The Great Panama Canal Cruise: Day 9, Grand Cayman

And so, Dear Readers, we approach the end of our epic cruise. Day 8 was a sea day, and Day 9 brought us the 608 miles from Limon, Costa Rica to Georgetown, Grand Cayman.  As our stop in Grand Cayman was only scheduled for a short day, we opted to do a simple beach trip.  After tendering ashore, we took a short bus trip to the Tiki Beach where we were offered a lounge chair on the beach and a complimentary fruit punch.

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It was a lovely beach with clear waters and a gently sloping shoreline with very few waves.  Perfect for a relaxing swim.

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I managed to get a snapshot of Tom in his beach gear.

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We had the opportunity for renting  pedal boats, snorkeling gear, and other water toys but felt quite content to veg on the beach.  Two pedal boats on the water:

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A view of the bar and restaurant area at the Tiki beach:

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Our final full day of cruising was another sea day as we steamed back to Ft. Lauderdale.  But before we end the journey, I have one final picture from our last day at sea.  We were once again blessed with ten days with an absolutely terrific group of people at our dinner table.  One of the other waiters took this shot of the eight cruisers and our wait staff.  From left to right, Indra and Bharti, Jean and Steve (hiding behind Jean), Tekla, Tom, Katie, our head waiter Alfonso, Helen, and our assistant waiter Raj.  We had many a fascinating dinner table conversation often resulting in our table being the last one to exit the dining room in the evening.

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On the final day and a half, we sailed another 681 miles from Georgetown to Ft. Lauderdale.   In total, we sailed for ten days and covered a total of 3,226 miles.  Great cruise! Great memories!

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The Great Panama Canal Cruise: Day 7, Costa Rica

(Katie here) It was a short haul of 191 miles from Colon, Panama to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.  We arrived and docked early in the morning which allowed for ample time ashore.

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Our shore excursion group left the ship at 7:30 in the morning and boarded a tour coach for the two-hour drive to the rain forest.  Along the route we passed several large plantations.  Below are banana trees.  Bananas are a profitable crop as the time from planting to harvest is a mere 9 to 12 months.  The blue you can see are plastic bags surrounding the maturing fruits.  The color blue repels mosquitoes and other insects, so keep that in mind the next time you dress for the outdoors.

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We also passed enormous fields of pineapples

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Pictured below is one of the Dole storage facilities.  Those are not boxes of fruit but semi-trailers.  This facility had hundreds of such trucks, and we saw similar facilities for Chiquita and DelMonte.

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We arrived at the rain forest which is a private preserve adjacent to the Braulio Carrillo National Park, one of the larger rain forests in Costa Rica.  The preserve was built by a group dedicated to rain forest preservation.  In building the aerial tram, the metal support towers were all brought in by helicopter so the forest floor was undisturbed by heavy equipment.  Our first sighting upon leaving our bus was this web and thin-legged spider measuring several inches across.

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We were driven in small vans down a steep and narrow road arriving at the gondola-boarding platform where we were met by our tour guide, a very well-spoken and knowledgeable young man who pointed out this three-toed sloth chilling in the upper branches of a nearby tree.  Sloths generally sleep 22 hours a day and feed for about two hours.  They remain in the tree-tops for about a week at a time, typically descending about once a week to defecate on the forest floor.  A specialized tendon in their wrist and hand keeps their fingers clenched around branches until they willfully release it, so they can sleep hanging from the tree branch.

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Our second sighting, pointed out by our guide, was an eyelash palm pit viper wrapped around a thin branch of a bush near where we boarded our gondolas.  Although quite small in size, they are among the many deadly snakes found in the rain forest.

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Personally, I was QUITE happy to be boarding the gondola taking us ABOVE the forest floor.  Each gondola seats a guide plus 6 passengers.

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And we’re on our way!  As we rose into the upper levels, we crossed several streams below

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I was a bit disappointed we did not see more flowers such as orchids or the flowers of the bromeliad plants, but we did spot these red blooms.

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In the photo below, note the thin streamers falling from the trees.  These are called air roots.  Seeds attach themselves to the upper branches in the forest canopy and grow on the tree limbs.  They then drop their roots from the upper branches of the trees to the forest floor, digging into the soil of the forest floor to provide nutrients for growth.  If I remember correctly, according to our guide, the roots can grow from the top of the trees to forest floor in a matter of days.

