This is another in the series of Travelogues detailing Frank and Patricia Hall’s adventures.
Back in the summer of 2009 when the travel industry began to panic in fear people would stop traveling because of the meltdown of the economy; the Cruise Lines began to make great offers to travelers. Two-for-one fares, previously offered only on those cruises not selling fast enough, were now being offered on all itineraries. Other “goodies” were being thrown in too. Additional discounts, shipboard credits and prepaid gratuities were added inducements.
We received a catalog from one of our favorite Cruise Lines, Oceania, offering all of these benefits on a cruise of the Panama Canal in February of 2010. The package was too good to pass up, even though we had been through the Canal on a cruise back in 1992. We talked to our “Travel Buddies,” Larry and Patty Webber, and they were interested too.
The ship was the Regatta, on which we had sailed previously and much enjoyed. The itinerary included Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas (all in Mexico), Puntarenas (Costa Rica), Cartagena (Colombia), as well as Key West and Miami.
Also appealing to us, it was a 16 day Cruise visiting only 8 ports, meaning plenty of time at sea to relax, read, gamble and unwind. A final selling point, it sailed from Los Angeles (San Pedro) and ended in Miami. This meant no hotel or air fare expense on the front end and only a one way air ticket on the way back.
We made our deposit and so did the Webbers.
TRAVEL TO MEXICO – IS IT SAFE? As the sailing date approached and we told other folks about our trip, we discovered that many people were concerned about the violence in Mexico. I have to admit that if you read the official US Government Travel Advisory you’d be concerned, too. We knew one couple who had taken a “Mexican Riviera Cruise” the previous November and never left the ship in the four ports they visited.
I talked to a lot of people who regularly travel to Mexico, including my son, John, and they reminded me that violence against tourists is extremely rare there. It’s rarer, in fact, than such violence is in the United States. So, while we vowed not to take chances, such as wandering around unescorted in non-tourist areas, we felt the risk was acceptable.
While there were many unsold condominiums in projects aimed at Americans, we really saw no evidence of either violence or hostility to tourists. On the contrary, the communities we visited were delighted to have us there.
OFF WE GO UMBRELLA IN HAND. We boarded the Regatta on February 9th. Our friends at
T&R Limo of Arcadia picked the four of us up at Noon and drove us to the cruise ship port facility in San Pedro. It was pouring down rain all the way to the ship. We were scheduled to pull away from the dock at Midnight, so once on board we had plenty of time to get acquainted with the facilities. All this time the rain continued. The eye of the storm was supposed to pass through Los Angeles about 2 AM, so we expected a rough night at sea. It never happened. At about 10 PM the rain stopped and when we left the safety of the Harbor, the ocean was calm.
It was an omen. From that moment until we started to leave Key West we avoided wet weather, even though it was often predicted. I’ve always wondered how the guys who have trouble telling you what it will be like tomorrow, are turning your life upside down in an effort to avoid the weather they are predicting 30 years from now. Is it any wonder there are so many skeptics about Global Warming?
No matter when you go on this trip, it can be blistering hot, so, don’t forget to bring along your hat and sun block, even if it’s a cold winter up north.
HOW THIS TRAVELOGUE IS ORGANIZED: Since we spent about half our time at sea on this cruise, we start with some tips on your time “At Sea.” This will be followed by “The Ports.”
AT SEA: Our first two days were at sea and it gave us a great opportunity to settle into the routine we would follow on our eight sea days.
IN THE GYM WITH FRANK AND THE SHOW GIRLS: I ride an exercise bike every morning at home to help keep my cardio-vascular system pumping. As with a lot of 73 year old men I’ve had a few brushes with my own mortality, so, I’m faithful to my routine. Most ships have gyms adjacent to their “Spas” and Oceania ships are no exception. I’m always amused at the people who use the gym. I sort them into 4 categories:
1. MIDDLE AGED LADIES IN COLOR COORDINATED WORK OUT CLOTHES. These ladies plan ahead. They have shopped for their gym clothes the day before they packed their bags. On the first day at sea they will all be “looking good” in the gym strolling on the treadmill or peddling leisurely on the exercise bikes. They will never break a sweat. #1s usually disappear from the gym by the 3rd day and can be found getting facials or massages in the Spa next door.
2. THE SINGLES Young men and women who seek to meet a person of the opposite sex (or the same sex in certain instances) will also be found flexing their muscles or showing off their "glutes" on the first few days. But, they too will soon abandon the gym in favor of the piano bars or discotheques where they are more likely to “score.” After the first few nights, it’s not so easy to leap out of bed at 7 or 8 in the morning, and the #2s who are really interested in the gym show up in the afternoon.
