We are closing out our Panama Canal full transit cruise with several stops in Central America. Because we have been to these ports before, we didn’t plan any excursions. For the two days we were tendering to shore, we chose just to stay on the cruise ship.
There are a few reasons why the cruise line has to use the small tender (lifesaving) boats. There are some destinations where they don’t have large docks constructed, other ports where it is not deep enough for a cruise ship to dock, and some harbors have coral reefs that don’t allow for the navigation of large ships.
After leaving Costa Rica, our next port was Roatan, Honduras. Our approach to this Honduran island was a little rough. The seas have definitely been more turbulent since we reached the Atlantic side. The wind was at 30-40 knots all day and the tender ride in was not comfortable. Boris decided to do trivia and enjoy nap time. I headed out to the pool. Even though the boat itself was relatively stationary (thanks to the constant work of the crew), the wind across the deck made the time outside comfortable rather than oppressively hot.
Our next port was Belize. As with Roatan, I can highly recommend Belize for scuba diving. The country’s underwater topography is somewhat unique and it is a special Caribbean diving location. However, the same reason that makes Belize an easy-access diving location, means it doesn’t accommodate the docking of cruise ships. In an effort to protect the coral reefs near the harbor, our ship, and even our own tender boats, did not go in. Rides in were on local tenders. We also had to anchor far enough out that the rides in and out again were 20-25 minutes each way. We opted out again and I headed back to the pool. My tan was progressing nicely.
The country also considers the barrier reef its own. Claiming the Belize Barrier Reef as the second largest in the world. The famous Blue Hole offers and an outstanding and unique diving opportunity complete with the sharks the dive masters “recruit” with bloody chum. I had a fantastic dive there. The region does experience a high level of violent crime (particularly around Belize City) resulting in both the United States Department of State and the Canadian government issuing travel warnings for Belize.
Even staying on the ship, our days were not without special events. Boris and I got invited to join two of the ship’s officers at the Captain’s table. It was a nice opportunity to meet some fellow guests that we hadn’t come in contact with before and enjoy conversation with the head of the ship’s food and beverage department and the guest relations and future cruise manager. I suspect the champagne we started with was chosen by our favorite sommelier who was serving the captain’s table that night because Boris and I had selected it a few times during the course of the trip. Other nights they served a less exciting variety at that table.
We stopped at two ports in Mexico. The first was Costa Maya. This is actually a “made-up” port (Boris’ term). The area was largely undeveloped until a cruise port was built to provide access to the Mayan ruins at Chacchoben and Kohunlich which are less excavated sites than the more popular and better known ruins at Tulum and Chichen Itza. Costa Maya is essentially a pick up point for cruise excursions with a large shopping mall. The mall boasts pools, swim-up bars, and plenty of shopping. If you don’t want to venture out on an excursion, we can always take a picture at the mall with one of the many Mayan pyramid facades behind you.
Nothing new for us here. Living in Texas, we have easy access to Mexico and have been many times. However in recent years, we have limited our travel to Mexico due to the high incidence of violent crime mostly related to drug cartel activity. We did decide to get off the boat and check out the shopping center. It was well done and some of the store owners were willing to bargain since it was a quiet day in port. One of the shop owners told us the smaller ships tend to visit on different days than the large ships, the travelers on the smaller ships prefering to avoid crowds.
Overall, prices were high. Gone are the days of the great deals, especially in the cruise ports. I was hoping to get a few inexpensive coverups and didn’t have much luck. We saw the same things in all the Central American ports, often with the labels cut out. I suspect they were removing the “Made in China” tags. It was fun just get out and walk around in the fresh air. The water and sand were absolutely gorgeous. I would have loved a beach day away from the port, but Boris with his fair skin avoids the beach.
Costa Maya night was our on-board White Night Party. This Azamara staple is a deck party (levels 9 and 10) where all guests are invited to dinner and entertainment under the stars and encouraged to wear white. I was lucky that when we were packing Boris reminded me about White Night. There was a huge barbeque and buffet spread in The Patio area and the tables were outside on two decks. We were fortunate; on the previous two sailings there had been rain on White Night. The staff make their appearance and parade at this event and it is the opportunity for the traditional cruise napkin waving. I did spot our room steward Jane in the parade.
We were invited to join a family from Montana and enjoyed interesting conversation during dinner. They had moved to Montana for a warmer climate. Being from the southern United States, I always viewed Montana as a sparsely populated state with cattle ranches, big open spaces, clear skies, and very cold winters. I couldn’t comprehend the concept of moving there for warmer weather until they told us that they moved to Montana from Alaska. Ok, now I get it.
After dinner, there were wonderful performances and activities hosted by the entertainment team, many of whom have fabulous voices. There were lots of guests who enjoyed dancing on this cruise and I even got Boris to join me on the floor for a few dances at the end of the evening. It was a gorgeous night on deck and we had a great time.
Our final port before reaching Miami was on Cozumel. Like Roatan, Cozumel is an island. This time we are off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. I have been here countless times, mostly for scuba diving. There is excellent drift (in current) diving and some of my favorite pass-throughs (breaks in the coral reef where you can swim through while surrounded by coral). There is nothing like the downtown plaza in San Miguel at night when the cruise ships are gone and all the locals are out. It has a completely different flavor. I usually dive during the day, avoiding the town center and the cruise ports, and then venture into the city in the evening. That is way I recommend visiting Cozumel.
However, most people will visit Cozumel by cruise ship. It is one of the most popular ports in the Caribbean. We are at the downtown cruise port, a short hike from the center of the island’s only town, San Miguel. The secondary terminal used by the really large ships is even farther, a good 20-30 minutes from the Plaza del Sol. The original docks, right at the plaza, are only used by the ferries.
It has been quite a while since I have been at this cruise terminal. Unless you are on an excursion, you are no longer permitted to walk out at ground level, but rather you have to go up and cross the street by the sky bridge and then walk to the other end of the shopping mall across the street before you can even get to the street level. The signage is poor and it is easy to make a wrong turn on your way out. You won’t get lost, but it may increase your step count.
Boris and I wanted to go to the traditional market at the plaza and then have a Mexican lunch at one of two of the places I know in town. The main street that runs along the water front is simply a series of tourist shops, pharmacies, bars, and restaurants. When we made it to the main square, Plaza del Sol, I was sorry to see that the center bandstand/gazebo was no longer there. I wasn’t sure if this traditional town square feature was lost in a hurricane or the desire for more open space.
We went to the market and I was shocked to see the stalls were now enclosed and air conditioned. Most were closed because it was Sunday morning. The street behind the mercado, once just an afterthought for tourists and a great place to get a fabulous cheap dinner, was now more developed and had a bit more of the open-air shop feel. I could see that my hope for some cheap souvenirs was in vain. Neither of us bought anything. We decided to continue our walk along the waterfront to the end of the commercial buildings toward one of my favorite shops and restaurants. Fingers crossed they were still there post COVID.
I was happy to find Los Cinco Soles (The Five Suns) still thriving. They also had an airport location, although I am not sure if it is still there. They have wonderful handicrafts, Mexican vanilla, silver jewelry, and cool comfortable clothing. I have gotten some wonderful and very colorful paper mache fruits and vegetables there that still decorate my kitchen. Today I purchased some jewelry pieces and some beautiful tops (and scored a “free” bottle of vanilla). Their prices are higher than most of the tourist stalls, but the offerings are authentic and of higher quality.
After our shopping it was time for Sunday brunch at Pancho’s Backyard, just behind the store. Pancho’s has a lovely covered porch setting. Winter meant it wasn’t too hot to eat at this entirely outdoor restaurant. There were not many tourists here. The restaurant was mostly full of Mexican families enjoying a fabulous meal and the live xylophone music (compliments of what appeared to be a father/son duo). I can highly recommend their guacamole, maybe the best I have ever eaten. I enjoyed my fresh strawberry margarita served in a fishbowl glass while Boris had a Mexican beer. After our guacamole appetizer, we both had wonderful entrees. The beef steak was fabulous.
Another nice place to eat, although off the main road, is Casa Mission Restaurant. This was originally a colonial Spanish home with lovely gardens. You eat on the covered patios among the foliage and parrots. I haven’t been in several years, but it looks like the restaurant is still open based on my website research. I have always had a wonderful meal there and love the setting. There are multiple restaurants with the word mission in their name in Cozumel, so be selective.
After our fortifying lunch, we walked back to the ship noting that the walk seemed a lot shorter headed this direction. I think we had just gotten a better perspective on the distance (or I was relaxed due to the tequila). There was a lot more activity now that it was Sunday afternoon. The bars were certainly more populated.
“One of the highlights of Chichen Itza is El Castillo, a mathematically and scientifically designed step pyramid that is the best manifestation of the Mayan’s understanding of astronomy. There are 365 steps (one for each day of the year), and twice a year on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow appears on the pyramid that takes the shape of a serpent – a tribute to the most important Mayan god, Kukulcan, a feathered serpent.” https://www.planetware.com/mexico/best-mayan-ruins-in-mexico-mex-1-39.h
On this cruise, the excursion to Chichen Itza was offered from Cozumel which added 1.5-2 hours to the trip to the accommodate the ferry to and from the mainland from the island of Cozumel and the transfer to and from the buses. The full excursion lasted 12 hours, most of that spent in travel. Our neighbors, Diane and the Professor, went and loved it. We saw them in the dining room that night and in spite of the long day, they wouldn’t have missed it.
