Friday, April 11, 2008

Portobelo- The Pirates Paradise

Today is kind of a sad day. We woke up with the realization that our trip is almost over. It is true the halfway point has already passed, but spending yesterday in the city and surrounded by the normal hectic activity of everyday life really made it clear.

The past week has been a great getaway and spending it with people like the Embera and in locations such as the Darien Jungle, Manuel Antonio, Corcovado and Coiba National Parks and Golfo Dulce has been an experience that is difficult to see coming to an end. Enough of that though.

Today we are visiting Portobelo where we will get to explore the ruins of stone forts that once served to slow invading pirates as well as take zodiac tours of the Mangroves in the area. But first we eat breakfast and join everyone on the Sun Deck to listen to guest speakers Mr. and Mrs. McGehee relate the history of Portobelo.

The McGehees have lived in Portobelo for more then 30 years and have studied the local history which they presented to us this morning followed by a question and answer period. Sitting on the Sun Deck listening to the history while looking out at the bay and ruins of old forts surrounded by jungle was pretty interesting for me. It doesn't take much imagination before you begin hearing canons and seeing ships in such surroundings.

After learning a bit of history we took a zodiac to shore for another dry landing at the McGehee home and on to a tour of the town. Dani and I, like others broke off on our own and quickly came across the first of several small souvenir stands. This particular stand though, attracted us not because of the selection, but rather the monkey perched on a small platform inside.

This friendly little monkey climbed all over us and went from person to person looking for treats and attention. I have seen monkeys plenty of times in the past, including having the monkeys in the Manuel Antonio National Park an arms length away, but this was the first time I have ever touched or held one and we spent quite some time here before moving on.

Next we came across another souvenir stand where we bought a few items. From the things we had been looking at, this town was up there with the Embera as far as pricing was concerned. The selection was different, but the pricing was not overly inflated like it would have been had we spent time in the cities rather then out of the way places such as this.

The ruins of the old fort are worth the trip, and if we had come on a land tour rather then a cruise, I would have thought the drive worth the time and effort. Like most ruins, it was mostly crumbling walls, but there is still more then enough to give you an idea of how things looked hundreds of years ago. That, along with many rusted canons still sitting as if ready to fend off invading pirates was plenty to keep me happy today.

A couple of things that may interest some of you- Cheap beer and inexpensive model ships. When Dani and I returned to the dock to catch a zodiac back to the ship we saw several people enjoying a beer and found they had purchased them at a grocery up the hill from the church. Pricing, if I remember correctly was between 35 and 75 cents a can depending on what you bought.

We did take a quick run up the hill to get some, but went to the wrong store and bought something else instead. We were too worried about holding up the last zodiac so did not continue on to the correct store.

When we got back to the dock again, the very same beer drinking guest was sporting a couple of hand made ships he had found in a shop. He collects them and said the prices were very good for the quality. I do not know model ships but they were nice looking. So if you are in to these things, make sure to keep an eye out in your walk around the town. You may just get lucky.

We went back to the ship for lunch and then went down to catch a zodiac tour of the Mangroves. This is something I had been looking forward to and was not disappointed. Like much of the sights on this cruise, I had only seen these things on tv so far so getting an up close look was something I was eager to do.

During our tour of the mangroves we saw several kinds of birds, including 3 of the 6 types of Kingfisher in the area. We also saw a small version of a crocodile and some cows in addition to the great scenery.

After our mangrove tour we returned to the ship for the usual social hour, daily recap and some evening dance. Believe it or not, even I danced a bit. That makes 3 times in 20 years, 2 of which were on this cruise.

That pretty much wraps up the day, and here are some more pictures for you. In the mean time, it's off to bed to rest up for tomorrow. We are visiting the San Blas Islands and doing a little more snorkeling so see you then.

Photos taken with Canon Powershot A570is

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Panama Canal

This morning begins our crossing of the Panama Canal. We don't actually begin going through the locks until this evening, but the whole day is going to be a bit of a learning experience focused on the canal and its history. I am looking forward to parts of the days events, but to be honest the day is a bit of a mixed bag for me.

It's mixed because although I am impressed by the magnitude of what was built almost 100 years ago without the benefit of modern technology, I am not as enthused as one might imagine at the prospect of watching the whole crossing. More on that later.

For now though, we are about to head out on one of the few dry landings on this cruise and catch a bus to the Mira Flores visitor's center. After a 20-30 minute bus ride through the city, we arrive at the visitors center and are free to wander as we please.

Dani and I started in the museum and worked our way up to the top floor observatory. The museum itself has some interesting exhibits such as scale model locks, ships used in digging the canal and various other displays teaching about the canal and its history. We took a few pictures here, but they are mainly interesting to myself.