3. THE JOCKS These are the athletes including passengers who enter triathlons and marathons for fun. It also includes people in professions requiring them to regularly work out – such as “Chorus Girls.” On larger ships, Crystal Cruises for example, where the shows are New York quality and large casts of dancers are required, these ladies will almost always spend a day or two a week staying in shape in the gym. This is what keeps the gym from getting boring for the Number 4s.
4. THE OLD GUYS (AND GALS) STAYING ALIVE: This group obviously includes me. By the end of the cruise there may be only three or four old guys still showing up. They can be heard humming the old Bee Gees hit “Stayin’ Alive” as they pound away on the equipment trying to keep their heart rates up. One way to tell a person in this group (aside from their age, of course), is that like the Jocks, they will never be caught dead in a Color Coordinated Exercise outfit. They will be wearing tee-shirts so old that the wording, once vivid, can barely be seen. Their gym shoes will be made by Nike in the 1970s. The bad condition of your workout clothes identifies you as a “Regular” and definitely not a number one or two.
PHOTO SHOP Nearly all the folks my age have digital cameras given to them by their children so they can take pictures of their grandchildren. As time goes on new digital cameras are invented, ever so much better than the ones we own, so we’re required to buy a new one. Even so, most of us can’t do much more than “point and shoot.” Lucky for us the new cameras are “stupid proof,” although one look at the “owner’s manual” will prove how stupid you really are.
Every cruise line has a computer room and a photography shop. The people who work in these places are very patient with us old folks, explaining to us that these cameras will do everything but walk the dog (that comes next). And, they are willing to show you how to do it while speaking English.
Classes will be taught on sea days in the Computer Center on everything from how to edit your photos to how to take a picture through a window without ruining it with your flash.
Larry and I took several of these classes. We learned lots of neat things, only two of which I remember. (I recommend you take notes in class.) Here are the ones I remember:
1. Take several shots on every picture. Most of us were raised with cameras that take only 24 or 36 pictures before changing film. With the modern camera you can take 200 or 300 pictures without changing your “chip” So when you edit your pictures (after you get home) you simply delete the worst shots and keep the best. /
I took their advice and shot almost 300 photos and ended up keeping about half. But, one caution, don’t go back later on the trip and delete pictures from previous days. New photos taken will fill in the “holes” you have made and your pictures will be all out of order when you download them. So, wait until you download them all to delete those you don’t want.
2. Take a picture of a “bookmark” before each day’s photos. This will help you remember where you were when you took the pictures that follow. He recommended we photograph the front page of the daily Cruise Newsletter each morning. That way each group of pictures is separated and dated.
THE CASINO: Ship’s Casinos are a great source of income to the Cruise Line. Most offer Blackjack, Craps and Roulette in addition to table games like “Caribbean Poker” and “Pai Gow Poker.” These don’t change much from year to year. What have changed drastically are the slot machines.
The most popular new machines are the Penny Slots.
We first saw Penny Slots in Australia where they’re called “Pokeys.” The object is to cover every possible eventuality which usually requires a bet of about 48 Cents. So much for the “Penny Slot.” But, what has made these machines really fun is the electronics. Your machine talks to you, cheers you on and rewards you with “extra pulls” and games of chance. Much of the game is done by “touch screen” so you choose an option by touching or poking it.
They can be addictive and have replaced a lot of the traditional Slots. Where, in the old days, there would have been 20 poker machines, there are now 10. There are still plenty of “Dollar Slots” but you’ll have to look long and hard to find one that pays off the old way. The pull handle is gone and you no longer drop coins. Now you feed the machine a $20 bill and it keeps track of your play, spitting out an IOU when you’re ready to quit. “Cherries” are almost extinct.
My Patty loves these things and can be found on most “At Sea Days” entertaining herself at the Penny Slots.
I play Blackjack. I seldom lose on Cruise Ships. I’m going to write a separate essay on “Winning at Cruise Ship Blackjack.” You should be able to find it on my website www.frankhall.com soon.
CRUISE LECTURES: To keep you from going crazy with boredom on long afternoons at sea, nearly all cruise lines offer educational lectures on the ports you’ll be visiting. Topics might include tourist information: where to shop, what’s the exchange rate, etc. Or, they’ll provide you in depth knowledge of the history, culture, art and customs of the places you’re going to visit. Larry and I attended many lectures including the history of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America, Mayan and Aztec history, the European explorers and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
We learned some pretty interesting stuff.
For example; Mayans and, later Aztecs, offered human sacrifices every night to encourage the Sun God to return from the “Underworld.” The next morning, up popped the sun and everyone would celebrate a successful sacrifice. One wonders why they didn’t discover that missing a nightly sacrifice wouldn’t prevent a successful sunrise, but, they never did. Or at least it doesn’t appear they did judging by the thousands of skulls found in their temples. What they did with the skulls, you don’t want to know.