Our last day, we packed early so we could enjoy the rest of the day. There was another brunch on board in the dining room. Our special interest lecturer did a presentation on the use of DNA recovered from genealogy web sites and how it is being used to solve old crimes. It was the first time he had done the presentation and I found it very interesting. I also got in some pool time. After dinner and the last production show, we put the last few things in the suitcases before they had to be out in the hallway by 11 pm.
We docked in Miami and took a direct flight back to Houston. Boris had to go on to West Texas for a hearing so I am navigating getting home with most of the suitcases. It was a fabulous trip., perhaps our longest. It was certainly our longest cruise. I highly recommend travel on Azamara Cruises and full transit through the Panama Canal.
Today is our first port stop after our full transit through the Panama Canal. It is time to explore Central America. Today we dock at Puerto Limon in Costa Rica. Both Boris and I have been to Costa Rica before, but not together. I visited on a scuba diving trip. The diving was not great-murky, cold waters-but the zip lining through the rainforest was incredible. I felt like a bird. I suggested that activity to Boris, but he was a definite no go. (I highly recommend you try it though.)
Our compromise was an ariel tram into the rainforest. All the excursions from the port included some sort of rainforest experience. When headed toward the jungle, I remembered the other thing I noted about Costa Rica on my last visit here; the roads are terrible. It is not unusual for roads to wash out or bridges to collapse. My visit was years ago, but the roads are still in a really rough condition. The current construction to widen the main road (from two lanes) was ongoing, but our guide said it has been like that for five years with little to no progress.
I guess I should have been glad that at least the main road was paved. When we ventured off the road to reach the research center, the Veragua Rainforest Park, it was even rougher going. Looking up into the hills, I almost looked like the leaves were changing color for the season. Actually, they were flowering trees with a lovely orange-red flower canopy that originated in Africa.
We passed small homes that I noted all had running water and electrical power. These more remote residences didn’t have those amenities on my last visit. There are some areas where they are making big inroads on the infrastructure.
You had to have a reservation to enter the Veragua Rainforest Park. It sits next to a nationalized tract that has been designated a no-construction zone to preserve the existing rainforest. Costa Rica knows that its rainforests are the key to tourism and they are doing what they can to protect this ecosystem. The Veragua Rainforest Park is dedicated to biological research and preservation. The structures are research facilities, housing for the workers and seasonal educational visitors, and the visitor centers. The nonprofit organization uses the money earned from those visiting the rainforest exhibits, riding the tram, going on the canopy tours (zip lining), having lunch, or buying souvenirs to fund their programming.
After passing the guard station, we drove in and someone on our bus spotted a sloth in the trees. We took the time to stop for a picture. The facilities at the park are in excellent condition with lots of clean, strategically placed benches, covered areas, and toilets. It can get very warm, but there was a nice breeze on the tram and in the higher elevations.
Upon arrival, you are divided into groups depending on whether you wanted to make the climb to the waterfall or not. We had been advised that this path was not as well maintained so we opted out. Those that went thought it was fine. We started with a visit to the exhibit on the snakes that inhabit the rainforest, followed by a visit to the frog house and butterfly atrium. Many student groups come to research the animal species that live in the regional rainforests.
After the exhibits, we saw a video on the foundation’s work and then enjoyed a presentation by one of the facilities’ leading biologists. He jokingly told us to enjoy the time; it was in the only air-conditioned room at the reserve. The presentation was very well done.
Next it was time for our tram. There were well constructed steel supports and dual cars that ran down through and into the rainforest. It was a beautiful view of the vegetation and the hills beyond. There were 4 long benches in each car to accommodate about 8-12 adults total for the car (more if there were children). There was an attendant in each car. Once the tram was fully in motion, you were allowed to stand if you wanted a different view. At the bottom we exited for a walk on the boardwalk though the rainforest. The other group took the hike to the waterfall.
It was warmer and more humid at the bottom. After some time there, we took the tram back up to the large covered and open-air dining area. They offered full (heavier) meals, but I enjoyed the sandwich and the wonderful fresh regional fruits that were included in our excursion package. They were not stingy with the offerings either. You could also enjoy a variety of fruit juices.
Afterwards there was a little free time to enjoy your lunch, visit the gift shop, or use the facilities. The tram was fun, if a little tame for me. We both enjoyed the day. It was a good choice for nature and/or animal lovers.
Just as we were about to get back on the bus, another sloth was sighted. After picutures, we headed out of the park and once again had to endure the rough roads. On the way back the guide gave us a little more insight into the economy of Costa Rica. It is a beautiful country, but food can be very expensive to purchase. Conversely, cell service is quite inexpensive. Cars are often very expensive, but repairs are not. Our guide drives a 24-year-old SUV that he bought when it was 15 years old. With the rough roads, you could see why you would need a good mechanic and affordable repairs.
There were some craft stalls near the port, but there wasn’t much to see in the town of Puerto Limon. This was a port where you really needed to do an excursion. We were pretty hot and tired so we got back on board directly after our tour. In the evening we enjoyed another excellent dinner, but rough seas. There was wonderful evening entertainment with a comedian who peppered his jokes with comments on the rocking and his experience joining the ship. Always nice to have the presentation personalized. In spite of the movement of the ship, it was a great day and a wonderful start to our Central American visits.
Today is the big day. Natasha is making a full transit through the Panama Canal going from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea in the Atlantic Ocean. I was so excited this morning, that I woke up when the engines on our ship started. I even caught a picture of the pilot boarding our ship before first light. The pilot and the line handers are all Panamanian and you are required to allow them entry to go through the Panama Canal. The Panamanian line handers will board our ship and pass our crew the lines to secure the ship.
Our destination lecturer will be offering commentary throughout our passage from the Bridge starting about 9 am. It will be broadcast through the public areas of the ship or you can tune in from your stateroom TV. At 7 am, he began offering the “play by play” from the ship’s Living Room. There are floor to ceiling glass windows on three sides of this space and you can look out the front or each side of the ship from this high perch. I didn’t want to miss a thing. We got to the Living Room about 7:20 am and got seats in roughly the third row. The people who wanted to be right by the window got there before 6 am. The couple in the cabin next to ours set an alarm for 5:30 am to get these premium seats; I told “The Professor”-as Boris likes to refer to him-that he should have just knocked on the wall and I would have joined him.
Of course, you could walk up between the chairs and take pictures. Boris set his sights on moving closer to the front windows as seats became available. Our first point of passage was under the Bridge of the Americans. For many ships, their height keeps them from being able to pass under this bridge. It is a problem for many of the larger cruise ships. Just FYI, this post is about our passage through the canal. For more on the background for a canal being built in Panama, check out yesterday’s post on Panama City including limited history on the canal.
To our left we could see the large green cranes that were purchased with the investment from the Chinese. Each cost between 25 and 45 million dollars. Any ship passing through the canal must be under the weight limit. If you are overdraft, these cranes will lift and remove the excess. The containers are then moved to the other end of the canal via a rail line and the containers will be there when you arrive. If you can’t afford or don’t need the rail transit, the black cranes on the right side unload excess cargo into trucks that will meet at the other end. Those cranes cost about $2 million each.
We could see the entrance and tower for the third lane. This newest lane is for the megaships and was completed at a cost of $6.2 billion. Construction was two years behind schedule, but the lane finally opened in 2016 under Panamanian control. As I discussed in yesterday’s post, the Panamanians took over the canal in 2000. Under the original agreement, the Americans had the right to control the canal in perpetuity. The new lane features multinational products (i.e., Chinese cranes, Italian gates, etc.). In our destination speaker’s opinion, the new lane is very efficient but boring to go through. It features a single lane with three chambers. The megaships that pass through the third lane by-pass the Miraflores Lake we will be going through.
There is an easy way to tell the difference between the American construction of the original lanes and the Panamanian construction of the third lane. The roofs of the structures that make up the Panamanian construction are in blue tiles; the American construction used red tile roofs. The Panamanians wanted to distinguish their construction.
According to our speaker, “we are a big deal going through”. Cruise ships going through the canal draw lots of locals. The schedule is published in the paper and people come out for the cruise ships. There is a visitors’ center, viewing platform, museum, and an excellent IMAX theater. Several people from the ship went on an excursion there yesterday and really enjoyed the experience. They were particularly impressed with the IMAX. We are going through today with another cruise ship. About 44 ships a day go through, usually in convoys of 4. They mix the big ships with the smaller ships. The cruise ship in front of us has two tugs on the lead sides. Their appointment was one hour before ours. We will not be using tugs. If you don’t have a reservation, you may have to wait and go through with a night convoy.
What I really hadn’t realized before preparing for this trip is that passage through the Panama Canal, at least passage through the original lanes, is actually transit through a series of locks and two lakes. Our passage from the Pacific begins at Miraflores where there are two lanes and a two-lock passage. The oceans are at different levels, but the lakes are actually the high-water point of the transit. The major flaw in the French attempt to put a canal in Panama was assuming they could do it at sea level as opposed to using the lock system.
