Wednesday 31st January

Today we are at sea and in the early morning, just before dawn, the ship was battling through some strong winds and big waves. We were experiencing another storm and we were informed by the Captain that the winds of 60mph would ease along with the swell and spray that was hitting the 15th deck.
As a consequence of the storm we clung close to the coast of Nicaragua and Mexico and crossed the Gulf of Tehuantepec as the winds eased and the decks were cleared of salt.

This is all great fun and still conducted under amazingly blue skies and brilliant sunshine though with a slight drop in temperature to only 29C!

Tuesday 30th January

At 05:45 a.m. we arrived at Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. Smoke and a smell of burning was carried into the ship by the air-conditioning. This was the start of today’s sugar cane harvest. The dead leaves and scrub at the base of all of the plants, thousands of them in total, is set alight to clear the base of the plant and to chase out snakes and other dangerous animals so that men with machetes can chop down and clean up the bamboo-like stems. The stems are taken by lorry to the processing plant.

We docked at a purpose-built cruise terminal that can handle one ship at once. It has been built to encourage tourism on the west coast of the country but the infrastructure cannot accommodate large numbers of cruise ships.


Again, we participated in eco-friendly tourism designed to preserve the natural and human connections that make the country but without sacrificing the natural resources and its beauty.

Guatemala is a land of 33 volcanoes clad with rainforests. The road to the coffee plantation we visited climbed from sea level on the side of one of these volcanoes and cut through volcanic ash and lava to reach our destination.

The coffee plant or bush is a small evergreen brought to Latin America from Africa. It thrives at higher altitudes and especially in the fertile and well-drained soils of volcanic origin. The bush yields clusters of white flowers that mature into small red fruits containing the coffee beans. At the El Barretal coffee farm (Finca) some of the world’s finest coffees are produced here on the 250 acre farm on the slopes of the Pacaya Volcano.
Here we witnessed the slow recovery of the country’s coffee industry following its decimation by pests a few years ago. Today the small harvests preserve the coffee’s quality and reputation and with care with the propagation of the best plants it is hoped that export will commence but the country will not compete with the big exporters such as Colombia. When we tasted it, it was certainly robust and flavourful but not bitter. We will have to test it with UK water!

    

Other rainforest plants grow close by and some of these have medicinal properties as our guide explained.

Papaya

Lime clementine hybrid fruit

Guarumo leaf useful for diabetes.

The central shoot of this plant is used for gastric problems.

Banana plant and flower.

Upon return to the ship we spent a good part of the afternoon watching port activity. From Deck 7 we had a good view of a container ship being loaded for its next voyage.


There was a ‘ballet’ of cranes and straddle carriers collecting containers and stacking them in the correct order on board the ship. At first we could not see the containers on the ship but as more and more were loaded the pile towered over the dock. Just in case you don’t know, the heaviest containers go at the bottom of the ship and in equal weights from bow to stern and port to starboard so that the ship does not become end or side heavy. In addition if the ship is to call at ports en route to its destination then the containers for each of the places have to be allocated a section of the hold so that only those that need to be offloaded en route leave the ship. It is likely that offloaded containers will be replaced to maintain the balance.
We also saw the departure and arrival of other vessels including a Dole and Del Monte container ships exporting bananas and pineapples.

Charcoal is a major import and is a form of cleaner coal is used in energy generation.

During the afternoon the pall of smoke from the second sugar cane harvest came over the port. Tiny fragments of burnt leaf fell onto the decks. At dinner we saw that the pall of smoke had travelled well out over the Pacific Ocean. This is our last departure as we now embark upon four days at sea to reach Los Angeles some 2000 miles away.

Monday 29th January

Today we have been at sea on our journey to Guatemala. We have been very busy doing nothing! We have seen no ships at all but watched the sun from first light until 5:00 p.m. do its apparent journey from east to west around the ship.

A highlight of this morning was the blowing onto the deck of a rainforest butterfly. It landed on a nearby sun lounger and took up residence on the underside of a cushion. It stayed there for around 4 hours until the occupier of the sun lounger disturbed it. We were about to photograph it when the occupier of the sun lounger started to walk away. His big feet got close but the butterfly escaped! To think that we are not within sight of land that was no mean feat for a butterfly.

