A Singular Travel Experience: Transiting the Panama Canal

DSC00394Listed as one of the “1000 Places to See Before You Die” in the book of the same name, the Panama Canal also stands as one of the seven wonders of the modern world” – man-made engineering feats that are testimony to the ingenuity and capabilities of modern men and women (among the others are the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France, the Golden Gate Bridge and Toronto’s own CN Tower to name a couple). All of that aside, transiting the Panama Canal has been on our personal “bucket list” for a very long time. We finally did it and it was impressive.

So, why is sitting aboard a ship as it makes its way from the Caribbean Ocean through a series of locks, one large and one small artificially-created lake, a canal and another set of locks such a memorable experience? We’re not really sure it’s a logical thing, but the experience of the transit was just as good as thinking about it for years in advance. And initially, it’s really all about the planning.

With the idea of transiting the canal in our minds, we embarked on a search to find the best route to get there. It would have to be on a cruise ship, we knew for sure. First there are those cruises that don’t actually transit the canal all the way from the Caribbean to the Pacific. They usually enter the Canal from the Caribbean side, make their way into Gatun Lake, the largest of the two man-made lakes, cruise the lake for a few hours and then go back through the Caribbean side locks to carry on a Caribbean cruise – a “partial Transit” as it is known. We wanted to go all the way through.

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The map our on-board lecturer provided – we think it came from Wikipedia

There are lost of cruises that begin in Florida – Fort Lauderdale or Miami – visit an island or two, transit the canal, visit a port or two in Mexico and then end in Los Angeles or even San Diego. We aren’t that stuck on Mexican ports, and had been to LA last winter. This approach would not have permitted us a real travel experience to see new places. So, it would have to be a canal transit that then turned southward upon exit. Enter the Silversea Silver Muse’s inaugural season, picking up passengers in Florida as it continued its way south and around the far southern tip of South America. That’s where we jumped on. So, you see, selecting a cruise for us is not focused on the cruise line or the ship per se. It’s not the cruise that’s the draw: it’s the itinerary.

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Attending Corey’s lecture

When we boarded the ship (more about the ship itself in due course), we found we had lucked into a wonderful on-board lecturer experience. Silversea, to their credit, does offer an on-board enrichment program that provides in-depth information about the ports visited. For us, this was a very important feature on this itinerary since we were completely in the dark about places like Manta, Ecuador and Pisco, Peru (among others) before we embarked on this journey. Former journalist and on-board lecturer Corey Sandler made the entire cruise so much more consequential, and never more so than on the day we transited the canal. One interesting piece of trivia we learned from him is the price ships pay to transit the canal. Our online research suggested that many commercial ships pay around $30,000 (USD) for a transit. Corey told us that Silversea was paying over $150,000 for this one trip! That will add to the price of a cruise!

About two days before, we attended his lecture that provided us with the history and geography that made the transit so much more meaningful. The complete transit is 77 kms (48 miles) from one ocean to another and took over 75,000 workers more than 10 years to complete – finally reaching its completion in 1914. In simple terms, it elevates ships from the Caribbean part of the Atlantic Ocean (in the direction we were traveling) to a series of lakes and canals and across the continental divide in the middle of the isthmus, then down through another series of locks into the Pacific Ocean. It took us a full day.

We entered the first lock at 8 am just behind our sister ship the Silver Expedition that was on its way to the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. We spent three hours on the very top deck where no one ever goes (except for the crowd on the day we transited the canal) in the blazing sun of Panama watching as we entered the first lock. Then the water from above poured in to raise the ship one level; we watched the gates ahead open, then close behind us to elevate us another level, then a third until we emerged in Gatun Lake.

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We approach the first lock. We’ll follow the Silver Expedition into the lock on the right. You can see a large container ship heading our way on the left.

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In Gatun Lake, dotted with islands which are really the tops of mountains rising above the level of where the area was flooded and surrounded by Panamanian jungle, we anchored for a few hours. We had to wait our turn to proceed through the canal into another small lake then eventually to the Pacific side locks where the procedure would be reversed.

During the transit through the locks, and every once in a while, throughout the day when something interesting was going on, Corey, our on-board lecturer who spent the day on the bridge with the ship’s captain, narrated the passage. Without that narration the experience would have been so much less.

After the first few hours we left the upper deck, we had lunch then ensconced ourselves on the stern deck of the Panorama Lounge with a Sea Breeze (or three) in hand to enjoy the afternoon in the lake. As we began our passage into the canal the sky, which had been threatening for several hours, finally exploded into a thunder storm, the rain pelting the deck as we watched from under the awning. We did some lightning-spotting and felt truly in a jungle as we watched the steam rising from the dense greenery on all sides. It was magical.

