THE PANAMA CANAL

A VOYAGE BY SHIP FROM THE PACIFIC TO THE ATLANTIC OCEAN VIA THE PANAMA CANAL
January 4 - 19, 2015

'My impression about the Panama Canal is that the great revolution it is going to introduce in the trade of the world is in the trade between the east and west coast of the United States.'

- William Howard Taft - 

The Panama Canal is an 82km artificial waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the narrow Isthmus of Panama. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduces the time for ships to travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Started by the French in 1881, it was completed by the United States in August 1914. 

The Canal consists of artificial lakes and three sets of locks and it takes an entire day to traverse the canal in a passenger ship.

When cruise dates align with our summer holiday period, it would be silly to pass up the opportunity. So we find a great deal from a third-party cruise broker, securing a balcony mini-suite for a more-than-reasonable price and enjoy sixteen days aboard the Norwegian Star.

The voyage takes us south along the Mexican coastline, stopping at a number of ports along the way. We also visit Costa Rica, Colombia, and Jamaica, before arriving in Miami, Florida on the morning of January 19, 2015.

Our journey occurs just a few months after the centennial celebrations of the opening of the canal. We are amazed at the magnitude of the canal and marvel at the ingenuity shown to plan such a huge undertaking during an era when modern technology was not available.

 

Cruise: 16-day cruise on Norwegian Star

Panama Canal: Mexico and Costa Rica to Miami, Florida from Los Angeles, California from January 4-20, 2015

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DAY ONE: LOS ANGELES
SUNDAY, JANUARY 4, 2015

Accommodation: Sunrise Hotel, 525 S. Harbor Boulevard, San Pedro, CA 90731

Breakfast: Mishi's Strudel Bakery, 309 W. &th St, San Pedro, CA 90731 

Cruise Ship: Norwegian Star - World Cruise Centre, San Pedro, CA 90731 

After spending a week in Waikiki, we had arrived very late last night. Within minutes after arrival at our hotel, I had regretted that I had not spent the extra money on the Crowne Plaza, just a few doors away. After today, we won't have to worry about our accommodation because we will be enjoying the next sixteen days aboard the Norwegian Star.
Since we have to start the boarding process at 12pm, we take a walk around the surrounding streets to stretch our legs after yesterday's long flight from Honolulu and to find some (decent) coffee. Usually a hard ask, we found a wonderful Hungarian bakery  where we ordered a light breakfast and coffee. We enjoy our morning wander before taking the hotel shuttle to the cruise centre to board the ship.
Check-in is a long, laborious process, and it appears that all passengers must be aboard two-hours before departure for security reasons. 

When we first decided to take this cruise and during the booking process, I had asked for a centre-of-ship cabin. However, the discount companies don't always get these cabins so when I had been offered a balcony room for a miniscule additional cost, I jumped at it. And I'm glad, because we have a large stateroom with a sitting area and a balcony, which provides plenty of space for us for this longer cruise.

Once the mandatory passenger safety drill is complete, the ship pulls away from San Pedro at 4pm. The sky is turning a dusky orange-grey colour and from our balcony we watch Los Angeles slip away. 

It's time to explore the ship.

DAY THREE: CABO SAN LUCAS, MEXICO
TUESDAY, JANUARY 6, 2015

Shore Excursion: Baja Highlights

Experience the beauty and cultural richness of Baja on this excursion that features both scenic and historic sights. Board your transportation for a picturesque drive through Baja California desert terrain. Your first stop is at a local glass factory, where you will watch artisans at work, learn their time-honoured techniques, and browse their colourful creations at the gift shop.

Continue to the town of San Jose del Cabo and stroll on your own along the charming, tree-lined streets and enjoy the colourful murals and te historic town plaza. You'll stop at one of the area's renowned restaurants for a complimentary beverage while you take in sweeping panoramic views of the Bay of Cabo San Lucas and El Arco in the distance.

Upon return to the port, visit the heart of Cabo San Lucas and learn about the original settlement and the native flora of the region. A 10 minute walk returns you to the ship.

