Sunday, April 25, 2010

Panama Canal Cruise 2010

Saturday, April 10
We flew American Airlines to San Diego, and then took a taxi to the Marriott at the Marina, adjoined to the Convention Center. There is no need to rent a car here, because the taxi fare was less than ten dollars, and around the hotel there are many interesting shops (not just T shirts and tourist junk) and restaurants within walking distance. There are miles of landscaped walking and biking trails. The hotel has a large outdoor heated pool, plus two smaller pools, also heated, for kids and families. We were on the top (25th)floor, with a balcony and a beautiful view of the harbor, the bridge to the island where we could also see the Hotel Coranado.

Sunday, April 11
We walked a long way around the hotel grounds and shopping center, and then over to the Westfield Norton Center, a very interesting multi level outdoor mall, somewhat like Short Pump but more compact and better done. It was May 10 when Bill tore his quadriceps muscle and could not walk at all without crutches for two weeks. Now, he still uses a cane but is able to walk well and even go up and down stairs. Also, he worked out at the hotel gym in the morning before our walk, and said the great gym was yet another reason to choose this hotel.

Around 1:00 PM we boarded the Celebrity Infinity, which is in the same class as the Millenium and the Constellation. They have been retrofitted, but Infinity has not. It is still a nice ship, though, although not as well run as some Celebrity ships. Our cabin was 8098, a very good location.

Monday, April 12, 2010
This morning at breakfast at our favorite table right over the floor window porthole, we saw dozens of dolphins swimming and jumping right beside the ship, undoubtedly they were hunting. Then, we saw a pair of whales a little further from the ship. Old Man and the Sea was set here.
This was a formal night; the show was a broadway review, or course, but better than most and the team can both sing and dance well. There are many talented musicians on board; combination of many ships going to canned music, and the bad economy, makes jobs as musicians very competitive.

Tuesday, April 13
Today we docked at Cabo San Lucas at the very tip end of the Baja Penninsula, which is over a thousand miles long. We took a bus tour and stopped at a hotel with a terrace that looks out over the sea, with a good view of the arch rock formation which is the famous landmark of this area. Sometimes you can walk under a smaller arch there, and other times it is under water. The Pacific tides are very high, up to 18 feet, while over on the Caribbean side they are hardly noticeable. At the hotel beach, surfers were catching swells – people at our table who snorkeled said wave action made it kind of murky. The hotel seemed not to have many guests (we saw none) and it was surrounded by new, mostly empty condos. Mexico has been devastated by several difficulties – the crash in the U.S., the terrible drug war that makes tourists afraid to come, and on top of that, last fall there were two straight months when no cruise ships came to the Mexican ports because of the swine flu scare. This area was booming in early 2008 before the banking crisis happened, and it is very hard hit. We drove to the nearby town of , which was not so hard hit because it did not experience the boom on borrowed money. We stopped in the old town square where we saw the church and little shops. On the way back we stopped at Cacti Mundo, where a family had collected over 200,000 species of cactus, quite an interesting place.

This was probably my favorite place. It is a small Indian village (there is a larger town around the bay which we never visited) in the mountains around the two bays. Only recently, in about 2007, a very nice cruise ship dock and market place were built, and there are fleets of tour boats in the harbor (way over capacity). Most of the tourist businesses are empty, as are the new condo developments overlooking the sea. It was still a nice place though, the tour guides were friendly and knowledgeable about the plants and animals and history of the area. The tour guide went in snorkeling with us. The equipment they gave us was very good, we had flat life vests you could actually swim in, and we went in from the beach to a great place for snorkeling. The coral beds were very deep, and you could look down in the holes at fish hiding there. I saw a big white starfish trimmed in red spots. There were small dark blue fish with bright neon blue dots on them. A guide said they were just the young of another kind of fish we saw, and would turn solid grey blue when grown.

Bill did not have such a good time – getting in the water in fins, with his injured leg, wasn’t so easy. He did finally snorkel in just his wet shoes though, and did see some fish.

In Acapulco, we went in the morning to see the famous cliff divers at the Hotel mar___- (they only dive when the tide is right.) I was here about thirty two years ago and the hotel was much nicer, and had places to sit and dine outside on the terraces. We stood and watched watched the cliff divers climb the high cliff opposite us and dive into the gorge. They start diving at about 12 years old, and become too old for it sometime in their thirties.