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A related species are air plants, or epiphytes.  These plant themselves on trees but take their nutrients from the air and air-born soil trapped in the tree bark, and they do not drop roots to the ground.  Moss and bromeliads such as the ones shown below fall into this class.

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Moving further up into the canopy

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Our guide pointed out what the locals call a broccoli tree

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Elephant ear

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Fern

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Personally, I like this silhouette

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A seed pod which will become an air plant and drop air roots such as those emerging from the plant behind the green pod.

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Palm

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After our gondola ride, we were treated to a sumptuous dinner of chicken, rice and beans, and lots of fresh fruit after which we boarded our buses for an hour and a half ride back to the coast.

The second half of our tour was a boat tour of the Tortuguero Canal, a brackish estuary between the fresh water Tortuguero River and the salt-water of the sea.  It is home to many shore birds, several of which were familiar to me having spent two winters in Florida.  Nonetheless, it was a VERY enjoyable trip.  We boarded boats which held about 20 passengers each

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Our first sighting was a snowy egret hunting in the shallows

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And the wildlife was abundant.  Kingfisher

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Heron

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Flowers

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Two-toed sloth

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Great blue heron

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You have to look carefully to see this little blue heron trying to hide in the foliage.

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An iguana sunning himself

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Great egret

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Small crocodile

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Great blue heron in a tree top

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Turkey vulture

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One more heron, perhaps a yellow-crowned night heron

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And this yellow-headed bird I have not been able to identify.  Who knows, perhaps it is a plain black bird who had a yellow leaf land on his head just before I snapped this shot.

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We then headed back to the ship arriving just in time for departure at 5:30 – a ten hour tour of what I felt was an absolutely spectacular country!

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Panama Canal, the Shore Excursion: Authentic Embera Village

(Katie here)  Now that Tom has given you a thorough tour of the canal, I’ll fill you in on my adventures from that day.  After sailing the 267 miles from Cartagena, we arrived at the Panama Canal in the VERY early hours of the morning (canal pilot on board at 5:30 a.m.).  As we approached the first lock, we were greeted with POURING rain making it difficult to be on any of the decks to take decent photos.  I commend Tom for his photographic endeavors.  Fortunately, by the time of our scheduled departure for our shore excursion, the rain had slacked off.

Around mid-day, we boarded the ship’s transport vessels as shown below to tender ashore.

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Our group of about 30 boarded a tour bus, and our first thrill was crossing the brand new larger Panama Canal.  This large tanker is probably one that would have been too big to fit through the old canal.

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After crossing the canal, we headed east to our destination.  With a bus ride of over an hour and a half, our tour guide had plenty of time to fill us in on some history.  The Embera are an indigenous peoples of Colombia and the Panama rain forests.   The Embera people, who now number around 30,000, are now spread out throughout Panama, including the major urban areas.  The government of Panama has also set up two “reservations” for those Embera who have been displaced from their ancestral homes.  The village we visited, however, is not part of any reservation but is one of the few remaining areas where the Embera have lived for generations.  The lifestyle there is rather typical of the lifestyle they have lived for millennia with a few exceptions.  If I am remembering correctly, the village we visited has approximately 125 residents, and there are five villages (with a total population of about 1,000) on the shores of this lake which was formed when the river was dammed in the mid 70’s.  According to our guide, when the area was made into a National Park, the Embera living along the shores of the rivers and lakes were allowed to remain in the area but had to comply with new laws which prohibited the cutting of trees or any hunting.  The Embera questioned how they were to live without being able to cut down trees for their homes or hunt to feed their families.  The Panama government in turn said they would assist the Embera by helping to set up a tourist industry whereby the Embera could host visits to their villages and sell their hand-crafted wares to earn currency to help house and feed their families.   The skeptic in me sees this as a trade-off of being able to stay on their land as long as they agreed to sing and dance for the nice white folks.  But with that said, let me introduce you to what I saw as a gentle and beautiful people.

Arriving on the shores of the lake, we were met by several men from the village and their dug-out canoes which were equipped with outboard motors.

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We arrived at the village to be greeted by several of the villagers including this Mom and her tot.  The women wear skirts but their tops are not covered.  The men wear loincloths.  You will also see tattoos on their bodies.  These are not permanent but are applied from the juice of a local plant and last about ten to twelve days.  The dye is not only decorative but also acts as both a sunscreen and an insect repellent.

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As we climbed the hill to the village, we were entertained by musicians playing various percussion instruments and a flute made from a local bamboo-type reed.