So, on to the observation deck. To me, this was one of the best parts of the day. From here you are able to look down on the locks and see the entire process as ships go through each stage of the crossing. You get a pretty good look at the incredible size of these ships in relation to the locks themselves as well as the “mules” used to keep the ships centered.

You can see all of this from our ship as well, but there is something about seeing it from above and watching as people working in the canal grounds go about their business. At the same time you are able to take in the background on both sides of the canal which is impressive when you realize the giant ship in front of you is surrounded on both sides by land with only a small strip of water to the front and back.

We watched this for a while when we heard over the intercom that they were showing a short movie on the making of the canal in English. Since it was about time to return to our ship, we decided to watch it before the return bus ride. I would recommend watching the show because it gives a lot of interesting information in a brief time. Worth the 10 minutes or so for sure.

Back on the ship for lunch, we noticed an odd sight. Off to the side of us was a couple of boats and, well, see if you can figure it out.Then as we were repositioning the ship to the area we were to wait our turn for the canal crossing we saw the latitude and longtude. Nope, I spelled it right.

Then it was a lazy afternoon of reading, talking and napping.

When the evening came, we were all eagerly anticipating the crossing. It was finally our turn so we were met by the canal captain and led into the locks. I can't really describe the events so here are some pictures with a few notes.

Then it was off to dinner and some evening reading while the ship took us through the channel to the next set of locks. For this, you can get a wake up call or simply stay up straight through. We actually slept through it ourselves figuring once you've been through a set of locks you've pretty much seen it all. Besides, after the things we have done and seen on this cruise so far, watching the water raise and lower in a giant bath tub over and over kinda pales in comparison and I am glad to have the bulk of our crossing take place while I sleep.

Tomorrow we are headed to Portobelo, the Pirates Paradise and I need my beauty rest. Arrgh...

Photos taken with Canon Powershot A570is

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Darien Jungle

This morning we were able to sleep in a bit and take our time getting ready for the days events. Instead of the regularly scheduled breakfast in the dining room, we were treated to brunch on the Sun Deck after which we would be briefed on what to expect once we were ashore visiting the village of the Embera.

Before I relate the events of the day let me give you an idea of what we were told. The Embera are a peaceful people living off the lands bounty as well as fishing and hunting. They are approximately 4 hours by motorboat from the closest large town where once a month they would take the goods they craft by hand to sell in the markets. The money made from these ventures would go towards items such as tools and clothing used back home in the village.

Located far from modern towns, they are without most of the conveniences we take for granted, the most basic being electricity. This means after the days work is done they are unable to relax in front of the TV watching American Idol or listening to the kids fighting over who is next on the Xbox. Instead, once darkness comes, everyone goes to bed. Really.

One of the benefits to this cruise is that we are able to visit with these people in their own homes without all the trappings of modern society and see for ourselves just how dependent we have become on technology. Most of which are simple conveniences, yet for some reason or other we have come to think of as necessities.

Another key advantage is that guests on the Pacific Explorer are the only people to visit this village. No other tourist groups come into the area. Very nice if your are tired of quickly shuffling from place to place so the next group can have their 30 minutes of "authentic cultural experience" too.

Our day was to be spent with these peaceful people being entertained with traditional music, dancing, buying crafts and enjoying a truly authentic cultural experience.

After our briefing, we waited our turn for a zodiac ride to shore in the Tucan Lounge. Looking out the windows we were able to see a couple of small canoes come out to meet our ship and saw something I think would give most parents in our overly protective society today a heart attack, Dani and I included. The canoes that came to meet us were being paddled around by children. Kids roughly the same age as my son were happily paddling around our ship as if the ocean were simply the local pool.

Once on shore we were met by the local villagers. A handful of elder males gathered near and started playing music while a couple of the local children walked up to Danielle, grabbed her by the hands and began walking away. They were taking her to show her around the village so I followed behind to get some pictures of Dani and her personal tour.

During the walk we visited the school house, walked by several of the villagers homes and through orchards growing a variety of fruits including bananas and something that looked like an oddly shaped green apple.

We walked around for a half hour or so before everyone began gathering at the largest grass covered shelter we had seen so far. This was apparently built for our use and was to be where the children would perform their dances for us. The Chief welcomed us and we were treated to more music as well.

When the dances were finished, a dozen or so families set up tables and blankets on the ground to show the crafts they had to offer for sale. During the whole cruise, this in my opinion was one of the two best options for getting souvenirs. Partially because of prices, but primarily because it was apparent the items were made here by these people and not brought in from other areas. To me that makes a difference.

The variety was pretty good and we were able to get a nice necklace for my daughter and a cool looking wood spear for my son. They were also giving people henna type tattoos similar to the ones they themselves were decorated with so Dani took them up and had one done.

A bit later the captain and crew played a heated game of soccer with the locals and even won.

The day was pretty interesting and one of the best parts was watching the children. They were very friendly and eager to have their pictures taken. But the best part was watching their reactions as they looked at the pictures on the digital cameras.

