Panama Canal & the Caribbean - 2022


MARCH 9 to March 23, 2022 Viking Cruise Lines: The Viking Orion Cheery Cruisers: Kay and Lois

INTRODUCTION How could we have turned down this wonderful trip? No Way! It started in Ft. Lauderdale and ended there too, giving us a few days to spend with family afterwards. Another big plus: no flights required! We just took a leisurely 5-hour drive down from Jacksonville and left the car with family. And the itinerary was attractive as well. We had 7 sea days which we really enjoy on any Viking cruise and the ports we visited seemed interesting. Some ports we had visited in previous years (Cozumel, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama), but two countries were new to us: Honduras and Jamaica. And we visited different cities in Belize & Costa Rica. So, overall, the cruise opportunity was irresistible. And though some ports were more interesting than others, this Viking Cruise did not disappoint. Day 1 – All Aboard This was the day to board the ship which would not leave port until 10 p.m. that night. So, we found our cabin, unpacked our few belongings. A trip in the tropics does not require a sophisticated or varied wardrobe. We limited our outfits to shorts, T-shirts, a couple of pairs of cargo long pants and two long-sleeved shirts for “dinner dress” and to stay warm enough on the well air-conditioned ship. Because all the Viking ships that sail the Caribbean are built on the same model, and this was our 4 th such trip, we did not have to wander around, discovering where all the amenities and special rooms were located: like the theater, the indoor pool, the various restaurants and the many nooks where you can curl up with an enjoyable book or write one of your own. We are not particularly fond of any of the special restaurants and really prefer to eat at the World Café (Cafeteria style) because we do not linger long over any meal.

Another plus for us on Viking ships is that we always sleep so well, and our first night aboard was not any different.

Day 2 & 3 – Days at Sea the first true Sea Day as we sailed along in the Gulf of Mexico. Kay spent much of that relaxing day continuing her work on the 5 th book in her Palatine immigration series. Lois read a book by Louise Erdrich called “The Sentence” and attended a lecture by one of the experts on board whose specialty is ocean biology with a particular interest in squids. She also participated in the daily Team Trivia Challenge (playing by herself however). Second day, the ship had moved into the Caribbean Sea as we headed towards our first port (Cozumel, Mexico). We learned that the Caribbean is one of the Earth’s largest seas. It covers nearly 1.1 million square miles (about twice the area of Alaska) and includes the Cayman Trench which reaches a depth of 25,000 feet (about the height of Mount Everest) below sea level. We spent the day very much as we did the first sea day, reading and writing. Lois did play Team Trivia again (alone). She was amazed at the knowledge that two of the teams displayed (one or the other of the two won every game gamed played during the trip). Occasionally they tied and then a tie-breaker question would be posed to break the tie. Both teams had their full complement of 6 players and were so expert that she didn’t feel she had much to contribute to any other team that would make a difference. COZUMEL Day 4 - Having attended the port talk the day before, we were ready now for an excursion and had selected one that took us to a Mayan Ruin site: San Gervasio.

The visit was good both because it was interesting and because it got us on our feet for some good exercise since the site was large and spread out. Viking provides voice boxes which allow you to hear the guide even if you are not right next to him/her. Those are quite helpful when the group disperses, and people stop for pictures or closer looks at the wildlife in the area, chiefly birds and iguanas.

The species we saw the most of there was the black spiny tailed species. Archeologists believe that this site was sacred to women wishing to conceive or praying for the health of

their children. Here they worshipped the Goddess of the Moon who was responsible for love, fertility, and rain. It is also believed that a priest would install himself in a hollow statue and answer questions and otherwise interact with the women. Sounds like the Oracle at Delphi, doesn’t it? On our long bus ride back to port, our bus broke down; its transmission was just shot. We waited about ½ an hour for another bus to rescue us but perhaps that was part of our adventure? Flexibility and optimism are always helpful when traveling. In the evening, we both attended a lecture by a NASA employee: his topic was “Can we really be the only intelligent life in the Universe?” His talk was intriguing and prompted many questions from the audience as well as in our own minds. But for us, the thrust of his presentation suggested that we will never really have an answer to that question because the universe is so gigantic. BELIZE Day 5 - We had visited Belize before and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. However, this visit was to Belize City rather than Belmopan (the capital) and the reefs & islets offshore. Again, we chose the excursion that took us to another Mayan ruin: Altun Ha.