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Entering their main meeting house, we were fed a “snack” of ham and cheese sandwich, and were welcomed to the village by the elected head of tourism for the village.  He explained much about their culture and current village life, speaking Spanish as our tour guide translated to English.  Villagers are bi-linguistic speaking the native Embera dialect and Spanish which is the language used in the village school. Each village has a democratically-elected village leader who represents them at a regional tribal council.  Education is mandatory through age 16.  Younger children are educated in their village; older children are transported to a school outside the village.  Many go on to attend college.  In fact, the daughter of the local tribal leader was graduating from University around the time we visited.

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Following his talk, we were fed a typical Embera meal of fried fish from the local lake (probably tilapia) and fried plantain chips all wrapped and served in a palm leaf.

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We had been told the villagers welcome having their pictures taken, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching this little girl who was fascinated looking at her own image on the camera display.

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The village was actually hosting two groups on this day.  This was the second meeting house, located on an elevated platform as were most of the other buildings.  Presumably, this is where the village could meet during heavy rains when the main meeting house might be flooded out.

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Each family has its own home which is on stilts, often with dogs or chickens housed underneath.

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A view of the village:

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There was a young girl in our group who brought along a bag filled with candy and sponge-rubber balls for the village children.  The candy lady and her followers:

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Several of the boys enjoying playing with the spongy balls.  I was rather fascinated by the little guy in the orange loin cloth.  His tattoo looks like a tee shirt and shorts.

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I don’t know if this was the laundry room, but I believe the colorful cloths drying here are the skirts of the village women and girls.

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Following our village tour, we reconvened in the main meeting house and were entertained with a dance by the village women and girls

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Who were joined by the men for a second dance

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For a third dance, the villagers reached out to each of the visitors inviting them to join in the dance.  Delightedly, I was invited by a very handsome young man!  But I was also disappointed to see this little girl sitting off by herself and not participating.  Looking at that face, I had to wonder if she was a child with Down Syndrome.

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Finally, we were invited to view and purchase items crafted by the villagers.  Items were primarily wood carvings and baskets and other crafts woven from palm leaves.  Each family has its own table set up with a family member present to assist customers.  I was in absolute awe at some of the artistry

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Just prior to our departure, the villagers all gathered for a group photo in the village square

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Our group then re-boarded the canoes and set out for the ride back. Just in case you’re wondering, I looked carefully; and I believe they really were hand-fashioned dugouts. One of the other canoes as seen from ours:

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As can be seen, the rain which had plagued us during the morning was surrounding us throughout the day; but we were very fortunate in avoiding it including on our ride back to the bus.

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The Great Panama Canal Cruise Day 6: Panama Canal

It helps to put the building of the Panama Canal into an historical perspective before viewing the pictures.  The USA, under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt (not to  be confused with Franklin Roosevelt of the later era) built the canal between 1903 and 1914.  This happened after the failure of the French to build a canal, almost to their own financial ruin and also after considerable political hi-jinx.  Panama was a possession of Columbia and Roosevelt supported the bloodless revolt and set up of the Panamanian government.  It was quite the story at the time.  To this day there are no roads between Columbia and Panama, which the Panamanian government says is due to drug prevention efforts.  I think there may be a bit more to it.  The USA had control of the waterway and buffer strip from opening until 1999, when it was turned over to Panama.  New locks, allowing larger ships to go through the Canal have just been opened, but our ship was built for the old locks.  Additionally, we passed through the Gatun locks, into the man-made Gatun Lake, unloaded our passengers for day excursions, turned around and went back out the locks and on to Colon, Panama, where we picked up our day-trippers including Katie.

We approached the canal in the early hours of a dark and rainy morning.  I had the added benefit of a camera malfunction, so it was good we went back out!

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As we entered the Canal, but before the locks, we passed an area where a bridge was being built.  However, right now, this is the ferry that takes everyone across on the eastern end of the canal.  Notice the jungle in the background.  As we proceeded up this waterway we were guided by 4 pilots on board and tugs to be sure we didn’t run aground.tug-before-locs-and-in-canal

Tugs were available until the locks and then again after the locks as vessels proceeded through the length of the canal.  As a ship enters the lock, water fills the side the ship is on until it is even with the water following and then the lock is opened.  Likewise, going the other way the ship enters and the water is lowered until it is at the next level, the lock is opened and the ship moves through.  All of this is done without pumps, just gravity feed from Gatun Lake.  You may notice what looks like a double lock.  The first one is really just to keep the ship from running into the real lock door.  We assumed they have them going both ways, since ships were using both ways to go west on our travel into the Lake.

