $61 cash per person payment required of all US citizens (less for Canadians or other countries) for entry into Chile at the airport, so be prepared. We were met by our private transportation company. HAL does not provide free transportation to/from the ship in these ports, but charges a fee for their own package (more expensive, and only offered a sedan or bus). We are glad we chose our own arrangements as we were able to get a lift-equipped van through South Star Tours with a very nice English speaking guide for the 90 mile trip to the port of Valparaiso.

On arrival at the ship, we were provided good (although a bit disorganized) assistance to our cabin # 704, which accommodated three people (using a roll-away bed). The bedroom set up did not allow sufficient room around the beds for wheelchair transfers or the use of a lift if set up for one queen sized bed. However, with the beds set up as two twins with the beds against the wall it was workable.  This left a grab rail over one bed, which was helpful for turning in bed.   All room lights could be controlled from the bed, but it was impossible to see the TV from one of the two beds. The bathroom was accessible, although the sink cut-out was limited and there was no trap insulation.  The bathroom was small, so the turning radius was not up to ADA standards, and to use the sink the bathroom door had to be left open.  The toilet (18² high without toilet seat) was set at an angle to the wall,  and the grab bar (one side only), which was limiting and a little scary in rough seas.  We used both our wheelchair and our lift as additional supports for safety while using the toilet.  The shower access was good.  Our main complaint was the drainage system, which did not work well at all, resulting in a wet floor throughout the bathroom whenever the shower was used.  Due to poor maintenance the tiles leaked through to the underlayment, and stepping or rolling on the floor resulting in water being squeezed from the saturated underlayment to the floor.  This could be dangerously slippery.  In addition, the mirror was too high for good use from the wheelchair, and there was limited shelf space that was accessible from the chair.  The closets had good access and appropriate height shelving and clothing rods, which could be adjusted into different configurations as needed.  The desk was accessible as was the small love seat.  This cabin has only small portholes, and is very far forward on the ship, resulting in more noticeable motion in rough seas.

All public areas on the ship were wheelchair accessible, although this was somewhat limited in the Crow¹s Nest (our favorite area) bar.  This is at the top of the ship at the bow with glass windows all around, but because the couches are screwed to the floor, there were several areas where path of travel was too narrow for wheelchair use (using an 18² wheelchair with no camber).  This was also somewhat of a problem in the showroom, which has not specially reserved wheelchair seating.  If you plan to arrive early for shows, you can move chairs to get access all the way to the front row of the showroom if desired.  All other areas where either ramped or level with the exception of the observation area on the roof of the Crow¹s Nest.  The Promenade area is fully covered and allows easy wheelchair access all the way around the ship.  The pool offers very limited access with no lift, but could be used by someone with assistance for lifting and transferring.

The first two days out of Valparaiso were very rough, cold and rainy until we entered more sheltered waters.  Our first port was Puerto Montt in the Chilean lake country.  This area is beautiful with high snow-covered volcanoes, lakes, rivers, streams and fertile pasturelands.  Here we made our own arrangements for an all-day tour via automobile (Mercedes Benz 230) through Eureka Tours in Puerto Montt (eureka-turismo@entelchile.net  Fax: 56-65-255146.  

The driver, Edmundo Muñoz, spoke excellent English and found us a wheelchair accessible bathroom in a beautiful hotel in Puerto Varas on Llanquihue Lake (Hotel Cabanas del Lago, which also has wheelchair accessible rooms). The German Museum in Puerto Varas is interesting, but not at all wheelchair accessible. Although the Petrohue River Falls viewing area is not accessible (1/4 mile trail with steps and steep slopes) the drive there and view of the Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes is spectacular. Our tour went to many places not visited by the usual bus tours. 

The next two days we cruised the Chilean fjords and Darwin Channel with spectacular mountains, glaciers and not a sign of any other people, ships or towns, and then entered the historic Straits of Magellan

Our next port was Punta Arenas, Chile on the Straits of Magellan.  Here we had a tender port and a chance to use the new wheelchair tender lift on the Ryndam.  We had not been informed that reservations were necessary to use this lift, which delayed our departure by an hour.  The lift is like a modified platform stair-glide system and lifts you onto a hydraulic platform on the special tender. It was easy to use and could accommodate either power or manual wheelchairs of 18" (no camber) or less.  There is no tie-down, so have someone ride with you on the lift platform in the tender to provide protection from tilting during the ride on the tender. If you will need the tender lift in any port, be sure to arrange this well ahead of time (at least the day before) through Michelle Clomos (Customer Relations aboard ship). Unfortunately the dock-side set up at Punta Arenas was a nightmare of inaccessibility, and I would not recommend getting off the ship at this port for anyone who cannot walk or stand at all.  Our delay resulted in us missing our tour and having to wait an additional hour to arrange another van (not accessible), requiring lifting my mother in and out of a standard van). 

