It's an expedition, not a cruise. So, when the National Geographic Explorer makes a two-day stop in Rio de Janeiro, I do not head straight for Ipanema for a passion fruit caipirinha and a lie in the sun.
Instead, I don sensible shoes and get into a van with dozens of fellow passengers destined for a favela, or slum. We wind our way through the labyrinthine streets to Providencia, one of the city's most notorious shantytowns, where for more than 100 years favelados have made their homes on a steep hillside, constructing illegal houses out of discarded bricks and corrugated steel.
We climb the 80 steps in, passing three police officers who stand sentry at the entrance. Frigate birds circle overhead and barefoot boys play soccer on the mud-strewn plaza. The favela is now pacified, which means the drug traffickers have moved on. But the walls of some houses and passageways are still pockmarked with bullet holes and gang graffiti, a stark reminder of the area's precariousness. We head for a community centre and clamour up a staircase for a rooftop performance of passinho (Brazilian funk) dance moves, cartwheels and drumming by a group of teenagers who call themselves the Sensations.
"Music has saved these children from a life of drugs and crime," our guide tells us. "That boy has been dancing since he was 7, and now he is in a circus." As someone with a lifelong love of dodgy travel, I could not be more pleased with this firsthand view of how more than one fifth of Rio's six million people live. The Explorer, a handsome 112-metre-long ship with 81 cabins, only docked in Rio the morning before and already we have met children who have given us hope for the future. Later, we tour a Samba league's warehouse, peeking in on the magic of Carnaval-making by watching workers paint glittery nine-metre-tall sphinxes and sew elaborate costumes.
Lindblad Expeditions' Epic South America tour is what I dare to call intelligent travel. The New York-based travel company teamed up with National Geographic a decade ago to create trips that focus on exploration (and conservation) in remote corners of the earth. The first clue this is no ordinary pleasure cruise is the length of the trip: 38 days and 6,429-nautical miles (starting in Trinidad and ending in Buenos Aires). The second is the on-board amenities. Instead of casinos, swim-up bars and glitzy dinners, the ship features an extensive library, a gift shop that works with local co-operatives, classes with leading experts and outstanding lectures from some of the world's greatest thinkers. It all adds up to a winning formula that attracts a certain kind of traveller.
Lindbladians (as I call them), often wear Tilley hats and fast-dry expedition pants. They tend to be smart, older and moneyed, with an appetite for adventure. Some passengers carry so much camera gear I mistake them for professionals. One man shoots 1,000 images a day for his own website.
"When we're in wheelchairs we'll consider regular cruises," laughs Hank Beckwitt, a retired physician from Colorado, who with his wife has been on 20 Lindblad trips.
Also on board are 10 naturalists, eight National Geographic photographers, plus guest speakers who literally bring the landscape to life: Canadian anthropologist and author Wade Davis; Thomas Lovejoy, a conservation biologist who coined the term biological diversity; and Jacob Edgar, a music ethnologist who travels around the world for Putumayo World Music searching for the next Bob Marley.
Filmmaker David Wright wins an Emmy while at sea for his documentary Untamed Americas, which only serves to heighten the popularity of the videography course he is teaching with Cotton Coulson, also of National Geographic. (I drop in one day and they are teaching ordinary mortals how to shoot time-lapse with GoPro cameras.)
One evening at dinner, I slip in next to Cesar Gaviria, the former president of Colombia who is on board for a few days to lecture on Latin American politics. Over fish and soup, Gaviria, who was in office from 1990 to 1994, recalls the take down of Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel, shot by Colombian police on Dec. 2, 1993, while fleeing across a rooftop.
"Escobar had killed more people than died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Hunting for him was like looking for Osama bin Laden. He had the complicity of clandestine networks," Gaviria said. "We tried to negotiate with him, but finally, we had to hunt him down and kill him. Of course, we had the support of the British, Americans and Israelis and their special forces. It was an 18-month operation."
And then there is the bird whisperer: Richard White, a naturalist from Portsmouth, England, who can conjure up a bird from the horizon the way a magician pulls a coloured handkerchief from his fist. His first words the morning I join him on the bridge are: "The Manx shearwater. Eleven o-clock. Eighty-two-cm wing span. Breeds around the British Isles, making this a very long migration south." All I see is a vast expanse of sky, water and white caps. White patiently points out the bird.
"He may have the best set of eyes I have ever seen," says Bob Haulter, a retiree from Jacksonville, Fla., who has been on more than a dozen Lindblad trips. The bird whisperer shrugs modestly: "You have to look for unusual movement on the horizon and then track it. It just takes practise." He has spotted 4,500 birds, half of the world's species, and at 44, has never owned a home, a car or anything more expensive the Bushnell binoculars around his neck. "It's a blessing and a curse really. It is my obsession. One of my favourite birds is the Inaccessible Rail, a flightless bird who lives off an island near Tristan da Cunha in the middle of the Atlantic."
The trip ends on a high: a visit to the Taim Ecological Station, a nature preserve with spectacularly diverse ecosystems in Rio Grande do Sol, our last stop in Brazil. To enter, we have to scramble around a barbed-wire fence and wade through a marshy wetland, some of us opting for bare feet. The reward is worth it: We see dozens of capybaras, giant guinea-pig-like creatures so ugly they fascinate, as well as broad-snouted caimans.
Hidden beyond a clearing is a 500-year-old fig tree with enormous twisting branches and purple orchids blooming in them. It looks like something from Middle Earth. I call it the Magic Tree. There are no guides here, only scientists, because tourists rarely come here. And yet there is so much to see: flamingos, storks, ducks and vermilion flycatchers. It feels like a real adventure.
Lindblad offers expeditions year-round in Galapagos, Peru and Upper Amazon (plus other destinations around the world). For 2014, it has two special South American voyages aboard the National Geographic Explorer.
IF YOU GO
Buenos Aires, Rio and Brazil's Wild Coast: Oct. 10 to Oct. 29, 2014. Rates begin at $15,740 (U.S.) a person based on double occupancy, including all meals, transfers, excursions, sightseeing and entrance fees. Book by July 31, 2014, to receive complimentary international airfare (based on economy flights Miami/Salvador and Buenos Aires/Miami; must be ticketed by Lindblad Expeditions, subject to availability).
Patagonia: Argentina and the Chilean Fjords: Oct. 23 to Nov. 11, 2014. Rates begin at $15,950, including all of the above.
For more information visit expeditions.com.
The writer was on board the National Geographic Explorer for 10 days, and travelled as a guest of Lindblad Expeditions. It did not review or approve this article.