Seldom were Aztec virgins offered, although barren Aztec women almost always made the grade. Favored were people captured from other tribes enslaved to do the drudge work around the village until worn out, and then sacrificed.
This explains how Cortez was able to defeat the Aztecs with only a few hundred Spaniards. All the other tribes in what is now Mexico teamed up with Cortez to knock off the Aztecs and stop the enslavement and slaughter. The story is told accurately and brutally in Mel Gibson’s film, “Apocalypto,” so much for the “noble and peaceful savage” ruined by the arrival of Europeans.
In the “Pirates” lecture we learned that Sir Francis Drake, a hero and explorer to American children, is portrayed as the first of the criminal pirates in Spanish history books. In fact Drake was a “Privateer” (which only meant he had a commission from the King of England to steal Spanish gold) and made his fortune and his knighthood by being very good at plundering gold stolen by the Spanish from the Aztecs. There are no Aztec history books around to say what they thought the correct historical interpretation was. Then again, the Aztecs stole most of their gold from other tribes when they captured and plundered their villages.
And, so it goes.
Drake is my First Cousin according to my genealogical research, but that’s another essay. Perhaps this explains my personal bias toward English history books.
SHOPPING ON BOARD THE SHIP: There is a “shopping arcade” on every cruise ship. Included will be a little gift shop with travel needs and apparel and, on larger ships, there will be a jewelry store. The Regatta has both and the shopping arcade is a magnet for female passengers. There are always men browsing too, but, the odds definitely favor the “fairer sex.”
Since our ship sailed at midnight the shops weren’t open until the day after our departure. They’re never open in port to avoid shoppers having to pay sales taxes and duty. The Casino is never open when you’re in port either to avoid local gambling prohibitions and taxes.
On the first day at sea, the shops open and everyone floods in to see if there are any bargains. Don’t bother; there aren’t any bargains on the first day. Beginning a few days after you sail, the sales begin and the souvenir hungry passengers flock back to see what’s new. By the last couple of days on the cruise you will find $5 Watches and gold chains being sold by the inch.
A guy would think that waiting until the sales start to buy that tee-shirt he’s lusted after, is the thing to do. But, the good ones always seem to be gone by the 3rd day. For men, the gray, white and navy tee shirts will be available in only Small and Triple X sizes after day one. However there will be a large supply of lime green and puce tee shirts in your size. This leads to a certain panic causing you to buy that golf shirt you’re not that crazy about, but happens to be the only one left in your size.
This is so on every cruise. I’ve asked a few times what happens to the guys on the next cruise if the tee shirts are all gone. Do they get a new shipment of shirts after each cruise? Or, deep in the bowels of the ship, is there a storeroom chock full of Gray, White and Navy Blue Tee Shirts for chubby guys like me being held as a lure to sell those lime green and puce jobs.
The answer to my question is often a blank look, or an “I’m not in charge of inventory, sir.” However, when that $10,000 Rolex is sold in the Jewelry Store, notice how quickly it is replaced.
Another of the many mysteries of the Cruise industry I have yet to figure out.
MISCELLANEOUS ACTIVITIES: There are tons of other things happening on the ship all the time ranging from Trivia Contests to Pilates Classes. There are putting contests, Bingo Games, cooking lessons, bridge lessons, service club meetings, AA meetings and a thousand other things to keep your mind occupied. Except for the Library where we might get a book or a movie to watch in our room or the Computer Room where we keep up with our emails, there aren’t many other things we regularly do. Except:
HAPPY HOUR: On the Regatta, Happy Hour is from 5 to 6 PM in two bars. The Horizon’s bar on the top deck where it immediately follows “High Tea” and Martini’s Bar amidships on Deck 5 near the Casino. We tried to elbow the old ladies out of their ocean view High Tea Tables at 5 PM in Horizon but we finally decided it was a losing proposition. So we settled on Martini’s a cozy spot with a Piano Bar for our evening fellowship aided by “Free Doubles.”
On the first evening we noticed a dapper gentleman of about 90 years of age dressed in a light weight pink sport jacket and tie, definitely out of uniform on the “Country Club Casual” Regatta.
He was keeping perfect time with the pianist who was playing tunes of the 40s and 50s, many from Broadway Shows. He led the applause after every medley. We learned he was a widower, a World War II Vet who made enough money while working to spend a fair amount of his retired life on cruise ships. We learned his name was John when we introduced ourselves.
John was in Martini’s every night during the cruise and could be found at the Pool Bar during the day nursing a beer. At night, his drink was a Martini. We soon saw that he had a crowd of devoted followers, widows (or just single ladies) who vied for his attention. We called them the “Cougars.” One or another of the cougars could often be seen lunching or dining with John or sharing a martini at one or another of the shipboard parties. But, during Happy Hour, John was always alone at the bar enjoying the music.