Our passage from the Pacific Ocean begins at Miraflores where there are two lanes and a two-lock passage. The Panamanian line handlers tied us on as we approached the lock. They practice using the “monkey fist”; their throwing is very accurate.
We are attached to “a mule” on each side, although we reached the inner (left in our case) mule sooner because the wall between the two locks jets out farther than the outer wall. Americans call the machinery mules, a reference to the animals that pulled boats through the Erie Canal. The Panamanians call the mules electric locomotives, a more accurate term. The Mules just help with alignment and hopefully keep you from hitting the front wall/gates. The ship is really doing the work, supplying 99% of the power to move forward.
There are NO pumps to move the water; it is simply water flowing down. They just open the chamber. The water in the chamber goes up at a rate of three feet per minute. They use water from the upper chamber to fill this one. There is little to no water lost. The locks have water saving basins. The Panamanian operators don’t always use them because it takes an hour longer. It is not currently a busy time of year for the canal, but water is precious during the dry season. We are currently at the end of the dry season, so they will probably use the basins today.
The water flow is controlled by the gates. The ones at Miraflores are hollow, 80-foot-tall gates. Most canal gates are 65 feet tall. The original gates were operated by motors. These motors constantly had to be greased; it was a hard, dirty, and difficult job. The opening and closing of the gates are now powered by hydraulics. The first thing the Panamanians did when they got control of the locks was to replace the motors with hydraulics.
After we passed through both of the Miraflores locks, we moved into Miraflores Lake. The lake is about a mile across and it will take us about 20 minutes to cross it. For me, this was bathroom/food break time. I never had breakfast; I just snacked on things that were offered in the Living Room. I should mention that by this time, Boris has worked his way up to the front row right by the windows. We were able to add a chair for me and we were set for prime viewing for the rest of the passage.
It didn’t take long to reach the Pedro Miguel lock. Like Miraflores, it has two sides. However, this time there is a single lock on each side. Also, there is not one, but two gates at the end of the chamber. This is for added protection just in case the first one is breached or damaged. They don’t want the water to drain. There are spare gates, but the ones in place now are the originals.
Our speaker enhanced the experience immensely. I would not necessarily have known what I was seeing otherwise or known the background. At each set of locks, he referred to the “free fish buffet”. The crocodiles were hanging out on the shore waiting for the water (and the fish in it) to be discharged. There are lots of signs warning against fishing, but it is not unusual for a fisherman to ignore the signs and be taken by the crocs. The speaker called them crocodiles, but he also said that in this part of the world they are probably caiman. I held a caiman last May when we were traveling on the Amazon River in Peru.
From the Pedro Miguel Lock, we can see the Centennial Bridge built in 2014 in celebration of the centennial of the opening of the canal. It will take a while to reach the third, and final, set of locks. I decided to go outside and see things from a different angle and maybe get some pictures as we passed under the bridge. Our speaker is broadcasting to all the public spaces from the bridge now so I will be able to hear him from the outside deck.
I took a look back and could see the other cruise ship still in the Pedro Miguel Lock. We are making much better time than them. In fact, our speaker said this was the fastest he has ever gone through the canal. Looking back, you could also very clearly see the third lane and the large megaships. They do not go through Miraflores Lake.
We will have a different pilot and different line workers take us through the third set of locks. The ones on board now leave us here and return to Miraflores. I saw the pilot boat first. Later, a second boat came to pick up the line workers who helped with attaching the mule lines to the ship. There were 20 line workers. Yes, Natasha counted.
Afterwards we went under the Centennial Bridge and I enjoyed getting some pictures under the bridge. We were now in the Culebra Gap. It is narrow here, so traffic is only one way. We are traveling north. There is one northbound convoy and one southbound convoy during the day and one of each at night. Both start out at the time. Because of the direction we are traveling, we have made our three steps up (two at Miraflores and one at Pedro Miguel). When we reach the final set of locks, we take three steps down before passing into the Caribbean Sea.
Our speaker referred to the Culebra Cut as the Culebra Gap. “Culebra is the name for the mountain ridge [the canal] cuts through, and was also originally applied to the cut itself. From 1915 to 2000 the cut was named Gaillard Cut after US Major David du Bose Gaillard, who had led the excavation. After the canal handover to Panama in 2000, the name was changed back to Culebra. In Spanish the cut is known as the Corte Culebraand and is also called the Snake Cut.”—Panama Canal Authority via Wikipedia.
In the water, we saw a land dredge attached to a barge. When the barge is full, they simply move it and redeposit the fill somewhere else. It is a suction dredge using a pipe to put the material directly out of the water and into the barge; there is no need to scoop up and drop the material into the barge. The dredge is removing silt that flows here from the Chagres River or silt that accumulates here after heavy rains.
It was a moving moment for me as we passed through the narrowest part of the Culebra Cut and the continental divide. I was still outside and enjoyed getting some selfies from the deck 10 above the pool. After the narrow point in the continental divide, we saw a drill in the water. This is new and Panamanian built. They are very proud of their design and construction. The old drill, Thor, is still used occasionally.
On the starboard side of the ship we could see the final prison where South American dictator Manuel Noriega was held. He served prison time first in United States in Florida (on drug trafficking charges), then in France (on money laundering charges), and finally in Panama (for embezzlement, corruption and murdering his opponents). “Manuel Antonio Noriega was born poor in Panama City on Feb. 11, 1934, and was raised by foster parents. He joined Panama’s Defense Forces in 1962 and steadily advanced through the ranks, mainly through loyalty to his mentor, Gen. Omar Torrijos, who became Panama’s de facto leader after a 1968 coup.” –The El Paso Times. Our speaker told us the Panamanians do not like people to die in prison. He was released shortly before his death in May of 2017.
We came out of the Culebra Cut and into the Gamboa Reach. On the starboard side were two bridges over the Chagres River. There used to be a single shared bridge with a traffic signal; the bridge was used by trains and vehicular traffic. The train always got precedence. Now there is a separate vehicular bridge, farther from the canal, but still visible.
Just past the Chagres River we spotted Titan, so named by the Panamanians. Titan is a large floating crane “given” to Panama just before the turnover for $1. The crane was formerly in operation at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard until 1995 and before that Germany during WWII. It is perhaps better known by its nickname, Herman the German. The crane is of German construction and is used for canal maintenance. The Panamanians have also added an additional crane; this one is white and is already in use.
The canal is definitely wider in the Gamboa Reach. We are beginning to see/cross southbound traffic. The town of Gamboa, just past the Chagres River, is home for many of the canal workers.
Also on the starboard side just past the cranes is the dock for the Smithsonian Institute Journey (orange buoys). A little farther up north (less than an hour later) and on the opposite side of the canal, we saw the buildings that make up the institute itself. Our speaker used to work there and highly recommends the experience. Many people come out to explore the rainforest near Gamboa.
We also sailed by Monkey Island which is used as a rehabilitation center. Monkeys that are found in public areas and have become a nuisance are sent to the island. It is popular with tourists who approach in small boats hoping to see the monkeys in the trees.
We reached the second lake, Gatun Lake. It is rather large, especially in comparison to Miraflores Lake. Our guide once again commented on how swiftly we were moving through the isthmus. We saw another cruise ship, the huge Celebrity Edge in the lake. The Edge and ships like it have to go through the new third lane; it is too large for the older locks. Additionally, like the Queen Mary, it has to turn around and go back to the Caribbean Ocean. This is what our guide called an “inee, outee”, or partial transit. The primary reason these huge, tall ships have to turn around is because they cannot fit under the Bridge of the Americas at the opposite (Pacific) end of the canal. A partial transit costs the same as making the full transit.
Up until this point, the third lane has been on our port (left when facing forward) side. All the traffic can pass in the large Gatun Lake. On the Pacific end, most traffic goes through the original Miraflores Locks, Miraflores Lake, and the Pedro Miguel Lock. Traffic in the newer third lane goes through the Cocoli Locks and bypasses Miraflores Lake. All convoys go through the Culebra Cut, Gamboa Reach, and Lake Gatun. On the Atlantic end, the third lane will be on our starboard (right when facing forward) side. The third lane traffic goes through the Agua Clara Locks and primary traffic goes through the Gatun Locks.
Our time in Gatun Lake was my only chance to grab lunch before we hit the final set of locks. We are running almost two hours ahead of schedule. Boris grabbed breakfast and lunch at the buffet and brought it to the Living Room, but I wanted to sit down and be served. I went to The Patio, the outdoor grill with table service. The only time in my life that I get served is at a restaurant or on a cruise ship. No one is serving me at home. I am going to take advantage of this every day of the cruise. I was looking a little worse for the wear by this point due to my interrupted, excited sleep the night before and our early wakeup. I think I will need a nap after this.
The Gatun Locks at the Atlantic end of the canal once again have two lanes. This time each lane has three locks, each with double gates. We made three steps up as we traveled northbound leaving the Pacific, two steps up at the Miraflores Locks and one step up at the Pedro Miguel Lock. We will take three steps down in the Gatun Locks. For this series of locks we have a catamaran in the chambers with us. I don’t think I would want a cruise ship looming over me in the same lock chamber. Our speaker estimated that it was costing the catamaran sailors $1,000-$2,000 to go through the canal
The catamaran did not have lines attached to mules but was attached at ground level by ropes. The catamaran also had Panamanian line handlers on board. When the chamber gates were open, the lines were detached and the catamaran moved forward. We waited patiently.
