Panama Canal Cruise

by Yvonne Tabb

My friend Caroline and I took a cruise two years ago to Alaska and enjoyed it very much. Now we decided to try another cruise, this time in the winter months. After looking through several cruise catalogs, we decided that it might be a good time to sail through the Panama Canal, since the U.S. is turning its operation over to Panama on December 31, 1999.

We decided on a February sailing date on Norwegian Cruise Lines and made plans to fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico to board the ship. In the meantime, American Airlines was having a problem with their flights, so we anxiously awaited each day to find out if they were flying. As it turned out, the problem was settled and our early morning flight from O'Hare Airport left on time and we landed in San Juan late that afternoon.

We were met at the airport by Norwegian personnel and bussed to the ship where we filled out forms and received our cabin assignment. Helpful personnel took us to our cabin and informed us that our luggage would be delivered later. Meanwhile, dinner was being served in the main dining room, and later we took a tour around the ship and looked out at an empty sea! It was a little choppy that night, but we soon became used to it and by morning, all was smooth sailing again.

Our first port of call was Oranjestad, Aruba. There we took a submarine to the bottom of the sea where we saw an abandoned World War II airplane and lots of tropical fish. The small submarine was not in the least confining and we did not suffer either going down or surfacing. There were several other tours at Aruba but we didn't have time to take them. We did shop a little there.

On Saturday, we arrived at Cartagena, Columbia and took a tour through the city and up a mountain to view a monastery built in the 1700s. It was called La Popa and the interior was very beautiful and decorated with many statues and other icons. Since these cities were established by Spain, the religion is mostly Catholic. Lots of gold was used for decorating the interiors of these cathedrals and convents. On each tour stop we were besieged by by the natives selling their crafts. Woven blankets, jewelry, panama hats, aprons, belts and embroidery work which was very colorful. It was quite hot in Cartagena and we were scheduled to climb up to Fort San Felipe. I chickened out but many on the tour walked to the Fort.

Sunday we anchored off the San Blas islands and took a tender to the island to see and purchase the colorful embroideries made by the women there. These needleworks are called "molas." Small children there will pose for a photograph with a parakeet or lizard for $1. These Native people were very shy and peeked out from behind the clotheslines of molas. Every evening the electricity is shut off; the men work on the mainland. Their homes were thatched huts with bare dirt floors. The women and girls of the Kuna tribe wear small beaded strands wrapped around their ankles and wrists. The beads were mostly orange and white. It was hard to resist buying tee­shirts with brilliant appliqued designs, tote bags or beaded necklaces when you are in the midst of such poverty.

The ship was anchored about one mile from the San Blas islands and young boys, men and women with babies paddled out to our ship to dive for coins thrown overboard for them. Most of the canoes were made of carved­out trees.

Monday was the day we were to start through the Canal. The Captain announced that a pilot would board the ship to take us through. He also explained the working of the canal as we sailed through. We had an early breakfast and joined the crowd of passengers on the fore­deck to watch the opening and closing of the gates. We saw two patrol boats with guns mounted on their fore­decks; however, we could not tell if they were Panamanian or U.S. boats. They were in the adjacent lock and followed a ship through that canal.

There were several ships waiting to pass through the Canal at both the Atlantic and Pacific entrances. Our ship was linked to two engines to guide us through. These engines cost approximately 3.5 million dollars each. The cost for the cruise ship to pass through the canal was $50,000. From the entrance to the canal, we passed through the Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miquel Locks up to the level of Gatun Lake. The Gatun Locks began the process of lowering the ship to enter the Pacific ocean. We passed through the Gaillard Cut (formerly Culebra Cut) for eight miles. This was carved from rock and shale and was the scene of many slides during and after the construction of the Canal.

Wednesday, we docked at Puntarenas, Costa Rica and left early on a very nice Mercedes Benz bus to San Jose. with several stops along the way. Coffee plants were growing along the highway (Highways were very good). Poro trees are grown in the fields with the coffee plants to provide shade; these trees have orange blossoms, and the roadsides were covered with bougainvillea and other flowering plants, all with brilliant blossoms.

We drove around San Jose and stopped at a large old auditorium still in use. Much of it was imported from Spain; one of its features was the main floor that could be raised to the level of the stage area so that it could be used for dancing. In San Jose we also toured a museum where we saw pre­Columbian artifacts, spear heads and figures carved of stone.

On our return to the ship, we stopped at a village called Sarchi, where the colorful carts originated. These ox carts were used to haul coffee to the coast so that it could be shipped to foreign ports. Later these carts were painted with brilliant colors and designs and today are used for various celebrations. At a shop in Sarchi, we found tablets of banana paper and other craft items, as well as Costa Rican coffee (It is delicious). We saw military personnel in several places, mostly in small groups.

On our trip to San Jose, we saw a live volcano, though it was not showing very much activity on that day. Our tour guide, who was very good, explained that Costa Rica has several companies making micro chips and is very forward­looking in education and in its social security programs. There is much poverty in all of these countries, as is evident from the many shacks made of cardboard, corrugated metal and plywood; of course there is no sanitation or electricity in many areas.

Our last tour was to Antigua in Guatemala. It was formerly the capital of several provinces but, following an earthquake in 1700, was moved to Guatemala City. We drove around Antigua and saw many ancient churches and cathedrals. The streets were narrow cobblestone, and all windows had grillwork over them; we were not able to see the courtyards inside these buildings. We did, however, have a buffet lunch in a beautiful courtyard where there was a marimba band playing and tropical birds in the trees.

On this tour we also stopped at a jade manufacturing plant and store and saw the many colors of jade and, of course, lots of jewelry made from these stones. There were armed guards in many of the stores as we drove through the city.

Acapulco was our last stop before heading for the airport and home. We stopped to see the divers and drove around the city to see the homes of the rich and famous and the well­known Las Brisas resort.

All in all, it was an enjoyable trip to an interesting part of the world.

Posted to Zephyr Online April 3, 1999
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