Panama Canal Cruise and Orlando Oct 21 - Nov 7, 2018

We enjoyed our previous Panama Canal cruise so much we decided to try it again going the other direction. Originally we were scheduled to leave from Los Angeles but this was changed to San Diego and one of the port days in Mexico was dropped (Acapulco). Oh well, you sign up and things change. They did compensate us a bit for the change anyway.

Embarkation Day

We took the chance of flying down to San Diego the same day we boarded the ship. Fortunately everything worked out well and we arrived in San Diego in plenty of time. We “ubered” it over to the port and went through the check in process. After that we were warehoused in waiting areas and were called in groups for the actual boarding process. When our group #6 was called Butch yelled BINGO!! Of course this went over well with the elderly crowd.

We boarded the ship and had one of our free drinks while waiting for our room to get ready. Our cruise came with some extras including the “unlimited drink package”. And indeed all alcoholic drinks did not cost as long as they were less than 15 dollars each. Having learned from past experience, our balcony room was carefully chosen to avoid any noisy venues above the room. We were on the 11th floor right beneath the very quiet and serene spa.

Our package also came with 4 specialty meals and we experienced our first extremely tasty meal with delicious steaks at Cagney’s that evening. Our ship was late to leave San Diego (apparently due to some labor issues in port) so we were able to see the city skyline at night. We were parked right across from the USS Midway.

The USS Midway in daylight and at night

Four days at Sea

Our itinerary changed due to a hurricane off of the coast of Mexico so our port call in Cabo San Lucas was cancelled. Well that is just the way it goes. It would not be pleasant plowing through a hurricane for a bad weather day in port. We found out later from the captain that our ship skirted the back side of the hurricane. The seas did get a bit rougher for a day or two but we have been in worse. Fortunately there was plenty to do on the ship and this seems like a good time to discuss ship life.

Shows: There was always some sort of evening show from music, to comedians to acrobats. The Barricade Boys were an entertaining singing group from England who did a couple of shows. We particularly enjoyed some of the music they sang from our era. We also attended several shows by the hypnotist Brenda Kaye. It was quite amusing watching people carry out her suggestions while hypnotized. One man was told that no one could laugh in the audience and he was quite serious about his job. He even “kicked out” a few people who couldn’t stop laughing! The major shows were held in the Stardust theater. Though a lovely venue, the seats were actually not all that comfortable.

Lectures: A variety of lectures were held during the cruise. These included information on the Sonoran and Chihuahua deserts, the Pacific Rim, the el Nino phenomenon, the volcanoes of Central America, and history about the Panama canal and what to expect as we traversed this amazing piece of work. Unfortunately the speaker was well…. booooring so Butch only made it barely through one of his talks without snoozing. We also had a very interesting question and answer period with the staff on the ship.

The Spa: There was a group pamper session for the women and of course this lead to a treatment session in the spa at a later point which included a facial, foot massage and shoulder rub. Ahhhhh……

Games and Dances: There are a variety of games on the ship including daily sudokus and a competitive sudoku where we found out we could easily solve the puzzle but our system was not built for speed. The bridge/card room always looked quite busy. They also had outdoor activities such as water volleyball and dancing. And of course with this age group, shuffleboard. We played a group game called majority rules. Fun questions were posed such as “What is the most common pick up line at a bar?” The majority answered - “Do you come here often?”. If you picked the most common answer your team got a point and so on. There were really some quite entertaining questions and answers!

Food: WOW - I gained a bunch of weight on this cruise! Delicious food! We especially enjoyed our specialty restaurant nights at Cagneys. They have the best steak and we ultimately figured out how to have one of our meals to include steak and the other to have the shrimp and then share them for a “surf and turf” meal.

Fun! A pineapple owl

One thing we really like about this cruise line is that you do not have to dress in formal wear to get the best dining options. The worst that happened was that Butch needed to change into long pants at the French restaurant (his nice work out pants were fine). His reward - a great steak! One evening we were eating in the large dining room and the sun just happened to fall smack in Butch’s eyes. He asked our very nice waiter if he could please ask the captain to turn the boat a bit so the sun would be in a different place?

Sunsets: As we moved into more tropical weather we spent a lot of time out on our deck and balcony and watched sunsets. The animal viewing on the water was sparse except for the rare flying fish and birds.

The aftermath of a sunset in the wake of our ship

Turndown and the towels: As is traditional on a lot of cruise ships, our cabin attendant Rusty was quite adept at making towel animals. But no chocolates on our pillows at night???