This time I got a good look at the handrails on the gate walkways being detached from the ground and going down before the gates were opened. We could also see where the gates (with lowered handrails) could recess into the wall of the lock chamber.
The southbound ships we saw were all very large. They were using the other lane at the Gatun Locks. We saw some grain carriers with their own cranes and shovels built right onto the deck of the ship. The grain carriers we saw also had a helicopter landing pad on the deck. We got a good look at their flooded chamber and our shallow one as a comparison.
Size matters in the canal. While in the Gatun Locks, I could see the large container ship in the third lane. These ships can carry as many as 15,000 containers (the panamax design). This was the agreed upon size when constructing the third lane. There are larger ships, but they carry less expensive material like concrete and their owners are unlikely to justify the expensive of the fees to pass through the canal.
“Panamax and New Panamax (or Neopanamax) are terms for the size limits for ships travelling through the Panama Canal. The limits and requirements are published by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)… The allowable size is limited by the width and length of the available lock chambers, by the depth of water in the canal, and by the height of the Bridge of the Americas… Panamax specifications have been in effect since the opening of the canal in 1914. In 2009, the ACP published the New Panamax specification which came into effect when the canal’s third set of locks, larger than the original two, opened on 26 June 2016.” —Panama Canal Authority via Wikipedia.
When we were in the third lock, I saw the same large container ship exiting the new lane in the distance. I felt a little sad when we completed our final lock. It was a magnificent transit.
As we moved toward the open sea to our left side (port), we could see the remains of the French canal. For more about its history, check out yesterday’s post. On the right side (starboard), we passed the exit to the third lane. Then just ahead is the Atlantic Bridge, one of the largest cable-stay bridges in the world. In the distance were loading/unloading cranes of the Montecristi seaport.
The basic requirements to go through the Panama Canal are:
You must pay your fee at least 48 hours in advance;
You must be within the weight and size limits (panamax) for the canal;
You must pass an inspection (i.e., condition of the vessel; no explosives aboard; etc.); and
You must allow the Panamanians to board your ship for inspection, piloting of your vessel, and handling the lines.
It was never a moneymaker when the Americans controlled the canal. We didn’t even break even until 1987. The cost to those making transit through the Panama Canal has been much higher since the Panamanians told control. Traveling on the third lane can cost up to 1.2 million dollars. It cost approximately $160,000 for the Azamara Onward to make our transit. It was part of the ticket price of my cruise and in my opinion well worth the money.
This bucket list experience was even more amazing that I had hoped for. I highly recommend a full transit of the Panama Canal by cruise ship. –Natasha
Today we are docked in Fuerte Amador, the port is located right at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. It is a one-mile causeway that extends out into the Pacific Ocean constructed from fill from the Panama Canal. The causeway also connects four small islands. There is a yet-to-be-completed cruise terminal under construction at the site. The dock itself is finished as are the passenger bridges to the terminal. The docks are being used; the bridges are just sitting on them. Fuerte Amador includes the cruise port, marina, two shopping centers, a museum, and convention center. Puerte Amador is twenty miles from the center of Panama City
Unlike the other ports we have been to so far, we were required to have a face-to-face meeting with government officials as part of passport control in Panama. They set up tents on the dock. Oddly, the lines going in and out of the immigration tent kept crossing each other. I am sure glad this is a temporary setup. We were over 1 hour late getting into the port and then installing the gangway took a long time. I suspect this has to do with the transitional situation at the port. Tours ran about 1.5 hours late.
We are going on a city tour with an emphasis on the colonial part of the city, the second oldest city, Casco Viejo. As we left the construction zone, I noted that the area beyond the cruise port already has some shops, restaurants, and a boardwalk in place. You can rent a multi-pedal carriage for your trip down the boardwalk. The area is very popular at night. We passed the Biodiversity Museum near the port. The multicolored panel structure was designed by Frank Gehry. Gehry also designed the Guggenheim Museum Bilbo that we saw on a previous trip to Spain.
We made what the guide called a “Japanese stop”, meaning a quick (10-minute) photo stop. From this location you have a fabulous view of the Panama City skyline. I was shocked to see so many high-rise buildings in very modern designs. The view made for some great pictures.
Leaving Fuerte Amador, we passed many empty buildings left by the Americans. A guide later in the day told us the spaces needed to be available if the canal was ever subject to a terrorist attack and the Americans needed immediate offices and housing when they responded. The reason for non-use sounded made up to me, what our destination speaker would have called “guide lore”. An agreement reached in the 1970s under President Carter, gave the canal to the Panamanians but insured ongoing protection from the United States. The transition occurred on December 31, 1999. The original agreement reached gave the Americans the canal in perpetuity.
We passed the new convention center. It is extremely large but with no character or charm whatsoever. The older convention center is abandoned and just next door. It was obviously a lovely building in its day. The older venue hosted, among other things, the Miss Universe Pageant. It was last used as a Covid-19 center during the height of the pandemic.
We passed the ruins of the 1519 Spanish settlement destroyed by pirates in 1671. I mentioned that Casco Viejo is the second oldest city; this settlement is the first. At its height, the settlement included 10,000 people. Only 24 Spanish defenders supported the settlement when it was besieged by over 1,000 pirates lead by Henry Morgan. Morgan raided the original city and set fire to it. The fort structure was very small, but there were several churches and a convent that are larger structures. Panama City was the Spanish port on the Pacific. Gold brought from South America was then transported from the city overland to the Caribbean side (the Atlantic Ocean) for transport to Spain. What is present day Panama City was also the starting point for Spanish expeditions to the Inca civilizations in South America.
“The first permanent European settlement, Santa María la Antigua del Darién on the Americas mainland was founded in 1510. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Martín Fernández de Enciso agreed on the site near the mouth of the Tarena River on the Atlantic. This was abandoned in 1519 and the settlement moved to Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá (present day Panama City), the first European settlement on the shores of the Pacific. Panama was part of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years (1513–1821).” –Wikipedia
Less than a century after the end of Spanish rule, Panama was just a neglected peninsula in Columbia. The Columbian Government did very little to support the people living in a region that was difficult to inhabit. Passage between the oceans had long been sought after and thoughts of a canal were moving forward at the end of the 19th century. The French acquired a contract with the Columbians to build a canal through Panama. The man in charge, Ferdinand de Lesseps, had successfully built the Suez Canal so he tolerated no disagreement with his approach. The percentage of engineers on the canal team was ridiculously low. De Lesseps was more a fundraiser than a designer. Many people, including Gustave Eiffel, told Ferdinand de Lesseps that a sea level canal would not work. What was needed was a system of locks.
The French approach failed for three major reasons. First, the plan for a sea level canal was doomed to fail. Second, the conditions of the isthmus were difficult at best. There were jungles, the climate was hot and humid, and the area was disease ridden. 22,000+ people died during the French construction effort. Yellow fever was rampant and control unknown. Nothing was done to create sanitary conditions. Third, the French completely underestimated the cost and ran out of money. There were even schemes at the end-like a lottery to the French citizens-to raise money. The original cost estimates were based simply on how much money they had.
The French spent $287 million (translated into American dollars) on their work creating a canal. When the Americans approached them about buying the rights and equipment, the price demanded was $80 million. The offer was rejected and the US then considered a plan to put a canal through Nicaragua. When shown the Nicaragua government’s postage stamp showing the volcano sitting next to the proposed site, the Americans shifted back to a consideration of the Panama option. Finally, an agreement was reached that the French would accept $40 million for the rights, work done, and the equipment.
Seeing the United States as having deeper pockets, the Columbians demanded more money. Instead, the United States supported the locals in withdrawing from Columbia, a bloodless revolution. The country of Panama was born. The Americans developed a canal plan with a system of locks, using existing lakes in the region. They consulted medical experts on the eradication of yellow fever by controlling the mosquito population, cleaning up areas with stagnant water and providing clean water and more sanitary conditions for the site and the workers. The project would never be a money maker. The US did not break even until 1987.
There are many ways in which the American influence is still felt in Panama. Used to the wages that canal workers were paid while the canal was in US control, overall wages in Panama are higher than in other Latin American countries. Panama’s currency is tied to the US dollar. They have coins worth no more than one dollar (the Balboa), for anything higher US dollars are used. Panama is the only Latin American country where Thanksgiving is celebrated. Lots of American chains stores and particularly fast-food restaurants have outlets here. There are fewer Catholics in Panama than in other Latin American countries, only around 70%; Protestant groups have a significant presence. Although football (American soccer) is popular like in other Latin American countries and Panama has a friendly rivalry with Costa Rica, the number one sport in Panama is baseball.
As we entered present day Panama City, we saw a sea of high-rise buildings, mostly apartments. In the city, housing cost a minimum of $1,000 per month. However, you can get a nice home in the suburbs for $350 per month. Commuter traffic is very bad. The bridges crossing the canal have made a difference. The first one, the Bridge of the Americas, was completed in 1962. The second bridge constructed was the Centennial Bridge built by a German engineer; it opened in 2014 to celebrate the canal’s centennial. The third bridge is the Atlantic Bridge and it is at the other end of the canal. Panama City workers who lived outside the metropolitan area but worked in the city used to have to take ferries, then transfer to buses, etc. Today however, it is not unusual to have one car per family member. It is easy to get credit to purchase a car in Panama.
