Amazing Cruise Sunsets

The sunsets we have seen on this cruise – from Aruba and Cartagena, through the Panama Canal, to Fuerte Amador and Costa Rica, and finally on to Los Angeles – have been incredible! I am a mixed-media artist and can’t wait to get back in the studio and figure out a way to use them.

I try not to spend more time on the computer “fixing” a photo than in the studio creating art. It can be hard to know when to stop. To keep editing to a minimum, I put each of these photos in Photoshop and just did three things. First, I adjusted the contrast. When shooting photos on the water, there is a haze that our eyes adjust for but the camera records. Adding a little contrast compensates for that haze. I also added a little bit of sharpening. Because of the ship’s vibration, photos without sharpening will look a bit too fuzzy. Finally I checked to make sure the horizon was level. I hope you enjoy!

Until next time –

Susan L Stewart

Bears Over the Pacific

 

 

 

 

 

 

Costa Rica

Costa Rica spans the isthmus of Latin America. Its major port/city on the east side of the country is Limon on the Caribbean Sea. The west side of the country is on the Pacific Ocean and has two large ports: Puerto Caldera, a major commercial shipping port, and Puntarenas where we docked.

We weren’t going to take a tour in Costa Rica. After three tours on three ports of call, we were just going to chill and hang out on the beach. Then we went to the meeting the Cruise Director does before each port where he talks about the country and what to see and do. The beach on the Pacific side of Costa Rica has black sand and murky water. He showed a photo of it and there weren’t any beach chairs or shade.

Several tours were still available. We signed up for a river cruise and had a great time. Actually, it was the best tour we took. I have learned that the quality of a tour is dependent on the quality of the guide. Throughout the cruise, we had a guide or two who seemed to be guessing about what we were seeing as we went along. This guide, Porfirio, knew his flora and fauna.

We started by taking a 1-1/2 hour bus ride into the center of the country. It was a beautiful drive up into the mountains, and we were in a comfortable bus, so the time passed quickly. We finally stopped at a small building with beautiful landscaping. This was our opportunity to stretch our legs and use the bathroom.

There was a variety of fruit laid out on a long table and water, iced tea and beer. For entertainment, there were two men playing a beautiful xylophone. I think it was made from teak wood. I haven’t seen or heard a xylophone since I was a young child in music class. I had my good camera and zeroed in on the keys. I took 48 photos and found three that were good – that’s the way it goes with photography.

After our snack, we boarded a large pontoon boat and started out. The point of the trip was not a leisurely float down a pretty river. No, we were on an intense search mission looking for Scarlet Macaws and any other wildlife. We saw white-faced monkeys, Scarlet Macaws, a lizard, a tiny red and black crab, egrets, hundreds of unidentified birds and a lot of crocodiles.

Scarlet Macaws mate for life. From what we saw, it seems like they roost very high up in the trees. We never saw them close enough to take a photo. They are on the endangered species list. Porfirio belongs to a group that works to protect them and help increase their numbers. This group made nesting boxes out of large, blue plastic trash cans. They didn’t do a count last year, but the year before they found 40 new Macaws.

Banana Flowers

Porfirio gave us a very long lecture about the cultivation and growth characteristics of bananas. I didn’t understand most of it, and most of what I did understand I have now forgotten. What I do remember is that there are more than 100 kinds of bananas. The purple flower on the end of the bunch of bananas has something to do with the growth cycle. On banana plantations, they put plastic bags over the cluster at a certain time to ripen them.

“Ugly bananas” – those with a dark spot(s) on the skin – are not exported because they know people won’t buy them. Costa Ricans know that the color of the skin is not necessarily an indication of the state of the banana within. Blemished bananas remain in Costa Rica and are used to eat, for baby food, animal feed and fertilizers.

