Tibby and I did a 16-day cruise on Azamara Onward from Lima to Miami in February 2023. We spent four days in Lima before the cruise and one night in Daytona after. Our friend, Vickie Downie, joined us on the cruise.
We flew on 8th February 2023 to Lima via Madrid. As we approached the coastline of Spain from London, we had a magnificent view of the snow covered Pyrenees.
Twenty hours after leaving our home in London we arrived at Hotel B in the suburb of Barranco in Lima, Peru.
The 2022 census recorded close to 14 million inhabitants in the Lima conurbation out of a total population of Peru of 34 million. The greater city stretches for 130 kms along the coast and about 37 kms inland. It is one of the driest cities in the world with annual average rainfall of 7mm. On the other hand, the relative humidity is, at times, extremely high (up to 100%), producing persistent mist from June to October. For its water supply, the population of Lima depends on three rivers: Rímac , Chillón and Lurín, all of which originate in the high mountains of the Andes and flow into the Pacific Ocean. Peru is located in the Pacific Fire Belt area, where approximately 85 percent of the world’s seismic activity is recorded. Every year, about 400 perceptible earthquakes occur in the country. As a result, the building codes require buildings to have additional protection for earthquakes and there are few tall buildings in the city.
Day 1 in Lima
We did a five kms walk from Hotel B, via the Bridge of Sighs, down to the coast, along the coast, back up the cliff alongside Quebrada de Armendariz and then along the cliff top road. The walk was attractive on the way down the cliff to the coast.
Along the coast it was miserable, walking next to a six lane motorway. Many surfers hobbled over the pebble beaches. The thirty metre high cliffs are covered with nets to prevent rocks and earth from falling on to vehicles. Once we were back up the cliff, the cliff side walk was very attractive with lovely views, an attractive park and pretty buildings.
For dinner we walked to the nearby La Cuadra de Salvador Steakhouse and were entranced by our provoleta starter. I then enjoyed a great skirt steak. The restaurant is a large pretty covered veranda with trees growing next to the dining tables.
Day 2 in Lima
We were collected at 09h00 by Arturo and Sheila of Lima Tasty Tours. We started our culinary tour at the roadside stall of Dona Mary where we shared a pork belly and onion roll, which is apparently the normal breakfast on special days like Christmas, Mother’s Day and public holidays.
We entered the Mercado Jorge Chávez Surco Viejo where Arturo took us through the produce for sale at a vegetable stall, a cheese and olive stall, a fruit stall, a poultry stall, a butcher and a fishmonger. At most of these stalls we were shown produce that was new to us. We tasted six or seven fruits that we had never tasted before. Arturo told us that movement of people to Lima had brought both produce and food from the Andes and the Amazon as well as a strong Chinese culinary tradition, from the Chinese brought to do manual work after the emancipation of black slaves in 1854.
We sat down at a soup stall and were served a soup of seafood. Many Peruvians eat soup for both breakfast and lunch. Arturo told us that the main meal of the day is lunch with dinner being a salad or small snack.
We snacked on a Tapioca type desert and finished with an interesting saucy Chinese bowl of meat and vegetables.
We then travelled 14 kms to the Main Square of Lima which is surrounded by the impressive buildings of the cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Government Palace and the City Hall. Unfortunately movement across the square was limited by riot police. Peru is in a period of turmoil at the moment as crowds of people gather daily to object to the forceful replacement of the previous president by his deputy. A cordon of security fences has been established several city blocks from the Main Square to prevent the protestors from getting to the square. Police with riot shields were very evident. The protests have enveloped the country with access to Machu Pichu closed for the foreseeable future. We saw no protestors in the time we were in Lima.
Down a pedestrianised street we tasted Pisco. Pisco is a colourless or yellowish-to-amber coloured spirit, made by distilling fermented grape juice into a high-proof spirit. It is often drunk in a Pisco Sour cocktail, which originated in Lima, and is prepared with egg white, lime juice, simple syrup, and bitters. Having enjoyed a Pisco Sour we then also tasted Pisco in other drinks where the principal addition was either lime juice, cream or coffee.
We drove back to Barranco through the suburb of San Isidro alongside Parque del Olivar which has 1,700 olive trees which were originally brought from Seville in Spain in 1559. The park is a kilometre long and 200 metres wide and is a National Monument.
We also passed by Huaca Pucllana, a pyramid like structure made from mud bricks. It served as an important ceremonial and administrative centre for the advancement of the Lima Culture, a society which developed in the Peruvian Central Coast between the years of 200 AD and 700 AD. It stands on a six hectare site in the middle of the suburb of Miraflores.
Our friend, Vickie, arrived and we had dinner in the hotel.
Day 3 in Lima
We started the day by walking across the street from our hotel to the delightful Dédalo Arte y Artesania store. It is a collection of high quality, original and intriguing arts and crafts from Peru. It was a joy to see such beauty and originality of design.
We crossed town to the Larco Museum which has an amazing collection of artifacts that shows the 5,000 years of development of the history of pre-Columbian Peru and which survived the conquest of Peru in the 16th century. It displays the largest collection of jewellery used by various rulers of that time. It includes a collection of crowns, earrings, nose rings, jewels, masks and glasses, finely worked in gold and silver. There is also a collection of erotic ceramics from the same period. The museum is well organised, with good explanations and good presentations. We emerged far more knowledgeable.