It is near the end of their summer. The children go back to school on March 1. Everyone is out of town-in the country for the weekend and summer’s end. Traffic was very light and it looked like a ghost town among the high-rise buildings. Carnival parades and festivities are underway with Ash Wednesday and Lent just days away. Some of the roads in the old sector were blocked in anticipation of parades. Those that live in the city, spend holiday time in the countryside or traveling. Panamanians vacation in Columbia or other Central or South American countries where the exchange rate into pesos is highly favorable to them.
We finally arrived at Casco Viejo, the colonial old town, the second oldest settlement. (The 1519 settlement being the first.) “Completed and settled in 1673, [Casco Viejo] was built following the near-total destruction of the original Panamá city, Panamá Viejo in 1671, when the latter was attacked by pirates. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1997.”—Wikipedia.
The area is a mix of architectural styles-French/New Orleans, Spanish, and Baroque. We passed by the Plaza Herrera and an old wall built to keep out the pirates. Of course, by the time it was built the pirates were already there. It will come as no surprise that there were lots of churches in Casco Viejo. We saw the Jesuit Church, Franciscan church (both in ruins), the twin-towered Cathedral (Mass going on) on the main square, and the San Jose Church with the baroque golden altar (mahogany wood covered in gold leaf) and Panama’s largest nativity scene.
Back when pirates were looting the area, lore has it that San Jose’s pastor asked for money from pirate Henry Morgan to restore a beautiful silver altar that the pastor had actually painted over in black to conceal it. “We are such a poor parish; we need your help.” Morgan made a substantial donation. Upon later learning the truth, it is said that Morgan claimed the pastor was a better pirate than he was.
The Cathedral is on the main square, Plaza de la Independencia. The plaza is faced by beautiful renovated buildings, including churches, government buildings, museums, and famous hotels. A lovely gazebo sits in the center of the Plaza. The canal museum on the square is in the building where the French had their canal building offices. The beautiful Central Hotel, which opened in 1974 has a central staircase just like the central staircase one on the Titanic. It was done by the same designer that worked for the White Star Line. The doorman only admits guests to the hotel, otherwise I would have peaked inside.
We had some free time in the district. When we returned to the ship, we had to deal with the construction site and uncertainty on where to park the buses. After a short break and a buffet dinner, we were off again for the Azamazing Evening, an Azamara Cruises signature event where they bus guests to a significant local venue for regional entertainment. We have seen some wonderful shows in Cuba, Spain, Liverpool, New Zealand, etc. to name a few.
Tonight, we returned to the 1519 settlement ruins and enjoyed wine and a wonderful folkloric show in the lighted ruins of the Cathedral with its iconic tower (often used as the symbol of Panama) as the background. It was a wonderful show, although it lasted only 30 minutes and the ride over and then back was 45 minutes each way.
One of the legends featured in the performance was that of the red devils. Our guide told us the Spanish used the tale of the red devils to get people to go to the Catholic Church as there method of protection against these creatures. I saw of the masks earlier today in Casco Viejo, but I didn’t understand the significance at the time.
Tomorrow is our full transit of the Panama Canal, the highlight of our cruise. I can’t wait!
We are back on the Pacific coast of Ecuador, docked at Manta. What bananas are to Guayaquil, tuna is to Manta. A large portion of the world’s tuna supply leaves from this port and there are tuna boats everywhere. There is a new international airport opening in Manta in June; the first route is to Panama. The second routes that will open are to Asia. No surprise there; the tuna will get to their high volume buyers faster.
Boris chose today’s tour. It is a three-hour tour of the highlights of Manta and Montecristi (the city Boris really wants to visit). Although the tour description said we would first see of sights of Manta, we headed straight to Montecristi. Apparently, there are no highlights of Manta. An earthquake (level 7.8) hit Manta in 2016 and the after effects are still seen. Our guide commented that many of the properties are owned by foreign investors who have no interest in reconstruction. Among the owners who actually reside in Manta, many could not afford to build with the same original materials so we saw many first floors made of crumbling bricks and upper floors of mud and wood.
The road to Montecristi took us along the beach and we saw the construction site, the result of which is to be the “Biggest beach park in South America”. The proposed open-air theater (according to our guide, it does not rain here much) looks like it will be very impressive. For now, there is not much to see.
Manta is Ecuador’s largest seaport. We saw the large fish market and the many stands where you can pay to have the whole fish cleaning for you. It was already midday so activity at the market was winding down. Farther down the road was a family shipbuilder and we saw several boats in various stages of production. It is difficult to get a permit for a new boat as they try to maintain the fish population and don’t want the area over-fished.
As we drove into Montecristi, the guide pointed out the church tower a few blocks over and told us the city was famous for its production of “Panama hats”. The bus was parked on the top of a steep hill and we walked down to an interesting building that turned out to be Ecuador’s first girls’ school. We were supposed to tour the school, but we just walked through to the courtyard for a demonstration on how the hats are made. They did have someone showing most steps of the process (and each one had their own individual tip basket out). The hats can be rolled up and stored. The ones sold were packaged in small wood boxes.
There were lots of handicapped beggars. I assume culture allows them to go everywhere because they were not stopped from following us everywhere: they performed tricks for tips. It was rather uncomfortable. There were also lots of street vendors that walked right up to us.
When we finished shopping-Boris got his hat-the guide told us we were meeting back at the bus at 2:30 (which was consistent with a 3-hour tour). We synchronized our watches with hers, it was 2:08. Not much time for touring a town she hadn’t told us anything about.
We followed the steeple to the town square where I took a picture of the outside of the church (no time to go inside) and Boris checked out the market there. Then we had to climb back up the hill to the bus.
The guide was nowhere in sight and the bus was only about 1/3 full. About 2:45 we wondered what was going on and the woman sitting behind me said “sorry love, the departure time is 3:00, not 2:30”. We were pretty frustrated, but at that point there wasn’t time to go back down the hill and look around. By 3:00 the bus was about 2/3 full, but still no guide. About 3:15, some more people got on, exclaiming “oh good, we made it” suggesting they thought 3:15 was the departure time. The guide didn’t show up until 3:40, declaring that the departure time was 3:30 and then announced we were returning to Manta to go to a museum. So much for the 3-hour tour. Boris was furious.
We learned nothing about Montecristi from the guide other than the town was famous for hat making. I looked it up afterwards and found that the city was a Spanish colonial town formed between 1536 and 1537 in the early between when Spanish colonial residents of Manta fled from pirates attaching their city. These were the early years of the Spanish conquest of the Pacific coast. Montecristi was also the birthplace of a former Ecuadorian President, José Eloy Alfaro Delgado.
On the way back to Manta, she talked about a nut that was used to create unique carvings. When we arrived at the museum, we only spend about 10 minutes in the exhibits. She sent some people up to the 4th floor, but then when the elevator didn’t come back down, she announced we were leaving. I reminded the guide that 4 people on our tour were already up there.
After getting us all back on the bus, we just drove across the street to the cruise terminal and she dropped us there, rather than taking us to the ship. Of course, they want you to go to through the gift shop. We were already an hour late at that point and still had to wait for the transfer bus. The first thing we did when arriving at the ship, was to head straight to guest services and complain. By the time he saw the head of shore executions later that night, the excursions manager told us he already received three additional complaints.
I didn’t like wasting the money on the tour and there was the opportunity cost of not getting to do something else. The cruise line did give us a partial refund for the tour. I would have to say, I can’t recommend Manta as an interesting port. There is little to see in the city, at least until the beach park is finished and Montecristi wasn’t much to see, but our impressions may have been better if we had been able to look around for that extra hour. I will say it didn’t look much like a colonial city to me.
The day’s highlight was yet to come. Having crossed the equator the night before, the crew had a special ritual for those members who had not crossed before. Several crew members, including the environmental officer, were selected to stand before Neptune’s court in session on the pool deck. Loosely based on a navy hazing ritual for those crossing the equator for the first time, the crew members had to appear before Neptune, a female member of the entertainment team wearing a white beard and holding a cardboard Trident and “his” queen, the rather hairy Assistant Cruise director dressed in a short toga and a pink beehive wig and crystal sunglasses. Each of the selected crew had to kiss a really large fish and then submit to “the doctor”. The doctor covered them in colored foam (particularly difficult for the officers in their white shirts) and they were then thrown into the pool.
The captain, having been seen cavorting with the “queen”, was also found guilty. The “queen” denied any guilt in the matter. The poor captain was ordered to kiss the fish three times, submit to the doctor, and be thrown into the pool. He was a good sport and actually dove in. The officers’ shirts are unlikely to weather the colored foam. Unlike everything else that came off in the water, the dye was still visible on their white shirts.
It was perfect timing for us and improved our moods immensely. Tomorrow is a day at sea. I will use it as a time to catch up on my reading, my pool time, and the lectures preparing me for what we will see when we make our passage through the Panama Canal and well as the canal’s history.