This pretty much wraps up our day with the Embera but before we return to the ship I think I should pass along a tip we learned today that may help.

As you know, the landings we have had are pretty much all wet landings. As such, we get out of the zodiac and step directly into the water. While in the boat however, things are pretty dry and people have been in the habit of wearing their cameras around their neck. We have done this ourselves actually but today I decided to put our camera back in the zip lock bag we brought along for this purpose. It is good I did.

The tide had come in while we were on shore and the surf was much stronger and the waves much bigger then when we landed. So this time, as we were going out, the crew and villagers were timing the waves so as to get the zodiac out at just the right time. They had what they thought was the perfect wave but at the last second changed their mind and pulled back. Too late.

The wave that came in went right over the top of us and drenched everything on board. It was pretty hilarious, but if you want to make sure your camera is safe make sure to close it in whatever waterproof contraption you have brought along for all zodiac trips because you just don't know when a rogue wave is going to make an otherwise dry trip into a surprise public bath.

Now it is back to the ship for social hour, daily review and dinner so we can rest up for tomorrow. We are headed to the Panama Canal and I want to be ready.

See you there.

Photos taken with Canon Powershot A570is

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Coiba National Park

We woke up this morning anticipating a leisurely breakfast in the dining room with plenty of coffee followed by snorkeling and perhaps some kayaking off the beach of Granito de Oro or Little Grain of Gold (Note: picture above is practically actual size).

When we looked out the window and saw how cloudy and rainy it was though, we thought for sure the days activities would be canceled and we would instead motor on to the next port on our journey. We decided there wasn't much we could do about the weather though and went to breakfast with our fingers crossed waiting for the call over the intercom letting us know the news.

The good news came in the form of seeing the first zodiac being lowered into the water through the picture windows of the dining room so spirits lifted, we finished breakfast and went to coat ourselves in suntan lotion for the days activities. We had been warned that due to the strength of the sun so near the equator a burn can be had even on cloudy days. Since my idea of a successful day at the beach includes returning as pasty white as I left I was taking no chances.

When we got on shore the rain had let up so we geared up and went in to see how the water was. I am not sure of the actual temperature but I believe I mentioned bathwater previously and I wasn't disappointed this time either.

If you haven't snorkeled before you may not know just how easy it is even for those of us who don't like to swim in water where we can't easily see the bottom. I mention this because if you are not a strong swimmer you may think you need to pass on this activity and you would miss out on a lot of fun. For myself, I can swim ok in a pool. Put me in water where I can't see the bottom and you may as well be suspending me over a cliff as far as my mind is concerned. No amount of talk is going to get my brain to wrap itself around the idea that depth of water has no bearing on my ability to stay afloat in it. Period.

I did however give it a shot before returning to the beach for a life jacket so I could actually enjoy floating around with my face in the water looking at all the amazing fish and coral. It is a good thing I did because aside from the fish I have no names for, I saw a pretty large assortment of puffer fish, some sort of stick or knife fish and even an octopus burying itself in the sand on the bottom. This was over the course of about 20 minutes before it started raining again and we considered getting out.

After a few minutes we realized that getting out of the water to sit in the rain was a bit silly so we stayed in and continued enjoying the underwater attractions.

Then the lightning came.

It wasn't too bad at first so we ignored it a while, but soon the flashes became pretty frequent so we decided to go back to the beach and wait it out. Now I don't know about you, but by this point I was wondering if it really mattered where we were. I mean, where are you in more danger? Sitting on the beach in the rain, or submersed in the water? Photo on right from Our Bear Cares CD

Fortunately this was something we didn't have to concern ourselves with much because it was quickly determined the safest place for everyone was back aboard the Explorer. So it was back to the ship and my one good chance for a rain tan was over before I knew it.

To be honest, by this time I had worked up quite an appetite so going back and getting ready for lunch was ok with me. I was also able to catch up on some reading which reminds me of another feature of this ship.

In the front of the boat is an observation lounge with couches, chairs and coffee tables available so you can comfortably view the sea in an air conditioned environment away from the weather. It also has a variety of games and a selection of books to choose from if you happen to need something to read. The nice thing is that other then the obvious reference books, you are free to trade your finished book for one of the books left by a previous guest. This means you do not have to worry about enough time to finish the book and can take it with you for the flight home, or simply leave your book behind so you do not have to haul it back in your luggage.

After lunch we were back on the sun deck enjoying a good book (by this time the rain had stopped but it was already time to head to our next destination) and looking out for more sea life.

Today we were lucky and saw more dolphin, sea turtles and a bunch of schools of tuna jumping in the distance. The picture here was our best shot of the dolphin for this trip.

Basically the rest of today was spent reading, talking, playing games (or in my case, the all important task of spinning the pointer for Twister) and watching for more wildlife as we motored on to our next destination.