Most visitors to the Larco Museum complex do not visit the Museum but are rather there to visit the excellent restaurant. Most of the tables are on the covered veranda with a lovely view of the attractive garden. We enjoyed our lunch there.
In the evening we had drinks on the rooftop terrace of Hotel B (Pisco Sour for me) and then returned for more provoleta at La Cuadra de Salvador Steakhouse.
Day 4 in Lima
We checked out of Hotel B and caught a cab to the Larcomar Mall in the nearby suburb of Miraflores. The Mall is built on top of a cliff with amazing views over the beach to the sea. Unfortunately, almost all the shops are American brands that one would find in many malls in the USA.
After lunch at the Mall we returned to Hotel B, picked up our luggage and transferred to Callao Port. The area near the port is rundown with most buildings being only partly built. Most large port cities, which are visited by cruise ships, have a cruise terminal where passengers can easily be processed by immigration and checked into their cruise. That is not the case in Lima. Our taxi had to drop us off at a gate where our cruise company, Azamara, had a coach waiting, which then carried us into the large dock area. An official came on to the coach at the gate and started comparing passports to a master list, and then gave up and allowed us into the dock area. Our ship, Azamara Onward, was surrounded by ships loading and unloading agricultural products and containers. Once checked into our cruise we were delighted to unpack in our cabin and settle into our cruise.
Day 1 of the cruise
The ship remained in port overnight to allow passengers to explore Lima the next day. We relaxed on board. The ship set sail at 16h00 on 13th February 2023.
This is our seventh cruise with Azamara. They have four ships that are almost identical, each with eleven decks. They have capacity for seven hundred passengers with most cabins having a balcony. Because these are relatively small cruise ships they can dock in places where larger ships cannot go. One can do a cruise with them and not pay anything extra while on board. They have a buffet restaurant, a sit-down service restaurant and two specialty restaurants (steak house and Italian respectively) where a nominal extra charge is payable. The buffet restaurant has a different national theme most nights including, Indian, Chinese, Indonesian, French, Italian and others. There is no requirement to eat the themed offering, as there is always a wide selection of other food. One can sign up to $95 per person Chef’s Tables offering seven course wine paired French, Italian and Stateside meals, where there are normally twelve passengers eating at a communal table. Besides being a lovely event it is also an opportunity to meet and get to know others. A coffee bar dispenses free espresso coffees. Cold drinks, beers, wines and cocktails, from a large, approved list, is available free all the time. There is a premium list of alcohol drinks, requiring payment, but we found no need to resort to it. There is no expectation of tipping as tips are included in the cruise price, although we always tip the cabin attendant.
There are shows each evening from either the in-house dancers and singers, or a comedian or other specialty performer brought on to do a few shows. Different bands and musicians play in the various lounges late into the night. On this cruise we had two speakers who each provided four lectures. There were also presentations of the planned excursions on this cruise and presentations of future cruises (and the ability to book those future cruises). There are opportunities to play bridge, bingo and quizzes and attend wine and cookery demonstrations and art classes. There is a small open-air pool and two hot tubs and plenty of pool loungers. There is a walking track and a gym. During each voyage there is normally an AzAmazing Evening and a White Night Dinner and Party (both described later). The one place which is not free, is the spa, where extensive treatments are offered. The captain spoke to us, over the loudspeaker system, every day to update us on our position, the weather forecast, interesting issues relating to the ports we were approaching or had just left and other nuggets about the maritime environment. There is a medical centre with a doctor, a requirement to apply hand sanitiser at the entrance to all restaurants and a request that people use a fist bump rather than a handshake.
The crew each have a name tag which also shows which country they are from. The majority are from the Philippines, India and Indonesia but there are representatives from most other countries. On this cruise there were 556 guests from twenty-three countries including USA (230), Canada (126), UK (105) and Australia (18). There was no public data about the average age of the passengers, but it must be above 60.
We started the day with a lecture from David Roberts on the attempts, over four hundred years, to create first a road, then a railway and finally a canal across the isthmus, of what is today Panama.
We docked at 11h00 at Salaverry but it took a while to complete the manoeuvre. The captain explained that additional ropes were needed because the dock was exposed to the sea.
We had booked a tour through Viator with Mochilea Peru. Vickie was ill and did not join us. We were joined by six others from our cruise and taken to the archaeological site which includes the Temple of the Moon (Huaca de la Luna).
We learnt about the different groups who ruled the northern part of Peru. The Moche civilization flourished in northern Peru with its capital near present-day Moche, Trujillo, Peru from about 100 to 700 AD. They were followed by the Chimú Empire who ruled until they were conquered by the Incas around 1470. The Spanish took over in 1532 until independence of Peru in 1821.
Our tour started in the museum. Our guide, Cynthia, explained that the Temple of the Moon served primarily a ceremonial and religious function and that it has five levels each representing a separate temple. Approximately every one hundred years the temple, then in use, was filled with mud bricks and a new larger temple was built above. When the final temple was abandoned it was covered by sand which largely protected it from looters.
