Last of a three-part series
Everyone I met on the cruise was onboard to experience transiting the Panama Canal, but most also were looking forward to the rather off-the-beaten-path ports of call. The fact the cruise began from Miami rather than some foreign port was a plus, and several of the scheduled ports of call were eagerly awaited.
As luck would have it, the first scheduled port stop, Belize, was not to be. A mechanical problem with the ship's air-conditioning, which they were feverishly working on in Miami when we boarded, delayed our departure five hours. It was around 10 p.m. when we finally headed out to sea.
The Norwegian Dream is a stretch: In 1998, a 130-foot midsection was added to its length, and this slowed its cruising speed somewhat. With our late departure, it was not possible to spend the first two nights and intervening day at sea, then dock the next morning in Belize. At least that was what we were told. Some folks figured the real reason we went to Cozumel instead was the fact that the cruise line owns the dock there and did not have to pay fees. There were a lot of disappointed passengers.
The unexpected attractions of Cozumel
Cozumel is an island off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The Mayan people are believed to have settled it as a commercial center around the birth of Christ. In 1500, the Spanish despoiler Hernando Cortez razed the island and it lay fallow until the Mayans on the mainland tried to toss out the Spaniards in 1847. Some of the Mayan survivors fled to Cozumel, where they settled. The island remained a sleepy little fishing community until the 1970s. Then the Mexican government decided that Cozumel and nearby Cancun were the perfect places to sow the seeds of tourism and reap American dollars, and both were turned over to resort and time-share entrepreneurs.
We enjoyed shopping for jewelry on Cozumel, especially gold, silver and black coral. The next-best bets were Mexican food and drink off the main street. My wife and I also found a local soccer and baseball field that provided us with an hour's interesting viewing. Otherwise, the island held little for us; Cortez destroyed the vestiges of the Mayan civilization at its peak, and the tourist beaches just didn't appeal to us.
Our next stop was at Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras. This is a skinny version of St. Thomas with fewer people. The first residents are thought to have been Amerindians, but the Spanish wiped them out. The next residents were black Caribs from St. Vincent who were sent into exile following a slave revolt. The third wave comprised black freedmen and white farmers.
When Honduras took control of Roatan, many of the islanders left and masses of Hondurans immigrated to participate in the developing tourist economy. Today the island hosts resident retirees from the States, diving enthusiasts and the occasional cruise ship passenger. The U.S. dollar reigns.
My wife and I passed on the 15-minute dolphin encounter at $112 each and a three-hour taxi ride for $45 each. Instead, we hired our own cab for $40 total and spent four hours driving around the island sampling a couple of the watering holes, looking at the lush expatriate housing developments, and strolling through a lovely private botanical garden. One of the developers had begun with a nursery and his wife had expanded it into a full-blown garden of most interesting plants, bushes and trees.
Reason to hang over the rail
The Panama Canal transit was the highlight of the cruise. We arrived at the entrance in the wee hours of the morning. Ships must be scheduled well in advance, paying their fees to an authorized Panamanian bank, before they are allowed entrance. The average toll is $45,000 for the 50-mile trip, calculated at $2.57 per laden ton. For our ship, it cost about $150,000.
Some 52 million gallons of fresh water are used at each lock for a total of about 104 million gallons flushed into the sea for each passage. The water is collected in Lake Gatun, which acts as a reservoir and major part of the canal proper. Many seafarers acknowledge Lake Gatun as one of the more beautiful areas open to large ships.
Given the ever-changing scenery, constant stream of shipping, and interesting canal side installations; most of the passengers spent the day lining the rails. We entered the canal around 8 a.m. and exited around 6 p.m. In the first lock we followed a P&O cruise ship, which did a turn around above the lock and then headed back to the Atlantic, giving its passengers a taste of lockage without the full transit.
One of my fellow travelers was passing around a bagel so photographers could snap pictures of "Bagel and Locks." You had to be there.
On the Pacific side, our first stop was Manta, Ecuador's major port facility, a popular beach resort and commercial center named for the manta rays found in the shoreline waters. The ship offered a four-hour shore excursion for $60 to visit a museum and go shopping. Since we had just spent four days confined to the ship, we decided on a long walk to stretch our legs and burn off some of our caloric overload. A year earlier, Ecuador had adopted the U.S. dollar as the currency there to facilitate both tourism and commerce.
One of the big craft items of the area is a Panama-style hat made from dried leaves woven the same way since the 1500s. Within yards of the dock gate, I was offered many by street vendors, so I made my obligatory purchase and spent the rest of the day in relative peace. We did get hustled once by a cab driver when we were several miles away from the dock, but we continued our walk on the beach without further interruption.
On our way back to the ship, as we looked at many beach-side concessions, it became apparent that Ecuador is a very tourist-friendly country, price wise.
Unfortunately, our gastro-intestinal tracts were reacting to all the rich food on the ship and we didnt feel like tasting those spicy Hispanic foods which make life so rewarding. Back aboard, we were relaxing with soup and salad before hitting the macadamia nut cookies and ice cream, when a bunch of bus-tour passengers arrived. We compared notes and found they had paid the same for their Panama hats at a factory as I had paid on the street.
Four's company for seeing the sights
The next stop was Callao, the port for Lima, Peru. The city has expanded and swallowed up the port and many other neighboring villages. The early Peruvians typically lived in caves, which has resulted in a wealth of archeological material.