This afternoon a land based bird with beautiful plumage landed on a davit near a lifeboat and spent over 4 hours in the sun resting before we left it to go and get ready for dinner.

To see the bird at its best one needs to enlarge the photograph. We cannot do it here and save it on the blog. As the angle we are shooting at is very difficult we have made the best  of it we can without hanging off the ship!!! Having done research we think that it is a White-winged Dove. These birds breed in southwestern US and southern Texas and winters south of the US. Perhaps it was hitching a ride back to breed!

At the time of writing it is now dark so we do not know whether it has left the ship, because as the sun set during dinner at the bow of the ship sea birds were roosting on a protected ledge outside our window on Deck 14. The younger birds were allowed a couple of last flies before sleep!!

It is Guatemala tomorrow.

Sunday 28th January

We arrived in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, at first light (05:30a.m.) and at 7:00 a.m. we were on our way by coach to the Braulio Carrillo National Park which protects the rainforest in this region.

The whole rainforest extends across the country from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The government of Costa Rica have determined that tourism is a most important part of the economy. It is number two after services / IT and before coffee and bananas. They realise the forest is the attraction so by investing in appropriate visitor attractions in eco-friendly ways it means that at any given time smallish numbers of tourists can experience the rainforest ecosystem without turning the country into a Mediterranean-style package holiday destination.

    

Upon arrival at the rainforest we boarded the Pacific Aerial Tram to enjoy a gondola ride that skimmed through and into the more temperate rainforest canopy.

Rainforests extend both north and south of the Equator and within the Tropics. The closer the forest is to the Equator the more evergreen the trees are. Closer to the tropics, during the dry season, some of the trees lose their leaves. We were accompanied by a bilingual naturalist guide who talked us through the whole experience, complete with examples and appropriate documentation. We witnessed many interesting trees and shrubs, beautiful butterflies, snakes and frogs but the big beasts of the rainforest world were sheltering from the heat.

         

The 2 pictures above show paprika tree and seed pod.

Leafcutter ants en route to their nest.

The 2 pictures above show a cacao bean (chocolate).

After lunch in the forests restaurant we returned to the ship by crossing the Tarcoles River which is the home to a large colony of crocodiles which live among the mangroves and the tidal mud.

    

As it is Sunday the locals left their vehicles at the roadside and lined the road bridge to catch a view of the animals. Close by at a small settlement called Caldera was a real caldera. Here the volcanic crater, which has had its seaward side blown away in a volcanic eruption, is now flooded by the sea. This location was again full of visitors and clearly the place to go on a Sunday at the end of the long winter holiday. For many it is school and work tomorrow!

During dinner we left the dock along with the Holland-America Line ship for Guatemala. We went northwest, they went southeast. We are now surrounded by the amazing black of sea at night.

Saturday 27th January

During the night we passed into another time zone which meant our clocks went back by one hour to -6 GMT. Today is a day at sea as we make our way from the Panama Canal to Puntarenas in Costa Rica. We anticipate being there early tomorrow.

There has been very little to sea apart from the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and a few container ships sailing over the horizon to China and beyond. We are close to land and are being accompanied by unidentified seabirds.

  

Friday 26th January

The terminal on the Island of Flamenco is incomplete so we were moored offshore and transferred to the terminal by a tender.

The bus that took us to the rainforest village drove along the Amador Causeway which gave us sight of the Old Town of Panama which was built in 1671. This replaced the original Old Town that was destroyed by the British pirate Captain Henry Morgan round about 1671, having been since 1519.

   

We drove to the rainforest near to the Panama Canal where the indigenous people of the Embera tribe maintain traditional culture and daily life. These people are the closest living relatives to the Maya. The Emberas lived not only here in Panama but also in Colombia and Ecuador long before the Europeans arrived. The Emberas total some 2200 people living in six remote villages accessible only by canoe. This is how all rainforest peoples live anywhere in the world. The rivers provide access to their homeland as well as the wider world. They live close to the river where the rainforest is less dense as it is a waste of time, if not impossible, to clear a rainforest with a machete. This is for Hollywood!!!!

We travelled to the native Embera village by dugout canoe deep in the rainforest of the Chagres National Park. We travelled through the lush rainforest and were able to admire the flora and fauna of the ecosystem.