The top three layers have been selectively excavated exposing decorated walls and artifacts. A feature of the temples was that, when the priests thought that the gods were unhappy (normally because of excessive rain or drought), they would call for men to be sacrificed. Warriors fought each other and the loser was sacrificed, normally including decapitation. Many of the artifacts in the museum depict these sacrifices.
Cynthia took us through the most important displays in the museum.
We then drove over to the Temple of the Moon. The temple was hidden under a hill for 1,300 years but has now been exposed. The area is like Lima, in that it has little rain. This fact notwithstanding, the Temple has been covered with tin roofs. The path for tourists through the temple has been well done. We saw the exposed façade which had all been put in place when the fifth temple was built. A ramp then took us higher and through the exposed internal rooms and courtyards of the third and fourth temples. This was a fascinating experience.
The Temple of the Sun is considered to have been an administrative building and has not been excavated to the same extent as the Temple of the Moon. As we drove out of the area I was struck by the fact that the road passed by the base of the Temple of the Sun and that there was no barrier stopping anyone from climbing up it.
As we drove into Trujillo, Cynthia told us that a tax is payable when the building of a house is complete. As a result the majority of houses have an incomplete element to them which makes the buildings look very scrappy. This also explains the unfinished buildings near Lima Port.
In the large main town square Cynthia showed us the statute celebrating the independence from Spain which dominates the square. The square is surrounded by prominent religious and administration buildings painted blue, red and yellow.
We moved on to Chan Chan, an adobe city, built by the Chimúes. It is the largest city built in adobe (clay bricks) in the world. It is made up of nine citadel cities or small walled cities. The entire complex was the capital of the Chimor kingdom. The total site is 25 kilometres square although only a far smaller area is being actively excavated. Only one ‘city’ is open to the public. There is a clear walkway through the city but no explanations en route. Fortunately, we had the expert Cynthia with us.
Cynthia told us that each city was built for a king and when the king died, he was buried in the city (with his closest family and courtiers) and the city was then sealed. His son, the new king, would then build his own city. The city was largely without a roof. We entered a large courtyard which would have been open to the public. Behind a wall is the area used by the courtiers who managed the kingdom. There was also a religious area, a living area and finally the burial area. The city was surrounded by clay brick walls which were three metres high. The interior area walls were decorated with emblems that were important to them.
We had learnt a lot during the day.
We took the faster road back to Salaverry Port with the sea on our right and first the Chan Chan area on our left and then Trujillo City on our left. The area around both monuments and in the city square had been clean, but everywhere else was filled with rubbish. Besides the road and stretching into the desert were huge amounts of plastic, cardboard and other refuse. This is a real pity.
Today is 14th February, both Valentine’s Day and our 47th wedding anniversary. Tibby and I enjoyed a seven-course wine paired dinner, and when we could not eat anything more, were presented with an Anniversary cake. We took it to our cabin and managed to eat it all in the next 24 hours.
The next day was a sea day so we caught up with admin and had a swim. At lunchtime the captain alerted us to a pod of 1,000 dolphins that were swimming beside the ship.
We attended the second lecture by David Roberts on the Panama Canal, this time focusing on the unsuccessful attempt by France to dig the canal. The crucial differences between their successful build of the Suez Canal and this canal was that the Suez Canal was dug in the desert at sea level whereas in Panama there was a mountain in the way, they had to clear jungle and they did not know what caused yellow fever and malaria. Thousands died of the latter diseases.
We woke to rain. This is the rainy season in Ecuador. The rain soon cleared and the day was hot and humid. Both Tibby and Vickie were now ill, so I went out alone.
I had signed up to an excursion organised by the ship called ‘Art and Crafts of Guayaquil’ which had a few high points but was ultimately disappointing. Our guide, Allan, told us that the capital of Ecuador is Quito in the Andes, but the biggest city in the country is Guayaquil, with a population of 3 million. Important exports from the country are bananas, cocoa beans, shrimps and roses.
Allan told us that Panama hats are incorrectly named as they are made in Ecuador. They gained the name Panama, when the workers on the Panama Canal brought them back to their home countries and also by President Theodore Roosevelt wearing one when he visited the Panama Canal construction site on 9th November 1906.
Their correct name is Montecristi Hats because that is where they are made. We will visit Montecristi, near Manta, tomorrow. Our first stop was at the Ecua-Andino Panama Hat wholesaler. A worker showed us how the hats were woven. The hats are made from the plaited leaves of the Carludovica palmata plant, known locally as the toquilla palm, although it is a palm-like plant rather than a true palm. The finer the weave the better the product. A top-quality hat can take eight months to make and cost $1,500. Most of our group bought $55 or $95 hats, with some buying more than one.
Our next stop was the Market of Artisans which was a huge disappointment as it was essentially a textiles market with lots of T shirts and caps for sale.
A prominent feature of the city is Santa Ana Hill which contains historical buildings of the Las Penas district. The colourful buildings on the hill can be seen from a distance. The steep stairways up the hill are a feature in themselves. Our group was too old to venture up the hill so we walked along the street that runs around the base of the hill. The first 300 metres contains historical buildings where we visited an artist’s studio and an art gallery. The road then became a modern river-side development. With a blazing sun, high temperature and high humidity, all we wanted to do is get back to the coach.