Baby Croc

Apparently, it is unusual to see more than a couple of crocodiles on a trip. On our trip, every crocodile and his cousin showed up. They were often hard to see. We were in a rain forest during the rainy season and the gray crocodiles were the same color as the gray muddy banks. This is due, in part, because they have a lot of mud on them. As you can see here, they do have a sinister smile. The first crocodile we saw was a baby. He looked like a strange lizard. The last crocodile was full grown and huge.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country and much more than the white sand beaches on the

Sinister Croc Smile

Caribbean side. The interior is both beautiful and interesting. The terrain rises from sea level to 13,000 feet. Its rivers are quiet and calm like the one we were on, and wild and exciting for white water rafting.

The better to eat you with, my dear

The forests provide a variety of activities. Zip lining through the forest treetops is something Costa Rica is known for. The Rainforest Aerial Tram offers a ride above the treetops and past incredible waterfalls.

The Poas Volcano sits at 8,500 feet above sea level and is known for its geyser-like eruptions of gas and ash. We spoke with a couple who took the tour to the volcano. The day was overcast and rainy but they said when they got there the fog lifted and they were able to see it. Beautiful.

The Arenal volcano is one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. Lake Arenal is near there. The area is also know for its natural mineral hot springs.

I would say Costa Rica has more things to see and do than any of the other places where we stopped. If I had to pick one place to return to I’d pick Costa Rica, hands down. I could see many types of vacations in Costa Rica. From “laying around on the beach” to exploring the interesting interior, it would take quite a few trips before you would feel like you had seen it all.

Until next time,

Susan L Stewart

 

Fuerte Amador, Panama

Fuerte Amador used to be a military fort in a suburb of Panama City. The US Armed forces pulled out of Panama by way of treaty on December 31, 1999. Fuerte Amador and three other forts are now abandoned.

The "Ghost Ship" at 5:30 a.m.

This was the port with the most rain on our cruise. I watched the dramatic and eerie Panama City skyline throughout our tour. It changed as the dark clouds moved over us. It reminded me of the stormy skyline scene at the end of Ghostbusters.

Our tour started out badly. When we signed up for it we were supposed to meet at 8:15 am to get on the bus. The afternoon before, we received a letter in our stateroom telling us that because the ship was able to get in to Fuerte Amador earlier than planned, we needed to meet at 6:45 am! I don’t get up that early when I’m home let alone on vacation.

We – along with many other cruisers – were certainly not

Old lamp post against modern city

happy about being up at 5:30 to get ready for a tour while on vacation. The thing is, the reason didn’t make any sense. We were in port around 10 – 11 pm the night before so getting in “early” shouldn’t have make a difference. The only thing I can think of is that the tour company changed the time for some reason. I really don’t think Princess would do something like that and piss off so many of their passengers.

It wasn’t raining hard; it was more like a wet mist. Still, most of the people on the tour were older and many of them didn’t want to get off the bus. We came to a square with an interesting building that looked like a church. It was the Plaza de la Independencia of Casco Viejo. We were supposed to get out there and walk around the square looking at historical “stuff.” No one moved to get off the bus.

Plaza de la Independencia

Finally I asked our guide if it would be OK to get off. He said that was fine. So, Tom and me, and one woman, got off. We walked over to some tents that people were in the process of taking down and took some photos.

I realized that: I don’t melt in the rain; the rain was warm, not cold, like it is at home; and if I didn’t take the initiative, I would be spending the day on the bus trying to take pictures through the raindrops on the bus’ windows.

We have seen a lot of poverty in our travels, especially in Mexico. The little bit of poverty we saw in Panama was as bad,

Downtown Panama City with the "Screw" building

or worse, than anything I’ve ever seen. A family with at least one young child was living in a building that was gutted, abandoned and clearly not intended for habitation. I saw a young child standing in an open door with a tipped over plastic trike nearby.

As we passed by, I took a quick glance inside and saw what looked like a trash dump. It was one room, maybe 20′ by 30′ deep. It was black inside – black walls and black ceiling – and at the other end of the room a small door

The Golden Alter

that let in the only light. I don’t understand why everything was black. Had someone painted the walls and ceiling that color? Had the building caught on fire at some point and people were living with the soot? The saddest part, though, was that despite the child looking as if he wasn’t getting enough to eat, someone had spent money on a large flat screen TV!