   

The village we visited, Quebra da Puri, is on Lake Alajuela an hour from Panama City and 40 minutes from the nearest settlements landing stage. The dugout canoes we used are powered by outboard motors and are known as piraguas. We arrived at the village, soaking wet through as a result of the speed and rather large waves on the journey. Fortunately we could keep the cameras dry but for one member of the party it was certainly the longest shower he had ever had!!! We found the Emberas a warm and friendly group of people who are committed to preserving a traditional lifestyle in a rapidly developing country. This is a challenge as where they live is a National Park now, but by working with the government and tourism authorities they make their living by sharing this culture with visitors. The good thing is that, unlike some places in the world with indigenous villages and massive car parks, this is by no means fake.

The houses of the village are made of timber with palm leaves on the roof framework.

When cooking in the communal kitchen the smoke from the open fire and barbecue ‘paints’ the inside of the roof that in turn keeps the insects, especially the mosquitos, at bay.

The buildings are 3m off the ground to enable small mammals and insects to use the routes that they have always used to get around the area because after all they were here first. The Emberas believe that living in harmony with nature is the appropriate way.

The chief of the village welcomed us, and we had the opportunity to purchase examples of craftwork and later sampled traditional food such as freshly caught, fried tilapia fish and plantain.

   

To finish the visit we were treated to traditional dances and music before the whole village assembled to wish us goodbye.

           

We returned to the landing stage but the driver of each canoe had to take care because of the waves and floating debris on the water.

Not long after we rebounded the ship it sailed for Costa Rica.

 

 

Thursday 25th January

We arrived at Panama at 6;15 a.m. and from the cabin window we could see illuminated ships waiting to go through the Atlantic entrance which is a breakwater at Colon which protects anchored ships from the northerly winds. Spoil from the canal was used to make this.

    

Panama is the shape of a letter S, which means the northern coast is washed by the Caribbean and the southern coast by the Pacific. This angle is confusing because when one enters the Panama from the Atlantic Ocean the sun naturally rises in the east but is viewed over the Pacific. At this time we crossed under a bridge under construction to the cheers and waves of construction workers on the road deck.

We picked up a pilot or three here and at our time made our way to the Gatun Locks. By now it was 8:00 a.m. The locks are the longest of the canal and in our case in three steps lift the ship 26 metres in an hour. It takes skilful navigation to fit the ship in each of the lock chambers with only centimetres to spare on each side. Like any canal system there is a chance that water can be lost in moving ships up and down, but in the Panama’s case the water is saved and reused through an ingenious series of chambers that move the water from lock to lock. Locomotives called mules are attached to each ship by cables and maintain the ships position in the lock as the ships moves forward. It takes between 4 and 8 mules to guide ships through each lock.

    

    

    

The Panama Canal is cut through the dense tropical rainforest of the Isthmus of Panama. (A slender section of rock, sand and mud that in this case was created by earth movements that made the Atlantic and Pacific from the one primeval ocean.) Thousands of workers lost their lives in its construction from accidents but mostly diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Following the successful opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 it was decided by a Congress of Paris in 1879 that a canal across the isthmus should be built. In 1880 construction started led by Ferdinand de Lessops of Suez Canal fame. It was such a massive construction project that 18,000 Caribbean islanders were involved in just one location. It was such an ambitious project that French engineers (Gustav Eiffel and others) were assigned parts of the project to oversee and complete. Between 1882 and 1903 60 million cubic metres of earth and rock were removed.
Panama was originally part of Colombia but when independent the Panamanians and the French needed a new partner with the long running construction project. President Theodore Roosevelt (USA) saw the potential of the project and the following investment led to its completion in 1914. Since 1999 it has belonged to Panama following an agreement by President J Carter in 1977 to hand over the canal and collect the fees for the transit. It is such an important sea route that a new series of wider and longer locks parallel the original ones to allow the world’s biggest ships to cross the Oceanic Divide. A couple of examples: the distance from New York to Sydney via Cape Horn is 20,712km but via the Panama Canal is 16,013km. The distance from New York to Japan via Cape Horn is 26,892km but via Panama is 16,448km.

