To the Panama Canal and Back - Again!
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I had never seen a dump truck as big as the one we saw while going through the original locks on the Panama Canal during our first voyage. This was in the spring of 2007 and the canal was a beehive of activity while they were engaged in building the new locks that would be able to handle larger and deeper draft vessels. The formal project was set to begin in September of 2007 but the huge earth-moving equipment was already in place and preparing the area for construction. The new locks opened in 2016 and this year, LaVerne and I decided that the perfect Graytripper journey would be to return to the canal for a look at the finished product.
In planning our trip, we decided on a Carnival Journey two-week cruise that would take us to some of the islands near Central America and then on a partial crossing through the Panama Canal. I was a little skeptical about cruising with Carnival since I had thought of their ships as party boats and my partying days are all behind me at this point in life. The deciding factor, however, was that Carnival leaves from Galveston, thereby eliminating the need to fly to Florida to board other lines that offered the canal cruise. Since flying is not my favorite thing to do, Carnival quickly became our ship of choice.
The big day finally arrived. Time to drive to Galveston and begin our quest for canal knowledge. The ship we were sailing on was the Carnival Freedom. As we approached the embarkation area, I was surprised at how beautiful the ship was and how easy Carnival made it to check in, board the ship, and get to our cabins. After getting settled, we ventured out to explore our home away from home and orient ourselves to where all the food locations were - a priority on any cruise. The Freedom is stunning. She was all decked out in Halloween finery and everything was immaculate and looked brand new. We wandered through the Atrium area and then made our way up to the Lido deck for a late lunch and later, to watch as we slowly left the dock and headed south in the Gulf of Mexico. We were off to the Panama Canal and back!
Our first two full days out were sail days. That meant there would be shopping, gambling, games, and other activities designed to promote
fun on the ship. The passengers could be described as being mostly senior citizens and, as everyone knows, seniors do know how to party so the ship was rocking. We had fun competing in the trivia games that had everyone vying for a chance to win the coveted Ship on a Stick prize. That was when I discovered that people really do take their games seriously so I had to buckle down and get my game on. Fortunately, there was a category that I had a little luck with and I managed to come home with one of the highly sought after prizes.
(Now, all I have to do is figure out to which grandchild I will bequeath this wonderful trophy of a game well-played.) During the sail days, we met two of the ship's Fun Squad - Bradley and KC. Bradley handled the atrium games and the bingo games. He was from Belgium and certainly represented Carnival well in his position. He was always upbeat and friendly to everyone on board. KC was from Canada and was the director of the Comedy Club. Since she was Canadian, she asked the nightly audiences to greet her with an "Eh, KC." She was not only a beautiful young lady; she was funny, friendly, energetic, and a good comedienne in her own right. KC was especially fond of cow jokes and shared her repertoire with audiences at the beginning of each comedy act. (What do you call a cow lying down in the pasture? Ground beef!) I hope Carnival knows how wonderful she is and what an asset she is to their company. She needs to be a cruise director on her own ship.
Our first port of call was Grand Cayman Island. To access this island, passengers were required to use a water taxi to transport them to land. LaVerne and I opted not to go ashore but we had a wonderful view of the island from the ship and there were plenty of activities on board the ship to keep us busy during the day. However, in-door activities really aren't needed as the western Caribbean Sea is so beautiful and provides such a wonderful setting that a whole day is easily spent just relaxing in a deck chair and watching the white caps break over the clear, azure waters. Grand Cayman is the largest of the Cayman Islands and is home to blue iguanas, amazon parrots, turtles, and the Central American agouti which slightly resembles a large rat. There is a good variety of plant life on Grand Cayman due to its tropical location with wild banana orchids, ghost orchids, palm trees, and mahogany trees. They also have fruit trees such as breadfruit, tamarind, mango, and avocado. Passengers who went ashore were telling stories of avocados as large as grapefruit. That would be my dream - unlimited guacamole salad. We had a beautiful day weather wise in the Caymans and soon happy tourists were back on board and it was time to head to our next port - Aruba!
Aruba is one of three islands known as the ABC islands - Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, and is part of the Netherlands. The island has wonderful beaches with snorkeling, sailing, and relaxing in the warmth of the Caribbean sun. Excursions take passengers to beaches in open air buses with a little "liquid refreshment" along the way to make the ride even more enjoyable. Aruba has a dry climate and visitors can expect to find warm, sunny weather most of the time. Due to the arid climate, the landscape is covered with various forms of cacti. The island measures about 20 miles long and is 6 miles at its widest point. Amerigo Vespucci landed in Aruba in 1499 and claimed the island for Spain. Vespucci described Aruba as a land of giants due to the tallness of the Caquetios Indians who lived there. After his return to Spain, his stories generated interest in the island and Spain began colonizing Aruba and enslaving the Caquetios. Aruba stayed under Spanish control for 137 years and then became a Dutch territory. Aruba has remained under rule of the Netherlands until this day. The ship did not sail away from Aruba until around 10:00 p.m allowing passengers time to really explore the island and then, we were off to Curacao.