We speculated that when John is home he never wants for a home cooked meal.
Way to go, John!
NIGHTLY ENTERTAINMENT: All cruise ships have a showroom with nightly entertainment after dinner and the Oceania ships are no exception. Crystal Cruise Ships have Broadway quality shows and Oceania has what you might call “Lounge Show” quality.
We had an impressionist, who sang in the styles of many singers, but, isn’t going to make you forget the late great Danny Gans.
We had a young magician and his contortionist wife who were probably the best of the cruise acts. They left you wondering, “How’d they do that?”
But, the real “showstopper” was the cruise “Crew Talent Show.” The maitre d’ in the Italian Theme Restaurant sang the Sinatra song book and got a standing ovation while a young Norwegian ship’s officer played terrific classical piano. No matter what ship you’re on, the “Crew Talent Show” is worth giving up the Casino for.
Some ships, not Oceania, have Karaoke Contests, with the finals as an evening show. These are always worth attending, too.
FOOD ON THE REGATTA: The dining room on Regatta has open seating, so you aren’t confined to an early or late time for dinner. We had several good meals there, but, the menu is somewhat limited.
There are two “theme restaurants,” “Toscana” the Italian and the “Polo Grill” Steak House. We had great meals in both of them and the service was outstanding. On Valentine’s Day, which also happens to be the Webber’s anniversary, we celebrated in the Polo Grill with lobster and steaks you could cut with your fork. You will be allowed to make reservations in each of them once during your cruise, but, you can also go on the daily waiting list for both restaurants.
In the buffet on the pool deck the lunches are quite good, but, most days we had a hamburger in the adjacent “Wave’s Grill” outdoors by the pool. In the evening, the buffet is billed as “Tapas on the Terrace,” a great place to go for something light after a busy day ashore.
Most mornings we had cereal, juice and muffins delivered to our cabin, but there is an omelet bar in the buffet and a sit-down breakfast in the Dining Room.
CABO SAN LUCAS at the Southern tip of the Baja California peninsula was our first port. It was a very long way (two days at sea crossing two time zones) to Cabo San Lucas, 1,500 miles southeast of Los Angeles. If you look on a map you’ll see Cabo is almost due south of Lubbock, Texas – a long way south of Lubbock and a long way east of Los Angeles.
We elected not to take an excursion, but to walk into town. Patricia and I had been here once before and Larry is practically a native, having been game fishing there many times in the past.
We were surprised to see how the area around the harbor had grown since we were here 5 years ago. There are many new restaurants and shops, but, we didn’t see many tourists.
Ours was the only cruise ship in port in the morning and the armies of tourists we expected just weren’t in evidence in spite of the beautiful weather. The crash of the economy plus the paranoia about gang violence has devastated the place. We went to the “Giggling Marlin,” a famous local bar and restaurant, where we had stopped the last time we were here. It was lunch time, but we were the only patrons when we arrived.
We ordered Margaritas, which they boast are the best in Mexico, and were pretty darn good. The two "Pattys" had Nachos while Larry and I ordered Tacos, on special for 3 for $10. Authentic Mexican food is very different from what we get in California. Spicy, but not too hot (unless you add their special salsa), all made with fresh ingredients. I thought it was terrific.
Almost as soon as we sat, a Mariachi group strolled over and serenaded us. We enjoyed it and tipped them a couple of bucks. They left, but, a few minutes later they were back playing at our table again. I looked closely and discovered they were different guys. Similar costumes and guitars, but, definitely a different group. We declined politely and soon a third group approached us. Turns out they are all free lancers trying to make a buck (or a peso).
Even though our meal was advertised as “3 for $10,” the bill was in Pesos and they let us know they preferred our credit card to American currency. How the dollar has fallen in value. Just a few years ago the Peso was nearly worthless and the locals preferred Dollars.
shopped a bit more and returned to the ship with our only purchase, a new hat for Patty Webber. I’m afraid we didn’t add much to the local economy. But, by the time we were ready to leave a Princess ship pulled in and a couple thousand folks tendered into town to pick up where we left off. All of a sudden the waterfront restaurants and bars began to bustle.
ACAPULCO is a very large city, the capitol of the State of Guerero. It has grown a lot since we were here in 1992, and much has changed, at least partly because of a deadly hurricane that struck in 1997 killing more than a thousand people. Lately the killing has been done by drug gangs; some people were killed a few days after we left, but, nowhere near the tourist areas.
Acapulco claims to have 340 sunny days a year, but, crams over 70 inches of rain into the “rainy season” in September and October. (That’s what I call a rainy season!).
