CENTRAL AMERICA (Part 2) – October 2010

Another Birthday to Remember

My darling wife must really be congratulated for the lengths she goes to in order to make my birthday special.

The last four have been spent overseas in locations as exotic as Paris, Quito, Phu My and, now, San Juan Del Sur (Australian time) and Puntarenas (Central American time).

Upon arriving at the dock at San Juan Del Sur (Nicaragua), I found our guide’s car festooned with balloons and happy birthday signs. I was, shortly afterwards, presented with a piñata! What a hoot!

As already reported, that morning was spent sliding down ziplines, from one tree to another amongst a rain forest.

Later that day, we journeyed to the crater of an active volcano. Standing at the mouth of the Santiago caldera, we could see smoke billowing from of the hellish depths and we could smell the sulphur.

Remarkably, there were signs around the park mandating that vehicles be parked with the rear to the volcano’s mouth and the front facing the exit route. A quick getaway was, evidently, contemplated in the event of an explosion. According to the guide this was not as fanciful as it may sound. One of her friends was at the volcano when it suddenly spewed rocks into the air, one of which landed on their car and crushed the passenger seat. Thankfully, the occupants, by that stage, were hiding below the vehicle.

After the volcano, my birthday adventure continued by visiting the picturesque town of Granada, named after the town of the same name in Spain.

My birthday – measured by Central American time – continued the following day when we arrived in Puntarenas. As already chronicled, our day in Costa Rica saw us soaring high above the canopy of the cloud forest as rain pelted down.

The mere fact that I felt compelled to proclaim myself `king of the world’ suggests that if Huckleberry B wanted to make me feel special on my birthday, she achieved her goal.

I remain in awe and ever grateful for the hard work my darling wife puts in to mark my birth and, indeed, to plan each of our trips. I am very fortunate.

The Panama Canal

Huckleberry and I have shared some wonderful experiences whilst travelling overseas. We agree that one of the most memorable experiences was sailing along the Panama Canal, today, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.

We arose early – at around 5.40 am – to watch Sea Princess enter the Canal and sail under the Bridge of the Americas (which is shaped in similar fashion to Sydney Harbour Bridge, only smaller and without the pillars).

Soon we were approaching the fabled Miraflores Locks…

At this point I must confess my ignorance. My mental image of the Panama Canal was a narrow, man-made, channel from one coast to the other. I was aware that there were locks involved, but did not know why.

Now that we have experienced the Canal, I have learned that the location was carefully chosen to take advantage, not only of the relatively narrow strip of land, but also the presence of two natural lakes. The builders of the Canal merely linked the Pacific Ocean to the Miraflores Lake, the Miraflores Lake to the Gatun Lake and the Gatun Lake to the Caribbean Sea.

The Gatun Lake sits 26 metres above sea level. Rather than embark upon the obviously impossible task of digging out the lake until it sat at sea level, the engineers of the Canal built three sets of locks, which served the purpose of raising ships from one level to the next and, after traversing the Gatun Lake, lowering them again to sea level.

Each set of locks had two lanes so that two vessels could be raised or lowered (as the case may be) at the same time.

The locks themselves are very narrow. They were probably ample size for the boats which existed in 1914, when the Canal was opened, but are now only just big enough to accommodate a cruise ship, like Sea Princess, or the cargo ships which we saw following us. As I understand it, we had less than one metre’s grace on either side of our vessel. The fit certainly looked very tight.

Once in the lock, enormous gates were closed, forward and aft, so that Sea Princess was now in a very big bath tub. At this stage, our vessel remained at the level of the Pacific Ocean. However, by pumping huge amounts of water into the bath tub, the ship was raised to the level of the Miraflores Lake. The gates opened and Sea Princess ventured forward.

At the end of Miraflores Lake, we entered the Pedro Miguel Locks and the process was repeated until we were raised to the height of the Gatun Lake.

Once the Gatun Lake was negotiated, the process was reversed at the Gatun Locks. Through a complex of three `bath tubs’, Sea Princess was lowered to the level of the Caribbean Sea.

We found each lock to be a memorable experience. Sitting on our balcony, we watched as the gates were closed and the water either pumped into the lock or extracted. I have a vivid memory of leaving the Gatun Locks – now at the level of the Caribbean Sea – and looking up to see two cargo vessels in the locks behind us. One had been lowered to the mid-level and the one behind remained at the level of Gatun Lake. They looked like toy boats stacked on a shelf.

At 80 kilometres in length, Sea Princess took just 9 hours to sail from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. By comparison, a journey around Cape Horn would occupy 15 days.

We were told that the Panama Canal processes thirty to forty vessels per day. It’s a remarkable feat of mechanical genius.

Tours of Cartegena and the Island of Aruba

After the thrill of the zipline adventures in Central America and the fascination of the Panama Canal, we were always going to struggle to summon overwhelming excitement at the prospect of visiting Cartegena in Colombia and the Island of Aruba. By comparison, the highlights of our trip were behind us.

Prior to our visit to Cartegena, the knowledge Huck B and I possessed of both the city and the country was derived almost entirely from the 1980’s classic, `Romancing the Stone’. Indeed, we had been sprouting quotes from the movie for much of the cruise in anticipation of our arrival. Movie buffs will recall that Kathleen Turner’s character’s sister was being held hostage in Cartegena whilst Kathleen was traipsing around the countryside with Michael Douglas (and being pursued by Danny de Vito and the Colombian secret police).

And yes – to continue this absurd theme – Cartegena is, indeed, “other there, on the coast!

To be precise, Cartegena sits on the northern coast of Colombia, east of the Panama isthmus.

Cartegena turned out to be more developed than either our general knowledge or our film-based education had led us to believe. Indeed, the ring of high-rise apartment buildings and hotels, which line the coast and the bay behind it, was quite spectacular.

We visited an old Spanish Castle, a Monastery and the old part of the town, all of which were intriguing and unexpected.

As I have observed before, one of the benefits of cruising is that one is taken to ports which you would probably not plan to visit if you had complete control over the itinerary. They just happen to be `one the way’. The happy result is that you get to see some places which are worth touring even if they do not spring to mind as destinations you would like to see.

We can now add Cartegena to the list of little gems we have stumbled across in our travels.

Aruba is another such destination. Once again, our only knowledge of Aruba comes from popular culture: this time the Beach Boys’ song: Kokomo.

We learned from our guide that Aruba was a Dutch colony. It fought hard for its independence, which was ultimately achieved in the 1980’s.

Driving around the island, we observed that it was quite affluent. Most houses seemed of a reasonable size and, unlike Nicaragua and Costa Rica, there was little evidence of security grills on windows and doors. It looked like a comfortable and peaceful place to live.



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