According to the Carnival info on Curacao, the island is "extremely colorful, wildly fun, swimmingly entertaining, and quite stylish. Some say it gives off a European vibe." The water and the beaches certainly fit that description. Most of the on-shore excursions included beach highlights and island tours. Wilemstadt is the capital city of Curacao and is famous for its colonial architecture with pastel colored buildings. The city is home to the Rif Fort which was constructed in 1828 and served to guard the harbor against enemy forces and marauders. The walls of the fort are almost a foot thick, and there were 56 cannons available to dissuade unwanted guests from entering the waters of Curacao. The fort is now home to a shopping mall. The colorful town offers tourists a lot of photo opportunities and the bridges across Sint Anna Bay make a wonderful backdrop. Leaving Curacao, we were able to view the Queen Juliana Bridge as we passed by the bay on our way to Cartagena.
Cartagena is a large, port city in Colombia. The city was founded in 1533 and became the main port for trade between Spain and its neighboring colonies. Cartagena stayed under Spanish rule for more than 275 years. The area named Bocagrande is known for its skyscrapers and is home to most of the tourist attractions. It is located between Cartagena Bay and the Caribbean Sea. Cartagena is famous for its castles, culture, history and colorful buildings. The walled city in the heart of old Cartagena is like a trip back in history. Stone fortresses and huge walls surrounding the area were built by the Spanish and used for protection from raids by pirates and other unsavory visitors. The narrow streets of the old city are lined with kaleidoscopic structures and there are many places to shop and wonderful restaurants. Horse drawn carriages line the streets taking tourists on a sight-seeing trip back in time. Cartagena is also Colombia's main container port. Our ship was docked next to a large container ship and it was fun to watch how the tall cranes lifted each container off the ship and loaded it onto waiting trucks. Cartagena was the most modern of the cities we visited and the last port before we entered the Panama Canal.
There are only a few things in this world that could cause me to wake up at 5:30 in the morning - one being if my house were on fire and another would be traversing the Panama Canal. Fortunately, it was the second that quickly got me up and moving. We were poised at the entrance to the Panama Canal, ready to pass through the new locks. LaVerne and I threw on some clothes and headed up to the Lido deck for an early breakfast. After eating, we joined other early bird passengers on the outside deck to watch as the ship made its way under the Bridge of the Americas to enter the canal. The Panama Canal was completed in 1914 and now serves as a crossing for about 14,000 vessels each year. The canal links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and saves ships from having to travel an additional 7,900 miles to go around the southern tip of South America.The new locks use tugboats to help guide the ship through the three locks. Each of the locks raises the ship by 28ft. to bring it up to the level of Lakes Gatun, Alajuela, and Miraflores and the water locks can be filled or emptied in less than 10 minutes. It took us about 4 hours to make the half crossing into Lake Gatun where we waited for our turn to go back through the locks and lower the ship back down to sea level. The canal crossing is not cheap for shipping companies - the costs range anywhere from $450,000 to almost $1,000,000 based on the size of the vessel. While that sounds expensive, the savings from not having to go the extra mileage more than make up the cost of the crossing.
The new locks have 3 chambers with sliding gates that can hold thousands of liters of water. Once the gates close, water from the lakes flows into the chamber to raise the vessel high enough to enter the next chamber. The same system repeats until the vessel has passed through all 3 chambers and is ready to sail onto the lake. Tugboats stay with the ship through the passage to guide it safely through the locks. The old locks still maintain electric towing locomotives called "mules" that use a cable to pull the ship through the chambers. It is fascinating to watch as the water flows in and begins to raise a ship with a gross tonnage weight average of 100,000 tons. (Makes me wonder why I sink when I try to float in water.) LaVerne and I spent the whole day on deck watching as the ship made its passage. Remembering all the equipment we saw the first time we made the crossing and all the dirt that had to be moved in order to create the new locks, it made this new crossing even more memorable.