Our tour took us to the old city “La Viejo,” colonial city and the current,

modern, city with all of its traffic, rushing around and frenetic pace. I found very little beauty in any of them. Granted, this is their rainy season and no

city looks good in the rain, but there was very little color evident in buildings, and very few parks. We didn’t have time to go out into the countryside but, given the amount of rain they receive, I imagine that is very beautiful.

It seemed like many of the buildings in the old city and colonial city were

gutted. The colonial city has very old buildings that looked like they were functional, but several of the churches we drove past were empty shells. We stopped at the Church of San José in the San Felipe district to see the golden alter.

The church with the golden alter is so plain on the outside that it would be

A standing wall at the ruins

very easy to walk right past it. Back in the 1670s, Henry Morgan, an English pirate, attacked and burned down Old Panama. The Jesuit monks painted the alter black

to hide the gold and the pirates left it alone. When the siege was over, the Jesuits moved the alter to a new church where it resides today. The church is dimly lit with many candles so it is difficult to take photos of it.

Doing the Vulture Dance!

Our tour guide said that while most of the people were Catholics, they had a large number of Baptists, Jewish, Muslim and other religions as well. The Spanish first occupied the city; the French started the work in the Canal; and then the United States came in to finish it. All of this makes for a city – and country – of great diversity.

My favorite part of the tour came at the end when we

Part of the ruins

visited the beautiful ruins of the old city that Henry Morgan destroyed. On one end of the vast space is a four-story bell tower marking one side of the church.

One wall of the church is still standing although many of the stones have fallen over. Behind the wall are smaller pieces of the other sides. The stones have beautiful moss on them.

Orange Flowers on Stone Wall

We were looking around when a woman asked our guide, “What kind of birds are up there?” I looked to where she was pointing and saw vultures! There were two of them and they were dancing around each other. Our guide said it was mating season. Vultures mate for life so I don’t imagine the male had to work that hard – unless the female wasn’t in the mood in front of all these people watching them!

We really enjoy cruising, but one of the negatives to this kind of travel is the limited amount of time you have to explore a port of call. Occasionally you’ll find an itinerary with a two-day stay in a port. You can easily get a “taste” of many cities and countries on a cruise. Then we use that experience to decide where we would like to return and spend more time.

Until next time,

Susan L Stewart

Through the Panama Canal

A sense of how large Gatun Lake is

It took most of a day to make our way through the Panama Canal locks from the Caribbean Sea on the east side of Panama to Gatun Lake. We deliberately booked a stateroom with a balcony for this cruise so we could watch the process.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to convey the size of the Panama Canal and Gatun Lake. Simply put: They’re HUGE. After going

Gatun Lake vegetation

through the locks on the Atlantic side, the ship entered Gatun Lake which is so large you can’t see to the other side. In addition, there are hundreds of little islands scattered throughout. The water level in the lake varies but there are channel markers along the way to keep the ships safe.

A brief history of the Panama Canal

A working crane

A canal connecting the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean was first attempted by the French in 1881. France had the world’s best-trained corps of civil and military engineers. Even so, they were not able to improvise and adapt to the difficult and unfamiliar terrain of the Isthmus of Panama.

In addition, the French were unable to understand the cause of the yellow fever and malaria

that eventually killed 20,000 men. One of the theories was that malaria was caused by poisonous marsh gas released into the air by rotting vegetation. They thought yellow fever was air borne from animal and human waste, sewage and rotting animal carcasses. The French finally admitted defeat in 1893 and stopped construction efforts.

Threatening clouds over the islands

Americans had always been interested in a canal that would link the country’s east and west coasts. However, their interest was primarily in building a canal through Nicaragua. A large river could take a ship from the east coast of Nicaragua to Lake Nicaragua in the middle of the country. From there, a short canal would be needed to continue to the Pacific side.

The French wanted $109 million for the equipment and their work in the Panama Canal. A special commission was ordered by

A Gatun Lake island

President William McKinley to study the feasibility of a canal in Nicaragua. After the Walker Commission recommended Nicaragua for the canal, the French lowered their price to $40 million and the United States changed directions. The US resumed construction of the Panama Canal in 1904.

