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Central America

27 November 2002

Introduction

Mexico

Costa Rica

Panama

Honduras

Belize

Nassau

 

Introduction

Before I start on the itinerary and the different ports of call, let me tell you about the ship and life on board, as it is a very important part of the cruise experience. It is said that first time cruisers choose a cruise for its itinerary while repeat customers choose it for the ship, you will see why.

Our ship was the Explorer from the Royal Olympic cruise line. As the name suggests it is a Greek company. The Explorer started its life in Athens and came to Port Canaveral for its maiden voyage so it is a brand new ship. A good part of the crew is Greek, the captain was born in Turkey but lived most of his life in Greece, and there is a Greek night on every cruise.

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Now that we have settled its nationality let's talk of its physical attributes. It is a small ship as far as cruise ships go. When we first boarded it was standing alone so it seemed big enough. For those of you who know about these things it is a 25,000 tons vessel measuring 590 ft (180 m) long and 84 ft (26 m) wide and 24 ft (7 m) draft. It is very elegantly proportioned and boasts a lovely blue and yellow logo on the chimney. There are 7 levels (decks is the proper word for them), and it can hold 836 passengers and 360 crew. BUT its most important attribute, its point of glory, its claim to fame is its speed! It is the fastest cruise ship on earth! It can go up to 30 knots! And believe me the captain tested it! (more about that later).

We got to Cape Canaveral without problems, the boarding procedure went smoothly and we were issued a cabin key card. We were escorted to our cabins by pretty but very stern looking girls, who thankfully warmed up a bit as the cruise went on. Speaking of the crew it is always a curiosity to find out about who they are where they come from and why they choose that life. Of course each person has a different story to tell. We had closer contact with the two people who were assigned to our cabin and the three who served us in the dining room. It sounds very snobbish to say we were served but that is what cruising is about. The cabin is cleaned twice daily, the towels are changed as soon as they have been used, the bed gets turned down at night and a chocolate is left on the pillow along with the next day's schedule. The girl who was assigned to our cabin was from Romania and used to be a dental assistant. She was a gentle girl and we enjoyed chatting with her but she was seasick and worked slowly so we tried not to slow her down with our visiting. We sometimes wondered if she ever got to rest... she seemed to work around the clock... always a sad smile on her face. The dining room crew was different, but I will talk about the eating experience later.

The cabin had a nice size window that opened to a walkway so we did not get waves splashing in it. It was what is called an obstructed view, as we had one of the life boats hanging right in front, but we could still tell if the sun was shining and if we were at sea or nearing land. But mostly it was situated in the middle of the ship, which is a good place to be when seas are rough as it moves less. But more on pitch and roll later.

It was a marvel of ingenuity. We had two single beds, two night tables, good size closets, a chest of drawers, a TV, a mini fridge, a little table and two chairs as well as a vanity.

The bathroom was tiny but as clever: about 3 feet by six it had a shower, a sink, a counter with good storage below and a mean toilet! I say mean because it is not your usual water pressure job, no sir! It is one of those suction things like on airplanes. And what suction!!! You could not afford the risk of courtesy flushes there! You closed the lid and ran every time you hit the flush button, it was so powerful. As for the shower it was humbling. Why humbling you say? Let me tell you. Every time I bent down to pick up the soap that had dropped to the floor or to put down the shampoo bottle that was too big to fit on the little soap dish, the water would stop running. The first time I thought that the water system was defective, so that maybe they shut down the water supply when we got into a port like they close the casino... but it happened at sea also and all I had to do was to turn it back on and it worked fine... until it occurred to me that I was closing it with my butt. Every time I bent down... now granted I am tall but not THAT big... anyways, I never really got used to that nor to the high sill at every door so I stumbled out of the bathroom regularly. Luckily the closet doors were a few inches away so I never had the opportunity to fall flat on my face anywhere, just to bump into things as is my habit even at home.

Once unpacked we set out to explore. It took us days to be able to find out way easily, but so what? I am not too proud to admit that I kept getting the front and the back of the boat confused (when we were inside). The ship is beautifully decorated, nothing garish, there is one wall that is punctuated with glassed niches each one holding a beautiful piece of coral. The staircases each had glass walls with etched sayings in Greek and English. There was a library, a card room and a smoking room that had very cozy atmosphere with comfortable leather seats and lovely wall fixtures.

