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. 

One of the advantages of the large cruise ships is the variety of shore excursions on offer for each of the ports we visit. For some passengers, the cruise itself is the holiday and they don't venture too far away from the ship. For me, however, the shore excursion provides a tiny snapshot-view of the history, geography, and culture of a local area. the more we strive to expose ourselves to other cultures, the better we understand how similar we really are.
When I think about the challenges that tour guides have, they really are enormous. Not only are they speaking to a bus-load of strangers from many countries in a language that is not their native one, but they have to answer questions, they have to know their stuff, and they have to be able to deal with whingers, stragglers, and generally discontented people. They are the minority, but the tour guide's ability to manage them can either make or break the pleasure of the tour for all.
Today's guide, Emilio promises a fun day for all of us. He is a fellow with a permanent smile plastered on his face and his promise becomes our reality fairly quickly.

Although Puerto Chiapas has a fairly new port area, it is nothing more than a fishing village with little of interest to us, so we are glad we are on a bus with thirty-two others and on our way to the larger town of Tapachula, a few kilometres inland. I don't realise how close we are to the border between Mexico and Guatemala. From the window of the bus during the drive from the port to Tapachula, it is easy to see that the people in this region are struggling financially, and perhaps the building of the port for cruise ships will provide a better economy for the surrounding area. 
Our first stop is at Tapachula's old town hall, an Art-Deco era building decorated with Oaxacan-style fretwork and images of Aztec warriors, and which is now 'The House of Culture'. On the main portico, musicians playing traditional percussion instruments, somewhat similar to the xylophone, play familiar songs like the Cuban classic, Guantanamera. Women dressed in local traditional costumes adorned with embroidered floral designs and colours that are representative of the region, carry brightly-painted gourds. Emilio shows us the different costumes that are influenced by the Spanish and those worn by indigenous groups. The San Augustin church facing the square is no longer Tapachula's cathedral, but remains the favourite church of the people. It's simple Spanish-style architecture is typical of the area. I'm surprised to see how many Chinese restaurants there are in even the small area we are explore. Chinese immigrants started to arrive in Tapachula around 1900 to work in the coffee plantations. There is now a strong Chinese community descended from those first migrants. 
The Cobach Planetarium is an absolute delight. After viewing the night skies of the Mayan culture and learning about their reliance on the astronomy to build the Mayan calendar, we are treated to a Mayan ceremonial dance show in the forecourt of the building. Although the planetarium visit had not been included in the itinerary for the day, it is a very interesting place to visit and a wonderful introduction to our next stop and the reason we have selected this excursion.
The Izapa Archaeological ruins is a very large pre-Columbian site that dates back to approximately 1500 BCE and remained occupied until 1200 CE. Izapa includes extensive monuments and architecture. From north to south, it stretches approximately 1.5 kilometres and includes six major plazas and two ball courts. Although one of the largest sites in Mexico, Izapa is probably one of the least refurbished, making it more authentic. What sets Izapa apart from other pre-Columbian sites is the abundance of monumental art. These include sculptured stelae and altars. There are approximately 89 stelae, 61 altars, 3 thrones, and 68 other sculptures, which may indicate that there was an extended period of peace. There is no indication that the people had a writing system and the sculptures appear to be mythological in style. We don't have time to view all the art work on this site but we are shown the most famous of all monuments, Stela 5, which features 'The tree of life' and may illustrate the creation myth.  The location of Stela 5 at the end of one of the ball courts is particularly significant because on December 21, 2014, when the Mayan calendar officially ends, the sun would rise directly behind the stone, lighting the carved head on the throne at the far end of the ball court. 
At the ball court, Emilio demonstrates how the ball game is played. Thank goodness he uses a soccer ball and not the stone variety used by the Mayans in their game. The Mayan ball game is believed to have been held between two teams of three-to-five people. The opposing team were prisoners, who were jeered and belted up by the townsfolk before they arrived at the ball court, so they were already in a weakened state. The players wore a belt made of stones around their hips. Since the arms and legs could not be used, the ball was controlled and prevented from touching the ground by the players hips. The aim of the game was to bounce the ball high enough to go through a hoop, which was located very high above the heads of the players. They game continued until the ball went through the hoop, so the game potentially lasted a very long time. Each time the ball touched the ground, the person responsible was removed from the court and killed. The losing team was always the opposition and they were beheaded and dismembered. Perhaps this game is the origin of soccer!
After getting involved in playing the ball game without incident or death, we explore the ruins. Since this site is regarded as the place where the Mayan calendar had been developed, I take an interest in its development. Large pots were filled with water and each evening the most sensitive priests used the images of the celestial bodies that were reflected in the water to record the position of the planets and stars in the sky. Despite this rudimentary method of stargazing, the Mayan calendar almost as accurate as the calendar we use today. The Mayans did not include leap years and although there had been conjecture that the end of the calendar on 21/12/2014 would signify the end of the world, it appears that it was simply the end of the calendar. 
Emilio provides us with a vey animated and interesting discussion on the Mayan ruins in Izapa and during our short trip back to the ship happily answers questions that we have about the things we've seen today. Of all the tour guides we have come across so far, Emilio is easily the best.
Our day is long but we return to the ship in the late afternoon. Before long, the anchor is raised and unlike any other port we've visited so far, boats filled with waving people gather as a gesture of goodwill as the ship pulls away from Puerto Chiapas.

