Some time ago I decided to take some time off work and take a long cruise. After looking at the various possibilities, I decided to book a cabin on a passenger/freighter that would take me from Los Angeles down the coast of Mexico, through the Panama Canal and sailing south along the east coast of South America. It would continue south to the entrance of the Strait of Magellan, then sail west at the bottom of South America reaching the Pacific and head north along the Pacific coast of the Continent past Central America and ending again in Los Angeles. The entire voyage took 64 days.
The ship was Delta Lines’ 14,000 gross ton S.S. Santa Mercedes. It was 547 feet long and carried 128 passengers and many tons of freight in the hold and in containers. American owned, operated and crewed it was one of four identical sister ships which plied the seas from North America around South America. The others in the fleet were: Santa Magdalena, Santa Mariana and Santa Maria. They provided an important service to the countries and cites on their itinerary.
My cabin was a nicely furnished accommodation with private bath and shower, couch, chair, desk, coffee table and large bed. I enjoyed two large windows looking out over the sea from my position on Deck 5.
The passengers were carried amidships in five decks with very nice, large cabins; a restaurant surrounded by windows; two lounges; and a small curio shop for toiletries, film and other needs along the way. There was a gym, public laundry, three bars and on the aft section were two decks with ample deck chairs to be used for reading, sunning, gossip and relaxation. On each side were nice walking decks to keep fit. There was also a large swimming pool and positioned between two cargo booms was a large outdoor movie screen used for first run showings in the evenings. You really couldn’t want more in this type of vessel.
On sailing day I was driven to the Los Angeles harbor, deposited my several suitcases to be loaded aboard ship and placed in my cabin and checked in for my two-month voyage. At noon, the ship’s horn gave three blasts and we slowly left our docking position and moved into the harbor for our sail south.
After leaving the harbor the ship cruised close to the Southern California shore and I entered the nice up-scale dining room for lunch. Why is it that when you are at sea, even for a few minutes, your appetite goes crazy and you want to eat more than you would at home? I remember I had a prime rib sandwich with iced tea that first meal.
After lunch I went to my cabin and began unpacking. There was plenty of closet and drawer space for the long trip and the cabin steward stored the suitcases in the hold. I spent the rest of the afternoon discovering what would be my new “home” for the next few weeks.
The dress code in the dining room for dinner for men was suit and tie. There were a few evenings when the ship was docked that we could have an open collar and sometimes even a tropical shirt for the evening meal. The cuisine was all American with roasts, fish, lamb, steaks, plenty of mashed potatoes and a good assortment of pies and cakes for dessert. I realized at the beginning of the cruise that I would have to watch the diet or come home to Los Angeles 30 pounds heavier.
There were not a lot of activities during days at sea and I had planned for this prior to departure. One suitcase was loaded with 33 books. I read all but one, which I threw overboard. It was how to play bridge. Boring!
The night activities began around one of the bars, then dinner followed by some entertainment consisting of a trio, a couple singers and sometimes games.
The passengers were senior citizens. I was the youngest being in my 40’s at the time.
One couple was from Indiana. The man had been president of a large oil company. His new wife had purchased so many clothes for the trip that they purchased two suites aboard ship, one for them and the other for her clothes. She didn’t get up until late morning and by noon, when she would make her appearance, she was dressed to the nines. The remaining passengers during the day were dressed as you would imagine – in vacation sport clothes.
Our first port of call was at Mexico’s Manzanillo. A day was spent here sightseeing the area, with lunch at a very nice resort. At some locations the sightseeing was included in the fare, while others were for an extra fee. The ship usually spent only one day in most ports to unload and load cargo. Most of the passengers booked the cruise for the entire 64 days.
From Mexico the ship continued south to Panama and the passage through the canal.
Our next call was at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. I had never heard of this city and was rather surprised to discover that it was quite large. From there we docked at the port of Caracas. Sightseeing in the city and area was included since the shipping company was holding an onboard party for local travel agents and wanted most of the passengers off the ship. Fine with us!
Almost a third of the passengers departed the ship at Caracas, leaving most of their luggage in their cabins, and flew to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They didn’t want to spend the nine days it took to sail there and wanted to visit various points of interest in Brazil before re-boarding the ship at Rio.
During this rather long stretch at sea before reaching Rio the ship provided memorable lunches on the aft deck around the pool as we sat at patio type tables enjoying the sea and great food, which included barbecues, swim parties, prime rib roasts carved to your liking.
I continued reading the many books brought aboard. Also, I changed dining room tables every two weeks in order to gain new tablemates and different conversations while enjoying the meals. On a long voyage it is customary to tip your dining and room stewards every week while you are onboard.
In Rio the ship spent two days in port, which allowed time to enjoy the amazing sights of this special city and area. I’ll never forget how beautiful it was to sail out of the city with the amazing high jutting hills and mountains that surround the fabled city.
Further south was Santos and then it was into Montevideo, Uruguay, situated on the River Plata. I remember how poor almost everyone seemed and how few cars occupied the streets of the city.
Our sightseeing included a gaucho performance with horses and a fantastic barbecue lunch. Items of leather were very inexpensive here and I purchased a long black coat.
The next day we docked at Buenos Aires and spent three days here, which provided enough time for extensive sightseeing and walks in the downtown portion of the city. This is the most “European” city in South America and my favorite. You really think you are visiting Europe.
After our days here, the Santa Mercedes cruised south for seven days experiencing 30-foot and higher waves as we approached the Strait of Magellan. This is the Inland Passage, which took us two and a half days to cross at the foot of South America. It was during their winter and the weather was cold and windy. Our captain allowed passengers on the bridge at any hour of the day and night to investigate the situation, check the weather forecast or just watch outside to see the adventure pass by.
During some of the Strait of Magellan passage the ship came so close to shore that you could almost touch the penguins standing there. When we reached the Pacific Ocean our vessel headed north along the spectacular coast docking at Valparaiso, Chile for two days allowing us a visit to nearby Santiago. This is another European city resembling Spain and very enjoyable.
Then, further north to the port of Callao, the port for Lima, Peru. After one day here, we headed for Manta, Ecuador for a day. There is nothing for the tourist here, so I stayed aboard ship and watched the loading and unloading activity on the dock.
From here, we continued north past Central America, Mexico and on the 64th day of our journey we reached Los Angeles harbor and home. When I departed ship it was almost a shock to once again be in the big city with its busy life.
I shall never forget the great moments aboard the good ship Santa Mercedes and the fine officers and crew of the Delta Line. We were all in good hands for a marvelous experience.