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


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