 

DAY NINE: PUNTARENAS, COSTA RICA
MONDAY, JANUARY 12, 2015

Shore Excursion: Discovering Costa Rica Tour

A comfortable ride will take you through the pastoral countryside of the province of Puntarenas and a wide variety of landscapes that include rich farmlands, lush forests and mountain views, as you approach the highlands of Atenas, a charming town in the Occidental Valley of the country. It is recognised for having the 'best climate and purest air in the world' and for being one of the production areas with the best coffee crops in the country. The characteristics offered by the privileged climate of the zone, the careful selection of the beans by  our producers, and a rigorous quality control , in compliance with international certifications, allow us to offer the best Costa Rican coffee to the entire world.

A great team of tour guides will join you through every stage of the production process of this fine gourmet coffee at the Doka Plantation. During your visit to the plantation and processing plant, you will have the opportunity to live with us the experience behind a delicious cup of coffee. Learn, along with our experts how we process and roast coffee from our producer's farms, in harmony with the environment.

Norwegian Cruise Lines is very aware of illnesses that may be brought on board the ship and the tour buses are carefully cleaned by ship staff before we can leave for our outing today.
Our early-morning tour, Discovering Costa Rica' will give us an overview of Costa Rica's urban and rural areas. It is a lovely day, a warm 30 degrees Celsius with cloudless azure skies. As the bus pulls away from the pier, it occurs to me that the white sandy beaches we've seen so far have been replaced with a dark brown sand here. It doesn't take long to leave Puntarenas behind us and the bus takes us through plantation and jungle as it winds up the mountainous roads. I love taking these roads as it provides a snapshot of life lived in the rural areas.
Surrounded by lush hills, Palmares was settled around 1890 by settlers who were looking  which is built of volcanic stone, the grout made of ground egg shells. Inside, the vaulted ceiling is painted white, providing a surprisingly bright interior. Outside, in the square, palm trees, after which the town is named, line the footpaths providing a lovely sheltered place to hang out.
We are soon on our way again, climbing higher through the mountains, past villages, plantations, and rain forest. In this region, the dry season extends from December until April, which is to our advantage as we are spending just one day here in Costa Rica. The main industries here include gold mining, sugar, tobacco for cigars, and coffee. Here, in the Upper Central Valley, at an altitude of 1830 metres (6,000 feet) above sea level, in the tropical dry forest region, it has the perfect climate for growing coffee beans. 
The best quality coffee in the world is grown in Costa Rica, Colombia, and Kenya, although I'm sure the coffee regions of Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and Ethiopia would disagree. However, I'm biased because I've always favoured a blend of Costa Rican, (mild and sweet) and Colombian (strong and slightly bitter) coffees, so I'm really looking forward to today's coffee plantation visit.
The Doka Plantation was originally established by German immigrants, but is now locally owned. Although Costa Rica produces Arabica and Robusta beans, the government only allows the export of Arabica beans, which are harder to grow and produce smaller yields, in an effort to ensure the reputation of Costa Rica's coffee is not tarnished by the lower grade of robusta beans.

