Oct 6, 2003

Panama Canal cruise

So, Larry and I just got back from a two week cruise from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale, via the Panama Canal. :-) This was my first cruise, and my first trip to Central America. The ports we visited were very tourist oriented, but we did see some of the beautiful countryside in Costa Rica, and rainforest natives in Panama. Most of our time was spent aboard the Sun Princess. It can easily hold 1200 passengers and 900 crew members, so this wasn't really a drawback; there was plenty to do, and I'm always able to relax or entertain myself with reading and drawing. There will soon be some new book reviews, drawings, and rants on my website. Rants? you ask. Yes, well, we were floating with the geriatric crowd there! Larry and I were the youngest couple on that ship...the average age was upwards of fifty.

PHOTOGRAPHS of our journey can be viewed on Larry's virtual Photo Album. And now, I'll provide an account of what happened.

First, we boarded our 14 deck floating hotel. It had several pools, spas, a gym, several lounges, several restaurants and bars, two theatres, a nightclub, a minimall, a casino, an arcade, a library, lots of cool paintings and sculptures, and more stuff that I can't remember. It's not surprising that its top speed was about 22 knots, which is something like 25 miles per hour. Anyway, we tested out one of the pools, and I thought it was cool that water kept sloshing out of the pool into an overflow enclosure around it. There was a Reggae band. That seemed appropriate until I realized that they were playing the same songs over and over, and not very well.

Every night, we had dinner at an assigned table in an elegant dining room. Each table had a head waiter, a waiter, and an assistant waiter, all from different countries. Larry and I were in fine company at that table, which is lucky, because not all of the ship's passengers were overly polite. Two couples at the table were from England, and three were from California, including us. Everyone got along, and there were interesting conversations and jokes told at every dinner.

The first port of call was CABO SAN LUCAS, MÉXICO.

The Baja peninsula is mostly desert, and the terrain looked similar to southern California. Our ship was too big to dock near the city, so smaller boats called "tenders" were used to ferry the tourists to shore. We had already signed up for all of our shore excursions via the internet. All we needed was our tickets, our sunscreen, and some beach towels. We were going snorkeling off the deck of a sailboat.

Once on the pier, we passed a few tourist shops, and got directly onto the sailboat with about twenty other passengers. Our tour took us to a little cove between two rocky cliffs, facing a private beach. The Mexican tour guides gave us instructions on how to use snorkel gear, which I needed, as I had never snorkeled before. Then we stepped down a ladder into the water, one by one. My first snorkeling experience was impressing. The water was murky, but the fish came close enough to blink at me. I was slightly paranoid about the warnings that jellyfish had been spotted in the area, as I've had the misfortune to have suffered a sting from a Portuguese Man-of-War when I was a child not wearing my glasses, and walking along a Florida beach littered with "purple balloons."

So anyway, there were no jellyfish or sharks, and the tour guides began spilling nachos into the water, which explained why the fish were so friendly. The waves were rough because of a nearby hurricane. I thought I might finally get a little bit tan, but no, it was a sunburn.

On our way back, we sped past some very dramatic rock formations, including a natural arch carved by ocean waves, and a leaning spire as sharp as a knife. There was a rock covered with snoozing seals. I'll mention the pelicans, but we saw pelicans in every port we stopped at, albeit different subspecies.


The tour we'd signed up for was the Shotover Jet Boat ride, and that turned out to be a lot of fun. After riding in a van through the beautiful (yet traffic-clogged) city of Acapulco, we arrived at a mangrove swamp, where the open-topped jet boat was waiting. It had something like 550 hp, and it could travel at something like 45 miles per hour. I was impresed by the skill of the driver, who managed to skim the boat through narrow swamp channels at top speed without hitting anything, although the channel was barely wider than the boat, and then swing the back end around so we did a 360 in the water. The wildlife was friendly, considering the noise from the boat. We saw a wild pig (maybe a boar) with some piglets, and an owl, and lots of cranes. There were crocodiles in the area, but they must have been sleeping.

