Thursday, April 5, 2007

North of the equator

Just a small bit of housekeeping before I bring you up to date on our cruise: My last post has garnered four comments. Normally, I try to answer these individually as they come in, but access limitations here make this difficult, so let me just say thanks to everyone who posted, and, to the newcomers, welcome. And now, onward to:

Manta, Ecuador

Manta is a relatively small port town, and the tourist activities here were somewhat limited. The big tour was to Quito, which involved flying to and from, and we opted to skip it. Instead, we had a relaxing morning aboard ship, then took a free shuttle into town, provided by Princess. The shuttle made stops at a local hotel, a craft market, and a shopping mall. The mall provided us an opportunity to restock our wine supply, and we picked up several of the same Chilean labels that we had purchased in Valparaiso, albeit at a premium of 50-100% (still a bargain compared to either shipboard or stateside prices). I also picked up a half bottle (375ml) of the local rum, San Miguel, which set me back less than $2 and turned out to be quite good.

Double-ruffle bouganvilla

The mall was not unlike any you might find in the US, and, since the local currency is the US dollar (although change is often given in locally minted coin, denominated in US cents), only the Spanish language signage shattered the illusion of being back home. Even the prices were eerily similar to stateside pricing on most kinds of goods, including clothing, groceries, and general merchandise. We did see a motor scooter, though, that was advertised for $600 brand new, about a third what a similar machine would cost in the US.

Ecuador is famous, of course, for Panama hats. One of the available tours even stopped in the village of Montechristi, where the hats are made. I've always wanted one, and I waffled about stopping in the craft market to pick one up. Ultimately, I passed it up, mostly because one can spend $3 or $300 on a Panama hat in Ecuador, and I don't have the wherewithal to know if I'm looking at a $5 hat being sold for $50, or a $50 hat being sold for $20. We'll come back some day and spend more than a few hours here, whereupon I hope to learn how to select one with confidence.

At Sea (Crossing the line)

We crossed the equator at around 11pm on the day we left Manta, and we found official certificates, signed by the master of the vessel, commemorating the event in our stateroom when we returned from dinner. Owing to the late hour, the "ceremony" was held the following day.

I fully expected to run some sort of gauntlet, lowly pollywogs that we were, but it turned out that only about a dozen passengers were selected to undergo the ritual, and we were not among the chosen few. (Possibly the cruise staff, who have gotten to know us, decided we'd already undergone enough public humiliation.) Still, we attended the ceremony wherein said passengers (and most of the cruise staff) were festooned with various foodstuffs before being dunked in the pool (which was then summarily drained and cleaned for the remainder of the day -- fortunately, there are three other pools).

The captain, who is customarily dunked during the ceremony (to atone for all those pollywogs among the guests and crew who could not be included), sent a stand-in wearing his uniform instead, a disappointment that he later explained by informing us that on his last line-crossing (on a different vessel), the main engine stopped right after he was dunked. If true, I respect his decision not to tempt Neptune further, but it sounds like a fish story to me.

In any case, we are now shellbacks, although we seem to have dodged the ritual hazing.

Puerto Amador, Panama

After another relaxing day at sea (thus bypassing the troubled country of Colombia), we arrived at an anchorage off Fuerte Amador, in Panama. Fuerte Amador is an island that is now connected to the mainland by way of a causeway (and several intervening islands) made from the detritus of the canal excavation. We were in good company, with dozens of large ships sprinkled throughout the anchorage, presumably awaiting passage through the canal or entry to the large container port.

Here, after tendering ashore to the small resort marina on the island, we were shuttled by bus to the terminus of the Panama Canal Railway, where we boarded an "executive" coach for an excursion along the canal all the way to Colon, at the Caribbean end of the canal. Along the way we saw the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, part of the Gaillard cut, and a good bit of Gatun Lake. We saw several vessels transiting the canal, and, interestingly, a large number of kayaks. This last item was fortuitous, as our visit coincided with the annual Atlantic-to-Pacific Kayak Race, involving some 54 international teams. The canal and its lakes are otherwise closed to all recreational boating (excepting, of course, pleasure boats making paid transits).

The train itself had a familiar feel, consisting entirely of equipment purchased from Amtrak a decade ago and refurbished -- our car had once been a dining car.

A pair of cute young women in conductor uniforms provided hostess service in each car, and the whole bevy of them got together to sing to us and play local instruments toward the end of the return trip. (The train reverses direction in Colon, with no opportunity to disembark.)

After the train ride, we continued by bus to the administrative area of the canal zone, where we saw the monument to Goethals, and the various administrative buildings for the canal before returning to Fuerte Amador.

We did not get the chance to go in to Panama City, but we had a great view of its impressive and modern skyline from our ship. Interestingly, the many highrise buildings that give the skyline its distinctive look are almost entirely residential -- with more going up all the time. By the way, in Panama City, the sun rises over the Pacific and sets over land, a fact we got to witness first hand, but is counter-intuitive until you look at the map.

Golden Princess needed to bunker (nautical jargon for taking on fuel) in Panama, but, apparently, there is a designated anchorage for this activity that is separate from where we anchored for tender operations during the day, After "departing" Fuerte Amador, we sailed perhaps a mile or so to the designated bunkering anchorage, and again dropped anchor for several more hours, which occasioned a huge, festive island-themed party on the open decks that ran on till midnight. We had a great time, which was good, as our stateroom was just one deck below the main stage for the event.

Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Puntarenas is the main Pacific port for Costa Rica, although it is dwarfed by the Caribbean port of Limon. Here we opted to go the eco-adventure route and chose the Mahogany Park canopy tour. This involved zip-lining from tree-top to tree-top (eight zip-lines and nine platforms) through the forest canopy, 50 to 80 feet off the ground. We really enjoyed it, in spite of the heat (mid-90s). We did not see any exotic birds or monkeys as we had hoped, but we did see quite a few new (to us) species of plants. Besides, zip-lining is a hoot.

Zip-lining lends itself more to video than still photos, so watch for video here soon!

Our tour did not leave us time for much else, save a quick walk into town to buy contact lens fluid at a local pharmacy.

Huatulco, Mexico

We had another full day at sea, bypassing Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, arriving this morning in Huatulco. Shortly after our arrival, the Regal Princess pulled in to the adjacent berth, marking only the second or third time in history for two cruise ships to be here simultaneously.

Huatulco was nothing more than a fishing village a decade ago, but is on its way to becoming the latest in a string of resort destinations nurtured by the Mexican goverment through its FONATUR agency (previous success stories include Cancun and Los Cabos). We liked it so much that we may look into buying some property here before it's all gone or unaffordable.

Our tour here involved a catamaran cruise through five of the nine bays that comprise the region, stopping at one for a half-hour swim. From the boat we could see many of the recently completed hotel complexes and private residences, as well as a good deal of pristine land (including waterfront) protected as a national park.

Tomorrow we are in Acapulco, where about half of the passengers will end their cruise, and again as many will take their place for the final leg to San Francisco.

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