The Mayans inhabited what it is now Belize for more than 5000 years before the European “invasion” of the western hemisphere. This site consisted of two exceptionally large plazas and 8 stone buildings. The two most impressive were the Palace of the Jade mask and the

Temple to the Sun. It rained on us here, but our umbrellas were adequate since the rains were intermittent and only light.

Belize City was the first capital of Belize when it was British Honduras. We were driven around it on our way to the ruins. There we saw some old British buildings (residences mostly), some modern homes and businesses, and heard the optimism in the voice of our good female guide who believes in an improving future for Belize. The popular is about 400,000 people (about half the population of Delaware) of many different ethnicities. The country won its independence from Britain but is still a part of the British Commonwealth. Covid took a huge toll on this country so dependent on tourism for its economy but as the world loosens its restrictions on travel, things are brighter. English is the official language, unlike the rest of Central America which is Spanish speaking primarily.

HONDURAS Day 6 - Roatan Honduras was the port of call for this country: one of the new ones for us. However, our introduction to this poor country was not auspicious. We made the first mistake in our choice of excursions. We chose a visit to Carambola Gardens and a city drive-around. The small town was quite unprepossessing with nothing notable to photograph. There were some more prosperous looking areas along the main road which was in decent condition, but our guide let us know that those areas were mostly inhabited by rich expats. Since snorkeling and diving are Honduras’ main tourist draws, the Covid shutdown had really hurt this already poor country.

We were taken to the Carombola Garden which is small and unprepared for big groups of tourists. The garden is an admirable try at conserving Honduras’ flora and some birds. And there were certainly some very impressive trees: mahogany in particular. A few plants were flowering. The trails were narrow, and the many groups kept having to turn and return many times down the same paths. Our guide tried valiantly to make the garden tour interesting, but she was unable to transcend the problems. Must admit that we did hear a rooster crowing all thru our visit. Trying to get the several groups organized for departing was a real challenge and did not go well at all.

But we did have a treat during that time too: a green breasted mango hummingbird entertained us while we waited for our turn to get on a bus. Hence, the visit was not a total loss. The most interesting thing about our visit to Roatan was our young guide. He spent most of his time with us “tattle-tailing” about his country and assuring us that we would never want to live here. He cited the high crime rate, the corruption in the government and its supposed services. The police in Roatan were not locals; they are from the mainland and care nothing for the island dwellers. They are corrupt and stop folks for no reason demanding what amounts to bribes. There is no health care on the island, no free education for children, no social security for anyone, no insurance of any kind (health, life, or retirement. Wages are pitifully low, and jobs are hard to find anyway. Grunt work like construction pays about $20 for 8 to 10 hours of hard labor. By the time he completed his litany of woes, I am confident nobody was looking for land to purchase or rent. How different this sad country is from what British Honduras became: Belize. Though that country is not rich like Costa Rica, it is definitely on the upswing and making progress in attracting investment from outside, providing free & compulsory education for its young people, establishing affordable healthcare facilities around the country, keeping crime rates low, fighting government corruption successfully. And its Prime Minister is a Mennonite emigrant female. Women have many more chances at bettering their lives here than in Honduras.