After the ride, we went on a tour through the city. We saw the former home of artist Diego Rivera, with a lovely mosaic mural on the walls on either side of the gates. We drove through several narrow winding streets, and at last we saw the famous Acapulco cliff divers. Three young men wearing speedos each swam across a rough ocean channel, scaled a steep cliff wall (only wearing speedos, mind), prayed at an altar, meditated, and then dove into the rough channel. I'm not sure how high the dive was, but I would estimate about sixty to eighty feet. They had to really get some distance on the jump, because the cliff sloped down to the water at an angle.


I have a tough time deciding what the highlight of the trip was, but Costa Rica was certainly the most immersing tour. We rode in a tour bus for two hours, onto the Continental Divide, stopping briefly at a coffee plantation along the way. We were going to see the plugged crater of the active Poas Volcano, at an elevation of 8,870 feet above sea level. There was a small museum there, and then we hiked on a paved path through a cloud forest toward the watery crater. I regret to say that I saw no monkeys. What we saw were some huge leafy plants called "porous umbrellas," with leaves that could measure four feet or more. The cloud forest was so named because it was, well, cloudy. At that elevation, most of the clouds were below us. One can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans from the summit of Poas on a clear day.

The plugged crater was filled with a luminescent, opaque, turquoise pool of rainwater that was heated up and mixed with deadly minerals. It was impossible to say how deep it might be. The area around it was issuing sulfur fumes from seven or eight vents. In fact, a wide swath of the mountainside downwind from the crater was barren, because the sulfur mixes with the clouds and produces acid rain. The fumes were so deadly that we (the tourists) would have had to leave immediately if the wind were to change directions.

After that, we ate a buffet lunch at a restaurant in the LaPaz Waterfall Gardens. It was on an outdoor balcony overlooking clouds (well, at the time), and we saw hummingbirds feeding around us. A housecat shared our meal by begging at each table, and sitting in peoples' chairs as soon as they stood up. The cat thought my camera strap was a plaything, and ended up jumping into my lap for no apparent reason.

We drove through a lot of Costa Rican countryside, and the people were refreshingly friendly in a non-salesmen kind of way. Everyone waved to the tour bus--little kids, teenagers in school uniforms, construction workers, older folks, and so on--and I was surprised by how much the terrain looked like pictures of Switzerland. There were a lot of pine and aspen trees, rolling green hills and verdant pastures, and moss growing on everything. The towns were small (we drove through several), with fenced yards, often with a small cow tethered outside to mow the lawn. A lot of houses had broad patio porches with shiny tiles, and sofas or armchairs, as if it was a room without walls. There were many dog owners, too, and all the dogs looked happy. Most buildings had corrugated tin roofs to channel away the rain. Many of them had laundry hanging on lines to dry in the front yard, which led me to wonder how dry any clothing could get in such a wet atmosphere.

On the way back to the ship, we stopped in the town of Sarchi, where a family of artists have been painting beauiful designs on oxcarts and chests for generations. Like everywhere else, the store had the same basic tourist items sold throughout Central America--such as wooden boxes, T-shirts, pins and magnets--but it also had a good variety of more unique items, such as lacquered paintings on wood, and potholders woven to look like chickens. I don't know if the latter is really unique, but I didn't see them in any other tourist shops during our journey.


For most passengers who had been on cruises before, this was meant to be the highlight of the journey. For the ship, this was a seasonal transfer (I think) from the Alaskan coast to the Caribbean. They had to pay some huge amount to pass through, something like $160,000, but don't quote me on that. Anyway, we entered the Canal very early, like at 6AM, and exited around 4PM. Larry stood on deck most of the day taking photos, and got a bad sunburn on his arms, so he looked like an action figure with mismatched arms. The Canal has a series of water locks, sealed off by massive underwater gates, that slowly lift the ships to an artificial lake (created by dams). On the other side, the ships descend into the ocean by another series of locks. The Canal gets so much traffic that the lake can't be used for any other purpose, and we saw many cargo ships and oil tankers, all of them smaller (height-wise) than our cruise ship. In fact, our ship was close to the maximum size for passing through the Panama Canal. There was about 16 inches of leeway on either side while we were in the locks. If we had been on a lower deck (such as deck 4), we would have been staring out the window at the Canal wall. There were train tracks on either side of the Canal, and sturdy little locomotives held our ship in place with thick cables. I'm sure if the ship were to wobble a little, it would have hit the side of the Canal.