We took a tour to see the famous “Cliff Divers” who perform at the classic “Mirador Hotel” located on the cliff. The day we were there we saw 6 divers, one of whom took off from the very top of the cliff. We were told that it is so dangerous that they rotate the “top of the cliff” position among them in order to spread the risk.
There are 64 total divers doing 5 shows a day, so on average they are diving every other day. They range in age from 12 to 63 and the troop includes one girl, (yes, they do have a Union.) After the diving we had a folkloric show featuring fierce looking “Aztec” dancers. This gave the divers an opportunity to climb back up the cliff and line up for our inspection and to receive their “gratuities.” All our divers looked pretty young to me.
Then we had time to visit the Gold Sales Room adjacent to the hotel. Every excursion seems to end with a trip to a jewelry store. I bought a T-Shirt.
The second half of the excursion was a drive along the coast to the Fairmont Princess Hotel. (It was just the Princess when last we were here.) We were shown the homes of the many celebrities who have lived in Acapulco.
The coastline is beautiful, but, again, we didn’t see hordes of American Tourists. Our guide gave a great tour and we learned some interesting stuff, such as:
The Mayans, who ruled Mexico from about 500 BC to about 1200 AD, had 35 words in their language that came from Chinese. It is believed that Chinese explorers arrived in Mexico about
1000 AD and carried on a lively trade. Imagine sailing a Chinese Junk across the Pacific.
Americans can now buy real estate in Mexico, thanks to Vicente Fox who realized that Americans who buy property will bring their dollars with them. It’s estimated that 35% of American property owners end up retiring in Mexico.
We drove by several resort Golf Courses that weren’t seeing much action.
We returned to the ship on the excursion bus and decided to have Lunch at “Acapulco Charley’s” located on the wharf, where our ship was docked. Our friends Bob and Patty Misen recommended the place. It was also Valentine’s Day, so we celebrated with excellent Margaritas and excellent food. I had a Chicken Burrito that was terrific. As it turned out, this was the last food we had ashore until we got to Key West.
HUALTULCO is a resort area about 350 miles south of Acapulco in the State of Oaxaca. I had actually never heard of the place until we signed up for this cruise, and it was a sleepy little area until the government sequestered the whole “shebang” in the 1980s to create a resort the size of Cancun. The place is spread over a huge bay which the locals claim is nine bays in one. There are a bunch of very large resort hotels along the coast and many luxurious homes atop the hills surrounding the bay. We were told a fairly large percentage of their foreign winter visitors are Canadian, but a majority of visitors are from inside Mexico.
The people who were located here at the time of the government “take over” were simply moved to villages nearby.
It’s truly a beautiful place – beautiful ocean, beautiful beaches, fabulous views – there’s really only one problem, aside from its remote location, the vegetation looks like our Southern California mountains would after a fire. Here it is the height of the season and the mountain sides look as gray as ash. I asked if there had been a fire and they looked at me as if I was a Crazy Gringo.
“Why isn’t the vegetation green?” I asked. Our tour guide explained the local vegetation is only green during the rainy season, in September and October, and then it goes dormant and remains a brownish gray the rest of the year. Just like Southern California, only worse.
We took an excursion called “Hualtulco by land and sea” which was supposed to give us a close up look at the bay and all its inlets. It was a relatively small boat with white plastic stack chairs for the tourists. It moved so slowly that we soon got bored and a couple of ladies got sea sick from the endless rocking. We did get some “photo-ops” of the resorts, but, we were glad to return to the dock. The rest of the excursion was to be by bus, but Patricia and I elected to stay in the little port town of Santa Cruz and shop. The stores were as modern, clean and orderly as you’d expect of a resort community. There is a lovely open-air Catholic Church air-conditioned by sea breezes.
It seems as if Huatulco would be a swell place to spend a vacation if you’re from Calgary or Toronto – it’s beautiful at just the time you want to get away from the “Cold, Cold North.”
But, I couldn’t escape from the feeling that everybody in Hualtulco was trying to sell us a Condominium.
PUERTO CHIAPAS is the Capitol of the state of Chiapas the southernmost of all Mexican states.
It is also the home of extensive ruins of the Mayan civilization and, according to the locals, the birthplace of chocolate. Cocoa trees abound in the area and are so prized that their fruit was at one time used as the local currency. People in the area perfected the method of extraction of chocolate from the Cocoa Fruit.
The people are the poorest of all the people we saw on our trip, with the possible exception of Cartagena. They are mostly “Indios” and many participated in an uprising against the government a few years ago. The rebellious have now been calmed, at least in part by the large influx of tourists anxious to see the remains of the Mayan Civilization and spend their dollars.
Our Excursion was to take us to see chocolate being made, then visit the ruins. We were taken to the little Village of “Tuxla Chica” where we entered the “Center of Culture” to watch local Chocolate makers “do their thing” in the way of their ancestors. It was very interesting and complicated, but, it occurred to me that the folks up in Hershey, Pennsylvania have probably improved on the process.