The Smoking Room

The wall with Corals in glassed niches
One of the etchings on the staircases

There was a piano bar, a casino, a lounge for shows, a discotheque, which was on the very top and had the best view, two dining rooms, one formal and one buffet style, there was a pool deck with a bar and a pizza parlor. There was a spa and a very small gym, two gift shops and a photographers studio plus of course the reception area which was very airy and bright.

The Bar

The Pool

The very first group activity was the emergency drill. It always is. The fun thing about it was the flashing lights that each life vest is equipped with; people turned them on and since it was already dark outside, it felt like a disco party with strobe lights.

Afterwards, since we had chosen to eat at the second seating, we went and sat in the reception area and watched the people go by. This was to be an important part of our activities for the rest of the trip.

Let me tell you about some of our fellow travelers.

There was a group of Canadian travel agents (of which I was a part of). They came from all over, there were people from the Maritimes all the way to B.C. There were singles, couples and families of varying ages. One couple must have been from Calgary as he sported some mighty cowboy hats. On the first day we saw the young man in three separate outfits, each one completely color coordinated, one was a red and yellow shirt with red jeans, then one was a black and beige outfit and finally a blue and white one, with a new hat each time! Many of the remaining passengers seemed to be living in Florida. They were an older group but some of them had fascinating stories to tell. There was a former ice skating champion who lives in Melbourne, a retired Nasa engineer who lives in Palm Bay, a navy captain from Orlando.
One old gal loved to be pampered by the crew so every time she had to go somewhere she would look around for the best looking sailor and she would gesture helplessly to him until he caught on and got her a wheel chair and pushed around for a while. We happened to meet her in Paradise Island and she was hopping along on her own quite nicely.

One couple must have been dance champions in their day. Every night she showed up with her silver dance shoes and a different ballroom dancing dress. He sported a pompadour (albeit a white one) and would often limp back to his seat after a particularly daring move but he kept coming back for more! Another lady caught my eye as she had one of those upswept hairdos white as snow with curls that seem glued on .... It stayed the same for 12 days! But what really impressed me was to see her in the discotheque dancing her heart out to the latest tunes, she had terrific rhythm ! And they all called me "Hon" with that southern drawl. They were darlings!

We met most of them at breakfast as this was open seating. I cannot believe the amount of food some of them ate: eggs, bacon, beans, smoked salmon, cream cheese, bagels, toast, fruit...all together! I wonder if they eat that way at home too! We did see people of all sizes and shapes...some with more dressing style than others.

The Dining Room
At the entrance to the Dining Room
There are two other passengers that I must tell you about, they were the professional dancers, hired to make the single ladies dance at tea time and after the nightly shows. One was tall, with a shaved head, a thin mustache, he was rather stiff and had a somewhat German appearance so we nicknamed him Igor. The other one was shorter, very skinny, with a full head of white hair cut straight across so we called him owl.

I should have started introducing fellow passengers with my cabin mate as she is the one who made my trip so pleasant. To protect her privacy I will name her Blondie. She is a terrific gal, enthusiastic and funny. She had me in stitches time and time again. She is more than a fellow travel agent, she is my mentor. We got along famously and did everything together except one excursion that she had done before so I went alone and one experience that she had at the spa. Let me tell you about that one.

We were visiting the spa and she was complaining of neck pain, the young lady at the desk overheard and proceeded to tell us about their masseur who was a wonderful doctor from India with a magical touch and who happened to be free just then. So Blondie decided to go for it and have the massage so I went back to our cabin to rest. I must have dozed off because I was awakened by a very strong smell of curry, at first I thought I was dreaming of my British friends for whom curry is the ultimate meal, but then I opened my eyes and was startled to see my cabin mate whose hair is normally fine straight and blonde, with greasy spiky hair pointing straight up in the air. Once I got over the shock she explained to me that the masseur had used a pouch of herbs, that he heated up before pouncing on her back and shoulders with it. And of course curry was an important part of the spices in the pouch. As for the hair, well he used lots of oil and massaged her scalp vigorously hence the punk hairstyle. Our cabin smelled of curry for two days until she decided to have her clothing washed. But her neck felt better!