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You may have noticed the yellow guard rails across the lock gate.  Workers regularly go across.  An interesting safety feature is the yellow guard rails fold automatically when the gates are opening or closing.

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In the top picture above, you’ll just be able to see a “mule” on the right, one coming out of the building on the left and one in the far distance on the left.  These mules (which are motorized vehicles, not animals) are cabled to the ship.  Contrary to popular belief the mules do not pull the ships through the Canal.  The ships proceed under their own power.  The mules simply stabilize them side to side so they don’t rub the concrete walls (at least too much).mule-water-filling

Below, two mules assist the cargo ship as it moves toward the lock gate ahead.  Notice the inclined slop for the mule rail on each side to lift them to the new height.

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Below is the last gate before entering Gatun Lake.  Notice the roller coaster-like incline before this gate.

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Ships nearly fill the locks side to side as you can see in the following pics:

Cargo ship being raised in the lock on the canal-way next to our ship.  Just so you have a sense of perspective, I was on the 10th deck.

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Cargo ship just coming to our level and the lock opening.

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As we finished moving through the locks and approaching Gatun Lake, we had been raised 85 feet from sea level to the level of the lake.

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This lighthouse was at the top of the locks.  We don’t know if it was decorative or served a purpose now or in the past.

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Also at this location were a couple of dredgers.  The interesting thing about them is the cabs are completely made from stainless steel.  Amazing!

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Once into the Lake, I got a picture of the Gatun Dam spillway.  The earthen dam itself was made from the earth that was excavated during Canal construction.

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There was no way to get a picture of the earthen dam because we would have needed to be below it to see it.  I overheard a couple of folks commenting that they thought the Canal would be bigger!  I guess it would have if they’d been there for the excavation!  What a marvelous feat, akin I think to the building of the pyramids.  Perhaps one day Katie and I will sail through it, though away from the locks it would be like sailing on a wide and deep river.  Do this trip if you ever get the chance, but either read about the construction or watch a video first!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Great Panama Canal Cruise: Day 5 Cartagena, Colombia

 

Day 5.  We have traveled 382 miles since leaving Aruba.  We approach Cartagena around 7:30 in the morning passing the new city and a lighthouse.

For our shore excursion, we chose a tour around the harbor aboard a reproduction of an old Spanish galleon.

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Our captain:

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According to the tour guide, the boat was a reproduction, but they were able to outfit it with some original cannons from the old pirate days:

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Our tour took us first past the “new city” with its many high-rises.  We noted several new buildings under construction (note the darker colored tower just to the right of center).

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From our little boat, we could also look up on the hill to an historic monastery.  Two of the people with whom we dined each evening took a walking tour of this monastery and were quite impressed with the long climb to get to it.

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Couldn’t resist snapping this shot of a pelican on a harbor bouy.

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During our tour, we were treated to live music from a local band,

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and some quite-entertaining dancers as well.

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Heading east, we approached the old walled city.  Built as a defense from pirates and foreigners (like Captain Drake who raided the city for it’s hoard of gold and emeralds), the wall surrounded the city from the sea side.  Shown hear is a corner of the wall where a tower housed armed guards.

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Many old buildings remain behind the walls, including this old cathedral.

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A close-up of the cathedral dome seen through the boat’s rigging:

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We also passed the convention center seen here.  It is so stark, at first glance, I thought it was a prison.

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We next headed past the old city.  According to the tour guide, the waterfront row-style homes seen here are usually fairly small, typically three to four bedrooms, and start in price around one million dollars.  To preserve the authenticity, the local laws stipulate that the owners may make repairs to the home, but they may not make any changes to the appearance of the outside of the home.  If it was a bright blue when you bought it, you may repaint it, but only if you maintain the bright blue color.

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Personally, I’m rather fond of the bright pink one.

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Just beyond the residential section of the old city stands this old fort.  The large cannons all face toward the land to protect from an invasion from that direction just as the city wall protected the old city from a sea invasion.

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One of the major industries in Cartagena is sardine fishing.  Here we see two fishermen casting their nets in the harbor in hope of reeling in some of the small fish.

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Returning from our excursion to our ship, I snapped one more picture of the monastery as seen from our pier.

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The Great Panama Canal Cruise: Day 4 ARUBA!

