Crossing the Canal

We are well into our 128-day World Cruise on the Seven Seas Navigator. After departing Miami, we headed through the Caribbean to Grand Cayman Island and on toward Cartagena, Colombia.

Having been there a few years ago, Cartagena seems to have changed a bit. It has doubled in size, and as you cruise into the bay, the city is amazing. Beautiful, tall, modern, white apartment buildings surround the bay – the only exception being the 15th-century Spanish Fort San Felipe guarding the entrance.

We took a short bus tour of the city and were amazed at its sophistication.

Early the next day, we arrived at the mouth of the Panama Canal, which officially opened on August 15, 1914. Since we were last here, the canal has completed construction of a third lane, which is now open. The cost to transit the canal is based on the gross tonnage of the ships that go through. The fare for our ship, which is not terribly large, was over $140,000 I am told. The canal is only allowed to break even.

The canal is used by almost all inter-oceanic travel, either commercial or private, the only exception being today’s oil supertankers. It is fascinating to read about its history, and it is interesting for the first hour once you enter the canal. Then you forget about this iconic transportation construction and go about your business. When the ship leaves the canal, you are in the Pacific although you have traveled from west to east. Look at a map and you will understand.

That evening, the ship served a Caribbean dinner on the pool deck. Even though there were lots of clouds, it didn’t rain and the breeze was cool. Highlights of the meal were appetizers that included tuna-stuffed avocado, Jamaican shrimp cocktail and Trinidad corn soup with peppers, sweet potatoes and coconut. The main course from the barbecue grill was pork chops with Caribbean rub and mango salsa, Jamaican jerk chicken, grilled red snapper, grilled beef with onions and Cajun-spiced lamb chops. Desserts included leche flan and pineapple flambe with vanilla ice cream.

The next day, we docked in Golfito, the most southern port in Costa Rica. It is primarily dense rainforest. We traveled up into the verdant hills and rainforest. We stopped at a pineapple orchard and quenched our thirst at a farmers’ stall where we were treated to fresh sliced pineapple, watermelon and native cookies.

Next, we sailed into Puntarenas, Costa Rica. It is a different world when compared to sister Central American nations. With a total area of 20,000 square miles, it is the second smallest country in South America after El Salvador. Before the Spaniards came, Costa Rica was home to many independent tribes. The people were not necessarily Mayan, Aztec or Inca, but many had come from these kingdoms.

Most lived in agrarian communities and established some permanent communities that are still being studied. There were warriors in this society, and some of the same horrifying sacrificial rituals from the north were practiced here.

But either by design or by accident, southern Central America was a buffer zone between the great empires to the north and south, and the region was never extensively penetrated. Sculpture and ceramic figures in the National Museum proves there were talented artists among the people here and that the cultures were quite advanced.

The region is extremely diverse biologically making it a boon for birdwatchers and other wildlife enthusiasts. We took a tour bus as far as it could go and then we got on an antiquated train and went to see the macaw sanctuary. We boarded flat-bottomed boats and drifted along the canal backwaters searching out the exotic fauna.

Before dinner that evening, we attended a Seven Seas Society cocktail party. The Society is a loyalty program that recognizes loyal Regent travelers. One really loyal traveler is a friend who we have been with on many cruises. He has racked up more than 2,500 nights on Regent ships!

That night, we were also invited to have dinner with the ship’s executive concierge, Daniela Acosta, who is from Mexico, and the ship’s chief purser, Ernesto Reyes from the Philippines. They both were charming and there was no shortage of conversation among the four of us. We talked so much we had to skip dessert in order to make it in time to the evening entertainment, a group of four who did rollicking renditions of Billy Joel and Elton John songs.

The next day found us in Corinto, Nicaragua. This is Nicaragua’s only deep water port. Brad took off out of the town to see a museum dedicated to Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario (1867-1916) who is credited with launching the Spanish-American Literary Movement, two art galleries and a lunch and folkloric show.

There is not a lot to see in Corinto, but it does have a parquet central which is downright audacious, a concrete confection of fountains and turtles with a very Jetson-esque clock tower. The Alfonso Cortes-Corinto History Museum, Library & Auditorium in the bright blue train station has a handful of informative displays about Corinto’s once and future greatness arranged around a few railroad artifacts, gathering dust in the grinding reality of the present.

Next up was Puerto Quetzel, Guatemala. Central America’s most diverse country serves as the largest Pacific Ocean port. Stunning trekking routes through the jungles and up volcanoes, world-class white-water rafting, more miles of caves than you could possibly explore in one vacation and what seems like a zipline strung between every two trees in the country are just the beginning.

While many ask what happened to the Mayans in Central America, the simple answer is nothing – they’re still here, and some traditions continue to thrive. If you are interested in archeology, the must-see sites are Tikal, Copan and Guatemala City’s superb selection of museums. Living Maya culture can be witnesses in its “pure” form in towns like Rabinal and sacred sites such as Laguna Chicagal. And the Maya themselves? They’re everywhere, but the most traditional villages are in the highland. Over 20 indigenous languages are still spoken throughout Guatemala, but many of the Maya people have at least a working knowledge of basic Spanish as well, except in the more remote areas.

Having never done so, we decided to visit a macadamia nut farm some 60 miles from our ship and were given a tour by the owner, a Mr. Goldberg from San Francisco, who was a real character. Anybody who knows Julius Friedman in Louisville knows the kind of wild, lovable, slightly naughty character I am talking about.

He and his native-born wife have established an organic macadamia nut farm that is family owned and established a program for planting macadamia trees in indigenous communities all over Guatemala. At last count, they have planted more than 350,000 trees and positively affected thousands of families and their environment.

He has invented a very simple machine for peeling the nuts which uses a 5hp lawnmower motor, rebar and a flat tire. He says it is so simple that they can be built and maintained in all of the villages.

At the end of the tour, we were served pancakes made with macadamia nuts and nut flour with macadamia “butter” on top along with blueberries, local pineapple and strawberries. They were good. He also sells macadamia nut face soap, shampoo and skin cream. Enough. It was entertaining and fun.

We made it back to the ship shortly before time to sail. Had a pleasant dinner and skipped the evening’s entertainment – a ventriloquist. We are now off to Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas and two days in San Diego where we expect Jorge Mester to join us for lunch on board ship. VT

Photos courtesy of Carla Sue Broecker.