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We were so much smaller than most of the ships we saw that day!

As we entered the final three locks, we watched from the stern for a bit then it was time to get ready for dinner. We finally removed ourselves from the Panorama deck and made our way to our suite where we turned the television on to the bridge webcam channel so that we could see ahead as we made our way out of the final lock, passing by Panama City, now glittering in the evening darkness.

Yes, it took from 8 am until after dark for the passage and we had a wonderful day knowing that we were benefiting from the blood, sweat and tears of thousands o workers who put their lives on the line – they dealt with accidents, jungle weather for which they were not prepared and most of all, malaria and other contagious diseases. The opening of the Panama Canal changed forever the destinies of a number of formerly major ports on the west coast of South America, a situation that would become even more obvious to us as we began our passage south to visit them.

If you have some time, and would like to see the transit as we experienced it, here’s our video…

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Visiting Lima, Peru: A private guided tour

We live in Toronto, the fourth-largest city in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA. But our population is just shy of 3 million (LA is just shy of 4 million). When Canadians think about Toronto, they have a perception that it is large…enormous…populous…crowded…massive. Well, that’s because they’ve never visited so many of the cities on other continents. Take Lima, Peru. Who knew that the population of Lima is in the vicinity of 10 million with a population density of over 3000 inhabitants per square kilometre! Until we visited the city a few weeks ago, we certainly didn’t.

Lima locator map

We arrived at the port city of Callao, 14 kilometres west of Lima. Since the city of Lima is largely built on oceanside cliffs overlooking a long stretch of beach, no cruise ships – or ships of any type for that matter – dock in the city itself. So, we boarded the cruise line shuttle, a modern, air-conditioned bus, that transported us from the pier to a part of Lima called Miraflores. Although we didn’t know it at the time, there is a very good reason for taking this shuttle and not meeting a tour guide at the entrance to the port, but we need to back-track for a moment.

We really are not fans of shore excursions organized by cruise lines. The reasons for this are many and we’ll spend a bit more time on those reasons in a future post. For now, let’s just say that we like to be in control. However, that doesn’t always mean that we want to be completely self-guided; we just want to be able to go at our own pace and see the things that interest us. Enter the world of the private guide.

When we planned the recent cruise to South America, we perused the cruise-line’s offerings for shore excursions then surfed on over to Tours-by-Locals, a Vancouver-based, internationally-focused tour company that offers private, licensed, vetted guides in some 158 countries. We had the pleasure of discovering them a couple of years ago when we were searching for a guide in Ephesus and Istanbul. [See our post here.] After that wonderful experience, it only made sense to see what they had to offer in a few of our port stops. In Lima we discovered a tour-guide whose offerings looked like just what we wanted.

We contacted Aaron through the Tours-by-Locals site, and conducted all our preparations directly through him, using the site as a way to document and pay for the experience. It was during these preparations that Aaron mentioned that he would meet us in the “safe” spot that the cruise shuttle would drop us. We wondered about the 45-minute drive into Lima (only 14 km. but lots of traffic!) to meet him, but as soon as the shuttle bus pulled outside the port gate, it was clear to us why he had wanted us to meet him in Lima.

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The J.W. Marriott Hotel in Lima where the Silversea shuttle dropped off passengers

The port shuttle took passengers from the pier only to drop them in a seedy spot just outside the gate populated by unlicensed taxis, questionable characters, and lots of grime. We considered how we might have felt waiting for our guide at that spot, or later on waiting for the shuttle to be dropped off. All in all, it was much preferable to be dropped in front of the uber-modern J.W. Marriott Hotel in Miraflores, one of the chicest neighbourhoods in the city of Lima. Yes, it was a good call on Aaron’s part. We called him as we left the port on the bus and as promised, he was waiting for us on the sidewalk when we arrived in Lima.

Aaron had arranged for his brother to be our driver. We knew from previous experience touring other cities (Rome & Istanbul come immediately to mind) that having a driver in addition to a guide makes city touring even more enjoyable. That obviates the necessity for a guide doubling as a driver who is forced to spend time searching for parking spots. It also means that we can be dropped off at any corner, in any amount of traffic with plans to meet the driver at some other point. The we can walk which is, of course, the best way to see a city.

DSC00775Aaron started our tour in the historic area of Barranco. Considered to be the city’s most romantic and bohemian districts, Barranco was at one time a summer beach resort. Aaron took us to a lovely, small café for coffee before we carried on to Lima’s downtown financial district then on to The Larco Museum, which must hold the largest collection of pre-Columbian art in the world! It consists of over 50,000 pieces of ceramic art including a large selection of pre-Columbian erotica. It is not to be missed.

