During a discussion about potential cruises, my mom Beverly mentioned that she really wanted to go on a Panama Canal cruise. My parents and younger brother lived in Panama during the early 80’s. (Randy and I were in college and getting married during those years but I did get my wedding dress in Panama.) We booked a fifteen day ocean to ocean cruise on the Coral Princess.
We met at the Los Angeles airport and went through an easy transfer and embarkation process.
Randy and I once got a complimentary upgrade to a balcony cabin, a smart move by the cruise industry because now it feels like mandatory accommodations to us. My mom opted for a very spacious inside cabin and that too was very comfortable.
Princess uses their “Love Boat” history to advantage. The safety video playing in our cabin when we arrived featured former cast members. Ship TV had Love Boat reruns showing intermittently.
Our cruise itinerary was Puerto Vallarta Mexico, Huatulco Mexico, San Juan del Sur Nicaragua, Puntarenas Costa Rica, Puerto Amador Panama, Cartagena Colombia, and Ft. Lauderdale Florida.
Of course, there were sea days interspersed and we enjoyed those too. Mom connected with other mahjong players and even learned to play Chinese mahjong. Randy enjoyed rest and recoup time on sea days and looked for dolphins, turtles, flying fish and the occasional ray from our balcony. I went to Zumba classes and sang in the Princess Pop Choir.
Princess Pop Choir just prior to our end of cruise concert in the atrium.
Another sea day gave us the cruise director, executive chef, and head maitre’d in a cooking demonstration comedy routine followed by a tour of the galley. We learned there were 200 tons of food brought on board for our 15 day cruise. The kitchen serves 20,000 meals a day for guests and crew. They use 4000 eggs each day. Approximately 7000 assorted rolls and pastries are made fresh and served every day. Four tons of fresh vegetables are prepared and served each day. A crew of 385 people make and serve food on the Coral Princess. Passenger capacity is about 2000.
We took a Princess sponsored shore excursion at each port. Our first was in Puerto Vallarta and our tour spent way too much time on tequila. No worries, we still love Mexico!
The next port, also in Mexico, was Huatulco where the guide spoke frequently on the safety and cleanliness of the community.
Our Huatulco tour was to Capalito, an archeological site.
Afterwards, we had some beach time and lunch.
Randy’s coconut shrimp!
Can we assume the mice and rats were scared off the ship lines?
Our next port was San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. We had memories of the Sandinistas, the Contras, the Iran Contra-Affair and Daniel Ortega and didn’t have high hopes for a stop in Nicaragua. We were so wrong!
Daniel Ortega is still president and there are still challenges – only 29 percent of kids finish elementary school. Yet, there is resurgence and a budding tourism industry. Our guide told us about support from the European Union, including solar panels so more people have rudimentary electricity.
We went to the old city of Granada, founded in 1524. We learned that the size of the roof tiles vary between buildings because the tile makers used their thighs as a form.
We took a ride on Lake Nicaragua, the second largest lake in Latin America.
There is a crocodile there!
On the return drive we saw oxcarts along the highway. They were returning home after a month long pilgrimage to a small church in Rivas where they worshipped at a recovered/restored statue of Jesus. Pilgrims trust that their efforts will be supported by fellow countryman along the way with a place to park and perhaps some food.
And from Nicaraguan history – Tennessee native William Walker arrived in Nicaragua in 1855. He led a war effort and promptly appointed himself president in 1856. Several Central American countries united to drive Walker out of Nicaragua and he was executed in Honduras in 1860. Our guide was pretty neutral on much of Nicaragua’s past trauma but not on Walker!
Opposite our low expectations for Nicaragua, we had high hopes for Costa Rica. We know people who go there repeatedly. We knew from our ship’s destination lectures that literacy rates top 98 percent and that Costa Ricans are rated, along with Norwegians, as being the happiest people in the world.
The Costa Rican government puts much effort into environmental science and became, in 1994, the first country to get to 98 percent renewable energy. We know eco-tourism is huge here, so why was there so much trash along side the roads?
Our tour involved a river cruise and a rainforest tram – with opportunity for wildlife viewing.