That's ok because tomorrow is looking to be one of our biggest days yet. When we arrive in the morning, we will be visiting the Darien Jungle and the village of the Embera.

After this mornings snorkeling and the exertion of officiating as the spinner for Twister, I can use the rest. See you in the morning.

Photos taken with Canon Powershot A570is

Monday, April 7, 2008

Golfo Dulce - The Sweet Gulf

You know how sometimes a day can feel like a week has passed? Usually it's because something bad has happened or things just aren't going as expected so as far as you are concerned time can't move fast enough.

This morning when I woke up it felt as if we had been on this trip for a couple of weeks already. I thought about it and realized that it was because of what we had done so far. In just a matter of a few days we had seen more wildlife, exotic plants and locations and met more interesting people then we had in the last couple of years and all of it was positive.

The only time this has happened from my point of view in the past was a 2 week vacation our family took to Mexico several years ago that we were all sad to see end. The only thing that could have made this cruise better would have been to have our kids with us because they would have loved every minute of it. Well, too late for that now.

This morning brought on another revelation I should mention as well. In the evenings we started noticing the occasional camera hanging from the rails outside the rooms and our initial thought had been that maybe someone left the camera on a table or chair and another guest hung it there for them to find when they returned to their room.

It turns out the reason for this is what led to the foggy picture on the top of this page. This morning, when I looked out our window I was greeted to a beautiful view of the beach we would be landing on after breakfast and naturally wanted a picture of it. The difference between what you see above and what I saw this morning was the fog. There wasn't any. The air conditioned room meant our camera was cool and moisture free, but as soon as I opened the window for that picture that all changed. It was a pretty nice effect, but definitely not the picture I had wanted.

Needless to say, we finally figured out that the other guests weren't absent minded and were instead thinking ahead to the next days camera use and followed suit. This brings up another difference in the mindset of the people on this cruise. Any other place I have gone, everything I own would be locked in the room safe or behind the locked door of our cabin. On this cruise the only locking is of your room door when you are in it. There are no room keys or safes in the closet and after the initial strangeness, no feeling they are needed.

We would see laptops left on the table on the sun deck with no owner in sight or any apparent concern for it coming up missing. After the first few days this seemed natural. This mindset also frees you up to really enjoy yourself because when the dolphins started appearing later in the cruise no one needed to worry about their belongings and could instead focus on the moment.

Anyway, on to our day.

After filling up on coffee and breakfast it was time to go ashore and visit the Casa Orquideas Botanical Gardens. Now generally speaking I am not a flower enthusiast (just ask my wife how many times she has received flowers from me. On second thought, just take my word for it) but the efforts over the years by Ron and Trudy McAllister were pretty amazing.

Again, my photos can't really do justice to what we saw today, but hopefully you will get an idea. The gardens are the result of 25+ years of effort by the McAllisters and a steady supply of volunteers, which by the way they are always looking for. We offered, but the 2 kids, 2 cats and a dog we would bring along seemed to be a deal breaker. Sigh...

Unless otherwise noted, all the pictures on this page are from these gardens.
A couple of the critters we saw running around. The second picture is a crab on a flower drinking the water collected in it. I believe they referred to the flower as a shampoo flower. When our naturalist squeezed the flower water poured out as if from a wet sponge and was sudsy when rubbed between his fingers. Pretty neat.

This next was taken for my daughter.

And the next because we both like purple.
A couple more.

This last picture is of the beach as we were going back to the ship for lunch.
When we got back to the ship there were a few people swimming off the back so we decided to change clothes and join them. This is where I have to say how sorry I am we didn't have a water proof camera, because if we did you could have seen some amazing shots.

For example, Dani could have taken some shots of me doing a double back flip off of the Sun Deck, or doing a perfect Swan Dive into the waters below. Yeah, too bad.

Since we didn't have that camera, I took this picture of the others just before we all got back on board to eat lunch and head on to the Saladero Lodge. Besides, Dani says that if you had actually seen those pictures, they would have more accurately been described as a balding 30 something wearing a life jacket. What does she know?
After lunch we went ashore to visit the Saladero Lodge and look around for some more birds. I didn't get too many more pictures but we did see a toucan and took a shot of the Lodge from the ship.
This toucan shot is another that was taken through the magical digital viewfinder.

Then it was all aboard for social hour, daily recap and dinner before getting ready for another day. We were lucky today too. We got our first glimpse of the dolphins I mentioned earlier and since we didn't have to worry about our things we ran up front to get some pictures. Unfortunately we just weren't quick enough to get good pictures but we did get this one shot of them coming towards us.
Well, now it is off to bed and time to rest up for tomorrow.

We are headed to the Coiba National Park and some snorkeling off the Granito de Oro or Little Grain of Gold.

See you in the morning.

Photos taken with Canon Powershot A570is