When we disembarked, we saw the Chicago couple we had gotten to know on board — the man who operates a dinner boat and his new wife. He had traveled in South America previously and was eagerly showing her the sights. They, like we, had decided to engage a taxi rather than pay the $50 to $190 for a museum-crawl bus tour. We decided the taxis were plenty large enough for four passengers and that traveling together would be more fun, since we had already found one another simpatico.
First, we took the "free" bus supplied by good old H. Stern Jewellers from the ship to the company's upscale shop in Miraflores section. This 30-minute ride got us much closer to our destination, and we were able to visit several beautiful shops high on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific and enjoy one of the world's best aperitifs — Peru's famous pisco sour. Then we bargained with a taxi driver (always engage a taxi away from the dock) and agreed on $40 for the day.
Our first stop was the Museo de Oro, the Gold Museum. This is really two museums: Peruvian artifacts and arms. There are several rooms of woven, carved and molded items of Peruvian apparel and ornamentation along with mummies and models of period living. While the jewels are very rough without any real attempt at finishing and the gold work is rather simplistic, you cannot help but be impressed with the shear volume of items in the collection. Many of the finer pieces are represented by pictures
only, as the originals are on loan to major museums around the world.
The arms collection is the largest I have ever seen. After a few minutes, you realize just how violent our southern neighbors have been. The short history is of the original Spanish attempt at subduing the indigenous peoples, which really never succeeded, followed by Portuguese, Italians and Germans.
South America's dictators came and went (and still appear) regularly with murder and mayhem a fact of life. You name any personal weapon, and the Lima museum has at least one, often in mint condition with all the accessories.
Next we drove to Mount San Cristobal, along a winding, narrow road reeking of burning brakes. From the top we had a great view of Lima — except for the smog. Dust is a real challenge along the west coast of South America. There are verdant valleys here and there fed by waters off the Andes, but most of the area between the sea and the mountains is power-dry desert. Lima, the epitome of sprawl, is covered with dust and motor-vehicle emissions.
Going back down the mountain was a bit scary until we persuaded the driver to put the taxi in gear and use the engine to brake. By the first switchback, the brakes were fading and we were being overcome by burning brake liner.We spent several hours in the Plaza de Armas viewing the historic buildings. One of the most famous churches is the San Francisco Monastery replete with catacombs. The interior of the church houses at least a dozen alcoves done in gold, silver and precious stones. One was left to conclude that the people are kept poor keeping the church very, very rich
Chile's coastal cruise stops
We had never head of Arica, Chile, the next stop, until our cruise. Again we chose to walk around ashore. Arica is first and foremost a commercial center. Thanks to cruise ship traffic, it's also a major seaside resort. The local tourist bureau prints a very informative four-page newspaper with a color picture of our ship and a personal message from the major in charge to the "passengers of the Norwegian Dream and Silver Whisper."
Relaxing at the local yacht club, we met a German who had come to Arica as a young man in a Peace Corps-type program, returned to Germany, and grown homesick for Arica. He found a ready market for used German autos and parts, and made a comfortable living. The import tax on new vehicles is very high, he told us, and German vehicles are just broken in after five years.
He gave us a ride around town, pointing out that Sir Francis Drake is buried in Arica and that the steel and zinc Iglesia San Marcos de Arica was designed and constructed in 1875 by the French civil engineer Alejandro Gustavo Eiffel. Born in Dijon, France, Eiffel lived for a time in the Yucatan of Mexico and in northern Chile. He is best known, of course, for his tower in Paris.
The next port of call was Iquique, Chile, a dot of green surrounded by arid desert where nothing at all exists — no trees, no grass, no cactus, no birds, no nothing. Iquique was most important in the 1800s and 1900s for its nitrate mines. Nitrate is the basis for gunpowder and was the lifeblood of the exceedingly violent Latin Americans.
We and our Chicago friends hired a cab for $40 and took a ride into the desert to visit the ghost town of Humberstone (ship excursion: $79 each). This town was so successful in its heyday that it boasted a hotel, casino and theater with entertainers imported from Europe. When the nitrate mine there closed, the occupants picked up their furniture and left. My wife did her act on the silent stage and I played out "High Noon" in the deserted streets. The only sound was the occasional passing vehicle out on the main road.
Our next port was Coquimbo, Chile, a town known for being "quiet." To the south across the riverbed is the equal-sized town of La Serena, a bustling resort community. We chose to walk around Coquimbo visiting the vast seafood markets. The place is ceviche heaven.
We also spent a good part of our time in a park with several hundred children having a Christmas party. There were a dozen costumed entertainers and lots of good dance music. Coquimbo also boasts one of Eiffel's steel and zinc churches on its main plaza, Iglesia Guayacan.
Our final port of call was Valparaiso, Chile. We could have spent the day on a $189 cruise ship tour bus, but elected to take the $4 air-conditioned bus to Santiago.
In summary, you can spend a great deal of money rushing through a number of port experiences, or you can lay back, call it a cruise, and exercise on shore.
The shipboard-booked Machu Picchu trip was the worst example of all to my way of thinking. You left the ship for three days, paid $1,650 ($1,550 double), and got a headache from the altitude during your couple of hours at the site. The tourist offices at Arica, where you rejoined the ship, were advertising a four-day, three-night trip for U.S. $250-$295.
All of the taxi drivers we talked to — in the towns, not at the docks — would work happily for $10 an hour and some for $5. Having another couple to share excursions added to the enjoyment. We genuinely enjoyed meeting people by walking and stopping to ask questions. We found most people at the ports of call — like those who welcome vacationers in most other places — incredibly friendly and eager to tell inquisitive visitors about their home.
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