Day 7 – Sea Day Another wonderful sea day in the Caribbean Sea. Perfect weather, calm seas, and bright sunshine. Our gift today was awaking to a host of pelagic birds diving and swooping right alongside our balcony. What a marvelous spectacular show they put on for us. They were mostly brown boobies who soar up to a certain height and then plunge like arrows straight down into the sea, usually coming up with something to eat. A few terns were interspersed but the boobies were the show. We went to a couple of lectures and Lois played trivia once again. We learned a couple of interesting factoids today. The Viking Orion has a capacity for 800 passengers and was operating at 80%. A Norwegian Cruise Line ship, the Emerald Princess, holds 4000 passengers was operating with only 1700! Viking’s careful healthcare policies and care of their ships is paying off for them. Other cruise lines are not so fortunate but probably have not invested in all the safety measures: daily spit testing for all members of the crew and passengers, temperature checks at least once daily, masking requirements when off ship, disinfecting robots that spray the ship from top deck to bottom every night, social distancing in most of the areas of the ship. We had no positive cases on this cruise among crew or passengers. COSTA RICA Day 8 - Port Limon, Costa Rica. We have enjoyed visiting this wonderful country at least 4 times and it never ceases to thrill and educate us. We love its amazing biodiversity with prodigious varieties of both plants and animals. Its thriving democracy is another attraction as its investment in its people educationally, health wise and quality of life.

We chose an excursion that would take us on a boat ride through the canals of Tortuguero National Park.

The birds we saw along the way were the ones we see in our backyard many times: common egrets, great blue herons, tricolored herons, snowy egrets, frigate birds, little green herons, Jesus Lizards and palm swallows. We also saw some caimans which are so like our own alligators. But the ride was enjoyable anyway.

Finished reading “Dead Wake” by Erik Larsen about the sinking of the Lusitania during World War II. Kay wrote some more.

PANAMA Day 9 - Colon, Panama. This morning, we awakened to armadas of ships of many varied sizes all around us. Obviously, all ships lining up to go through the Panama Canal! Our excursion off ship entailed an exceptionally long bus ride to reach Soberania National Park where we would board small boats for an exciting exploration of the waters feeding the canal locks. The boats were a bit overcrowded for easy picture-taking, but we liked what we saw anyway.

Started off with a two-toed sloth in a tree across from our first pit stop on the way to the park. We saw her face and we all thought she was holding a baby. Iguanas of several colors were plentiful in the trees and bushes we passed. We saw howler monkeys and capuchin monkeys too.

The latter were the more entertaining because they leapt from their tree branches onto the top of our boat and begged for treats. Some were given to them by the guide who also drove the boat. We also saw caimans, frigate birds, snail kites, anhinga, brown pelicans, turkey and black vultures, frigate birds, and turtles. The guide identified something she called a “talinga” which we had never seen before and were not even sure what we were seeing. Even a google search once we got home failed to identify what she meant. But we think it is a local name for a bird with black feathers, an exceptionally long neck with a red beak. That didn’t help us identify the creature either.

The cutest thing we saw floating around at the National Park was straight line of tiny bats clinging to a tree trunk. They were black with white markings and separated from one another by about 2 inches. If the guide told us what kind of bats they were, we did not hear it or maybe understand what she said. But on googling when we got home, we found that they are “Proboscus Bats” and they are exceedingly adorable in appearance as will be seen in the accompanying picture Kay took.

The ride home from Soberania National Park didn’t seem as long as the way out, but one of the more foreboding sights we saw was the prison area where Noriega was imprisoned for quite a long time.

PANAMA CANAL Day 10 - This was the day that we sailed through the locks of the Panama Canal as far as Gatun Lake. There we anchored until departure time when we go back through the locks out into the Caribbean Sea. Thus, it was really another sea day. But the entertainment was observing our passage, watching how the now mechanical mules guide the ship into the locks and hold them steady so as not to collide into the sides. In much earlier days it was real live mules that performed that function and so the machines are still called by that animal's designation.

It was compelling to see how the ropes are handled, how the water is allowed to enter and depart the locks, how the heavy gates work and how coordinated the whole lock