The Norwegian Star is anchored in the bay as there is no pier large enough for cruise ships at the port of Cabo San Lucas. But it is a perfect opportunity for Norwegian Cruise Lines to perform the obligatory safety tests on the lifeboats, which are used as tenders to ferry us between the ship and the small pier. 
We are booked on the Baja Highlights shore excursion and must wait until our tour is called before we can leave the ship. This ensures that the thousands of people aboard are able to disembark in an orderly fashion and the system works really well.
We board the bus and within minutes we stop at an artisan factory, where we enjoy watching glass blowers deftly pick up blobs of liquified glass on the end of a long, hollow blowpipe and quickly forms the red-hot malleable, but quickly-cooling glass into magnificent and unique works of art. We are delighted to see the finished product as it is snapped off the blowpipe and set down to cool and for the colours to brighten. No matter how often I see this art in motion, I can never tire of it. 
As the bus leaves the small and somewhat developing tourist town of Cabo San Lucas, we are quickly removed from the urban area into the desert region of Baha California. At first glance, the sandy terrain looks lifeless, but it actually supports a wide range of vegetation, such as cactus, agave, and aloe vera. 
This very southern tip of the peninsula where Cabo San Lucas is located is also the spot where the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California meets. The road on which we are travelling runs beside thirty-two kilometre-long resort corridor of beach-front properties and golf courses that are either recently completed or are currently under construction. With the pristine water, a dramatic rocky outcrop at the very tip of the peninsular, and wonderful sunny weather, this is a lucrative tourist mecca for holidaymakers. We don't have time to visit the famous 'Lover's Beach' nor are we able to explore El Arco, the rock arch, which is synonymous with Cabo San Lucas, but we have a wonderful view of the whole area from the back terrace of a pub, where we order refreshing drinks as we view the point of the peninsula from this wonderful elevated location. With a good zoom on my little camera, I am able to capture this iconic photo from this vantage point.
The small city of San Jose del Cabo is the municipal centre of the Baja California Sur state. Unlike the tourist town below, San Jose has a long history. The Mission San Jose del Cabo was established in 1730 and is the southernmost of the Jesuit missions on the peninsula. The region was a landing and resupply point for ships that carried out trade between New Spain and the Spanish territories in Asia, such as The Philippines. In 1734, a revolt between the indigenous Pericu people broke out and the mission was destroyed. The ongoing confrontation with the indigenous people, its inability to develop agriculturally, and the brutal murder of Father Nicholas Tamaral contributed to the permanent closure of the mission in 1840.
Saint Joseph's Church, located at Mijares Square, was built in 1940 in the place where the original mission was established. We enter the pretty church and its features are pointed out along with it's brutal history. 
We participate in a short walking tour of the town before having some time to wander through the pretty cobbled streets. Hummingbirds hover as their long, pointed beaks extract nectar from the profusion of flowers in the city. I am mesmerised as these tiny birds use the strength in their wings to quickly dart from bloom to bloom to feed its minute body.
Our tour finishes back in Cabo San Lucas and although time constraints do not allow us to further explore the beach areas, we are content with the quality of the tour taken today. 
Sadly, as I download my photos to my iPad, some glitch occurred and the photos were deleted both on the device and on my memory card. Unfortunately, I make a further fatal mistake when I didn't remove the card and lock it with the hope that I can retrieve the photos later. Most of my photos of today's activities have been irretrievably lost.

DAY FOUR: PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 7, 2015

Shore Excursion: Puerto Vallarta and Mismaloya

Experience Puerto Vallarta in all its glory. Travel along the main highway to Old Town, along the city's cobblestone streets for a stop at City Hall and the Cathedral of the Lady of Guadalupe. Pass the elegant area of Conchas Chinas on your way to the southern end of town. Continue south along the highway to the coastal village of Mismaloya, the location of the John Huston's 1956 film, 'The Night of the Iguana', where remnants of the movie set can still be seen. Return to Puerto Vallarta and stop at a charming restaurant for a complimentary beverage before returning to the ship.