The little town was absolutely mobbed with peasants. Some had items to sell, some simply sat in the shade, but it seemed as if they felt we were intensely interesting. The town square was full too, and a little farmers market teemed with action.
As we boarded our bus we saw the townsfolk folding up their chairs and trudging up the road out of town. We realized they came to town to see US - Crazy Gringos with their flash cameras, Bermuda shorts, and shoulder bags crammed with purchased goods. We came to be entertained and ended up as the entertainment.
From Tuxla Chica we went to Izapa, the area of the Mayan ruins.
There isn’t much to see, there are terraced mounds and some stone carvings. We were shown many spots where things “used to be” but all the artifacts have been carted off to museums, none of which are on site. Still it was very interesting. Our tour guide told us several interesting things, some of which I will recount.
The Mayan Calendar was incredibly accurate, as nearly everyone knows. They calculated the movements of the stars, the moon and the sun, however, the calendar ended at
December 21, 2012. Why they stopped at that particular date, no one knows, but, it’s probably as simple as they got bored projecting so far into the future. Or, perhaps their Government Grant ran out. This was all done before the 11th Century and why would they keep going into infinity. To the Mayans the 21st Century probably WAS infinity.
Many mystics are now predicting the end of the world on 12-21-12 and there are “wackos” all over the place who take it seriously. I’m betting there will be a 12-22-12 myself. Any takers?
Mayan’s played a deadly ball game in which the losing team often ended up as that evening’s sacrifice. They showed us the place where the game was played and it looked pretty rustic.
There is one arch that once a year reveals the great volcano off in the distance. Like Stonehenge it probably isn’t coincidence.
There was actually a civilization that preceded the Mayans, the Olmecs who probably date back to the “land-bridge” which connected Asia with America in the last Ice Age. The Mayans took over from the Olmecs in about 500 BC and died out around 1200 AD when the Toltecs took over and ruled for about 300 years. The barbaric Aztecs were relative newcomers to the process when Cortez showed up.
One final note: Puerto Chiapas, the port itself, was actually built to give the area access to Cruise Ship traffic in addition to facilitating exports such as chocolate. It wasn’t opened until 2005. So cruise ship tourists have only been visiting Chiapas for four or five years. No wonder the folks in Tuxla Chica found us so interesting.
PUNTARENAS, COSTA RICA is the Pacific port for Costa Rica. It’s located on the Southern Coast about an hour and a half drive from the capitol, San Jose. Puntarenas means “Sandy Point” and should not be confused with Punta Arenas (note two words) at the Southern tip of Chile which refers to itself as the “Southernmost City in the world.” One is “Mucho Caliente” and the other “Mucho Frio.”
Our Puntarenas is a large province of Costa Rica, the port for which is Caldera where we docked. The main excursion offered was an all day bus trip to San Jose, but we had demurred and decided to “Zip line” over the Jungle. I had never zip lined before, and was a little nervous about travel by hanging from a cable, but Larry wanted to go, so I signed up, too. The “girls” were less excited about the prospect, but, they signed on to keep track of us.
When the excursion time arrived, we gathered on the dock only to be told that Zip lining had been cancelled, due to heavy wind. Frankly, I was relieved; it was very, very windy.
They refunded our fee, and so we wouldn’t be unhappy and offered us a free tour of the area. We gladly accepted. Our tour guide for this adventure was a young man named Elliot Bolivar. A very bright and knowledgeable guy with a terrific sense of humor. We were entertained all day.
First, Elliot took us on a tour of the countryside using back roads to show us the many different tropical fruit trees that grow wild in the tropical climate. Mangos, Bananas, Papaya and Pineapple grew everywhere. He showed us shacks owned by people who daily went into their yards to select their breakfast from these wild trees and plants. He showed us one foreign fruit that looked a little like a Loquat with a hard pit-like growth at the end. This he told us was the fruit of the cashew tree. The fruit is edible, but, not delicious. The pit is removed from the fruit and the toxic shell removed before the “nut” can be processed. The tree is actually related to “Poison Ivy.” We stopped at a roadside rest stop café and gift shop so we could all buy native cashews to take home. I bought a t-shirt, too.
Next, Elliot took us to the little town of “Esparza.” Unlike Tuxla Chica in Chiapas where we had been only two days before, Esparza was not mobbed with people. While there were many shops and service establishments, no unemployed peasants filled the little town square.
We went into the little church built in 1590. It was shabby, but clean and looked much the same as it must have in the 17th century, except of course for the electric lights and indoor plumbing.
On the way back to the ship, Elliot had our driver stop so we could see a pack of wild “Howler Monkeys” swinging through the trees. It was truly a unique experience and, I think, better than Zip lining would have been.