That night in our cabin Boris and I received our Equator Crossing Certificates, declaring our baptism aboard the Azamara Onward and affording us unobstructed crossing of the equatorial line. Silly stuff, but fun. On to Panama…
Today we are docked in Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, with about 3 million inhabitants. To some this is “Chocolate City” for it is from Guayaquil that the world’s first cacao exports left in the 18th century. To others it is the city whose port is the site where the largest shipments of bananas leave each day. For me it is where I learned that Panama hats are not from Panama-more on that later in the post.
To reach the port which has been at its present location (six miles from the city center) since the 1970s, our ship left the sea and traveled inland on the Guayas River for five hours in the wee morning hours. We had an early breakfast in our cabin, but the rain eliminated the option on dining on our balcony patio. It was raining when we went out to the buses for the ride into the city center of Guayaguil for our tour.
The city is a mix of historic, modern, and colorful hillside architecture. Sections of the city are identified by their proximity to two large hills, one topped with a lighthouse, the other with a statue of Jesus of the Sacred Heart. There are wonderful museums, parks, and plazas where ponds feature turtles and hundreds of iguanas roam freely (in the parks, not the museums).
We have chosen an “arts and crafts tour”, but we passed by many of the historic sites pointed out by our wonderful guide Antonio whose mother was born and raised here in Guayaquil. He has lived here since he was two years old. We passed by the beautiful cathedral on the west side of Parque Bolivar. The cathedral’s front entrance is extremely ornate, the interior simple. A cathedral was originally built on this spot in 1547. That structure, made of wood, burned. The present building was completed in 1948 and renovated in 1978. Be sure to look for the iguanas that lie on the rocks in Bolivar Park (also known as Parque de Las Iguanas) across the street. This is the location where our ship’s shuttle buses stopped.
After driving by sections of the Malecon, we stopped to tour a historic district where Ernesto Che Guevara once lived. The Malecon is a boardwalk along the area of the Guayas River where the original port for the city was located. There are bars and restaurants, children’s play areas, and lots of lovely foliage and benches. Many of the city’s beautiful administration buildings line the street that runs along the Malecon; the buildings were constructed to face the water to impress visitors who arrived at the port.
We started our walking tour at the bottom of a hill with a picturesque climb of 400+ steps. Each of the steps has its own ceramic marker with a step number on it. The view would have been a lot prettier if we hadn’t been there when the men with power-washers dominated my pictures. It was a romantic setting, but I was happy to walk around the corner and go up along the roadway instead. Along this road through the Las Penas Barrio, there were beautiful historic houses and even a second staircase up to the half-way point of the main staircase.
Reaching the top we came to another section of the city in the renovated Puerto Santa Ana sector. In contrast to the directly adjacent Las Penas Barrio, this section was dominated by large, extremely modern buildings. From this location, we also had a wonderful view of the waterfront and the cable car transportation system. In the United States, these gondola rides (except in ski areas) are more for entertainment than transportation. The one in Guayaquil was built to bring people into the city center for purposes of commerce. Depending on your stop, it is a 15-20-minute ride instead of a 1.5-2-hour journey to cross multiple bridges to make it into the commercial center. The cost of a ride is $0.70 each way. There is also a Ferris Wheel on the waterfront. It was early and it was not yet operating for the day, but the cost for a ride is a good deal at under $4.
If I would have known the layout and wanted to save the cost of the excursion, I would have taken a shuttle into the city, visited the cathedral, and the iguanas park right at the shuttle stop. Next, I would have walked down to the Malecon and enjoyed the sites including the Ferris Wheel and then taken a round trip ride on the cable car. All those experience experiences together would have cost me less than $6.
We, however, had the benefit (and cost) of a guided tour. Our next stop was the handicrafts market. I thought from the excursion description that this was more a demonstration and the opportunity to purchase crafts. Rather, it was a souvenir market like those I have visited in Morocco, Istanbul, Mexico or even San Antonio, Texas where workers try to entice you into their stall. Some of the items were just cheap souvenirs, but there were some finds and good deals if you dug deep. We spent so much time looking for the things that Boris wanted, that I ended up not having time to look for myself.
Next, we went to the home/studio of a local artist who had been commissioned to create the art for a park in an area of the city settled by people who emigrated from the Middle East. His installation celebrates different cultures and religions and the people who all now live harmoniously in the same section of the city. Fernando showed us his contemporary paintings as well as his plaster work honoring Jerusalem and the various sects that make up that ancient city.
He also showed us his collection of weaponry, all gifted to him by Amazonian tribes he had supported. Finally, he also showed us artifacts he had been given while working at archeological museums (displayed alongside his Baby Yoda collection) and a very old oil lamp that was a gift from the Israeli Ambassador. Oddly, there was no opportunity to buy his work, although he did donate a print for which there was a drawing on the bus. Some people did ask for his contact information.
Our final stop was at the workshop of a Panama hat distributor that has been in business since 1983. The region and the craft have been recognized by UNESCO for its contribution to cultural heritage. Our guide Antonio shared with us early in the day that the so-called Panama hats are actually from Ecuador. An Ecuadorian company was commissioned to design and supply hats to those working on the Panama Canal. Lore has it that when American President Theodore Roosevelt saw the workers and their striking sombreros, he is supposed to have said “get me one of those Panama hats”. He was photographed in 1906 wearing one of the hats while touring the construction site of the Panama Canal and the pictures ran around the world with a reference to the “Panama Hat”. The name stuck.
The hats are all handmade with 100% natural fibers from the Toquillo Palm. The traditional method of creation is to lean over a support while doing the weaving. A worker from one of the supplying villages demonstrated the technique for us. We saw the toquillo palm in the park across the street from the workshop. We were shown samples of the stalks and how it is pulled apart by the women with their fingernails.
The hats are priced according to the tightness of the weave, the design, and the number of days or months it takes to create the finished product. Prices ranged from $59-$1,200 (for individual hats taking months to create). Those with the tightest weave were the softest, lightest, and most expensive. We were able to touch one and I have never felt a hat that was that soft. Of course, I got a hat. After the fit was determined, you could pick out the ribbon and then I watched while it was finished (ribbon added, tagged, and packaged).
Then it was time to head back to the ship. Antonio opened a newly ripened cacao fruit he had gotten on yesterday’s tour. We had the opportunity to try the skeletal inside that looks like a collection of wrapped white candies. He explained the process that would take the ripe fruit to pure dark chocolate.
It was like we got three tours in one. It had been raining when we got off the ship, but by the time of the first stop, the rain had stopped. By the time we headed back, we had clear blue skies. We had lunch out on the Patio and then I started this post. It was too hot for me to sit out at the pool with no breeze and excessive humidity. I admit I did get in a 40-minute nap. Before departure I did snap a picture of the covered, but otherwise open-air warehouse outside my balcony where hundreds of packages containing the same product were stored. I don’t know if they are the famous bananas ready for export, but I am going to assume so.
We had a lovely river ride out as we left port with one of the most beautiful sunsets. For dinner, we were back in the dining room and then we went to another production show in the Cabaret Lounge. Tomorrow is our second port in Ecuador, Manta. Maybe I will wear my Ecuadorian Hat…Natasha
Today we are docked in Salaverry Peru, a small port town, the gateway to Trujillo. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring”, Trujillo is a 16th-century Spanish colonial city. Boris most wanted to see Chan Chan, “a pre-Colombian city and archaeological site near Trujillo on northern Peru’s desert coast. It was the seat of the ancient Chimú civilization before it fell to the Incas. The vast adobe complex has citadels, including the partially restored Tschudi Palace. It also encompasses temples, plazas and cemeteries. The Museo de Sitio Chan Chan displays stone artifacts, ceramics and history exhibits.” ― Google
Choosing an excursion for Boris and I is always about compromise and priorities. Chan Chan sounded amazing, but I was most concerned about the cruise line’s designation of this visit as strenuous, their category for the most difficult activities. Boris has had one of his feet completely reconstructed and I have had two foot surgeries. We said we would give it a try. There was actually no need to worry. The area was mostly flat. While there was a lot of walking, we were blessed with an overcast day rather than direct sun. I took my walking sticks, but didn’t need them.
The Chimus covered a vast area of coastal Peru between Lima and the border with Ecuador. The culture prevailed from about 1000 to 1470. They were masters of textiles, ceramics, metallurgy, and goldsmithing. The 10 citadels of Chan Chan, the city of power for the Chimus, covered about 20 km. Their empire stretched for 1000 miles. Chan Chan is the largest abode citadel in America.
“The complex contained 100,000 workshops, pyramidal temples, streets, and walls. It is estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 people lived in this labyrinthine framework…The walls of Chan Chan are a marvel to behold: all of them are delicately decorated with high reliefs showing everyday things of the Chimú culture, especially related to nature: waves, birds, fish…” denomads-com.translate
The Chimus held the region until 1470 when the Inca conqueror attacked the palace and cut off the water supply. The Incas dominated the Chimu people, but did not use the coastal region as their base of power and were largely absent. When the Spanish conquistadors ransacked the citadels looking for gold and silver, they still found Chimus living there, but their culture was largely gone after a failed attempt at rebellion against the Incas.