Highlights: Puerto Vallarta malecon, old square, Mismaloya

Our voyage so far has been wonderful. The Pacific Ocean is calm and since we're hugging the coastline, we've been able to see land on the horizon thus far. 
We arrive in Puerto Vallarta around 11am and, unlike yesterday, are able to walk off the ship and look for our pre-booked tour. Our shore excursion includes a walking tour of the downtown area and to Mismaloya, the small coastal village with a link to Hollywood.
Securing a window seat with no obstructions, we are hardly settled before our first stop. The Malecon is a wide pedestrian promenade on the edge of the beach, which provides easy access to some of the best attractions in the city. Part of the 1.6 kilometre space is studded with some of the most amazing sculptures. Like an outdoor art gallery, these works are designed to be touched, sat upon, or even climbed - although I don't go that far. My favourite one, apart from the magnificent Los Arcos, which stand in front of an amphitheatre, is the imposing seahorse. I am very much aware that our time in Puerto Vallarta is not going to be nearly long enough and already I feel a sense that I will be missing out on a lot of iconic sights and activities today. 
We stand between the arches and take photos; the blue Pacific Ocean is a magnificent backdrop on this warm, sunny day. Aztec  dancers perform nearby and it occurs to me that this is a perfect space for absorbing the sun and culture at the same time. We barely see anything before we are herded and taken a few steps away into the older part of the city where we visit the square and the iconic crowned church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Brightly-coloured flags zigzag between buildings; the colours are a perfect contrast to the bright, azure sky, and herald the entrance to the church. 
Inside, mass is in progress, so we quietly, without disturbing the worshippers, walk along the side aisle and admire the beautifully decorated interior. This church was constructed fairly recently between 1930 and 1940 on the original foundations of a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, which had been built in 1901. Dedicated to the Mary, who appeared to a Mexican man, Juan Diego on December 12 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe is depicted as a dark-skinned woman whose dialect was Nahuatl, Juan Diego's native language. During our travels to Spain and Latin America, we've visited many churches dedicated to the patron saint of Mexico, and the church here in Puerto Vallarta is a celebration of culture and faith. 
We meet our bus at the designated time and drive twenty kilometres south of Puerto Vallarta. On the way, the adjacent homes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are pointed out. Due to the mores of the time, Richard Burton had purchased the two properties and engaged a builder to construct a bridge to connect them. Casa Kimberley, is now a hotel, which provides visitors the opportunity to stay in the house once owned by Elizabeth Taylor. The reason why we selected this specific tour is because we want to visit the scene of the John Huston movie based on the Tennessee Williams' play, The Night of the Iguana. The remote (at the time) location had no telephones, roads, running water, or electricity, and an abundance of iguanas and scorpions. John Huston believed that using a real location provided a true and believable atmosphere. 
We stand on the headland overlooking Mismaloya bay and as the remnants of the film set are pointed out, it is easy to imagine a time when this place, just a few kilometres from the nearest town, would appear to be as isolated as depicted in the movie. Out in the water are five tiny granite islands called Los Arcos, which provide refuge for bird colonies. Visitors always attract the entrepreneur and this is no different as a couple of iguanas are dumped on my arms as photo opportunities, I know that I am not going to get away without dropping a few pesos in the handler's pockets. As much as I don't approve of handling animals in a foreign country, I do concede that people need to make a dollar somehow and so I pose for the obligatory photos with grace.
Later, as we are directed into a hotel beer garden for a complimentary beer, I wish that we are closer to the city as I would love to have some time to wander and to absorb the atmosphere. Sadly we are unable to do so. As we settle into the beachside bar and watch people parasailing high above the water,one of the passengers sits down with us. A professor of economics and a history and literature buff, he tells us that his favourite movie of all time is Huston's Night of the Iguana. It does remind me that I should get a copy of the movie to watch later. 
An extra day in Puerto Vallarta would have been perfect. We take the shore excursions to see the best of the cities and towns on our itinerary, but we do miss out on having the time and the ability to immerse ourselves in the place and to explore the nooks and crannies, which often provide the unexpected experiences. There is no true balance in these circumstances, so the least I can do is put Puerto Vallarta on my bucket list and return on day in the future. For today, however, I cannot recommend this tour highly enough for its content and for the excellent guide.



