Expedition ships offer a deeper look at South America

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NEW YORK -- Expedition cruises that highlight natural history, culture, light adventure and a bit of the water-sporting life fill the alternative cruising niche in South America.

The hallmarks of expedition cruises are an informal lifestyle and an accent on learning and the ability to discover and experience places that larger ships and overland trips are unable to explore in such magical worlds as the Amazon, the Galapagos Islands and ice fields of the Strait of Magellan.Zodiacs into the fjords of northern Chile

The Amazon River

International Expeditions, with its fleet of three riverboats, custom-built in Iquitos and designed for taking travelers into remote regions of Peru's rain forest, offers the premier Amazon experience. Departing weekly from Iquitos and traveling upriver to the confluence of the Maranon and the Ucayali rivers, cruises explore the smaller and more remote tributaries beyond the farthest-flung settlements and into the most pristine and primeval tropical realm.

The all-wood vessels have air-conditioned cabins, each with private, tiled bath.

Expert Peruvian naturalists accompany passengers throughout the voyages.

"We call our sailings 'voyages,' " said Richard Ryel, president of International Expeditions, because "the comfort and amenities of our vessels, combined with the remoteness of our routings, broaden the spectrum of Amazon travel appeal."

Additionally, Ryel said, "we go in different directions in different seasons, following the wildlife and offering the passengers the convenience of choosing a pristine Amazon experience in any season."

The company's vessels -- La Esmeralda, La Turmalina and La Amatista -- accommodating 16, 26 and 28 passengers, respectively, will be joined this year by the long, narrow, eight-passenger Malaquita, which will be able to go even farther into the rain forest, and La Turquesa.

Selected departures on Amazon voyages are available for individual travelers, while others are reserved for zoological societies, conservation organizations and universities. The eight-day river and rain forest experience is priced at $2,698 per person, sharing, inclusive of air from Miami.

The Galapagos Islands

The "enchanted isles," 600 miles from mainland Ecuador, were made famous by Charles Darwin, who landed here in 1831 aboard the Beagle.

The few larger ships serving the region accommodate between 90 and 100 passengers and are either new or newly refurbished. Smaller yachts are decidedly more modern and comfortable.

Either way, visiting the Galapagos is still more an adventure than a luxury cruise. There are about 15 islands and islets that travelers are likely to visit during cruises that feature morning and afternoon shore calls.

The most up-to-date fleet is owned by Quasar Nautica Galapagos Expeditions, represented in the U.S. by Miami-based Tumbaco. Tumbaco will expand its cruise product in October with the addition of the 48-passenger Eclipse.

This, according to Maria Eugenia Jauregul, the company's managing director, "will give us a chance to accommodate special-interest organizations and alumni groups."

Tumbaco vessels cruise from San Cristobal Island. Approximately 40% of their business is in charter departures, with the remainder in the FIT market, said Jauregul. Motor yachts and motor sailers all have staterooms with private bathrooms and air conditioning, Zodiacs for shore excursions and naturalist guides.

The Quasar Nautica fleet includes the 12-passenger Diamante, the 16-passenger Lammer Law, the 16-passenger Alta and the 16-passenger Parranda. The Parranda has extra-large cabins.

Yachts are available both on a per-passenger and charter basis for seven-night sailings. Full-boat charter prices range from $22,200 to $38,800, depending on the boat; per-passenger costs, based on two persons sharing, range from $1,890 to $2,360 in low season and from $2,100 to $2,630 in the high season.

The bottom of the world

Terra Australis is a 100-passenger cruise ship designed specifically for cruising around the southern tip of Chile on a routing from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia in Argentina, showcasing a grand landscape of mountains, icebergs, fjords and glaciers inhabited mostly by penguins.

The ship sails from October to April on seven-night sailings from Punta Arenas through the Strait of Magellan and Chile's inland waterways, cruising the Beagle Channel and Glacier Alley. Port calls include Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the world, and Ushuaia, at the tip of Argentina. Passengers also visit Magdalena Island, with its huge penguin colony.

The cruise may be taken in three- and four-night segments, sailing between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. Rates for a seven-night cruise, per person, double, for the low season range from $1,147 to $2,392; for the shoulder season from $1,444 to $2,892, and for the high season from $1,795 to $3,611.

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