Our final stop of the day was at the city centre flat and home of the artist, Fernando Insua. There were some elements of his art that I found attractive but my enthusiasm wilted when he talked us through every painting in the flat. After an hour I was desperate to leave, as were most of my fellow travellers.
All in all, this was not a great excursion.
The ship offers excursions at all ports. These are cheaper if booked before the cruise than once on the cruise. They encourage one to buy their excursions by saying that, compared to privately arranged excursions, the excursion will actually happen; coaches will normally be waiting on the quayside; the ship will not leave until a ship organised excursion has returned; the price listed is the price paid and there will be no subsequent extra charges and we will be assured of a guide with a good level of English. Privately organised excursions are normally cheaper and are often in smaller groups. If the tour is private to your party, one can ask for the itinerary to be changed to accommodate your interests and needs. There is a level of risk involved because one normally pays in advance and there is the fear that one will arrive at the port and find no waiting guide. Payments can be more complicated. I paid for one of the tours by a $50 transfer through Western Union and then a cash payment to the guide of $250 – not ideal. We did have one guide who tried to claim, at the end of the tour, that the entry fees were not included and had to be paid extra – contrary to what was on our booking confirmation. With privately organised tours one has to walk out of the port to meet the guide. The English proficiency of both our ship organised excursions and our privately organised excursions varied from excellent to barely acceptable. And as this excursion in Guayaquil proved, even the ship’s excursions sometimes do not have good enough good content.
Many people do not bother with excursions. If they have done sufficient research they will hire a taxi and go directly to place they are interested in and then either rely on guide books, or read the notes provided by the museum or hire a guide at the door, as we did later in the cruise, in Cozumel. Ports vary in how easy it is to walk from the ship to an interesting, safe area. That is normally difficult to do in big cities although that is sometimes mitigated by having a metro line handy or using the free shuttle that the ship lays on in some cities. On this cruise, the ports were mainly small, and some passengers were content to go ashore for shopping, a beer and a meal. Some identified a beach and headed there. And then there are those who do not leave the comfort of the ship and relax around the pool.
As we left Guayaquil the Captain explained that we were fifty kilometres from open sea in a very protected harbour. A pilot was needed to take us along the channel between the mangrove swamps.
We started the day with a lecture from Harold Tinberg on the impact of DNA on solving crimes.
We docked at 11h00 at Manta, the Tuna Capital of the World. Many tuna fishing boats, as well as ordinary fishing boats were bobbing in the bay.
Vickie had still not recovered so did not join us again. Tibby and I met Fernando from Manta SOS Tours for a private tour. He took us to the local fish market which was interesting.
Nearby, he showed us fishing boats being built from wood, which will then be covered with glass fibre.
When we returned to our minivan near the beach a group of thirty locals were pulling in a net from the sea. When the net was in shallow water, we could see that it was filled with sardines and the occasional large fish.
Fernando took us to a button factory and talked us through the process. Tagua nuts have a diameter of five cms and are clustered in a group of nuts, about 35 cms across. They are separated from the host bunch and are dried, sliced and sorted. Different size buttons are cut out. The buttons are then sent to Europe where they are cut to shape, dyed and have holes drilled into them. While the process is interesting this factory gets very close to the definition of a sweat shop. The process has been split into six different functions with each woman performing one function thirty times a minute for hours on end. The factory was hot and I assume that there are times when the high humidity must be unbearable. I must assume that the workers are grateful to have a job.
Our last visit of the day was to the Modesto Hat Shop in Montecristi Town. Montecristi is the centre of production of Panama Hats or, as they prefer to call them, Montecristi Hats. Yesterday’s demonstration had focused on the weaving of the hat whereas today’s focused on the finishing which included the ironing, bashing, edge cutting, pressing of the hat top shape and the fitting of the inside and outside bands. The finished hat was dropped onto my head, perfectly sized for my head, at which point it would have been churlish to refuse to pay the $150 cost. (I suspect that this hat is the equivalent of the $95 hat from yesterday.) The owner, Modesto, then graced my hat with his signature and the date.
On departure from port the captain told us that the chefs had been out in the fish market and bought supplies of mahi-mahi and tuna which would be available in the restaurants over the next few days. The three of us all enjoyed mahi-mahi for dinner.
At 22h00 we crossed the equator.
The next day, Saturday 18th February, was a sea day.
We attended a lecture by Harold Tinberg on how the DNA of a cat, dog and tree respectively had been used to convict suspects in three separate murders.
We attended the third lecture by Dr Dave Roberts on the building of the Panama Canal, this time focusing on the successful build by the Americans.
The ship arrived late in Fuerte Amador, the cruise line port of Panama City.
We had organised a private tour with Barefoot Panama. Jose met us off the ship’s shuttle bus. (At the moment there are only two piers for cruise ships at Fuerte Amador. They appear to be extending this number and building a cruise terminal. The whole area is a construction site and shuttle busses were used to take us from the ship to the nearest development of shops and restaurants.)