Guatemala - First Port of Call

Guatemala - finally, land! We decided on a tour leading us up to Antigua. This is at a cooler elevation and was at one time, under Spanish rule, the capital of the area. On the way up we saw where a recent eruption had caused damage.

This is a snapshot from the bus showing an area of recent lava flow. Note that they have since cleared the road and put up stone barrier walls.

Agriculture is very important in Guatemala and we drove through many fields of sugar cane, bananas and coffee as we climbed to Antigua. When we arrived in Antigua we switched to a new guide and smaller bus to be able to navigate the narrower streets of Antigua. They have made an effort to preserve the architecture of the old buildings and the cobblestone streets some of which date back to the period of colonial rule by Spain.

Cobblestoned narrow streets. The city is laid out with streets radiating out from the city central square so you can look right to the mountains looking down the streets.

An inner and outer doorway for people or carriages

Unique corner windows. Almost all windows in town had bars. Our guide pointed out that this was the original architecture and was not placed after the fact for security.

The beautiful La Merced church. Some parts of the church are from the 1600s and represent a baroque style of architecture.

El Carmen Church dates back to the 1600s but has been seriously damaged by earthquakes (particularly the one in 1774).

The Santa Catalina Arch built in 1694. It joined 2 convents and allowed cloistered nuns to cross over the street without being seen. Volcan de Agua is seen behind.

“Chicken buses” - colorful modified buses that transport locals and sometimes produce or livestock (thus the name “chicken” bus) between communities.

And of course the inevitable marketplace

The town square is an important area for the community. The descendents of the Mayans are all around. The women are small, wear very colorful outfits and use their heads for transporting things. They still shout out “One dollar” as if they would really sell any of their blankets for this price to the tourists. But it does catch their attention for further negotiation.

Though the official language of Guatemala is Spanish, there are around 25 different languages spoken by the Mayan people.

A closer look at the Mermaid Fountain built in the 1700s right in the middle of the town square.

The facade of the Antigua Cathedral on the town square. Originally built in 1541, it was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt in 1680. However the earthquake of 1773 damaged the cathedral but with the front facade left more or less intact. It has since undergone some restoration work. Of note this was a Roman Catholic church. Roman Catholicism remains an important religion in Guatemala.

Wandering around the square with my backpack in plain view in front of me!

Tourist Butch with the Captain General Palace building in the background which is used for the tourism offices and police.

A closer look at the Bird of Paradise flowers


Our next port of call was Nicaragua, the largest of the Central American republics. Point of interest - it was colonized by both the Spanish and the British at different times during colonial years. Here is a good overview map of the country. Note the size of the largest lake in Central America - Lake Nicaragua.

In more recent times it has had unrest and civil war. Probably the most well known in recent decades is when the US was involved in backing the Contras against the socialist type of government under the Sandanistas in the 1980s. It could be considered an extension of the cold war with Russia backing the Sandanistas. In the end the Sandanistas lost power in the 1990s. Unfortunately with this and other civil unrest the people of Nicaragua have been the big losers with loss of life and injuries. Corruption by the government has been common over the years resulting in leaders becoming rich at the expense of the general population. Even now there is unrest against the government lead by Daniel Ortega. Our guide had some strong feelings against the corruption and increasing control of the government. In fact we were warned against going on our excursion by another couple on the ship due to recent protests. But no worries as we did not see any problems during our tour. There was however a definite police presence at our stop in the town of Rivas we visited.

We had to tender to port - a disorganized and slow process. The view from the shop was beautiful.

Looking across from our ship to the harbor

There is a huge statue of Jesus built facing the San Juan del Sur harbor. This is Christ of the Mercy built by the owner of the land after he faced serious health problems.

A closer look - note the size against the people below. The statue really stands out against the dark clouds.

No….it wasn’t foggy. It was due to our perpetual problem in this humid climate of the lens fogging up.

Lake Nicaragua with one of the volcanoes in the background

A viewpoint of one of the volcanoes near the lake

Nice to see use of wind power near the lake

Next we visited the town of Rivas near the lake and went inside one of the catholic churches bordering the town square. This was built in 1863 and is a catholic church (no surprise there) of San Pedro.

Outside main entry to the church

Beautiful wood inside

The cupola is beautiful and though difficult to see from this angle depicts a battle at sea with the Catholic ship victorious and burning hulks of ships representing communism, protestantism and secularism.

Costa Rica

Our last stop in Central America was Costa Rica. We went on a river cruise and saw lots and lots of birds in addition to the occasional crocodile. They gave us a bird guide so we could check off birds as we saw them.

Before we even began the river boat cruise we saw brown pelicans flying near our ship.