 

DAY SIX: HUATULCO, MEXICO
FRIDAY, JANUARY 9, 2015

Shore Excursion: Huatulco Archaeological Site & Market Shopping

Discover the best-kept secret of Huatulco's history and the stunning scenery of the Copalita River Ruins. Locates 20 minutes southeast of modern Huatulco, the remains of this ancient city is thought to be of Zapotec origin, but was eventually captured by the Aztecs.  The site lies on the Copalita River and is surrounded by lush forest vegetation. Your guide will lead you through the site and share information about the history  of Huatulco and the ancient inhabitant of this world hidden among the superb fauna, flora, and unbeatable natural landscapes. As you walk along the ancient stone pathways you'll have the chance to observe tropical and migratory birds in the area near the river. You'll see the field where the ancient ball game was played, foundations of  homes and pyramids and some carved stones. You may even have the opportunity to see how archaeologists and anthropologists work.

Continue to the charming town of La Crucecita, where you can meet the locals and stroll around the town centre. Visit the local church and admire the world's largest painting of The Virgin of Guadalupe on its ceiling. The state of Oaxaca is famous in Mexico and throughout the world for its handwoven fabrics and traditional foods including an excellent Oaxaca fresh white cheese. You will get to taste some of these regional delicacies at a small store demonstration of the local cuisine. You'll also learn how the inhabitants carry on the traditions of their ancestors making colourful woven rugs, carpets, and fabrics hand-milled on traditional looms. The town also offers a great variety of handicrafts and local products such as wood-carved mythical animals, black pottery  from the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mezcal a well-known tequila, chocolate, organic coffee, clothes, wines and more.

Highlights: Guide's name is Eduardo. Meeting local people in La Crucecita, the ruins of the Zapotec town.

Our morning departure from the ship brings us into the relatively new resort town of Huatulco. Located where the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains meet the Pacific Ocean, Huatulco had been established in 1969 soon after the International highway was built in the region. Currently, about 80% of all tourists are domestic due to limited access by air. We don't have to worry about that as we tumble off the ship and straight into the waiting buses.
As we depart the port, I notice that there are a number of multi-storey buildings, hotels or apartments, which are half-built and abandoned and I wonder whether the lack of international tourism is responsible for these unfinished resorts. 
Despite what the itinerary says, our first stop is in the neat town of La Crucecita, one of the two towns that comprise the Huatulco area. We visit the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe located in front of the main square. As we enter, the first thing that I notice is the huge, ceiling-length painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her form is surrounded by a twilight-blue painted sky on which stars are featured. Together with the Christmas decorations still adorning the interior of the church, I am uplifted by the local artwork and dedication to the Virgin of Guadalupe. 
From this point of beauty we walk through the square to a local handcraft factory where members of one family are processing local wool. There are a variety of items for sale but I am more interested in the people spinning and weaving. 
We all know that cochineal is the red colour that is used to dye various fabrics and even icing for cakes. I must admit that, up until today, I have never considered the origin of cochineal. A large cactus leaf hanging from a string is paraded around for all of us to see. Little white bits of algae or scale make a dotted pattern on the fleshy green pad. Picking a couple of the white specks off the leaf our host pokes his fingernail into the centre of the speck and drags his finger through it, squishing and dragging it across the palm of his hand. The red streak left behind looks like blood, but it is, in fact, the pulverised body of an insect and the source of the common red dye. I suddenly have the feeling that the product we call cochineal may be an imitation food colouring because I would imagine that a lot of insects would be required to provide the tiniest drop of dye. 
Given some time to wander around the almost empty streets of La Crececita, we talk to a linen seller who is wandering the streets, a variety of linen placemats, crocheted items and handmade toys are arranged on her arms and fingers. Without a word of English and with a Spanish phrasebook at hand, we not only manage to buy some placemats, but also get permission to take some photos of this delightful lady. Instead of purchasing goods from contrived and controlled premises, the interaction with the local sellers not only helps them supplement their meagre income, but provides meaningful interaction with the locals on a one-to-one basis. Certainly each time providing real value to our travels. A magnet can be bought on any street corner without much thought or interaction, but a genuine handcrafted item provides a different level of mutual understanding. It does for me.
Our next stop after leaving the beautiful town of La Crucecita is a headland. The viewing area is adorned with huge letters making the word Huatulco. I cannot quite squeeze the entire word in the frame of my photo without stepping on the road, but perhaps I should be more focused on the magnificent view of the coastline. From this vantage point, although there are some buildings poking through the trees, we have a magnificent panorama of native bush that reaches the white sandy shores. I think that the wild beauty of this place should be preserved. But for how long can this hidden gem remain hidden from the masses?