Jose explained that the Panama Canal was built by the Americans and run by them until 31st December 1999 when they handed control to the Panamanians. The Americans had built a causeway out to three islands, using the earth dug out of the canal. The causeway was under the direct control of the Americans who had a military base on the City side of the causeway. When the Americans left, the causeway became accessible to the public. When the canal was extended, through the building of additional locks for very big ships, the earth removed was used to widen the causeway in 2014. The three kilometre causeway is now a delight with wide pedestrianised walkways, cycle ways, a double lane road with traffic slowing bumps and roundabouts and lovely views. (We went out again at about 19h00 and on a Sunday night in the middle of Carnival weekend, the causeway was filled with families enjoying the area, the views and a lovely temperature.)
We went to the Panama Canal Visitors’ Centre at the Miraflores Locks and saw a well presented IMAX film on the canal. There is a viewing platform overlooking the locks, but because our ship had arrived late, we were too late to see the morning ships from the Pacific side pass through. There is a museum which was closed for renovation which also prevented us from accessing the upper floors of the viewing platform. The two photos of the viewing platform were therefore, sourced from the internet.
We drove through the old city of Panama and were delighted by beautiful buildings. We walked on the city wall, along the sea, and had more pretty views of the new Panama City.
At a distance the new Panama City looks like it has skyscrapers next to each other on every street, like midtown Manhattan. Instead we found that it is a mix of mainly low level buildings between skyscrapers. We drove through the banking district, residential areas and very luxurious residential flat buildings.
Our cruise company, Azamara, organizes an AzAmazing Evening for all cruises longer than seven days. This is a complimentary event, off the ship, organised specifically for the passengers, normally celebrating the local culture. Most passengers attended and thirteen coaches were needed. The event was at Panama Viejo, the ruins of a cathedral, in old Panama City. The show presented eight folk dances from the different peoples of the country including carnival and calypso. It was a delight.
We transited through the Panama Canal on Monday 20th February 2023, in a northerly direction, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
A water crossing across the isthmus of what is today, Panama, had been the dream since the time of Christopher Columbus. Goods were first transported by mule. A railway line was built. After their success in building the Suez Canal, the French tried to build the canal across the isthmus. They started work in 1881 and finally admitted defeat in 1899, having spent $287 million. Unlike Suez their route in Panama had a mountain in the way. They decided to cut through the mountain which proved to be very difficult, especially as they did not yet have dynamite. They did not understand that yellow fever and malaria were carried by mosquitoes and thus about 22,000 workers died of these and other diseases.
The Americans offered the French $40 million to take over their work and equipment and said that if their offer was not accepted, they would dig the canal, the longer route, through Nicaragua. The French accepted the offer. The Americans knew that they would only use about 10% of the work of the French. At that time, the area that is today Panama, was part of Colombia who were playing hard to get. As a result the Americans backed Colombian rebels who wanted to separate from Colombia. Through the superior military force of the Americans, the new country of Panama was formed. The new government agreed that the Americans could own the canal in perpetuity.
The Americans solved the key issues by building locks that raised the canal 27 metres, leaving a small part of the mountain to be cut through. They also dammed the Chagres River and created Gatun Lake which dramatically reduced the earth removal work and also provided the water needed for the filling of the locks. The Americans identified that mosquitoes were the cause of yellow fever and malaria and initiated extensive sanitation projects, including city water systems, fumigation of buildings, spraying of insect-breeding areas with oil and larvicide, installation of mosquito netting and window screens, and elimination of stagnant water. After two years of extensive work, the mosquito-spread diseases were nearly eliminated. After ten years and $500 million the canal was finished in 1914.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter agreed that the Canal would be handed over to the Panamanians twenty years later. It actually happened in 1999. The large American contingent left the country.
Over time bigger ships were built which could not fit into the Canal locks. The Panama Canal expansion project, also called the Third Set of Locks Project, doubled the capacity of the Panama Canal by adding a new lane of traffic allowing for a larger number of ships, and increasing the width and depth of the lanes and locks allowing larger ships to pass. The project took nine years and finished in June 2016.
The Canal is 80kms long and has three 9-metre-high chambers at either end, to lift ships twenty-seven metres to the height of Lake Gatun and then drop them down again to sea level. The ships are raised at the rate of one metre per minute so the filling or emptying of a chamber takes about ten minutes plus about another ten minutes for the ship to move to the next chamber. Ships are connected to electric locomotives by cables which keeps the ship centred in the lock, while it uses its own power to move forward. (In the new larger canal locks the large ships are guided by tugs.) The transit takes about eight hours. Three different pilots are needed for the transit.
We started the day going under The Bridge of the Americas, one of three bridges that cross the canal. It is the oldest and lowest bridge and the mean clearance level of 61 metres prevents large cruise liners from passing underneath.
Before we got to the Miraflores Locks we saw a tanker enter the Cocoli Locks on the third lane for super large ships. We could see ahead of them in the next chamber was a container ship.
We had presumably booked a specific time slot for the old canal and entered the Miraflores Locks just after 08h00. We were the 25th ship to enter the north bound locks today and presumably the last. We were behind another cruise ship, the P&O ship Aurora (three times our size with 2,000 passengers). There are two sets of locks each with two chambers, so we pulled alongside the Aurora, to the great joy of the packed viewing gallery at the Visitor Centre.