We step into the beautiful restaurant owned by the Doka plantation for an early lunch before exploring the extensive and beautiful gardens and butterfly enclosure. The plantation buildings are nestled at around 1,220 metres (4,000 feet) above sea level on the slopes of the Poas Volcano. The air is fresh with floral undertones and a distinctive spicy aroma. Beautiful flowering bromelliads, hibiscus, and other plants thrive in the sun, whilst bees and butterflies collect the pollens they need.
We meet at the designated place and time for the formal plantation tour and we are not disappointed. 
The coffee plant belongs to the same family as jasmine and early in the season, when the beans are forming and the plants are in full bloom I can imagine the view of swathes of white flowing down the mountains like lava, the heady jasmine scent filling one's nostrils. It must be an absolutely amazing sight to see. 
When the coffee plant is five years old, it produces berries; each one contains two beans. From five years, the plants yield three crops per year. The Arabica variety is compact and can be grown close together, thus being a manageable plant for harvesting. After fifteen years, the bush is pruned back very hard, providing another five years of good quality crops before being removed and replanted. All parts of the plant are used; the berries are used for fertilizer, whilst the branches from the prunings are used to fuel the large dryers that are used to dry the beans during the wet season. The berries are picked and placed in a basket tied to the waist of the picker. Each basket holds eleven kilos and the pickers earn US$2 per basket.
The berries are washed and placed in large vats of water. Good coffee beans sink to the bottom of the vat and these will be eventually exported. The berries that float are sold locally.
The berries are then separated from the beans and are graded. The top-quality peaberry are exported. The graded beans are then placed in water and will remain there to ferment and for the sugar to leach out. The next process is the drying, which is done on large concrete platforms in the sun. A person with a rake constantly stirs them up, turning them over and allowing the moisture to evaporate from the beans. This process lasts for up to five days. Should it rain during this process, the beans are placed in large mechanical dryers, but Doka prefer that their beans are sun-dried.
Then the beans are roasted.
Light-roast: Beans are roasted for ten minutes, have little flavour, but has the highest amount of caffeine at 2%.
Medium-roast: Beans are roasted for fifteen minutes, have a good flavour and contains 1.5% caffeine.
Dark-roast: Beans are roasted for twenty minutes, have a robust flavour and has the least amount of caffeine at less than one percent.
We make an unscheduled stop at an orchid farm and spend a little while exploring and admiring the many flowering orchids on show. I'm not really sure why we stop here. Perhaps the tour guide has done a deal with the owner of the orchid farm, but this stop delays us somewhat and we are very late returning to our ship, the departure delayed until we arrive. Despite this little hiccup, the day has been wonderful and I'm very glad we had selected this tour for our one day in Costa Rica.

DAY ELEVEN: PANAMA CANAL TRANSIT
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 14, 2015

Panama Canal Transit

We will be approaching the entrance to the Canal from the Pacific side, entering Balboa at approximately 5:55am. At approximately 7:55am, we reach the Miraflores lock, a double lock, and clear that at approximately 9:05am.

The arrival time at Pedro Miguel is approximately 9:35am and it will take almost an hour to clear this single lock. We then sail through the vast Gatun Lake and pass Gamboa at approximately 11:25pm, clearing Gamboa at approximately 12:05pm.

From here we enter the Gatun Locks at approximately 1:25, clearing this portion at about 3:20pm, to reach Cristobal on the Atlantic Ocean side at approximately 4:20pm.

Throughout today's Panama Canal transit, we will have an esteemed member of the Panama Canal authority to provide you with a full narration of the history, construction, flora and fauna, and the future plans for this amazing structure.

There is only one way to transit the Panama Canal from Pacific to Atlantic or vice versa, and that is to travel through it by boat. Of course, having a balcony room on a rather large ship with approximately 2,000 other people is an experience in itself! I won't bore you with the history of the Panama Canal, instead would prefer to share my own experience of the journey.
A running commentary during the transit can be accessed through our television, which we switch on early in the morning, whilst alternating between the TV broadcast from the front of the ship and our unobstructed view from the balcony. Fortunately I had booked a starboard-side cabin and get the added bonus of the view of the skyline of Panama City. 
Container ships, tankers, and cruise ships take priority over all other craft. There are twenty-four pre-booked slots for larger vessels and each is provided with a slot number and must transit in that order through all the locks. Our slot number is 15 and we shall follow the Tanti T cargo ship throughout the day. The Panama Canal is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year and just forty ships pass through each day. Cruise ships, like the Norwegian Star, pay between $100,000 and $300,000 to transit the canal, and the fee is calculated on the number of cabins sold when the transit is pre-booked. Pre-bookings are essential for cruise ships on a tight schedule. Despite its narrowness, locks built side by side allow for two-way traffic.

Our day starts at Bilboa and as the early-morning haze lifts from the water, we are able to see different craft moving into their pre-booked slots. They are very orderly and I have a view of a line of tankers and cargo ships waiting whilst smaller craft, like yachts, sit in the foreground.

As we progress towards the first set of locks, a tug boat accompanies us. A pilot will come aboard the ship and he will guide us through the canal and provide a commentary via the intercom system. The Tanti T container is already inside the lock and I watch with interest as the water level is raised, lifting the container with only water and gravity. Watching the ship ahead of us provides a view of the process before we experience the same. As the Tanti T sails out of the opened lock and the water level is again stabilised, our ship is attached by cables to train locomotives that will assist with guiding us through the narrow Miraflores lock. Leaning from the balcony overlooking the side of the lock, I am surprised (or shocked) when I realise that there is approximately 60 centimetres of space between the ship and the lock and that the locomotives are used to ensure that the ship doesn't move even a centimetre off-course because hitting or even scraping the side of the lock would be disastrous for everyone.