The next morning, we docked in Limon, Costa Rica. The weather was not too cooperative and the heavy rainfall caused a delay in letting passengers leave the ship to go on the various shore excursions. LaVerne and I had booked a bus, train, and boat tour that would take around four hours. When the rain let up, we braved the flooded parking lot and boarded the very comfortable tour bus that would take us on a scenic drive to where we would board the train. Limon is the seventh largest city in Costa Rica with a population of over 55,000. Puerto Limon has two port terminals which allow the shipping of Costa Rican exports as well as the docking of cruise ships. Christopher Columbus dropped anchor in Costa Rica in 1502 during his fourth voyage to the area. The town was founded in 1854 and was chosen as the site of a major port that would handle the exportation of coffee from the Central Valley. Limon has a beautiful coast line with large rocks jutting up from the sea, allowing waves to crash against them before rolling onto the beach. Although it was a very gray and rainy day, the turbulent waters with waves slapping the rocks made a stunning visual effect all in gray, black, and white tones.
We soon arrived at the train that would carry us on an impressive tour of the rain forest. This was made even more impressive since the windows were fogged over and the accumulated raindrops made it difficult to see anything outside unless the windows were open. My window seat view of Costa Rica was impaired when raindrops kept falling in my face. It was a good ride though it was also nice to get back on the dry bus to go to our last stop - a boat tour. The dock area where we boarded the tour boat was rapidly filling up with water. We climbed aboard and found a couple of seats. The boat sat very low in the water and had a cover over the top but the sides were completely open. Once again, I sat in the window seat and rain began to soak the right side of my body. I tried to use my umbrella as a shield but it was useless. There are times in life where you just have to roll with whatever you're given. The heavy current of the water made the boat difficult to steer but the operator was able to get us to places where we could view sloths just chillin' out in the trees and monkeys hanging on the branches looking at us looking at them. (In the picture above, the brown figure in the middle is a sloth.) In spite of getting soaked, the boat tour was a lot of fun.
For the last part of the tour, we got back on the bus and drove through enormous banana plantations. The trees were ladened with bananas and each bunch had a large, blue bag placed over the whole stalk that provided protection from insects and spraying. The plantation went on for miles and I couldn't help but wonder how many people it took to put the bags on all those banana stalks. Our tour guide explained that these bananas were grown for the Chiquita banana company and would be exported as soon as they were ready to be picked. We did notice a facility that had many containers stored on the property that were all labeled "Chiquita." After seeing the plantations, I will always remember Limon whenever I add bananas to my grocery cart. We arrived back at the ship just in time to board and get ready for a sea day before we reached our last port - Cozumel.
I don't think Cozumel needs too much explanation since it is such a popular destination point that I'm sure almost everyone has been there at some point in their lives. I will say that the waters in Cozumel are stunning and range from a beautiful turquoise to a dark cerulean blue. Cozumel is great for snorkeling, diving, fishing, or just lying on a beach. LaVerne and I stayed on the ship and spent the day sitting on deck just taking in the beauty of the Caribbean.
The 14 day cruise was incredible. The ship couldn't have been better. Our dinner companions were fun and we were never at a loss for conversation during the meal. The head-waiter and his helpers were spot-on with their service and gave us everything we wanted. That proved to be a challenge on the day they served fried oysters as appetizers. They were the best tasting oysters that I have had since I was a young girl and it seemed that everyone else at our table felt the same. I don't even want to say how many appetizers our table ordered but, we may have set a record! After every meal, there was a short show with the waiters dancing and other members of the crew taking to the microphone to serenade us with great songs. It was a fun time andpanama_canal.html provided the final touch for a wonderful dinner.
The other entertainment areas on the ship were buzzing also. The piano bar was always filled. The Victoriana Theater had some really great performers. The Comedy Club brought in a lot of outstanding comedians to perform during the two weeks. The casino was always bustling although I really don't understand all the new games. I do better with the old put in a coin and pull a lever type of machines. There were musicians in the Atrium playing every evening. Halloween night was fantastic! Passengers dressed up in outstanding costumes and the whole ship had a very festive feeling.
Until LaVerne and took our first cruise in 2006, we had always thought we wouldn't like cruising. All I can say is that we really wasted a lot of time. Going on a cruise is a wonderful adventure and Carnival goes overboard in making sure that everyone had the best experience possible. (Perhaps "goes overboard" is not the best descriptive term for a cruise ship.) It was difficult to leave on the last day knowing that KC and Bradley wouldn't be there to provide entertainment anymore and that someone else would get to sleep in my wonderfully comfortable bed and that I couldn't just sit down at dinner and have food magically appear. As we made our way off the ship, I raised my hand and silently voiced the last "tot ziens" to Bradley and "Eh" to KC. Thanks to everyone for a cruise well done.
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