We started our tour at the small archeological museum on site. There were photographs of the various stage of excavation and discovery. It will take decades, maybe centuries, to uncover all the wonders of Chan Chan. We are only going to visit one of the citadels, the whole archeological site being very vast. At the museum, we saw some of the principal artifacts recovered, most are in the museum in Trujillo that we will visit later today. As we exited the museum, we saw a reed boat. I learned from another guest that these are still used today; they last between 6 and 8 days before they have to be replaced. That is a lot of work for a short work life, but the materials are free.
We rode the bus to the citadel we were visiting. Along the way we could see additional outbuildings yet to be uncovered. Heading inside, we passed through the entrance hallways with preserved high walls in many places. These passageways alone were impressive. They lead us to the large ceremonial courtyard with multiple entrances. The regular population of the citadel would not be able to venture past this point. The covering did not survive, although many of the structures we had passed through would actually have been open air. The citadel set very close to the sea that was visible during our visit.
The ceremonial courtyard was the first time we saw the abode adorned with beautiful shapes. It was only a hint of what was to cover. There was a stage structure in the very center for ceremonies. In the back center was the raised level the priests and dignitaries would have used. Around the edges, the carvings were of squirrels.
Behind the courtyard, archeologists have uncovered a series of rooms for higher levels of dignitaries. Each space has different types of carvings; the variety was impressive. Some of the rooms have built-in adobe “chairs” suggesting these were spaces that discussions or consultations took place. The spaces often had walls that sported diamond spaced patterns. Although filled in now, these would have been open in the center during Chimu occupation to allow for ventilation for the various spaces. The area is currently open air but covered to preserve the discoveries.
Headed further back we came to the large reservoir, now grass filled, that would have served as a cistern during ancient times. Beyond that was the high altar when sacrifices took place. In the space of the walls, we saw a repeat of the trapezoid shape that had been so prevalent at Manchu Picchu. [add link to previous post]
We came back through other long passageways and saw the areas that we used as stables and granaries. Our guide pointed out a corner where you could take a photograph and make it look like you were standing by a pyramid. It was a lot of walking and we were fortunate that without direct sun it was not too hot. Make sure to use a lot of sunscreen, wear a hat and comfortable shoes, and carry some water. This is an absolutely wonderful site.
After our Chan Chan visit, we went to Trujillo to visit the archeological museum. During our drive we got to see a little of the Spanish colonial town. I always love the shuttered windows on the balconies that is part of this architectural design. The buildings were also brightly painted and well maintained on the main square, the Plaza de Armas. The beautiful Basilica Menor Cathedral also sits at the Plaza.
The archeological museum is housed in a Spanish Colonial home from the 16th century. Inside is a wonderful collection of artifacts from the Moche civilization which dominated in coastal Peru from about 500 to 750 AD.; the Chimus, 1000-1470 AD; and the Incas 1470-1532 AD. There are various painting and figure displays which show how the settlements of each civilization looks. Artifacts are arranged by culture and use. It is not a huge museum, but well done and each of follow.
Some of my favorite pieces included the musical pottery, a leather loin cloth adorned with yellow hummingbird feathers, ancient headdresses and an unwrapped mummy that was folded to allow burial in a smaller container. There was also wonderful ceremonial jewelry. I highly recommend the museum, especially if you are going to visit archeological sites in the area. It wrapped up the history nicely.
After the Trujillo visit, we made the short drive back to Slaverry and the ship. Leaving the city, we saw a wonderful mosaic wall depicting the history of this region of Peru. It went on for several blocks. This “Art Galley of Ancient Regional History” was installed in 2010. This is our last stop in Peru. After a sea day tomorrow, we will be in Ecuador for stops at Guayaguil and Manta. On to the next country…
In the last 10 months, I will have made it to two of the top designations on my travel bucket list-Machu Picchu and the Panama Canal. Talk about coming back from COVID with a bang! Ironically, both trips started with a direct flight from Houston to Lima. We were last in Peru at the start of their winter; it is summer now. However, the real difference is in the political situation and its impact on travelers.
When the Peruvian President Castillo attempted a self-coup, he was ousted and jailed. The popular Pedro Castillo was considered a man of the people, coming from humble beginnings. “Elected president in 2021, hewas a powerful symbol for disenfranchised Peruvians: a man from the poor Andean region of Cajamarca and a political outsider in the sequestered world of Lima’s political elite.”—vox.com.
The result was general unrest and the destruction of roadways with protesters burning buildings and closing down highways, airports, and mines. The new government cracked down. The country’s number one tourist attraction Machu Picchu is closed, at a time when countries are trying to lure back visitors after COVID shutdowns. Looks like Boris and I got in under the wire with our trip earlier in 2022. We have been monitoring conditions to ensure our safety and also watch for any changes the cruise line might make to our itinerary.
The direct flight from Lima to Houston gets in very late, so we are just going to overnight at the same airport hotel we stayed at when we flew out of Lima after our Amazon River Cruise and Inca heritage exploration trip. [add links]. The Wyndham Costal del Sol is directly across from international baggage claim. Just walk across the street and perhaps through the throngs of people waiting to greet someone.
Our flight time was moved up an hour due to a runway closure, but other than that it was a smooth flight. Luggage collection went great-everything made it. Hooray for direct flights! There were lots of people checking into the Wyndham, but once in the room we let everyone know we had made it safely. It was after midnight and we were not hungry, but room service at the hotel is pretty good if you need it.
Transfers through the ship weren’t the best option since we weren’t arriving the day of embarkation (and they cost $60 each). I found sedan service for $79 to the port and a recommended taxi service for only $18. We had the ride scheduled independently, but when Boris went down in the morning he found out that Azamara Cruises was running a free shuttle service from the hotel. It also had the advantage of taking us directly to the ship rather being dropped at the terminal building. This is a working industrial port, so getting all the way to the ship on the bus was a real advantage. We cancelled our other ride and took the bus.
In spite of a later scheduled check-in time, we were able to board right away. The rooms were going to be ready in an hour so we went up to the Windows Café (buffet) to get something to eat. Our server Antonio was someone we had met on a previous Azamara cruise. After lunch the rooms were ready so we took our carry-ons down. I set of the CPAP machine and met our room attendant Jane who provided me with distilled water. Our first three bags came very quickly. When we didn’t see the fourth one after a while, Jane followed up.
As it turned out, my large bag had been confiscated for a suspicious article that was not allowed on board. Jane walked me down to level three. There were several guests there with their room attendants, security personnel, and a ship’s officer. They were re-X-raying bags, removing items, and giving receipts for the confiscated items. Most guests were understanding; one was yelling up a storm.
When my bag went through, the security officer asked if I had a hair dryer in my bag. I did. It is the round brush type in a little case. I usually just use the one on the ship, but this is such a long cruise, I wanted to bring my own. My bag was cleared. The female staff captain said to all assembled that a personal hairdryer was an important thing to have. She is the second in command of the ship. Jane was in awe; I just liked having the high-level support. Once we had all the bags, I did my nesting and unpacked. I got a lot done and will finish the rest after dinner.
Boris is big on getting down to dinner early, so we got a lovely two top table by the back window. Of course, our view was the industrial port. Until we get to the Atlantic, all the ports will be industrial rather than passenger cruise ports. The one in Panama City is going to be a passenger terminal, but it isn’t completed yet so it is still a construction site. We ended up staying on the ship for all day in Lima. Some of the tours had been cancelled and those offered were things we had done on our last trip. Some people had come into Lima early and said they were fine as long as they toured in the morning and were back in their hotels by 2 pm when the protesting started. Since we had visited before, we decided to play it safe, not mess with the hassle of getting out of the industrial port, and stay on board. We booked an excursion for tomorrow. Since power in Peru is centralized in Lima, we feel more confident about touring at our second Peruvian stop. We will be visiting Chan Chan a major archeological site for a civilization that predated the Incas. Until tomorrow…Natasha.
This is actually the part of our trip to Peru that Boris was most looking forward to, a visit to Cusco, the Capital City of the Incas. We will have a full day tour, saving a few sites to visit tomorrow. Tonight is our special farewell dinner. You’ll notice that I spell the name of the city as both Cuzco and Cusco in these blog posts. Since the Incas had no written language, the Spanish upon hearing the name wrote it as Cuzco. However, about 40 years ago the mayor of the city changed it to Cusco, believing it to be closer to the Quechua language which does not have a z sound. Cuzco is still used in Spain and other Latin American countries. Tour in Peru.
After breakfast at the fabulous Monestario where they served excellent eggs Benedict, my breakfast favorite, we headed out in a twin vans to the Inca citadel Sacsayhuamán just outside the city. Harvey is trying to keep us ahead of the crowds and traffic. Sacsayhuamán sounds a like “sexy woman” in English and is a running joke between Harvey and Carlos, our local guide and tour director, that this is Carlos’ favorite site based on name along.
The citadel ruins sit on a hillside with views of the city of Cusco. The Incan structures date from the 15th century, but artifacts show people had settled on the site since 900 CE. The most impressive aspect of the structures is that they were made of large stone so precisely cut that fit together without mortar. The Spanish invaders were so impressed that the wrote about the structure noted that even a pin could not be inserted between the stones. Even today, many earthquakes later, there is only one visible crack in the stone surfaces.