By our fourth day at sea, we had traveled 1,084 miles from Ft. Lauderdale, arriving at the fair port of Oranjestad, Aruba.  We had caught up with the rain, so our arrival was a bit damp as the first few photos will show.  The port in Oranjestad:

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We were someone surprised to see the height of one of the mountains in the distance.  I believe this is Hooiberg, Aruba’s primary (although dormant) volcano.  At a height of 541 feet, it is not all that tall, but it really stands out against the flat landscape of the rest of the island.

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Fortunately, we had partial clearing by the time of our shore excursion.  Katie is an avid fan of snorkeling so we scheduled an excursion on a catamaran to a snorkeling site that included both a reef and a sunken vessel.  Tom was able to get a good picture of the bow of our ship the Coral Princess on our way out of the harbor:

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As we exited the harbor, several smaller islands could be seen just off shore

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Finally clear of the harbor, the crew of the catamaran was able to hoist sail.  The bow of the cat with the jib hoisted:

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Main sail:

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Arriving at the reef, Katie was able to snap a picture of Tom before he took charge of the camera.

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Katie ready to snorkel.

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Katie in the water

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And very happy afterwards:

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Sorry there are no neat pictures of reefs and fish, but we decided not to invest money in an underwater camera.  You’ll just have to take my word for it that the fish were numerous and beautiful (and I even saw an eel), and the ship wreck was quite interesting as well.

Just a word here about the sunken ship we were able to see while snorkeling.  At the beginning of World War II, the SS Antilla was a German merchant vessel sailing in the Caribbean.  Told by the German regime to take refuge from U.S. and British warships by seeking a neutral harbor, the captain of the Antilla headed for Aruba.  Aruba was part of the Netherlands Antilles and thus controlled by the Dutch.  At the beginning of the war, the Netherlands was still considered neutral.  Following the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, with the Netherlands no longer being “neutral”, the Dutch marines ordered the crew of the Antilles to surrender the ship.  Rather than comply with the request, the captain ordered his crew to scuttle the ship then head ashore.  The remains of the Antilla sits in 45 feet of water in Malmok bay.  After spending some time interred as POW’s on neighboring Bonair Island, the crew of the Antilla was transferred by the British to internment in Jamaica.  HMMM–  bet they didn’t feel too bad about how THEY spent their time during the war.  Let’s see – do I want to fight on the front lines outside Moscow, or would I rather spend the war in the Caribbean?

On the catamaran, we struck up quite a conversation with a woman named Kirsten who hailed from Iowa, quite near where Tom lived with Uncle Noel and Aunt Sara when Tom was in high school.  Kirsten was kind enough to take a picture of the two of us.

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On the sail back to port, we passed some beautiful beaches, resorts, and private homes.

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There was even a small island in the middle of the ocean with ONE tree on it.

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A few more views of the Coral Princess Tom captured on our return trip:

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Until tomorrow, I will leave you with another gorgeous sunset as we sailed for Cartagena, Colombia.

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The Great Panama Canal Cruise: Days One through Three

 

And so, Dear Readers, let us begin our virtual tour of selected spots in the Caribbean, Northern South America and Central America via the Coral Princess Cruise ship.

We departed Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on Thursday, December 8.  Katie took a brief walk over this draw bridge in the early morning before departure and got the added pleasure of seeing the bridge open to let several tall-masted sailing ships through. Check out the size of those private yachts!

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We were in awe at some of the homes along the waterfront at Port Everglades

 

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Prior to escorting us out to sea, our pilot boat entertained us doing “donuts” in the water with his vessel.

 

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We also passed a docked merchant vessel from Britain.

 

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Heading into the channel which led to the ocean, the private homes were replaced by high-rise condos.

 

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Beachfront and breaker as we head to sea:

 

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To celebrate the cruise, Tom had pre-ordered a sail-away package which included a bottle of bubbly, strawberries dipped in chocolate, and three red roses.

 

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Two very happy cruisers:

 

Days 2 and 3, December 9th and 10th, were sea days as we sailed to our first port in Aruba.  We explored the ship and found comfort in the lounge chairs on the Promenade deck.

Tom enjoying the evening:

 

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On the evening of our first full day at sea, we were treated to a SPECTACULAR sunset over Cuba.  Katie shooting pictures from the Promenade deck:

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A patch of sunshine peeking through the clouds and shining on the shores of Cuba:

 

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I’ll let the sunset pictures speak for themselves.

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Tomorrow:  ARUBA!

 

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