We saw this termite nest and that was about it. Fortunately we had seen monkeys, birds and crocodiles in Nicaragua! Perhaps we’ll have the opportunity to visit Costa Rica again someday and have a better impression.
Our next stop was Panama but I will save everything Panama for the following post.
Given that we were wrong about Nicaragua and Costa Rica – who knew what to expect in Colombia! We knew they had a painful past with drug cartels near Managua, the country’s capital, but knew nothing about Cartagena. It ended up being our favorite port on the trip! It was also our first time in South America!
Much of the trip we felt our starboard side cabin was the “wrong” side, but in Cartagena it was great for watching extensive dock works with cranes moving shipping containers around like puzzle pieces.
Our tour took us out in the harbor for views of the modern city and the Virgin Mary statue that was destroyed by a lighting bolt in 2015. Her pieces were later retrieved and restored.
Do you remember the secret service agents that had some inappropriate behavior prior to an Obama visit? That happened in the “stair step” hotel on the right.
We also motored by the Old Walled City, a UNESCO Heritage Site and Cartagena’s big attraction. Then we got to go inside!
The port of Cartagena was active in the slave trade, with persons being bought and sold on this wall just inside the city gates.
There were several old cathedrals inside the walled city. I’d love to come back and explore the old city further someday!
This building was started too close to the walled city threatening its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The building was abandoned and will likely be torn down. The mayor who approved the project is in jail.
We also saw the Fortress of San Felipe de Barajas, built by the Spanish to defend “their” riches from pirates and other countries.
The Fortress came under attack five times during the sixteenth century.
Each day in port, as we prepared to go back aboard the Coral Princess, we were met with cool washcloths and flavored water. That was great since it was usually hot and humid.
Concerning other drinks, I enjoyed the “Isaac,” named for the bartender on the Love Boat program.
One of our favorite activities throughout the cruise was a late afternoon drink in the Crooner’s Piano Bar, specializing in martinis with personalized shaking service. The pianist assisted with dancing/shaking music.
Randy ordered a Milky Way Martini and it became my drink of choice throughout the cruise. There is chocolate in that martini!
During our bus transfer from the airport to the port, mom sat right behind friends Larry and Patti. Larry worked with my dad years ago. We all marveled at the unexpected meet-up and spent pleasant time together throughout the cruise.
We watched a few movies on the Movies Under the Stars screen. The technology is amazing because the screen is bright and sharp day or night. During the day they show Discovery channel video (no sound) and in the evening there are movies with blankets and popcorn!
Of course there was lots of entertainment on board including the Voice of the Ocean competition. Several people from the Princess Pop Choir were in the finals. Mom and I enjoyed the process and the final show complete with the turning red chairs.
At the end of our cruise, we docked in Ft. Lauderdale many hours before our flights went west. We opted for an airboat tour to fill time and have a convenient way to get to the airport. It ended up being quite interesting!
We enjoyed the ride through the swamps and mangroves and seeing a few gators but most interesting was when our guide told us about being a member of the Python Apes.
Air boat captain on the weekends, volunteer Swamp Ape Monday through Friday!
Burmese Pythons are a big invasive species problem in the everglades. Former python “pets” being released was problematic but the real crisis occurred when thousands of pythons escaped a breeding facility during Hurricane Andrew. With no natural predators, pythons are wiping out native species and even eating alligators.
Swamp apes search for three species of pythons. When found, some are euthanized and others are genetically modified through a University of Florida program to render them sterile and then released.
Of course there was an alligator show – educational not confrontational.
Randy though I should hold the baby so our grandson could have a picture of his “Beema” holding the alligator. I was surprised how cool the alligator’s underbelly felt.
Overall it was a great trip. Fifteen days was a good length. We wouldn’t have been ready to get off in one week but were ready to move on after two. It was strange to tell people we were from Arizona (instead of Idaho) but it felt natural by the end of the cruise.
If you read this to the very end, thank you. I apologize for the length but we did cover 15 days, 4,562 nautical miles and three continents!
Next time: The destination itself – The Panama Canal and crossing.