While often overshadowed by Machu Picchu, “[t]he fortress of Sacsayhuaman was the biggest architectural work realized by the Incas.” cuscoperu.com. Visitors should keep in mind that the construction was completed without the use of iron or steel to cut the stone. Our Adventure Journal Sitting at the northern access point to the capital city of Cusco, “Sacsayhuaman was the most important military fort of the Empire…[and has been] compared for its greatness with the Roman Colosseum.” cuscoperu.com
In addition to welcoming daily visitors, today Sacsayhuamán is the site of several annual Incan festivals including the celebration of the winter solstice. To reach Sacsayhuaman from the city center, it is a 30 minute strenuous walk or you can take a taxi or tour. We had our first encournter there with woman in traditional dress with baby alpacas on a leash. You are discouraged from paying to take pictures, as it is the practice to take the baby animals from their mothers too early.
After Sacsayhuamán, we went to a nearby textile shop where were shown how to test for authentic baby alpaca wool products. “Baby Alpaca” refers to juvenile, nat necessarily infant, animals. It was no surprise that our visit started with a local alcoholic beverage. The clothing was quite beautiful and offered at a good value, particularly when compared to the prices we would have to pay at home.
Next we headed back into town for a trip to the city’s most famous market. Carlos gave us a project and a little test of our Spanish. He gave us each 20 soles and took us to purchase something we could make for dinner. We all knew tonight was our special farewell dinner and that the details were being kept secret. Our group bought everything from breads, fruits, and vegetables, to chocolates. Boris and I selected some chorizo (sausage).
When we completed the test, Carlos announced that we were now going to meet some of the locals who worked near the market and donate the food to them. It was an inspired and inspiring task. Some of the vendors worked long hours and supported large multigenerational families. Our chorizo went to a mother with 5 children who she supported by crafting and selling handmade dolls outside the market. In all, we shared our purchases with about 12 local families.
Our last stop before a very late lunch was the most important temple in the Incan Empire, Coricancha, the golden temple dedicated to the Incan sun god, Inti, right in the heart of the city. It is believed that much of the temple was covered in gold and in silver. Highlighted in the temple of the sun was the the trapezoidal shape common in Incan design. It is also suggested that the design mimicked the rays of the sun. www.machutravelperu.com.
“The Spanish colonists built the Convent of Santo Domingo on the site, demolishing the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. They also used parts of the building for other churches and residences. Construction took most of a century. This is one of numerous sites where the Spanish incorporated Inca stonework into the structure of a colonial building. Major earthquakes severely damaged the church, but the Inca stone walls, built out of huge, tightly interlocking blocks of stone, still stand due to their sophisticated stone masonry.” Wikipedia.
The Temple had a fabulous setting. I snuck out to the balcony for a wonderful view of Cusco. As we excited to the square, there were lots of vendors, so visitors beware. There were also more of the women with baby alpacas on a leash. It made me so sad for these animals who are taken from their mothers too soon. Be sure not to encourage the practice by paying them.
Leaving the temple, we returned by vans to our hotel. There was a Pisco tasting and then lunch at the art museum just across the Plaza. We had the afternoon free to wander the streets, shop, or nap. Boris chose option 3. In the evening we re-boarded our vans for dinner at another monastery. We all recognized our caterer from our picnic in Ollantaytambo. It was another fabulous meal in a gorgeous setting. It truly was a red carpet evening.
After dinner it was back to the hotel for our final night at the Monasterio Hotel. Tomorrow we check out, do some additional touring in Cusco, and flight back to Lima. We’ll have a couple of hours in the airport hotel in Lima before boarding our flight back to Houston.
Rocky and I are having a fabulous time aboard Disney’s new cruise ship, The Disney Wish. To maximize the number of people to get the experience, they are only running three and four-night cruises out of Cape Canaveral. With a short cruise, we only have two ports of call. Our first is in the Bahamas at Nassau. If you have ever done any Caribbean cruising you have likely stopped in Nassau.
Tonight is Pirate Night. During the day I am visiting a friend who used to live in Houston and now splits her time between her new home in Santa Fe, Mexico and her condo in the Nassau. June picked me up in town at the Straw Market and since I have been to Nassau so often, we just headed over to her condo to catch up and enjoy the view. June went back and got her interior design degree after the end of an earlier career and the décor at the three-story condo was fabulous. Only thing to top it was the gorgeous view from her large patio.
Rocky stayed on board the ship and checked out the theaters. In addition to the wide range of Disney+ movies you could get in your cabin, two small on-board theaters showed first run movies currently only in theatrical release. They rotated the showing among three films.
When I got back, Rocky and I headed up to try out the Aqua Mouse, the Wish’s on-board water ride. We were hoping to catch it when it wasn’t so busy. The sign said it was a 15-minute wait, but I bet we waited less than 10 minutes to board. There are two person tubes so we got to ride together and rode several times so both of us could try out the front and the back seats.
You sit in a float and a conveyor belt takes you up through the tube. There are screens with cartoons as you start the ride on the belt. Next the streaming water takes you through the ride tube. The ride goes in a circle around the boat including passage through one of the ship’s two smokestacks (which are decorative only) and a small portion of the tube that is out over the water. You are in what looks like a large PVC pipe; the only portion that is clear so you can see out is when you go out over the water near the end of the ride. The entire experience is enclosed. Fabulous! Getting out is not graceful, but just roll and you can do. As I mentioned we did it several times. Loved it!!
For Pirate Night there are two shows, the early one features Disney characters in pirate attire and is designed so the little ones who can stay up after dark can get their pirate experience in. There were so many passengers that were in costume. Disney has a Pirate Night on every one of their sailings in the Caribbean and my experience was that engagement for the event was dying off. This was not the case on The Disney Wish. It felt like most of the guests on board were out on the deck. There were lots of serious pirates on board.
After getting ready from dinner, we headed over to The Bayou, another bar and music venue with a New Orleans vibe and a French Quarter garden look. We are becoming Matt groupies catching most of his shows-he’ll be on the Pirate stage later tonight as well. Wanting something a little different, we ordered root beer floats and beignets (French donuts with powdered sugar). I wasn’t hungry, but those beignets were good as were the floats.
We dined again in Arendelle’s, but no show this time. Apparently, anyone celebrating a birthday with a cake order got it tonight because it seemed like every 5 minutes the servers were singing “Happy Birthday”. After dinner, we headed straight up to deck, just above the pool deck. This deck is full open air so you can see down into the stage and up and out to see the fireworks. People were lined up 3 or 4 deep all along this balcony. For the best view of the fireworks (and the only one not obstructed by the Aqua Mouse, stand on the right side of the ship. There was a fun show featuring pirates, a live pirate band, and an appearance by Captain Jack Sparrow. The fireworks are awesome. Disney is the only cruise line that features fireworks at sea. We stayed on after for the DJ music on deck. It was a great party. Afterwards, I was still feeling it, so we watched the first Pirates of the Caribbean on the flatscreen TV in the room.
Our second port day and our final full day of the cruise we were at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. They have an airfield and lots of permanent structures, including a fabulous play area for children. Rocky and I always head over to the private adult (18+) beach. By tram, you get off at the second stop and then transfer to a different tram for the third leg.
Generally, we can get a seat pretty close to the entrance. However, this cruise we had to walk most of the way down the beach to find two chairs together under an umbrella. We had stayed on board and had breakfast before coming to the beach. We ordered a bucket of ice waters and two lava flows (pina codas with strawberry syrup) from a server who came to our chairs. Lava flows are our go-to drinks at Disney resorts. We usually get them at the pool at the Polynesian, our DVC home resort.
The water was a little cold, but we stayed out most of the day until we had less than an hour to our departure time. There was no wait for the tram. We had skipped lunch, but it is offered on the island and the one at this beach is also adults only. We sampled the poolside food venues when we got on board, but didn’t eat much because tonight is our dinner in 1923, the ship’s most elegant dining venue on the rotation.
The evening started with the second large scale production show of the cruise, Aladdin. There were all kinds of technical problems. At one point they even stopped the show for 10 minutes. The actors/singers/dancers had already been off before that issue, but after the show started again, they never regained their timing. Disappointing. When it flows, I suspect this is a fabulous production.
1923 was not a disappointment. The restaurant has two sections separated by a pedestrian hallway. You could be assigned to Roy or Walt. The venues are small, but the décor changed by section. We sat by original items from the animated Sleeping Beauty. The food was very good and well presented, especially the desserts. As others have done before me, I recommend the steak. While there is no show in 1923, it is a favorite of many because of the wonderful memorabilia and excellent food. The restaurant’s name comes from the year the Disney Bros. Studio was founded, hence the use of both brothers names when designated the rooms. As Rocky pointed out to me, the studio location was changed in 1926 and name became Walt Disney Studios.
More bar/venue hopping and then the closing show on the Great Hall stage tonight. We had early flights and the Disney transfer acknowledges our need to get off the ship early. We had plenty of time to check bags and go through security at MCO. Unfortunately, Rocky and I left from opposite sides of the terminal so we had to split up before security. It was a wonderful trip and we would both recommend the Wish and Disney cruises to anyone who enjoys Disney and Disney-style entertainment.
So ends my first inaugural year sailing of 2023. I have another sailing on a ship in its inaugural year next month when I sail through the Panama Canal on the Azamara Onward. Until then…Natasha.