View of the coast from a porthole

The first question people ask about cruises relates to sea sickness. Who does it hit? How bad is it? How do you cure it?

Sea sickness is caused by the roll and pitch of the ship. The rougher the sea, the stronger the movement of the boat. And the higher you are on the ship or the closer you are to the front or back of the ship the more you feel that movement. During the cruise we had fairly rough seas, with waves of up to 20 feet, so we had ups and downs, rattles and rolls, creaking and bangs.

Did I tell you that our ship is the fastest cruise ship in the world? Although it was never confirmed to us I suspect that a ship going full speed ahead will hit the waves harder than a big slow boat. Thanks to the navy captain we learned all about critical speed. It seems that every ship has a speed at which the ship rattles. The captain seemed to hit it mostly when we were in the dining room, so the china and silver made an awful noise and the heated trays on the buffet table swung wildly on their water base. So all in all we had a good sampling of potential sea sickness activity.

I met my waterloo during a presentation we had in the highest lounge, and there happened to be a plate of shiny doughnuts next to the speaker that went up and down, up and down until I had to excuse myself and go lie down. That is when I decided to use a patch and I quickly recovered although it was not without side effects. After complaining about the food for a whole day, I finally noticed that even tooth paste had a strange taste, so it was not the chef it was the patch! Some people swear by Dramamine pills, others by Gravol suppositories, others swallow ginger pills, while others suck on lemons, or eat constantly or drink in the same manner... To each his own I guess.... but there are cures to sea sickness!

If walking a straight line was a challenge, dancing felt like being drunk. Your feet never land when you expect them to and even once my stomach was settled, I still had to deal with the mechanical challenges of a moving environment though. Once again bathing proved to be a challenge as the shower head swung freely around its axis. It felt like washing under an oscillating garden sprinkler... It was impossible to hold it still as one hand was needed to brace myself on the wall and the other was meant to dispense soap... But there was more danger to come as I was nearly transformed into an amazon. Here is what happened: I was sitting at the vanity getting spruced up for dinner, the drawer was open and i was leaning forward applying mascara, when the ship suddenly lurched and I was propelled forward, violently closing the aforementioned drawer ...on my breast....that hurt.... a lot!

Days on board are filled with activities: besides the shore excursions, and the daily exercise classes, there are daily dancing clssas, bridge matches, conferences, demonstrations, concerts, shows.

  On thanksgiving the chefs went creative.

There was also a traditional Greek dance show on Greek night.

The farewell show was particularily rowdy and fun.

 

 

Mexico

After a day at sea we reached our first port of call: Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. This was a brief stop to let passengers off before going to dock in Cozumel which is a nearby island popular with snorkelers and deep sea divers.

We decided to get off in Playa Del Carmen as we had the morning to ourselves. The water was turquoise and the sand white! It reminded me of Cuba. It was surprising how pristine it was right up to the docks. This port felt less touristy ports as many Mexicans board the ferry here to get to work on Cozumel. The town on the other hand is all shops, tourist shops. They sell jewellery, mostly silver and semi precious stones and some arts and crafts. The first ones were fun but after a while they are all the same... except that they each try to tell you that the neighbor sells fakes. I suspect they all belong to the same company or owner. As we walked along, the shop keepers would call us over saying "my turn now!", it was all very friendly. As we went in deeper towards the center of town we got to see other shops, food stores and such but I still got the feeling that few locals shop there.

We had to return to the ship for lunch as we had booked an excursion for the afternoon. So we hopped on the ferry to Cozumel. It was a catamaran, and man did it shake! The sea was rough! They even passed barfbags to everyone. It took 30 minutes but felt like an hour. Never was I happier to get off a boat. The ferry landed quite a distance from where our ship was docked so we got to walk through the town. It was very disappointing. Huge jewellery stores one after the other. I was amused to see an outdoor escalator, this would be unthinkable in Canada!