After passing through two chambers we crossed a kilometre over Miraflores Lake to the Pedro Miguel Lock which had one chamber to raise us to the level of Gatun Lake. I downloaded a photo from the Pedro Miguel webcam of us exiting the lock ahead of the Aurora.
We passed under the Centennial Bridge and for the next 16km were in a channel that only allowed one way traffic at a time. Ships were only sailing north at this time but in a few hours the ships will only be sailing south. We passed through the Gaillard Cut where the mountain was cut through and where the remnants of the peak are 70 metres above the canal. We passed by a dredger doing the never ending task of keeping the canal deep enough, and also a ship that drills holes in the canal bed, which are then filled with explosive, to further deepen the canal.
The route across Lake Gatun is marked by buoys. The first ships from this morning’s south bound convoy passed us heading to the locks that we had left. At this point ships from both the old canal and the new canal are travelling together. We could see the top of the dam wall to our left, where the overflow continued down the Chagres River.
We entered that Gatun Locks which has two sets of locks each with three chambers. The outside set of locks was being used by ships heading south. As a result, the Aurora entered the locks behind us and towered above us. We shared our chamber with a catamaran yacht. The first webcam photo shows us in the second chamber and the second webcam photo shows the Aurora in the second chamber and us leaving the third chamber at sea level.
We passed under the Atlantic Bridge and entered the Atlantic Ocean, heading for Costa Rica.
There were a lot of ships at anchor, presumably waiting to enter the Canal. It appears that only four regular vessels (and 14 super-sized vessels) a day can reserve their transit day. If the ship arrives late, the fee and the slot is forfeited. Ships without reservations wait in line. The agents for our ship must be charged with ensuring that they get the needed daylight reservation. Our entrance time into the Canal was advertised in the cruise particulars, two years previously.
In the year to September 2022, 14,329 ships passed through the Canal paying a total of $4.3 billion or an average of $300,000 per ship. Charges are levied based on factors relevant to the ship including gross tonnage, full containers, empty containers, full passenger cabins, empty passenger cabins, pilots, electric locomotives used and any other item the Canal Authority can find to levy. The alternative cost to going through the Canal is the time and cost of going round the Horn. It cost $160,000 for our ship, with 700 passenger beds but only 556 passengers on board, to transit. That included a $10,000 premium to guarantee a daylight transit. The highest fee (as a multiple of the standard fee) for priority passage charged through the Transit Slot Auction System was US$220,300, paid on August 24, 2006, by the Panamax tanker Erikoussa, bypassing a 90-ship queue waiting for the end of maintenance work on the Gatun Locks, and thus avoiding a seven-day delay. The normal fee then would have been just US$13,430. The lowest toll ever paid was 36 cents by American, Richard Halliburton, who swam the Panama Canal in 1928.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
Our family spent two weeks in Costa Rica twenty years ago and explored National Parks on both coasts and in the mountains. That was an amazing trip which brought home to us the beauty and wonder of the country. Today’s visit would be less entrancing.
We had booked an excursion directly with Relax Day Tours through Viator. Our guide, Larry, was waiting for us and six others from our ship.
Our first stop was the rebuilt main Catholic Church built in a brutalist style. Internally the church was more attractive, big and cool with some beautiful stained-glass panels.
We headed south out of the town and our driver, Eric, proved that he had expert eyes as he found animals in trees alongside the road including, birds, a Jesus lizard, a sloth and a monkey.
We stopped at greengrocer shop and an organic banana farm and were shown a variety of different fruits and plants.
We finished the tour with a forty-minute boat ride on the Tortuguero Canal. The canal appears to follow the coastline for a long way and is probably very wild in places. We were still close to the city and while the one side of the canal was wild forest the other side had many buildings on the canal or close to it. This was not the wilderness I had been sold. Larry pointed out apparently interesting animals that were either very far away or so deep in vegetation that little could be seen. Other passengers on our ship did the ship’s excursion to the canal and reported that it was very wild and that they saw an abundance of animals. I must assume they accessed the canal in a different place.
The next day was another sea day as we passed the coast of Nicaragua and much of the coast of Honduras.
We attended a lecture by Dave Roberts on the Maya Civilization which existed for a period of almost 2,000 years until they were finally conquered by the Spanish in 1697.
We attended a lecture by Harold Tinberg on the use of DNA by three different investigators to try and identify Jack the Ripper. None of the solutions was conclusive.
Roatan Island, Honduras
I joined an excursion of the ship. Our guide, Sheila, told us that the population of the Roatan and the nearby two smaller islands, was 100,000 and that the main activity was tourism. Up to five cruise ships a day visit the island. The island is surrounded by the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second biggest reef in the world. As a result, many divers visit the island.
Our first stop was the Blue HarborTropical Arboretum which was lovely to see.
The chocolate factory was in fact a chocolate shop with some explanations of how a cacao bean turns into chocolate. It sold lovely chocolate.
The West End is a run of restaurants and souvenir shops on the beach where I had disappointing cheese nachos for lunch.
The highlight of a relatively downbeat day was the boat trip. The hull of the boat had been extended downwards by about two metres leaving space at the bottom for us to sit two abreast for about ten rows. We had windows in the hull, either side of us which allowed us to see the reef, fish and divers. This was well done.