Through the locks

Under the direction of Army doctor William Gorgas, work began to eradicate yellow fever

A lock with the water level down

and other diseases even though people in power were skeptical that these diseases were caused by mosquito bite. John Stevens, the construction engineer in charge of building the Panama Canal, supported Gorgas’ efforts and with his help, progress was quickly made.

The canal was finished in 1914. It was managed by the US until 1999 when Panama took over control of the operation and maintenance of the canal under a treaty signed by Panama’s then President Torrijos and US President Jimmy Carter.

Another part of that treaty specified that Panama is not allowed to have a military force to protect itself or the Canal. Instead, it is the duty of the United States to protect and defend Panama. We have a similar treaty with Japan that was signed as part of Japan’s surrender ending the Pacific portion of World War II.

My view of the Canal

A tugboat "steering" a shipping vessel

Thinking back to 1903, the architects and Army Corps of Engineers did a seemingly impossible job of planning and executing the project with only basic instruments like a slide rule, compass and complicated equations that had to be solved by hand. There were no computers, no CAD, no way to visualize the finished canal. They didn’t even have calculators in 1903!

When it was finished in 1914, there was no way that anyone could imagine the size ships would become. Each lock is 1,000 feet long

and 110 feet wide. Princess Cruise Line has two ships that were specially built

Empty lock and cheering crowd

to navigate through the Panama Canal: the Coral Princess and the Island Princess. Each one is 964 feet long and 106 feet wide. With such tight clearances, two pilots come on board to assist the captain in navigating the ship.

This little tug boat can push a huge vessel like this around so it’s able to leave port, dock properly or to avoid any underlying problems. A tug like this helped our ship as well.

At one point while making our way through the locks, we went by a strange, very large, building with open “balconies.” All three levels were packed with what looked like hundreds of overly enthusiastic people – tourists, maybe? – waving, clapping and yelling out to us. I have no idea who these people were. Were they there specifically to watch our cruise ship go through one of the locks? Were they Panamanians or tourists? I should have asked someone but never thought to do so, so it will remain a mystery.

A train runs along the canal

A tour guide told us that Princess pays $300,000 – $350,000 US to go through the canal. I was not able to confirm that number. Because of the size of today’s ships, the canal is undergoing a major update. The Panamanian government is building a new set of

I like the softening of the hills

locks that are larger and deeper along side the existing ones. This expansion is scheduled to open in 2014, on the Canal’s 100th birthday.

Tom and I enjoy history and learning new things and I will say that this cruise has been full of these opportunities. Except for the weather – October is in the rainy season – this has been an exceptional cruise. The next time we plan one, though, we will make sure to check the rainy season/dry season before booking.

Until next time,

Susan L. Stewart

Cartagena, Columbia

 

Cartagena Harbor

We were in Cartagena, Columbia, the morning after Aruba. I was awed by the harbor. I had no idea what to expect, but this dramatic skyline of white high rises was incredible. Somehow, I didn’t expect such a cosmopolitan city.

Cartagena is only a few degrees above the equator and normally experiences temperatures in the low 80s. This is the rainy season

Cartagena Balcony

and it was overcast with periodic rain. The rain was warm, though, so I didn’t carry my umbrella. I was more concerned with keeping my camera dry than myself. I brought a specially designed plastic bag to put my camera in. It’s open on one end and has a small hole in it that you’re supposed to position over the eyepiece. The hole was so small I couldn’t keep it in place so I took photos while looking through plastic. The photos came out well, despite the weather.

Cartagena Architecture

We took a four-hour tour in Cartagena. It was a good tour, very interesting.

Lee, our guide, had an interesting habit of repeating nearly everything he said. It was a four-hour tour but if he hadn’t repeated himself, it would have been a two-hour tour! Here’s how it went.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Cartagena has one million peoples. Ladies and gentlemen, there are one million peoples in Cartagena.”

Typical Street

Tourism is very important to my country. Tourists are very important to my country. Do you understand what I am saying?”