The Explorer was docked next to a humungous ship, that is when we understood what is meant by small ship.
After lunch we left for a tour of the island and a visit to the Maya site of San Gervasio.
This was the sanctuary of Ixel, the Maya goddess of the moon and fertility. It was an important pilgrimage center. Women from all over the Maya world were required to visit the site at least once in their lifetime to be blessed by the god of fertility. The site occupies 10 acres and is set in a very peaceful jungle setting. This was a moving experience, it was so calm and serene, we spontaneously whispered as if in a church.
There are enough structures left standing to give a fairly good idea of how grandiose it must have been. Walking through the temple and around the altar took us back hundreds of years... The archaeologists working on the site still have a lot to uncover, but they are proceeding very slowly until they find a way to protect what they uncover as it is quite fragile. We were reluctant to leave.
The rest of the afternoon was a terrible anti climax, as we were taken to a beach cum tourist trap. The only saving grace was that we got to watch a wonderful sunset over the ocean. And that was it for the Mexican experience. Of course it is frustrating, and that is the drawback of a cruise, you never stay long enough to really get a feel of the place and you are immediately identified as tourists, but you still get a feel of the place and it may be enough to make you want to come back for a more thorough visit.

 

 

Costa Rica

Our second stop was Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. I had heard that this is a popular destination for people interested in eco-tourism. The rain forest is full of plants and animals. We were offered a choice of two excursions: one was a boat ride through the jungle along the Tortugero canals the other was a ride above the jungle in the aerial tram.

Unfortunately, there had been torrential rains all week prior to our arrival, so much so that some roads had been washed away by mud slides. The aerial tram ride was cancelled, because the road to get there was closed. Luckily I had opted for the Tortugero canal excursion and that was on. We drove through flooded areas, the driver had trouble at times, but he managed to get us to our destination.

When we got there, we were greeted but some musicians playing inside a tent where a table was set up with mounds of fresh pineapples, bananas and coconuts. Costa Rica is famous for those fruits. We even drove by the Dole company containers.
Once everyone had had time to freshen up we boarded the boats, which were long flat motor barges. The river was very high and brown. I do not know if it is always that color but it is not very attractive. We saw a few animals but not many as they were still in hiding after the rain.

We did see some birds drying their wings. We saw a Patoo bird which is supposed to be very rare... I am not sure what it is.... and a couple of sloths. Whenever our guide saw something in the trees the captain would cut the motors and try to immobilize the boat long enough for us to try to see whatever creature was hiding there. At one point he had trouble starting the motor after such a stop and the current was so strong that it carried the boat towards the nearest bridge and it hit it!

What we did see were some interesting flowers.
Later that day we took a walk through Puerto Limon. It seems dirty, there is little to see, besides one nice park. We saw a column of red ants carrying huge pieces of food there.
You get the feeling that there must have been better days as some buildings still show traces of colonial grandeur, but everything is in disrepair. We were told that the rainy season runs from may to February, I think it was said jokingly, but it must be called the rain forest for a reason.

My experience there was not the best but I can well imagine that there is a lot to see and do. It is a place for the adventurous. Not your Miami beach crowd. I would love to go back to really explore the forest.

 

Panama

The next three stops are all in one country: Panama! Going through the canal was the highlight of the trip.

We first stopped in Cristobal. I think it was a way to be ready when our time came to cross the canal. There was a market right on the docks. I must say that as far as tourist shops go this was one of the most pleasant. It was airy, bright and protected from the sun. This is where I saw my first "Molas". Molas are colorful embroidered squares of cotton. They are usually two or three layers thick and often represent stylized animals. It is probably the most typical form of Panamean arts and crafts.

We also got to see a folk dancing show. It was a large group of dancers of all ages, a few of them barely more than four years old. The dances were playful, lots of flirting type of moves.

The boys were handsome and the girls were very pretty, with long dark braids, and colorful costumes.

After waiting a very long time in Cristobal, we were finally escorted to the canal waiting area. There were a lot of boats anchored all around. We were told that they could not go through because they did not have the cash required to cross the canal. It is very expensive to cross, and it needs to be paid in cash! I am surprised there are not more pirates in the area!

The price is calculated according to the tonnage and the number of passengers. A cruise ship can pay in the hundred thousand dollars. Once we were next in line, we had two ships pass by us coming out of the locks, they were so close it was scary! You really thought they were going to hit us!