THE PANAMA CANAL: After a day at sea, we arrived at the Canal entrance early in the morning. All ships have to have reservations to go through the Canal and Cruise Ships make their arrangements more than a year in advance.
Going through the Canal is a fantastic experience that will be improved if you read the history of the Canal before you sail. The book I read, hailed as the best, is Robert McCullough’s “Path between the Seas.” I loved the book and read parts of it again after I got home.
I’ll give a brief history. There were several attempts at building a canal in the 19th century, the last being in the 1890’s by a French Company that abandoned their attempt primarily because workers were dying in droves of Malaria and Yellow Fever. An investor in the French Company was Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, who lost most of his fortune and his reputation in the failure of the project.
A subsequent American attempt also failed for the same reason.
It was an American Physician, Dr. Walter Reed (the same Walter Reed for whom the Naval Hospital is named.), who discovered that Malaria and Yellow Fever are caused by mosquitoes.
Believing in the power of DDT to prevent the loss of life, Teddy Roosevelt backed a revolution which succeeded in separating Panama from Colombia. The new nation promptly signed a treaty turning over rights to the Panama Canal Zone to the United States. Sixty years later Jimmy Carter signed another treaty giving control of the Canal back to Panama. Now it’s operated under contract to the Communist Chinese, who are building a new larger Canal adjacent to the old one. Who knew? Eh, Jimmy?
Construction of the Canal was started in 1904 under Roosevelt’s reign, but, wasn’t finished until 1914 under Woodrow Wilson. It stands today much as it did when it was opened. The Lock Doors have been improved and computers now call many of the maneuvers. The mules who tugged you into and out of the locks have been replaced by little diesel engines called, what else, “Mules.” One primitive action still happens now as it did then. When they throw a line from the dock to hook up the ship, it is handled by two guys in a row boat. Over the century since it opened they’ve tried to improve on this process, but nothing works as well as two men, one handling the line and the other manning the oars.
As you approach the canal you first pass under a bridge for the “Pan American Highway,” once envisioned as the link between Alaska and Patagonia. There are several places where the highway has heavy traffic, including the bridge over the entrance to the canal, but there are also several spots, further south, where the great highway disappears into the jungle. So don’t plan on driving from Los Angeles to Santiago anytime soon. Maybe, never.
There are three Canal locks on the Pacific side and three on the Atlantic side. At each end of the canal “Visitor Centers” have been set up to accommodate tourists who wish to see the ships in the canal. I was told that the majority of visitors are passengers from cruise ships too large to go through the Canal. The ships dock in Panama City on the Pacific Side or Colon on the Caribbean and take tour busses to the Visitor Centers. Here they spend the day waving at other tourists on smaller ships traversing the canal who wave back vigorously. In this way you become one of the “sites” promoted in the Cruise Ship’s brochures.
Once you pass the first two locks, named the “Miraflores” locks, you enter Miraflores Lake for a few kilometers and then enter the “Pedro Miguel” Locks. In each there are two locks side by side. As you enter a lock another ship is entering the adjacent lock going the other way. As the water is drained from one side of the lock is raises the other ship. It sounds simple, but building these locks was a monumental task. The engineers and constructors deserved and received the highest praise of the public. And it still works 95 years after first ship sailed through.
After you leave the Pedro Miguel Locks you enter Gatun Lake where you sail until you reach the “Gatun” Locks on the Caribbean side. The process takes most of the day, and then you celebrate.
ONE VERY IMPORTANT THING about the Panama Canal. No matter when you go through the Canal it is going to be hot. So hot you won’t be able to stay outside for very long. Take your sun-block, even if it’s cloudy, and get a nice broad brimmed hat to shade your face and neck while protecting your head. On nearly all ships there are indoor Observation Decks with air conditioning where you can see all the action and avoid sun-stroke. And don’t worry about not being able to take photos, just take one of those on-board photo classes on how to take photos through windows without ruining the shot with your automatic flash.
CARTEGENA, COLOMBIA was our next stop and, if possible, it was hotter than the Canal. We signed up for a “Cartagena Highlights” tour that took us to see the major sites.
Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in 1533 and soon became the most important Spanish port for gold, silver and slaves. Now the 2nd largest Spanish speaking country in the world it’s the only South American Country with both Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, so historically it was pivotal in transporting goods, treasure, and people from ships in one ocean to ships in the other. It was the favorite port of plundering Pirates. Sir Francis Drake sacked the place 3 different times, for which he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I.
Colombia became self-governing after the victory of Simon Bolivar in the revolution of the
Mid-1800s. As with other Colombian Cities, its tourism suffered during the heyday of the Colombian drug cartels, but has begun to show up on Cruise Itineraries again after President Uribe was elected and they gained the upper hand over the Drug Lords. Coffee is the most famous legal Colombian export, but, it also provides 70% of the cut flowers sold in the U. S.