Bare throated tiger heron

Southern Lapwing

Common Black Hawk

This is a Black Necked Stilt trying to quietly slip by the crocodile

Neotropic Cormorant and the smaller bird is a Mangrove Swallow

Roseate Spoonbill - a very pretty pink color

Snowy Egret

And…..the lucky bird find of the trip - a pair of Scarlet Macaws!

We did see a few other things besides birds:


A ctenosaur???

Howler monkeys - see those black blobs in the tree???

Just saying - interesting bottle openers in the gift shop!

Then we had our bus ride back to the ship parked in Puntarenas. Do you know what a Churchill is???? It is a special ice cream treat unique to this area and includes a snow cone with ice cream and whatever else they might want to include such as various fruits for example. There were quite a few places advertising them. The guy who invented it apparently resembled Winston Churchill and thus the name….

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal was really the highlight of the cruise. This time we headed through the canal from the Pacific side to the Caribbean Sea in a northwest direction believe it or not. It was a bit disorienting because the sun seemed to be rising from the wrong direction. The original canal was finished in 1914 and of course is still in operation. There were many challenges in building the canal including rainfall and flooding, landslides and disease. Yellow fever was especially problematic but fortunately it was discovered that mosquitoes were the culprit in transmitting the disease. Effective control of mosquitoes translated to reduced cases of yellow fever and of course malaria. Of note the French had originally tried to build the Panama canal and had to abandon their efforts in the 1880s due in part to the impact of these diseases on their workers.

We went through the old canal but could see the bigger canal, especially at either end of the canal. The new locks (opened in 2016) are bigger to accommodate some of the larger ships such as container ships and have rolling gates rather than gates that swing open. These gates are more efficient and easier to maintain. The canal is 48 miles long and takes approximately 6 to 7 hours to transit. Here is a nice map of the canal route.

This is the view as we neared the Pacific entry point of the canal with the large buildings of Panama City in the background.

There were lots of ships waiting their turn to get started through the locks. We had an “appointment” so we just arrived and were greeted by tugs and escorted into the first lock. Of course appointments for large ships did not come cheap and cost several hundred thousand dollars.

We could see the new canal near the Pacific entry point.

The process of going through the locks is just fascinating. Tugboats guided our ship up to the lock. We were then linked to the train cars or “mules” with an ordinary little rowboat connecting the lines to be drawn up and connected to the ship. In we went with very little room to spare. Once the gates closed water flowed into the chamber by gravity from Lake Gatun. Once we were level with the next chamber the gates opened and we moved in to repeat the procedure. Overall ships are raised about 85 feet up and down in transiting the canal. There are two pathways through the locks in parallel to accomodate more than one ship at a time.

Picture of our ship going down through the Gatun locks from a web camera (thanks Rosalie!)

Swinging gates getting ready to close behind us

Not much room between us and the side of the lock and note the “mules” guiding us into the lock.

This big boy followed us the whole way through (now in a parallel lock).

Our balcony was a good spot to watch the action

The ship had a nice lounge with viewing out the front of the ship. We were headed toward the Culebra Cut which sliced through the continental divide and created a man made gorge. This is a fairly narrow section about 8 miles long and was one of the most challenging for those working on the canal. Landslides were a frequent concern during construction.

Gatun Lake was created during construction of the canal. It is beautiful with small islands scattered around the lake.

Tug “parking area”. These puppies were quite busy helping ships come and go into the locks.

Crocs sunning themselves along the way

And……. we made it through! Our official Panama transit “diplomas”

Cartagena, Columbia

Well I can add another country to my list of places visited. Columbia is the 5th largest country in Latin America and is known as the gateway to South America due to its location connecting to Central America. It has coastal areas on both sides of its connection to Panama - the Caribbean Sea and Pacific. Of note the Caribbean side has a lighter blue color compared to the Pacific. Our lecturer explained that it has to do with the different mineral makeup of the water and the effect on light refraction. Closer to shore the very turquoise color is due to reflection off of sand on the bottom.

Columbia has a varied climate. We just experienced the hot and humid coastal city of Cartagena but there are also mountainous regions in the country as part of the Andes. The US is a major consumer of their exports including coffee, bananas, minerals and unfortunately illegal drugs. Columbia was under Spanish rule for around 250 years dating back to the 1500s. Simon Bolivar was instrumental in defeating the Spanish in 1819.

Above is a map focusing on Columbia. Note the position of Cartagena on the Caribbean Sea.

This is the view of Cartagena as we came into port. Pretty impressive highrises!

Butch and I scheduled different tours today of Cartagena. Both tours went into the walled Old Town. This area dates back to the 1500s and has narrow cobblestoned streets and colorful old colonial buildings.