Our journey from the Gatun Locks proceed across the Gatun Lake. This was made by building the Gatun Dam across the natural Chagres Valley which dammed the river water and made, at the time, the world’s largest artificial lake. As the waters were held back by the dam vast areas of rainforest were flooded. Today only the highest parts stand proud of the water as islands many of which are wildlife refuges. By now temperatures are in the high 30sC and it is time for lunch before we reach the Gaillard Cut and the site of the Culebra Slide. This nearly 14km section of the canal is a narrow, winding passage with steep sides that cuts through the Continental Divide. This line follows the watershed of all rivers that flow into the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans and stretches from Alaska (USA) through Canada, the USA (lower 48), Mexico and Central America.

   
We passed beneath the Centennial Bridge and entered the Pedro Miguel Lock which dropped our ship 9.5m to the Miraflores Lake before entering the ‘last drop’ to the Pacific Ocean. These duel locks lowered our ship 16.5m in two steps in just over the length of 1.5km. Here is a Visitors Centre, which on the day of our transit was packed with people on the Observation Decks witnessing the action on what has been described as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.

       

The Miraflores Locks having dropped 16.5m from our cabin on Deck 5. These show early 20th century concrete and the steel lock gates, the last before the Pacific Ocean.

Opened in 2016 the new locks can accommodate ships many times bigger than the freighter ‘Ancon’ which made the first crossing of the ‘big ditch’. Despite the investment in the new locks one type of ship known as the Triple-E ship is much larger than the new locks. It uses less fuel, has a smaller CO2 footprint and uses fewer crew members but will only sail from Asia to Europe as part of a water based Silk Route.
We continued to the Fort Amador cruise port at Panama City. This is at the end of a causeway that has been developed as a tourist area of beaches, hotels and shops which started its life as a breakwater to protect ships just like the one at Colon.

 

Wednesday 24th January

At 5:00 a.m. one of our party was awoken by items falling onto the floor in the cabin above us. The sea was white with crashing wave tops and spume so much so that the  moonlight ’s reflection made it easy to navigate the cabin without lights.
We arrived offshore at Cartagena, Colombia at 06:25 a.m. and navigated the harbour entrance via a 9 mile long, possible flooded river valley, known as a ria.

An early breakfast enabled us to witness the docking in time for us to leave the ship on our walking tour of the old city.

  

Founded in 1533 this is a UN World Heritage Site. Within its amazingly thick walls and sturdy bastions are preserved churches, warehouses, workshops and cobbled streets. Sir Francis Drake plundered the city in 1586 in an attempt to prevent Spain’s continued expansion of its empire in the Caribbean (The Spanish Main) and most of all to “get his hands” on the gold, silver, tobacco, coffee and bananas. The raid was successful but the Spanish fought back with the construction of the walls and gateways we witnessed today. The Spanish ruled until 1811 when Colombia became independent.

     

We departed at 3:00 p.m. for Panama, on a flat-calm sea. We anticipate being off the Panama Canal at first light around 06:15 a.m. The explorers will be there to report back tomorrow.

Tuesday 23rd January

Today we are at sea. It is lovely and warm and sunny but windy, as a result the Promenade Deck is closed, because passengers could easily be lost overboard. When went for breakfast the water in the pool on Deck 14 was like a rough sea, so much so that waves could wash a bather out of the pool!

  
By lunch we had reached 14N 74W and were pushing hard into a Force 9 gale and 3 – 4 metre swell. Later we experienced winds of up to 40mph with very big waves and equally big rolls from side to side. These are experienced more on the upper decks and forward, At dinner this evening there were a good number of empty places!!

The spray from the storm had evaporated on exposed surfaces leaving a layer of salt behind.

Monday 22nd January

After a smooth overnight journey we moored at a buoy offshore from Georgetown, Grand Cayman. This is the largest of the three Cayman Islands and its name is thought to derive from the Carib peoples’ language for crocodile. However, there are more turtles here today and in fact Columbus in the 15th century called it Las Tortugas (the Turtle Island). Today it is essentially a diving location with many duty free, high-end shops. We had the ship to ourselves for most of the day!!!!

    


We swung around from the buoy at 4:00 p.m. and headed south across the Caribbean Sea towards Colombia. This will take until Wednesday morning. The weather is now sub-tropical with temperatures in the low 30sC.