Among the spots we visited was “La Popa,” a beautiful monastery on the very peak of a hill overlooking the harbor and the Fort, which guarded the harbor. The climb to the Fort was too steep for me (I prefer to think I have standards not limitations.) We also visited the “Walled” City, a group of shops built into what used to be the City’s prison.
Then we spent about an hour walking through “Old Town.” It is very lovely, in the colonial style, with many latticed balconies covered with hanging flowers. It was really beautiful, but, memorable not for its beauty but for its many vendors. Our tour guide seemed to be a “shill” for every street artist, human statue and Cuban tobacco salesman. He was constantly urging us to buy from this vendor or that because they were blind or poor or related to him. For example he pointed out the one street “Human Statue” out on a Sunday morning, inviting all of us to have our picture taken with him for a fee of course. He should visit Barcelona where “Las Ramblas” is wall to wall Human Statues.
When we left old town we were taken to the “Shopping Center” which turned out to be several jewelry stores specializing in Emeralds. It turns out; The Gem is another major export of Colombia. Now we experienced the “Full Court Press” as our bus driver joined the tour guide in urging us to leave our dollars in Cartagena.
There are some lovely things to see in Cartagena, made sad by the abject poverty. There seemed to be baseball diamonds and soccer fields in every neighborhood. Kids with colored
T-shirts played against teams of kids in white tee-shirts. The thing that all these “Parks” had in common is none had a single blade of grass. The Baseball diamond was on unlevel ground and covered with rocks, but, it didn’t seem to bother the kids at all. Every Colombian kid wants to play for the New York Yankees or Manchester United some day. Peasants were nearly all bare footed and houses were open with no glass in the windows hoping for a breeze from the ocean to offer air conditioning.
The people are very pleasant and happy to have you there.
KEY WEST, FLORIDA After two more days at sea we arrived in Key West, Florida, which we had last visited in 1996. Wow, has it grown a lot.
The new Cruise Ship port now drops you within a few blocks of the famous Duvall Street where tourists flock to visit such famous bars as “Sloppy Joes,” famous as the hang out of Ernest Hemingway and “Margaritaville” founded by singer Jimmy Buffett.
A great way to see the city is to take a Trolley Tour. We took one called the “Conch Train” whose “engineer” and tour guide gave us non-stop interesting data about the place. You’ll pass Hemingway’s house, where dozens of the descendants of his 6 toed cats still live and show off for visitors. You can tour the Hemingway house if you have the time. You’ll also pass Harry Truman’s “Winter White House.” You’ll see America’s southernmost house across the street from the Southernmost Bar.
Key West has a fascinating history. In the 19th Century it was the richest city in the United States as nearly all residents participated in plundering the numerous off-shore ship wrecks. There was a mild housing boom in Key West in the 1920s, but, the economy crashed during the depression when huge numbers of residents were left out of work as no tourists visited. The place was saved by the Navy in 1942 which made Key West a Major Naval Base and built a strong economy for the Key which lasted until the Navy left in 1972. That’s when the tourists began to arrive turning the place into a major “destination.”
All birds are protected on Key West including chickens. Every once in awhile you’ll see a Rooster strutting his stuff down the sidewalk while tourists and natives alike give him a wide berth. Even the dogs seem to know they are “off limits,” but the local cats regularly violate the law.
After our trolley tour we walked down Duvall Street hoping we would find an open table in either Sloppy Joes or Margaritaville. No such luck. So we stopped for lunch at “Faradays” a pretty famous local restaurant, just a bit behind the other two in popularity. It was the first meal we had ashore since we left Acapulco. I had a “Sloppy Flounder” a huge fish sandwich that would have fed the whole table, it was wonderful but we should have ordered one for the four of us. Key West is famous for its “Conch Chowder” and “Fried Conch.” You must try some of each, they’re great.
A final warning about Key West. It was overcast when we arrived; it stayed that way most of the day and began to rain just as we boarded the ship. But, that night I discovered I was sunburned. Put on your Sun Block and your Sun Hat, you’re in the tropics.
MIAMI: We were only in Miami long enough to be taken by bus to the Miami International Airport where we spent about 5 of the longest hours of our lives. Rest assured that no matter which terminal you enter, your flight will be in a different one. No matter how long the walk from where you are to your gate, there is no form of transportation other than your own two feet. No listed gate in Miami International is ever the gate from which your plane will actually depart. And, no personnel employed in Miami International Airport speak your language.
DONE AT LAST: We had a great time on this trip. We recommend it to all our friends, even if you’ve done it before. Going through the canal twice is not enough to take it all in, but, you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t go through at least once.
Until next time, Bon Voyage.