Small ship cruising has always been the discerning seafarer’s top choice and given the recent backlash against ocean cruise liners, they’ve become increasingly popular even among first-time sailors. There’s a multitude of reasons that make cruising on a small ship infinitely more rewarding, especially in remote destinations that simply couldn’t handle an influx of tourists, en masse. The advantages for guests are numerous, as are those for the intended destinations. A more sustainable and rewarding way to explore by sea, small ship cruising really is the smarter choice.
In South America, small ship cruising is an exceptional way to explore, given that the most prominent destinations – the Amazon Rainforest, the Galapagos Islands, the Chilean Fjords of Patagonia and Antarctica – boast the kind of ecosystems that need to be treated lightly. In Antarctica, specifically, small ship cruising has been identified as the ‘ideal’ form of tourism. Bring smaller groups of people to this incredible place and the benefit of environmental awareness will far outweigh the impact. Do the same with megaliners bringing thousands of people onshore on a prominent bird-besting site, for example, and the damage will far outweigh any benefit.
What is the Definition of Small Ship Cruising?
Generally speaking, a small ship is any vessel that carries no more than 200 passengers, a far cry from the 5,000+ passengers which large ocean liners, like the Symphony of the Seas, can carry. Yet aside from the obvious size discrepancy, small ship cruising sets itself apart in various ways, offering a totally different way of travelling.
The Benefits to You, as a Guest
With fewer people on board a ship, the intimacy of the trip is greater and so your chance to explore. You can sail into much smaller harbours, explore narrower channels and reach remote regions no large liner could ever get to. This is primarily what offers guests a more in-depth and immersive experience, no matter where they go.
Small ship cruising has the priceless benefit of allowing you more time ashore, as disembarking is made easier with fewer guests to carry back and forth. In places like Antarctica and Patagonia, the weather plays a huge role in how much time you spend on land – it figures that facilitating your movements on and off the ship is ideal. And in fervently protected reserves like the Galapagos Islands, some landing sites limit the number of people allowed, on land, at any given time: this is where you’ll really want to choose the smallest ship your budget will allow.
More Personal Space
Overcrowding isn’t just something you’ll dodge on-land when you choose to explore with smaller ship: there’ll no queues with which to contend at dinnertime, fewer people with whom to share the library, gym or spa (AND kayak use); you’ll generally enjoy a much more relaxing experience in a far less-crowded ship. Small ships offer gorgeous quiet nooks you can retreat to with a good book and glass of wine – your chances of finding anything like this on a megaliner, outside of your own cabin, are practically nil.
Better Quality of Service & Food
Service improves dramatically with fewer guests and this is particularly beneficial in specialist expeditions that offer the guidance of naturalist guides. The ship’s crew will have more time to dedicate to each passenger and it’s also worth mentioning that, as might be obvious, the culinary offerings WILL also improve exponentially. The smaller the ship, the more gourmet the meals and the more enthusiastic the crew!
Fewer Distractions = More Emphasis on the Destinations
If you do love some boisterous nightly entertainment and a punt at the ‘casino’, small ship cruising may not be for you. By their very definition, these kinds of expeditions shift the focus very much on the destination so although you’ll have less glitz, glamour and ‘entertainment’, you’ll also be totally immersed in whichever magical place you happen to be visiting. In all of South America’s best cruising spots, this means on-shore hikes, kayaking and, in the case of the Galapagos, snorkelling and SCUBA diving as well. In all these destinations, expedition ships are built to include extensive decks for premium wildlife viewing. For many, this is the biggest enticement of cruising on smaller vessels: if you’re heading to the other side of the world to explore a spectacular destination, why take along the usual distractions we normally have in our everyday lives?
The Benefits on the Destinations
Large-ship cruising has recently come under the spotlight, not only in Europe where megaliners have literally crashing into historic seaside towns but also in more fragile places like the Arctic regions (primarily in Canada) where small indigenous communities are starting to be overwhelmed by cruisers that drop thousands of tourists on their shores, all at once. These are places that may be able to deal with a couple of hundred visitors, at most – and perhaps even benefit from the incoming trade – but certainly not thousands. More worrying, is the fact that there are an estimated 100 megaliners set for release in our seas in the next few years, each capable of carrying 5000+ guests. It is sheer madness to contemplate this type of mass tourism to be released on our seas, not given what we now know works (and what doesn’t).
Small ship cruising in remote regions offers an ideal benefit-for-impact value: many of the world’s most isolated communities do benefit from visitors although keeping our environmental impact to an absolute minimum when we do visit, is the key to making the experience an essentially beneficial one.
The Best Small Ship Cruising Destinations in South America
South America is a prime continent for expedition cruising and home to a handful of very unique destinations, most of which are only accessible by boat. For all the reasons mentioned above, we offer immersive, action-packed small ship cruising, because we believe they offer the very best experiences, both for you and the places you visit.
Here are the amazing places you can visit in South America:
A fervently protected land and marine national park, the Galapagos of Ecuador are home to some of the most exceptional wildlife on earth. A dozen or so major islands, and several smaller ones, can be visited on 4, 8 or 12-day liveaboard cruises and, given that only a few are inhabited, and even fewer offer accommodation options, exploring by ship really is the best way to soak up the splendour. Of all the cruising destinations, anywhere in the world, this is the one where you’ll want to go as small and compact as possible.
See our range of small ships cruising the Galapagos Islands
The south-western tip of South America is awash with jaw-dropping fjords, some so remote they’ve managed to stay well under the tourist radar for decades. Start your explorations from Ushuaia, meandering across the Beagle Channel and this icy spectacle, hiding countless colonies of elephant seals and penguins, as well as attracting tremendous numbers of whales, dolphins and migratory birds. Small ship cruising here is akin to Antarctica expeditions, with on-shore excursions taken on inflatable Zodiacs.
See our extensive range of Patagonia tour experiences
Amazon River cruises offer a distinctive jungle experience, allowing guests to reach the remotest parts of the jungle where no lodge has ever been built. Aside from the sheer length of reach, Amazon cruises offer a ‘best of both worlds’ journey: you can certainly immerse yourself in the wilds of the most important rainforest on our planet but can also retreat back to the comfort of a ship at the end of an exciting day’s expedition. Unlike what many may think, cruising here does not necessarily mean you’ll have a less-immersive experience. On-land activities and excursions are offered daily (canoe and walking excursions abound) so the level of your engagement with the wilderness is totally up to you. Most importantly, however, the best cruise itineraries are offered during the months with the highest river levels and, during this time, lodge-based stays become a little more restricted.
See our complete range of Amazon Tours, which include land and sea-based experiences
The epitome small ship cruising destination, Antarctica is undoubtedly the most popular expedition destination you can reach from South America. Ushuaia, at the very tip of the continent, is the best springboard for adventures to the south and it is here that you’ll find the widest range of ships available. Much like the Galapagos, you’ll want to go for the smallest expedition vessel your budget will allow as maximising time on land, in this incredible continent, will soon become your main priority. Unlike all other destinations, cruising is the only way to visit Antarctica although the array of itinerary durations and included places you can visit is a lot more extensive. The link above details the four main itinerary classes.
See all our Antarctica expeditions
Small ship cruising appeal to a very specific type of traveller. Would you love to get totally lost in some of the hardest-to-reach areas of South America and have an unrivalled, immersive experience?
Then contact us here to know more.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”