After the divers, we went over to the Pink Flamingo restaurant, a famous hot spot of years gone by, when stars like Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan) and John Wayne used to hang out there. It still has some of the former atmosphere, but is generally dilapidated. They were not taking care of the photographs which lined the walls of the open air dining area, but were just letting them become faded. The bathrooms weren’t so great, and my iced tea was pretty terrible. Still, it was a place worth going to.
We also went to the Chapel of Peace which is high above the city, and adjacent to it is the giant white cross which can be seen from all over Acapulco. We learned the tragic story of the family that built the chapel and cross, and how their two sons were killed together in an automobile crash at around twenty years old. Although parts of the formerly glamorous Acapulco are run down, the reason is because of the luxurious high rise hotels right on the beach, and there are many of those. There are also many homes belonging to stars and wealthy people of today.

Punterena, Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, we took a bus tour into San Jose. On the way we stopped at public restrooms maintained by a Catholic church in ______ Everything else in town was closed, since it was Sunday morning. The church service was full of people. The bus ride was long but it was through the mountains and very beautiful. Costa Rica was not as wealthy looking as we had thought it would be, with many people living in small homes with corrugated roofing. They were not slum like though, with most having little gardens and flowers around them, even though they were poor.

Costa Rica did not participate in the borrowing frenzy that crashed in the US and many other countries. Their infrastructure is not grand, but it’s mostly paid for. Their wages went down some, but not all that much.

Panama Canal
We got up at 5:30 in the morning, and although we were not at the Canal yet, we could see the lights of several large ships, including a container ship and a Holland America cruise ship which were at anchor and waiting for passage through the Canal. Several smaller boats were waiting also; the locks are large enough for more than one boat at a time, but a ship as big as Infinity must go through alone. Clearance at the beam is only about a foot, and the clearance for the length is more, but only a matter of several yards. We did not have to wait to go through; by paying a higher fee, a ship can reserve a time slot. The charge is by persons aboard for a passenger ship, and Infinity has to pay over $300,000.00 to pass through one time. We later asked a guide what this money goes for, since many of the people seem to be quite poor. He said the government gets a third, one third goes for maintenance, and one third goes to build the new parallel canal which will accommodate larger ships.

We went through large gates which are hollow inside and have a V shape. That way they aren’t as heavy as they appear and can be moved by 25 horsepower engines, even though they can hold back a huge amount of water. As we went through the Canal, four electric “mules” on tracks on either side of the canal kept Infinity positioned straight, while the ships’s power kept us moving slowly. Most of the passengers were standing around on the top decks, and some, probably from inside cabins, had staked out positions at the rail while it was still dark, from which they were not moving. I would not have stayed there very long, because the sun beat down very hot, right from the time it first came up. There were actually many locations around the ship where you could get a good view. Fortunately, our balcony was on the starboard side, and we had one of the best places on board. There was a parallel lock just a few feet away, and a huge container ship called Liberty America was beside us. The original plan was to have two ships going in opposite directions in the twin locks, but it turned out better to have two at a time going the same direction.

As soon as our ship was in position and the gates behind were closed, the lock began to fill with water, quickly for such a large amount of water. We were lifted eighteen feet by the water and moved to the next gate, which opened for us to pass through. The same process was repeated again, and we sailed out into a manmade lake, Lake Mariflores. We went through one more lock as we passed into the larger Gatun Lake. There the Celebrity ship Millenium was making the transit in the opposite direction.

Everybody on board both ships was out on decks as we passed within feet of each other. Our ship stopped in the Lake, (not at anchor although that term is sometimes used; really the ship stays in place by means of thrusters). Those of us going on tours got into tenders for a short ride to shore where we boarded a bus. We went back to the Mariflores Locks Visitors’ Center, which we had seen from the ship. There are displays about the Canal, but the most interesting thing we saw was that from the top of the building we could watch ships from the front and side as they passed through the Canal. The Millenium was just coming through, and it was quite a sight. From that angle you can really see how narrow the Canals are that allow passage to such huge ships. However, many cruise ships and commercial ships are too large to come through.