The Bocano Copalita Eco-Archaeological Park is approximately ten kilometres from Huatulco. Discovered in 1996 beneath the dense forest vegetation, the site was probably settled around 500 BCE by groups from the Mexican Gulf. It is believed that several indigenous groups lived in the settlement over time until it was abandoned in the 1520s around the time of the Spanish Conquest. This thirty-hectare town sustained a population of approximately 2,000 people and possessed a writing system, a calendar and the ability to track astronomical activity, and complex political, socioeconomic, and religious organisations.
This forms part of the larger eighty-hectare low deciduous jungle that includes approximately 700 species of plants, 300 bird and 80 mammal species, and 75 species of reptile. Eduardo is quite knowledgeable about the local flora and points out a number of plants with healing and poisonous properties, specifically those that were probably used for more than 2,000 years by the local people. 
Serpents were revered creatures by the Mixtec people and the serpent is depicted on the temple we visit. According to Eduardo, only a small part of the town has been excavated and scientists believe that many more temples and dwellings are yet to be uncovered. Like most ancient Mexican towns, a ball court is included in the ruins. Eduardo is quick to advise that unlike the life-and-death games played in other parts of Mexico, the ball game played here was one of skill only. I'm not sure how they know this. Perhaps there is evidence in the cemeteries. It's easy to see that there is much left to excavate here and I'm happy that there are no visible reconstructions as we've seen in other ruins during a previous visit to Mexico.
A small museum houses many stone carvings found on the site. These are especially interesting as they have been found virtually beneath our feet and they are in wonderful condition; a result of being covered for so many centuries.
The ruins and the history of the Mexican people is fascinating to me and if this is a relatively new discovery, I do wonder how many more of these ruins are lying beneath the surface or hidden in dense jungle. I am amazed today, as I had been in 2006 during a previous visit to Mexico, is that despite the size of the country and the number of Mayan/Aztec/Mixtec/Zapotec ruins found to date, the architecture is fundamentally the same. Does this mean that these people had town-planning standards, which had to be applied across the country? Just pondering!

We have time, after we return to Huatulco, to explore the resort town a little. The pungent aroma of freshly-ground coffee attracts us to a cafe located in the centre of the park. Here in a covered gazebo we watch a blackbird hopping between the branches of a fig tree; its aerial roots anchored into the ground below. As we approach the ship, we are attracted to a beachside bar, where we sit and watch those partaking in water sports, such as paddle-boarding and scuba-diving in the water. This is truly a beautiful and relatively untouched part of Mexico and I appreciate the low-key atmosphere of this place. A walk along the beach reveals many new and a few abandoned resorts. It's relatively undeveloped, but I'm sure this will not last. 
As the afternoon turns to evening, we pull up anchor and, escorted by naval patrol boats, make our way out of the heads and toward deeper water as we continue our way in a southerly direction.

DAY SEVEN: PUERTO CHIAPAS, MEXICO
SATURDAY, JANUARY 10, 2015

Shore Excursion: Chiapas Through the Ages

You will be taken on a scenic 45-minute drive to the ancient ruins of Izapa. Like Pompeii, only a fraction of the site has been uncovered. Izapa was the region's most influential cultural and commercial centre in the late Mayan period. Your guide will point out the most important sites and help you understand how the city developed.

One of the most interesting relics at Izapa is Stela 5, which depicts the Mayan Tree of Life. 

Next you'll pay a visit to a planetarium south of the city, featuring an interesting show about Mayan astronomy, a display of photos of old vs contemporary Tapachula, and some other exhibits. After all, in December 2012 this area was ground zero for the 'end of the world' fears supposedly predicted by the Mayan calendar. 

Travelling to the culturally-diverse city of Tapachula, the second-largest city in Chiapas, you'll visit the House of Culture, located on the town's Zocolo, which houses important Mayan relics.

As you embark on a walking tour of the city, you will learn about Tapachula's interesting history, and see first-hand how the city has been influenced by the Mayans, Mestizios and Spanish, as well as German, Chinese, Japanese, and French immigrants. You will then have some free time to buy some souvenirs or relax and grab a snack at one of the area's local cafes.

Highlights: Guide's name is Emilio.