experience is choreographed. We went through the older locks (the Miraflores), but we could see across a distance the larger ships going through the newer wider locks (Neopanamax or Agua Clara Locks). We had been told that we might observe bird and animal life on the many islands in Lake Gatun. Disappointing to report, we did not see a single creature and even the birds flying overhead were the ones we had already seen several times and even these were sparse. The rest of the day was spent doing our usual sea day activities: reading, writing and sometimes even taking a short swim in the heated spa pool where only 10 people at a time were allowed and for only 45 minutes. We indulged in this please several times during the cruise. Day 11 – Sea Day Another wonderful sea day cruising in the Caribbean. It took us 2 & ½ hours to cross the Canal into Lake Gatun and another 2 & 1/2 hours to get back into the Caribbean. Then last night, Captain Marco began a race towards Jamaica. The ship rocked and rolled in lively fashion. Kay wrote some more, and I read Wilkie Collins’ book “Woman in White” which was intriguing since it was recognized as one of the first detective novels written in Victorian times. One of those unexpected coincidences happened when Lois went to a morning lecture given by Mike Vecchione, the oceanic life expert. Lingering to talk with him and his wife afterwards, we learned that we have a very dear mutual couple of friends (Clyde and Ingrid Roper). Turns out that Clyde was on Mike’s Ph.D. committee, and they remained close friends ever afterwards. JAMAICA Day 12 - Montego Bay, Jamaica. This was a new country for Lois; however, Kay had been there once before but in and around Kingston rather than Montego Bay. Despite some warnings about very rugged terrain and a jolting ride, we decided to pay for an excursion into the Jamaican jungle area so we could see some animal and bird life. A waterfall and an hour & a half walk beside a lovely stream were also promised. What a joke that turned out to be! However, the joke was on us!

The 4 x 4 huge jeep vehicles did ride rough indeed and the country roads were anything but paved or even graveled.

We bounced around quite a long time and then found ourselves crisscrossing the same abandoned orange orchard repeatedly. The guide tried to interest us in noticing that many of the trees were trying to return to life while others were completely dead. He told us that some company was trying to resurrect the orchard and begin a citrus industry again. How sad and boring it all was! We saw not a single creature nor even a bird flying overhead this melancholy landscape and the rough ride was the only thing that kept us awake.

When we rode out of the dispiriting orchard, we were driven to the waterfall and river. Ha! Ha! The waterfall was so thin that it looked like someone had turned a hose on at the bank to create a semblance of water falling. The hour-long walk along the “lovely stream” was non-existent! There was no path at all, only thick bushes that would have been hard to negotiate and the little stream was as pitiful as the waterfall.

We did see one interesting thing on the way back to the ship in a small and poor neighborhood: a stone Anglican church built in 1847 as a slave hospital.

Because slaves were valuable commodities, it was not surprising that they were cared for when injured, snake-bitten, or sick. The building was impressive, and we were told that the hospital contained separate cubicles for each slave hospitalized. The original stained-glass windows were still intact as well. We were also shown the quarters where the doctors and nurses resided, and they were on the grounds and looked comfortable from the outside. After slavery was abolished, the edifice was turned into an Anglican church which it remains.

We met the genuinely nice priest & he regretfully told us that there are currently 12 members, the oldest of which is an 87-year-old woman with her own family purchased pew. Today the little church is partially supported by the Anglican Church in the UK, or it could not function. St. Mary’s preschool is on the grounds as well and perhaps some of the children’s parents also pay something to the church.

Then it was back to the ship docked in Montego Bay. I do not think any of our fellow “suckers” thought more of this excursion than we did.

Day 13 and 14 – Sea Days Another beautiful sea day as we sailed back towards Ft. Lauderdale. Again, it was yet another delightful and relaxing day as we enjoyed ourselves doing just what we felt like doing. We read more, we wrote more, we swam and dined three times during the day. Perfectly peaceful and enjoyable. On the second day, we cruised in the Gulf of Mexico as we got closer and closer to Ft. Lauderdale. Cannot say this day was any different from yesterday but it was just as relaxing though we were already dreading the return to real life on the next day. And then it was time to be “thrown out of paradise” as my sister always described having to leave a cruise ship behind you! Neither Lois’ narrative nor Kay’s photos ( of this trip will convince you to make this a trip of a lifetime. UNLESS, however, you’ve been confined to your couch for over 18 months by a COVID pandemic. We were thrilled to get away and gloried in the sea days. As with many experiences in life, this trip was splendid in comparison to the alternative…….

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