Belize City, Belize
Belize City is surrounded by the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and the closest a large ship can get to the City is 8km out at sea. As a result, boats from the city fetched us.
They have started building a 8km causeway so that ships can dock and passengers can be brought to the city by road. It looks like a precarious exercise as the causeway will be very exposed to hurricanes.
It may also never pay its way as there is little reason for tourists to visit the city. The city was almost entirely destroyed in October 1961 by Hurricane Hattie and as a result the Anglican Cathedral is the only remaining building of interest. Our guide, Jose, did the best job he could to give us a thorough tour of this pretty but simple cathedral.
We then crisscrossed town being shown all the schools, colleges and call centres with our only other stop being at the Belize City sign. We were happy to get back to the ship.
Costa Maya, Mexico
It took us almost 2.5 hours to do the 170kms to the Kohunlich Ruins.
Wikipedia: ‘Kohunlich is a large archaeological site of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. The site covers about 21 acres, surrounded by dense sub-tropical rainforest, and it contains almost 200 mounds, which remain largely unexcavated. The city was elaborately planned and engineered, with raised platforms and pyramids, citadels, courtyards and plazas surrounded with palace platforms, all laid out to channel drainage into a system of cisterns and an enormous reservoir to collect rainwater.
The site was settled by 200 BC, but most of the structures were built in the Early Classic period from about 250 to 600 AD. Many of them are still covered with thick vegetation and overgrown by trees. The city appears to have functioned as a regional centre and stop along the trade routes through the southern Yucatán.’
Our guides, Paulo and Sergio, took us to the largest building on the site, The Acropolis, which is supposed to have been the home of a noble and the burial place of his ancestors. I was surprised that we were allowed to climb the steep stairs to the living quarters and courtyard at the top.
The highlight of the visit was the Temple of the Masks, an Early Classic pyramid whose central stairway is flanked by huge, humanized stucco masks.
We finished our visit by looking at the ball court with rock built supporters’ stands either side. The game was played with a 5kg ball that was kept in the air by the players’ elbows, knees and hips.
The jungle inhabitants were warned of our presence by the bark of resident howler monkeys, which were incredibly loud. We could not see the monkeys and when I later googled them, I found that, ‘they generally attain lengths of about 40–70 cm, excluding the 50–75-cm tail. Howlers are stoutly built bearded monkeys with a hunched appearance and thickly furred prehensile tails that are naked on the underside of the tip to afford a better grip. The hair is long and thick and, depending on species, is typically black, brown, or red.’ I was sorry that I did not try harder to see them. The photo is from the internet.
Kohunlich is an attractive site that is well maintained, offers plenty of shade and has few visitors. It is a wonder that it was found by archaeologists because it is surrounded by thick jungle. The complex was abandoned, as so many Maya sites were, because the increasing population could not be maintained with diminishing water supplies.
Our cruise line, Azamara, has a custom of having a deck party every cruise, called the White Night Party. Passengers are encouraged to wear white clothes. On our previous two trips, near the Horn of South America and in Iceland, it was too cold to hold the party outside, so it was held inside which has a completely different atmosphere. We were still docked in Costa Maya and the weather was beautifully balmy. Dining tables were packed around the pool and on the mezzanine level above. Lamb chops, chicken pieces, tuna steaks, prawn skewers and crepe suzette were cooked in front of us and accompanied by salads and potatoes cooked every way. Lovers of roast beef and sushi could eat their fill. The house band struck up soon after 20h00 and the ship’s singers sang upbeat dance tunes for two hours. Some of the older guests and northern Europeans executed fancy dance moves but most of us just bopped away.
The music stopped at 22h00 (old people don’t party late) and as we prepared to leave, the skirl of bagpipes rose into the air. Billy and Elizabeth, from near Edinburgh, had us clapping and whooping.
Cozumel Island, Mexico
Tibby and I last visited Cozumel, off the Yucatán Peninsula, forty years ago when it was a sleepy, pretty island. It is now the fourth largest cruise ship destination in the world with three cruise liner ports having the ability to dock 24 ships at the same time. Over 4 million cruise passengers visit each year with many other tourists flying in directly, mainly from the USA.
We arrived to find that Cozumel mainly has low level buildings. We had hired a four door Jeep from Solymar Car Hire. They had a good website and had answered my emails efficiently, unlike three other hire companies whose websites had unexpected errors or who answered my emails 48 hours late. Once we worked out how to escape from the shopping mall on the land side of the pier we walked four more blocks to the ‘office’ of Solymar. The office was not obvious but Luis approached us on the street and signed us up to a Jeep parked nearby, He asked us to check the exterior condition of the rust bucket. I suspect that Solymar has earned a good return on the Jeep. It is difficult to do more than 75kms in a day on the island, yet our Jeep had done 160,000 kms. The automatic gearbox did not seem to go higher than third gear but we were not in a hurry.
The best beaches on the island appear to be on the west and south coasts. As we headed south we passed one resort after another, with each effectively taking over the beach in that area. Along the south coast the developments were all on the sea side of the road with heavy jungle on the land side. We had hoped to visit the Punta Sur Eco Beach Park on the south east corner of the island, but this tourist attraction is closed on Sundays!
