By Lilianne Fuller
Upon entering the Panama Canal, we were in awe of this man-made feat of construction. Built in 1914, measuring 80 kilometers across, and hewn from solid rock, the Panama Canal is indeed one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
To describe our Panama Canal cruise as the trip of a lifetime would be an understatement. In twenty days we would have ten stops, four of which were in Mexico. We sailed away from Fort Lauderdale, on a clear sunny day and two days later landed in Cartagena, Columbia. A fascinating city,our guide explained that while poverty is still very much an issue, the country is making strides especially in their education system. This is making a difference and while the people are still very poor, they don’t have to contend with the crime and violence that was present in the 1980’s and 90’s.
After a few hours in port, it was time to sail away. Early in the evening, the captain informed us that Equador had just experienced a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and there was the possibility of encountering a tsunami. He reassured us that we were quite safe but just in case, the ship was making a run for deep water.
The next morning dawned without incident and we arrived at the entrance to the famous Canal. It took a full 10 hours to sail through the Canal and Gatun Lake, a massive man-made lake near the centre.
July 2016 will see the completion of the Canal’s new section and I am told that it will be able to accommodate much larger ships than ours. When we landed in Costa Rica we saw the width of our ship had been scraped all the way down to the metal. The Canal measured 107 feet across and our ship was 105 feet wide; a fairly tight squeeze.
On a shore excursion we learned that Costa Rica no longer has an army. “Why do we need an army?” said our guide. “All we have are trees and no one wants to steal them,” he added. Instead the country plows all their extra money into free education for their citizens. It is the only country in the world that has a 98% literacy rate and every citizen who wants to go on to university is able to do so. The country’s standard of living is one of the best in Central America.
Next up was Nicaragua where we were welcomed by a steel drum band
and a young lady of about 10 years old. She was elegantly dressed and beautifully made up.
She was handing out free maps of her country and we learned that she had been there since the early morning and would stay there until noon at least. It was 104 degrees in the shade!
Our next port of call was in Guatemala. Since we didn’t have a shore excursion planned, we sat on deck and watched the goings on in the port. Suddenly, a huge cloud of smoke and flames appeared in the distance. In under 10 minutes it was out. The 85 year old gentleman sitting beside us joked that the Guatemalan firefighters could teach the firefighters of Seattle a few lessons in putting out a fire quickly!
Our first port of call in Mexico was Puerto Chiapas and it felt like we were coming home. The park-like terminal features a ‘bull ring’ style area where dancers perform and Mariachi’s sing traditional songs.
There’s a shuttle service to the closest town, Tapachula. You can purchase tickets inside the palapa-styled cruise ship terminal. When a cruise ship is in port the shuttles run all day long for the 40 minute drive to Tapachula’s central plaza.
Huatulco was our next port of call and we felt very safe there. But in the case of taxis, it’s buyer beware. There are numerous taxi drivers who quote prices that range anywhere from 30 US dollars to 25 pesos to take you the short distance from the port into town. So make sure you clarify the price before you get into the taxi. The town of Huatulco is fairly small and very clean. Its zocalo is fairly typical of most squares in Mexico and it features a beautiful old church on a hill.
There are numerous restaurant bars and touristy shops. Surprisingly, however, for a tourist town the prices are very low.
Then it was on to Puerto Vallarta. We didn’t plan to go ashore because we have been to Puerto Vallarta so often. But I’m glad we did. In April there were very few North American tourists and the city was alive with Mexicans who were on holiday. Something new on the Malecon were the live ‘statues’ reminiscent of San Francisco, California. We met a desperado,
an old time postal delivery driver and an angel. If you gave the angel a propina he would hover above the ground for you! We learned that it was due to a hydraulic device located under his ‘wing’ but it was still very impressive.
The next day we sailed into Cabos San Lucas. It is very Americanized and not very much like Mexico. Everyone speaks English and everything is in American dollars. We wanted to use pesos so we asked the vendors the price in pesos? In a flash they would whip out a calculator to make the conversion. One of the vendors, upon learning that we were from Canada immediately lowered the price for us. “Your dollar is tanking as much as ours, so please take the shirt for 100 pesos less,” he said.
From Cabo, we sailed for two days up to San Diego. We didn’t plan a shore excursion but visited Old Town.
This national park is considered the birthplace of California. We enjoyed a great Mexican lunch complete with a few shots of our favorite tequila, Corelejo. Old Town is easily accessible by a light rapid transit line. It is extremely user friendly and the transit workers are very accommodating to the tourists.
Finally after a couple more days at sea we arrived in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia.
People in Victorian costumes welcomed us and laughed when we told them that we had come from Langley (our home town) via Central America. We sailed from Victoria to Seattle, Washington and on Sunday morning we arrived in Vancouver. It was a rare and beautiful sunny day. I may be biased when I say this but out of all the port cities we visited, Vancouver to me is the most beautiful!