Butch’s tour included a horse drawn buggy through the streets of the Old City. Apparently the cars were not too pleased that the horses were in the way at times.

A partial view of the cathedral of Cartagena in the center of Old Town

Narrow cobblestoned streets with buildings and upstairs balconies. It reminded me a bit of New Orleans.

Lovely plants on the balconies

On my tour we walked up to the fortress looking over the city (the Castillo de San Felipe) in the very hot and humid sun whereas Butch’s tour viewed it from below. It is quite impressive and was built in the mid 1600s to protect the Old Town and also to protect their outgoing gold shipments from pirates. It has a number of tunnels throughout and lookouts from above.

This is a picture of the fortress from below. Note the people tromping up the path and also note the large Colombian flag.

And a view after walking up the hill to the fortress!

Selfie! Taken from up high in the fortress

This was taken from the fortress looking across to the monastery on La Popa hill

Our tours met up on one of the scheduled tourist stops at an emerald store. I hardly recognized Butch in his new “Panama Hat”. There was somebody trying to sell you something everywhere. In old town there was a group of dancers that pretty much stopped our group to watch them and then of course passed the hat. They were actually quite entertaining and talented though. One lady in our group thought one of the vendors had tried to steal her phone and pushed up his tray with her phone falling onto the ground. She was very loud and unpleasant and we were unsure who was really at fault. Nevertheless it led to a police interview with her later on the tour. My walking tour of Old Town also included a visit to the Palace of Inquisition and the Maritime museum where we were entertained by dancers.

One of the displays in the courtyard of the museum. The Palace of Inquisition was built in the 1700s and was one of the torture headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition. Many people were tried for crimes against the Catholic Church and many were tortured and/or hanged.

The Cayman Islands or “Crocodile Rock” as Butch calls it

The Cayman Islands are an autonomous overseas British Territory. Not surprisingly they drive on the left side of the road! We found out that it does not directly tax its citizens or corporations making it a tax haven for foreign interests. In order to become a resident there however you need to plunk down at least a million dollars to buy real estate. There are 3 islands and we pulled up to the largest (approximately 75 square miles in size) called Grand Cayman and tendered to shore. The tendering process was run by a Cayman company and as such was far more efficient than that experienced in Nicaragua when we were dealing with the ship’s smaller tendering fleet. Our excursion today was in 4x4 jeeps. We discovered there was a reason we were asked to bring our driver’s license - we were the drivers! The vehicles were a bit old and run down to say the least. Ours wouldn’t even start until they came to attend to something under the hood. The passenger front seat took an engineering degree and great strength to manipulate it up and back to allow the back seat passenger to escape. Well at least the driver’s side was on the front left as we are used to and since we were driving in a caravan we managed to stay on the left side of the road without thinking too hard. We were fortunate to be grouped with a solo lady (who was a retired lawyer) as it would not have been comfortable to have two people stuck in the back seat. We elected Butch as the designated driver for the entire trip.

Good job driver Butch!

Watch out for the chickens!

Gorgeous beach we traveled to “off road”

We went to Hell and back on this trip. Yes, they actually have a town called “Hell” on this island. People were buying postcards postmarked from Hell and said “Wish you were here!”

Black limestone formations in Hell

The black limestone formations are some 24 million years in the making. It is thought that these deposits have been shaped over the years from the elements - water, algae, etc. The name of Hell was thought to come about by some poor British man stumbling across the formation and pointing out that “This is what hell must look like!”. The formations are quite sharp apparently so you can only view them from the platform.

Our next stop was Seven Mile Beach and of course it had an associated gift shop. The gift shop not surprisingly had a variety of rums and samples and this fellow out front.

Aaaarrrrgggghhhh! Ahoy Matey!

Seven Mile Beach is a beautiful beach, considered one of the best in the Caribbean. The weather was beautiful and the water was warm and very clear.

Then we were delivered to the dock to be tendered back out to the ship.

Our ship - the Norwegian Pearl was completed in November of 2006 in Germany. It took about 2 years to build her and she is registered in the Bahamas. She holds 2394 guests and 1,087 crew members.


After another relaxing day at sea we arrived in Tampa to meet up with Butch’s cousin Brian. We had a great few days with him and caught up with granddaughter Emily and her husband Mario and later his cousin Earl’s daughter Margo who was interning with Disney.

A nice lake in Brian’s complex of condos

Emily and her husband Mario


And before you know we were on our non-stop 6 hour flight home from Orlando to Portland. Trips are fantastic but it is always nice to get home!

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