And so on and so on …

Beautiful purple wall

On the flip side, however, Lee was incredibly nice. I forgot my Dyazide – my water pill – and my ankles were swollen to the point where I didn’t have ankles any more. Normally I have very nice ankles. I asked the second tour guide if we were going to be near a pharmacy on the tour. She said she didn’t think so but she would ask Lee. I told her I didn’t want to disrupt the tour or keep anyone waiting.

We came to a stop at a jewelry store.

“Columbia is the world’s largest producer of emeralds. The world’s largest producer of

The Banana Lady

emeralds is Columbia. Do you understand what I am saying?” (Columbia exports 95% of the world’s emeralds.)

Yes, Lee, we understand.

Lee came over to me, very concerned that I was ill. I assured him I was only hot and tired like everyone else. Once he was sure I was OK, he took Tom to a pharmacy while everyone hung out at the jewelry store – no one bought an emerald and I don’t think anyone was even the slightest bit interested. However, the shop was air conditioned and they were handing out free passion

fruit drinks complete with ice so everyone was quite happy!

Tom and Lee returned a few minutes later with a diuretic.

Thank you, Lee; I’m sorry I was critical.

Simon Bolivar

When we visited a park with a statue of Simon Bolivar there was a woman walking around in a very colorful outfit with a bowl of bananas on her head. We saw women like this in several places on the tour. Lee explained that we were welcome to take a photo of her but it would cost $1.  As you can see, I took the photo through the crowd to avoid the $1 surcharge.

I was especially interested in the architecture of Cartagena. The buildings

I wonder how much these cost?

were beautiful and painted in more subdued colors than, say, in Mexico. The city holds a balcony contest and they were especially well done.

Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Don Pedro de Heredia and became part of the Spanish Empire. It was the shipping center for gold, silver and slaves between America and Spain. This made it a favorite target of pirates. A massive fortress, Castillo de Felipe de Barajas, was built between 1536 and 1657 to defend the city.

Walkway along the sea wall

A very long sea wall was built around the old city to defend it after the English

pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked it in 1586. Drake destroyed over 25% of its buildings including Cartagena Cathedral – which was rebuilt – and demanded a ransom of 107,000 Spanish Eight Reales, about $200 million today. Drake led one

Grassy area between the wall and the sea

of five pirate sieges. The city successfully defended itself when England attacked it with a force of 24,000 men and 186 ships.

Cartagena was also subjected to the Spanish Inquisition. The Palacio de la Inquisicion still stands and is now a museum displaying instruments of torture as well as pre-Columbia, colonial and independence-era art. Inside the old city are Las Bovedas, dungeons originally built for the military

Bird Sculpture

and to hold the victims of the Inquisition. We visited there and it is one very long building with small shops in each “cell.”

We enjoyed this tour very much. When you’re on a cruise you rarely have enough time to see everything you’d like to. Instead, you get a taste of the area so you can decide if you’d like to return. I’d like to see more of Cartagena someday.

Until next time,

Susan L. Stewart

A short stop in Aruba

The Aruba garden path

This was our first day off the ship. It took three days to get to Aruba from Fort Lauderdale. We only had four hours ashore before the ship set sail for Cartagena, Columbia. We signed up for a four-hour excursion of Aruba that took us around the

The highest part of Aruba

island to see the important landmarks. Aruba is six miles wide and 19.6 miles long so it doesn’t take long to stop and look at gardens, lizards and rocks – lots of rocks! – and the sea. It was a very quiet, uneventful, tour best described through photos.

The tour started with a visit to a peaceful garden with a very large rock formation you could climb to see the whole area laid out. Tom did the climb. For

The incredible colors of Aruba

some reason I left the ship in flip-flops – I just wasn’t thinking about how much walking I was going to have to do. While Tom was on top of the rock, I wandered around the garden. I saw this plaque at the entrance and loved the sentiment.

We learned later that a woman from our ship who was in a tour after ours collapsed and died of a heart attack in the garden. She was sailing with her adult daughter.

There used to be a large, natural, bridge across a portion of the sea but one night it

Baby Bridge

collapsed. The “Baby Bridge” is still standing although there are a lot of caution signs. A few people walked across it but it was not something I wanted to try.