The next day we were in Ushuaia, Argentina in the afternoon after cruising the beautiful Beagle channel (mountains and glaciers) in the a.m., the southern-most city in the world.  This town is not very accessible due to poor sidewalks and hills, but there were some curb cuts, and with help we were able to walk around the town.  The museum is not accessible.  The location is beautiful and the people friendly and offered to help get the wheelchair up and down hills and into stores with steps.

The next day we cruised to Cape Horn early in the morning.  Be sure to be on deck in time to round the Cape and experience having the bow in the Pacific and the stern in the Atlantic!  We were lucky to have pretty good weather (rain, but no fog) so viewing the Cape was easy and the seas were not too rough.  We then cruised that day and arrived at the Falkland Islands the next morning.  This is also a tender port with better shore-side access (still steps requiring lifting), but my mother chose not to go ashore.  The town is easy walking, with wheelchair accessible public bathrooms on the main street.  Instead of taking a tour, I choose to take the $10 shuttle (van, bus or cab) to a penguin viewing area where the docent pointed out interesting information about the birds, vegetation and living with the large number of land mines still in many beach areas from the war in the 1980s between England and Argentina.  We were fortunate to have good weather here.

Following two days at sea, we had a two-day stay in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here we had a city tour in a van (again not accessible, with lifting required) around the beautiful city and parks.  The main cathedral is accessible (ramps), although the cemetery (to see the grave of Eva Peron) was not due to walkway condition and construction).  The second day we took cabs on our own to shop and see additional areas.  Many people on the ship took an optional side trip to Iguassu Falls here (2-hour plane trip), but there is no wheelchair access and the trip is expensive, even using the much cheaper rate offered by South Star Tours (compared to the HAL tour).  A major problem here was the requirement of the port to use their non-accessible "people mover" bus from the ship to the street (this has been added since the September 11 attacks).  The security people did help in lifting the entire wheelchair in and out of the van, but we did not receive any assistance from HAL about this.

The next day we were in Monte Video, Uruguay.  Again we had some confusion about our tour (South Star), and when we finally got our automobile transport our driver had only limited English.  He did give us a good driving tour of the city, including the beach areas, old city and beautiful residential areas.

After two more days at sea we arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Here we had three very good tours with a company arranged through South Star Tours. Although none of the transportation was accessible, the company provided enough muscle on each trip to lift my mother on and off vans and buses, although generally only the guide spoke English (and my Portuguese is nonexistent except for abrigato--thank you!).  The first day we drove through the city and into the Tijuca Forest National Park to the parking area at Corcovado Mountain where the famous Christ, the Redeemer statue is located.  My father and I climbed the 226 steps up to the actual statue from there, but my mother remained with the guide at the parking lot and was still able to see most of the spectacular view.  The usual way to get to this area is by cog-wheeled train, which is not accessible at all, and buses are not allowed on this road.  We then drove south through the Tijuca Forest park past lush tropical vegetation and waterfalls to the beach areas of Ipanema and Cococabana.  We only viewed Sugar Loaf from a distance as the cable car ride there requires numerous stairs to access.

That evening we had a tour that included a wonderful Brazilian "barbecue," which offers a buffet of salads and then an unending round of men coming to your table with long skewers of grilled meat of every possible variety (beef, pork, chicken, etc.).  They keep serving you until you say, "enough!."  The usual cost for this is about $20 per person if you go on your own (drinks not included).  The restaurant we went to in the Cococabana area was fully accessible except for the bathrooms.  After this we went to a stage show, which showed traditional dance and Carnival costumes with dancers.  The location was not accessible, but we had plenty of help to carry the wheelchair up to the 2nd story location. 

The next day we had to be off the ship by 10 a.m. and took an all-day tour to the colonial Imperial city of Petropolis in the mountains north of Rio. Here we were pleasantly surprised to find a fully accessible Imperial Palace Museum, complete with a lift installed just for wheelchair access.  We had a traditional Brazilian lunch in a lovely private 19th century home (lifted up a few steps).  We had rain and fog here, but were still able to see the old colonial buildings and resort areas in this popular location.  The tour company then took us to the airport for our return to the USA, providing wonderful services there getting us through security (expedited for those in wheelchairs) and onto our flight to Miami.  We were lucky enough to get "bumped" to business class on our flight from Miami to LA, so we did not arrive home quite as tired as we might expect after a 16-hour trip.

South America would not be the first destination I would choose for any disabled cruisers, as there are more challenges ashore than on cruises to destinations such as Western Europe, Australia/New Zealand, Alaska or Hawaii.  It can be an interesting destination for anyone who has sufficient assistance and is not afraid of a challenge (with some risks, too).

Enjoy Dunn's other cruises on the following pages.

Alaska: A Regal Princess Cruise

Trans-Pacific Crystal Harmony Cruise

South America: Holland America Ryndam Cruise

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