You need a reservation to cross, and these are made months ahead. It seems there was a delay on the day of our crossing so we finally got into the locks after sundown. Everything is lit up so you see the doors closing and the water rising and then the doors opening and the whole process repeated three times. You also see the small engines on rails on either side of the locks that keep the ships centered. At the end you come out into a lake. As we were not headed for the Pacific ocean, this is where we turned around and went back through the locks a second time.

I had trouble trouble photographing in this light, so I have few pictures to show of the crossing, but it was a memorable event. Everyone was outside, standing on the different bridges, the lighting made it almost surreal in a way. It was hard not to think of the thousands of people who died during the French attempt at digging it out.

Our third stop in Panama, was on San Blas Islands. The ship could not dock there so it dropped anchor a bit further and then used it's emergency boats as tenders. I must say it was fun to ride in them as they are brand new and very fancy!

This is an archipelago. The main island is the only one with fresh water. It is said that the inhabitants come there by boat from the other islands to bathe and do their washing.

They are Cuna Indians, who fled from the mainland to escape the conquistadors. They have retained their traditions and way of dressing. It is very colorful. But it feels fake as all you see are stalls and tables filled with Molas, and all you hear is one dollar, five dollars, ten dollars. They push their kids at you.

The island is beautiful, the people are very picturesque and the molas are incredibly colorful, so it is the ultimate photo opportunity, but it has a disneyesque feel to it that disturbed me.

Honduras

Our next stop is Isla de Roatan in Honduras. It is pretty to look at from the ship as we approach. But once we step on shore it is a disappointment.

The town is dirty, very swampy, many buildings are on stilts. Little boys follow you everywhere until you give them money. There is nice pottery to be found: reddish tones with naive animals carved out or painted.

We had booked an afternoon at the beach. The drive to get there was interesting. We saw, among other things, trees that have soft looking pinkish bark that made the branches look like human legs and arms. The beach itself was very nice although it had sand fleas, but I just do not enjoy being parked in a tourist compound with music and drinks. Many people chose to go diving as there is a nice coral reef along the coast. It was shocking to see the luxury resorts along that beach after seeing the poverty on the surrounding villages.

 

 

Belize

We got to Belize in the rain but we had planned to visit the Mayan site of Xunantunich, so we went anyway. The tour started in Belize city which is a large busy place with some interesting buildings. It was a rather long ride to the site so we got to see quite a bit of the countryside along the way. It is a hilly island with many orange groves. I was surprised to see an shaker community complete with horses and buggies. Also surprising was the number of signs in Chinese. We were told that many people from Taiwan live there.

We had to use an old fashioned ferry to access the site and then had to walk in the rain so that we got there totally soaked.

 

 

The site is magnificent, but the stones were so slippery with the rain that I did not try to climb up. The main building is 130 ft high. On a sunny day it is said that one can see Guatemala from up there (it is only 2 miles away). It rained so hard that we could hardly look up at times, but it is a magnificent site with many temples and archways. Well worth the visit.

Belize has a large number of Maya ruins, it is worth a visit. It is also renowned for it's snorkelling, but the cost of living is high there. On the way back our minivan broke down but luckily the large coach bus was following not far behind, so all we had to do was dash from one to the other in the pouring rain on a narrow country road. The bus smelled of wet cats and we had to stand but it was better than being stranded in a in the middle of nowhere. We were happy to get back on the ship and into dry clothes.

 

 

Nassau

Our last stop: Nassau! The approach is pretty: lots of pastels, pinks mostly. One huge structure stands out on Paradise Island: it is the Atlantis hotel.

But we started with Nassau. Once more tourist shops... offers to braid our hair... and the straw market! It burned down a couple of years ago. I don't know what it looked like before but it is rather depressing now: tables piled high with all sorts of ugly wares, it is dark and crowded. I did not linger.

After lunch we took a cab to Paradise Island to have a closer look at the Atlantis. What can I say? it is huge! It covers 7 acres!

There is a giant aquarium with 50 000 sea animals, a fake Mayan temple, the casino, pools and water slides, shops, restaurants and the list goes on. It feels like Disney: fake and oversized. But obviously it attracts lots of people. Just not my kind of place.


We went back to the ship and sat in the sun, until the captain lifted anchor and headed back to Cape Canaveral.