There are no resorts on the rocky west coast. The sea is wilder. Where there are beaches they are generally small and there is a lot of seaweed and litter. Near one of the pretty beaches we stopped at Coconuts Bar. We were the first customers of the day and enjoyed the view from the cliff over the beach. I suspect most of their customers stay late into the night and that a party is had by all.
Solymar had been very clear that I could not take the Jeep up the Punta Molas gravel road on the north east side of the island. They said that they had to rescue customers too often from that, presumably sandy, road. They were not convinced by my 4×4 credentials and so I passed by the turnoff.
We later, took a 7km tar road north into the jungle to the Maya San Gervasio Ruins. We hired Caesar and he proved to be an excellent guide.
Wikipedia: ‘San Gervasio is an archaeological site of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. The town was once a hub of worship of the goddess Ix Chel, an aged deity of childbirth, fertility, medicine, and weaving. Pre-Columbian Maya women would try to travel to San Gervasio and make offerings at least once in their lives. The bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, wrote in 1549 that the Maya “held Cozumel in the same veneration as we have for pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome, and so they used to go to visit and offer presents there, as we do to holy places,’
The buildings were not as preserved as Kohunlich but their form was still clear. Caesar first showed us a noble’s house next to a temple. The latter has been covered with a straw roof to preserve it.
We stopped by an arch that used to be the entrance of the community, approached by a paved track that had once run 7km from the sea.
Las Manitas was the residence of the halach unik, or the Mayan ruler of Cozumel during the Terminal Classic Period. It has an outer room that was his residence and an inner sanctum that was his personal shrine. The name of the building comes from red-coloured hand prints on the interior walls.
The settlement was eventually abandoned through a lack of sufficient water.
Seeing San Gervasio was the highlight of our visit to Cozumel.
There now follows a tale of woe and luck which adds nothing to the story of our trip, so feel free to skip this paragraph. We returned the Jeep to the real Solymar Office which is a distance from the pier that we were berthed at. The Solymar Jeep Hire manager dropped us near the pier. I immediately realised that I did not have my mobile phone with me. Vickie called Luis who arranged for the manager to return to us. He and I searched the Jeep together without finding the phone. Back on board the iPhone facility ‘Find my phone’ on my iPad told me that the phone was located near 25th Avenue, which was between the Solymar Office and a Pemex Filling Station. We had filled the Jeep up at a Pemex and the address on my credit card slip was the same as the Pemex near 25th Avenue. The Guest Relations assistant on the ship speaks Spanish and she called the telephone number on the receipt but got no answer. By this stage I was starting to accept that I would gave to buy a replacement phone. I reluctantly returned to town and asked a cab driver to take me to the Pemex Filling Station. When we got there it was clear that this was not the Pemex we had used. The cab driver drove another eight blocks to the Pemex we had used. The attendant who had helped us had finished for the day, no one knew of a lost phone and the office would be open at 08h00 tomorrow. Looking at the area where I had been there was no obvious place where I could have left the phone. I was also now a long way from the location shown by ‘Find my phone’. I returned to the Solymar office and asked the manager if I had left the phone on his counter when I had returned the Jeep and paid. He was insistent that I had not. I showed him the ‘Find my phone’ location and he immediately said that he stored his vehicles in a yard on 25th Avenue, near the displayed location. He took me there and gestured to the Jeep, as if to say ‘Good luck. We both searched this car and did not find it. You are not going to find it now!’ I immediately found it in a small storage space on top of the high dashboard. Lucky Bob had won again!
We had been invited to dinner in the Prime C specialty restaurant by Dejano, the ship’s Food and Beverage manager. This was a pleasant way to end our cruise.
Next morning, 28th February 2023, we woke to find ourselves docked in Miami. The weather was beautiful and we had a lovely view of the Miami Beach skyline.
A taxi whisked us to Miami Airport. We bade farewell to Vickie who was heading to Barbados and started our trip back to London via Orlando and Daytona.
A cruise with Azamara is a delightful holiday even if one never leaves the ship. The highlight of this cruise was learning about, seeing the IMAX film and going through the Panama Canal. On our excursions we enjoyed the Temple of the Moon and Chan Chan Archaeological Sites near Trujillo; the locals pulling in the fish net in Manta, the visit to the Modesto Hat Shop in Monticristi and the Kohunlich and San Gervasio Archaeological Sites in Mexico. Otherwise, the excursions were disappointing. Before we boarded the ship we did enjoy our tour of Lima with Lima Tasty Tours.
We flew to Orlando and drove to our friends, Mikelle and Doug, in Daytona. Unfortunately, a medical issue meant that they had go to a hospital in the evening. Tibby and I found The Texas Roadhouse and had a lovely meal. We were however, astonished by the calorie count of some of the dishes. We discovered Bloomin’ Onions in Florida twenty years and fell in love. It is a dish of about twenty onions, deep fried and then dipped in delicious sauce. Texas Roadhouse’s Cactus Blossom was the same thing so we immediately ordered it. We then saw that it came in at 2,250 calories with another 430 calories for the Cajun sauce! We did not do it justice and probably only ate the equivalent of two onions each – a mere 536 calories each! We avoided the Big Ol’ Brownie with 1,200 calories!Back to the Travels index
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