Rock Sculptures

There are some very large, dark, rocks at the Baby Bridge. Tourists have erected dozens of small rock sculptures on them. Our tour guide said they mean nothing to the people of Aruba and he didn’t understand it. In my experience, people create these rock alters as part of a spiritual practice or meditation. Somehow, by nature of how many there are and by watching people set up their own pile of rocks, I don’t think spirituality has anything to do with these – at least not now. There were some interesting ones, though.

The worst part of the tour was a stop at a local “Home Depot” type of plant nursery. We did not understand this at all. A woman took us around the plants – many of them were ones we see in Colorado – while reciting a memorized script. I know it was memorized because I happen to be near the group that followed us and their guide started out with the exact same words. I did get a few good shots of some flowers.

All-in-all we gave the tour a grade of C. I don’t know that it was worth the money although we did get to see much of Aruba given our time constraints.

Until next time,

Susan L Stewart

Cruising the Panama Canal

 

Cruising is one of our favorite vacations. I was able to find a great deal on a two-week Panama Canal cruise on the Coral

Tyler

Princess. We will start in Fort Lauderdale FL and stop in Aruba; Cartagena, Columbia; Fuerte Amador, Panama; and the Pacific side of Costa Rica before ending in Los Angeles CA.

My brother and his wife and two-year-old son live in Ft Lauderdale so we came out a couple of days early to spend some time with them. We don’t get to see them often and had a very nice

No Fear!

time. Our nephew, Tyler, is an amazing child. He is very bright and ahead for his age. He’s funny, inquisitive and knows no fear. He has a typical two-year-old attention span and temperament.

Leaving Miami

Cruise lines often discount their staterooms two to three weeks before departure so if you can be flexible as far as when you leave – and where you want to go or on which cruise line – you can take a great cruise for a very reasonable price. Sometimes, to get the best deal on a cruise, you have to be

Our first night moonlight on the water

flexible and able to go with just a few weeks notice. And, at least in my experience, airfare does not rise appreciably if you can book it at least two weeks in advance. It’s that last minute, have-to-fly-tomorrow, type of trip that becomes so expensive.

With only four ports of call, eight of our 14 days will be spent at sea. It’s important to match your vacation to your needs, and right now we need to relax, rest and de-stress.

Tom in our stateroom

This small itinerary might sound boring, but it isn’t. You’d have to work at being bored on a cruise ship – there are things to do from the 7 a.m. “Long Lean and Stretch” aerobics class on Deck 14, Aft, to the midnight “Late Night Party Hits” with a DJ playing requests in the Explorer’s Lounge, Deck 6, Aft.

Tom on our balcony

Coral Princess

We will be stopping in Aruba for four hours. I’m not sure why it’s such a short time, but we’ve booked a tour so we can see all the important sights in the time we have. Then we have six hours in Cartagena Columbia where we will be going on another tour.

The next day will be spent going through the Panama Canal locks. Then we will have ten hours to explore Fuerte Amador, Panama and, finally, 12 hours in Puntarenas, Costa Rica (the Pacific side of Costa Rica). The only thing I want to do in Costa Rica (I think) is lay on the beach. It’s our last chance to do that and since we have tours taking up our time on the other days, it will be good to be on our own.

Here are some things I have noticed:

  • This Princess ship has less “glitz” and more “glamour.” It’s a bit plainer with very little gold leaf or gold paint. It has a more “stately home” feeling than downtown Las Vegas.
  • The staff is friendly and helpful.
  • The ship is laid out in a manner similar to Norwegian so we are able to get around.

The passengers are a lot older. I mean a lot. I’m in my late 50s and Tom’s in his early 60s and I think we are the youngest people on the ship. I have never seen so many canes in one place – and walkers and wheelchairs. This

Coral Princess Atrium Steps

is way beyond any normal percentage of elderly in a population. Someone said it was because most working people or people with children can’t get away for two weeks so there are more retired people on a long cruise like this.

So far – just 24 hours into it – the food hasn’t been all that great. This could be more of a selection issue than quality. We will give it some time and see if it improves.

That’s it for now. I’ll post again after we have seen Aruba.

Until next time,

Susan L Stewart