Of course, no visit to a Spanish colonial city is complete without spending some time in its Plaza des Armas, a central fixture of every city with Spanish roots. The plaza was originally building the sixteenth century and of course has as one of its most important features, the Cathedral of Lima. Completed in the seventeenth century, 1622 to be precise, it still stands in the square today.

 

A lively square populated with all manner of tourists, the square gives the that sense of history that holds the key to the city’s past. But after that visit, it was off to lunch. At Aaron’s apartment.

We arrived at Aaron’s apartment where his mother was already hard at work preparing for us a typical Peruvian lunch whose centrepiece was her ceviche which she taught us how to make.

But it was Aaron’s Pisco sour lesson that, for us, was  the highlight. We didn’t know it at the time, but for the rest of our remaining two weeks in Peru and Chile, we would have one every chance we had.

A brandy-type of liquor, Pisco is distilled from grapes and is a staple of bars in both Peru and Chile, although the actual process for making the liquor is slightly different in each country. It can be used as the basis for a number of cocktails, or taken over ice, but Pisco is best know for it use in the ubiquitous Pisco sour. The drink’s ingredients are Pisco, fresh lime juice (which Aaron squeezed from tiny Peruvian key limes), and egg white in a blender with ice. Then he topped it with a drop of orange bitters – Aaron’s own recipe. We swooned.

Soon, however, lunch was over and Aaron deposited us back in Miraflores where, true to his promise, he led us to a shop where Patty began her search for an alpaca sweater. It wasn’t successful that day, but we still had a week in Peru! She’d find one.

Bottom line: our top pointers for visiting Lima via a cruise ship:

  1. Meet your tour guide in Lima rather than in the port of Callao. You will be happier and safer. Take the cruise line’s shuttle, sit back and enjoy the mostly beach-side drive.
  2. Book a private guide on Tours-by-Locals. We have found them to be a terrific value and have given us experiences you just cannot get with a group.

Cruising to Chile: Live Blog #4 (Cruising to Ecuador)

As we cruise from Florida toward Chile aboard the beautiful, new Silver Muse, you might well observe that we seem to have gotten ourselves from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific without further detail. Well, we navigated through the Panama Canal. However, that was such a singular experience, that we’ll wait until we get home to tell you a story. That said, we spent the day in Ecuador.

We arrived in Manta, an industrial fishing port on Ecuador’s coast to be greeted by a cadre of modern-looking coaches at the ready to take passengers to various expeditions. We traveled inland and then back along the coast to visit an archaeological site in a place called Aqua Blanca, White Water. A remote commune of pure indigenous people, the village is home to a small dig evidently led by a Canadian archeologist. Sadly, he was nowhere to be found…we would have loved to have had his commentary. But our guide did his best.

We then hiked 3 km through the well-worn, back woods trails of this village stopping (a few too many times it has to be said) to observe this or that bird.

One of the striking things about this part of Ecuador is the changing vistas: one minute you’re driving through a dry forest, then the next the greenery tells you that you’ve arrived in the cloud forest. But the best vistas of all are the long views of endless beaches, most of which have far too dangerous tides and surf to venture into. But the one beach we did visit was clearly one where you could enjoy the water. Well, the fact that we had to sit in the sand to eat our lunch was a story for another day!

Now it’s on to Peru…

Cruising to Chile: Live Blog #3 (Costa Rica)

Neither of us can remember exactly how many years ago we spent a wonderful two-week holiday touring Costa Rica, but today, courtesy of our cruise ship, we spent the day in the Puerto Limon area on the Caribbean coast.

That original trip saw us spend most of our time on the Pacific coast, central valley including San Jose the capital and the area around the Arenal volcano. The two sides seem very different to us.

We spent this morning on a ship-organized excursion called the “Eco-river cruise.” We took a bus through the truly unprepossessing port town of Limon to a canal/river through a mangrove stand to see if we could spot some flora and fauna. We saw a few birds, the rear end of a sloth and some monkeys high up in the trees, but there were no crocodiles in sight. We saw so many the last time we were here. Evidently they are indeed much more common on the west coast.

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Overall, it was a bit dull, but it’s always nice to visit a port. We were struck by the fact that if this experience were to be the only introduction that many of these passengers would get to an otherwise wonderful country, they might pass on the chance to return.

The weather is as usual very hot and humid. According to the report this morning, the humidity currently stands at 97% and we have a feel-like temperature of 38 C. Then it rained.

Our recommendations: fly into San Jose and head directly to the Pacific coast to Manuel Antonio Park. The Costa Rica you’ll find there is the Costa Rica you’ll long to return to! Panama Canal transit tomorrow. Cannot wait! (PS having a lot of trouble uploading photos on the satellite feed…more with stories when we get home!)