The Canal is one-way traffic, as there are only two traffic channels, side by side, to and from the lake in the center. Our ship was the first to leave the lake, and we had a brief stop in the city of Cristóbal. There was only enough time to check out a local bazaar (that's what it seemed like) and a restaurant/bar. It was interesting, though, because the bazaar gave me my first real sense that I was in a foreign nation...in terms of atmosphere and impressions. It was the first place where the local people did not seem to fully understand Westerners. Sure, the same items were on sale--T-shirts, pen holders, envelope openers, pottery, boxes, and some knickknacks that were supposedly hand-carved but had been sold in every shop from Mexico to Aruba--but not everyone spoke English (how about that!) and a number of people wore costumes to entertain tourists, which is something I hadn't seen in any shop elsewhere. There was a man in an elaborate costume (I have no idea what it was, but it looked like a rainforest version of the Green Man) who stepped around outside the doorway of one area. There were choreographed dancers in what looked like traditional old-style Spanish clothes. Even more exotic--there was a line of natives from a rainforest tribe, selling pottery and beaded jewelry, and wearing nothing but loincloths and body paint.


Aruba has a friendly motto, and they live up to it. Our first tour was on a passenger submarine. We rode a fast little boat to the electrical submarine, and climbed down into it one by one, sitting on a row of bench seats facing large windows. The submarine descended to about 150 feet, touching the bottom of the coral reef area. We saw a few shipwrecks, which turned out to have been sunken by the Arubans for the pleasure of fish and tourists alike. We saw a variety of coral and fish, including some barracuda, and a weird fish that kept eating algae off the side of the submarine.

The highlight of the trip, for me, was snorkeling in Aruba. We took a boat to De Palm Island, which is (from what I gathered) a private island with a hotel, beach, a restaurant, and lots of pretty palm trees and huts. There was a short pier where snorkelers could walk into the coral reef waters. Larry and I did that, and we were so enchanted by the experience that we ended up being late and almost missing our bus back to the cruise ship. There were hundreds of different fish that we saw--many so close that we could touch them--and the water was crystal clear. The reef formations varied, but the water was only six feet deep in most places. The coolest thing is that we could hear the parrotfish eating, crunching away at the coral with their beaks. Some of those parrotfish were a good four feet long, and wide also, and they looked intelligent for fish. Apparently they get fed by people sometimes, so they were very tame. Beyond that, we saw some long skinny fish (I'm no expert on fish), rainbow-colored fish, yellowtail, and a pretty black fish with glowing indigo speckles. Of course, there were more than that, and I swam through several schools of small silvery fish. It doesn't sound all that thrilling now that I've written it down, but I would do it again any time.


You might (or might not) wonder what I did on the cruise ship, other than draw and read. Well, we saw a musical stage production, which was impressive considering the fact that the dancers were on a rocking ship. Our ship went through a hurricane off the coast of Mexico, between Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco. It was rocking so hard during the night that Larry thought he might get thrown out of bed, and I was actually afraid that the ship might capsize. Neither of us slept much. There was lightning every two seconds or so. Of course, our stateroom (aka cabin) was located in the very front of the ship, so we could feel the ship shudder every time it rose out of the ocean and crashed down again. We didn't get seasick--but our stateroom steward did! After the hurricane, she called us to say that she was sick and couldn't work.

Twice, we saw dolphins playing in the wake of the ship. They really had fun, leaping completely out of the water, but they were usually too far away to see clearly. We also saw some freaky looking ocean birds that resembled a cross between penguins and pterodactyls, known as the brown booby. They were eating flying fish.

That's about it. This entry has gone on long enough, ya think? I'm glad I had some time during the cruise to read, and brainstorm some story ideas, and come up with new content for my website, and share it all with you. Now it's back to the job hunt. By the way, I'm preparing to submit Yeresunsa Book I to a major publisher. All it needs is a flawless synopsis and cover letter. I'm stressing over that, but I can't wait to get it done and get busy waiting! Have a good day, y'all.

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