Monkey Watch

Monkey Watch was one of the excursion options on our recent Panama Canal cruise. The tour left from the pier at Panama City, after we had transited the canal itself. Panama has a large harbor but it is not set up to accommodate cruise ships so we took one of the tenders to get to shore. 

One of the ship’s tenders ferrying people to the pier.

From there we took a bus that went up past the Milaflores and Pedro Miguel locks to the junction of the Chagres River with the Panama Canal. The Chagres used to flow all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, but when the canal was built, the mouth of the river was dammed to form the Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake in the world at the time. The section of the Panama Canal from the lake to Gamboa is still considered part of the Chagres River. The boat launch was just the other side of the bridge that crosses the Chagres. 

The boat launch area for the Monkey watch tour.

There were enough people to fill several of the canopied boats. Our route took us under the bridge and onto the part of the river that is part of the canal route.

The Chagres River junction. The Chagres forks off to the right. Ahead is the part of the river that is also part of the canal.

 

One of the Monkey watch tour boats speeding along the river. The river has been widened here for ship traffic, and shored up with boulders.

We went downstream for a way to where the river widens into a group of islands actually known as the Monkey Islands. 

We were told by our guide that we would possibly see three different varieties of monkey and that proved to be the case. We followed another one of the tour boats towards the shore of one of the islands, pulled in close and encountered some Geoffroy’s Tamarins, also known as the Panamanian Tamarin. It is a very distinctive species with its bulldog-like face, white chest and brownish-red nape.

The distinctive Panamanian Tamarin monkey.

These particular monkeys ventured close to take some treats, even venturing onto the tour boats. Below is a video of some Tamarin monkeys on the boat.

We encountered Tamarins again later in our excursion but after this group, we headed on and came upon a very lively group of Capuchin monkeys. The Capuchins are even friendlier than the Tamarins. There were also a lot more of them.

A Capuchin monkey comes down from the trees.
And approaches our boat.
Have you got a treat for me?

I also shot a video of these delightful creatures. It’s a bit shaky as I try to follow their movements but it captures their liveliness well. 

The whole area around the Monkey Islands is verdant jungle. This is tropical rain forest and the rains, in fact, are one of the things that made the Panama Canal work. To move the ships up and down the locks uses up a considerable amount of water. Without constant replenishment, of the water, the canal could not operate. 

The lushness of the jungle is evident all around.

 

These lovely water plants are some of the flora of the area.

The third group of monkeys we saw are the howlers. The Howler monkey is so named because of its loud guttural howls which can be heard three miles away. They are said to be the loudest land animal. The howls are thought to relate to territoriality and mate-guarding.  The Howlers are a more reclusive species than the Capuchins or Tamarins. They did not venture down to the boats. They were often hard to spot, but we did see some that were clearly visible.

Two Howler monkeys in a tree. Howlers are quadrupedal, using all four limbs and sometimes their tail to navigate the trees.

 

A Howler monkey navigates the edge of a palm frond.

We enjoyed our jungle excursion. Along the way we got to see some of the activity of vessels navigating the Panama Canal as well as the wildlife. Below are some links of interest including an additional photo gallery of our visit.

Photo Gallery: Monkey Watch

Here are some additional photos from our Monkey Watch tour.

One of the tour boats in our group.

The bridge over the Chagres River at its junction with the Panama Canal.

A Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkey

A Tamarin monkey clings to a tree.

Although herbivores  and insectivores, these monkeys have very sharp teeth.

We also saw some birds on our excursion, including this magnificent eagle.

A Capuchin gets ready to board one of the boats.

The Capuchins were very friendly.

A wonderful wilderness.

A juvenile Howler monkey peeks out between the leaves.

All in all, our Monkey Watch adventure was a very enjoyable experience.

Transiting the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal was listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World in a BBC miniseries produced in 2003. A marvel of engineering, the story behind it is truly incredible. Almost everyone has heard of it, but few know much about it.

We had the privilege of taking a cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles in November which crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the canal. The actual crossing takes eight hours.

The Atlantic side begins at the bottom of the scoop of Limon Bay where an inlet leads to the Gatun Locks. Everyone was crowded onto the decks to watch as we entered the locks.

Entering the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal

The map below shows the Panama Canal. To call it a canal is a bit of a misnomer as it is actually a series of waterways that includes a bay, a set of locks, a man-made lake, a river, an actual canal, and another two sets of locks towards the Pacific side. Click on the plus or minis signs to zoom in or out on the map below.

Looking back after entering the first of the Gatun Locks, we can see the Atlantic Bridge in the distance.

The first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama was Vasco Nunez de Balboa who, accompanied by 1000 natives and 190 Spaniards, made the 40 mile crossing and sighted the Pacific Ocean in September 1513. He claimed the Great South Sea and all shores washed by it for King Ferdinand of Spain.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa

An overland route was established and the Spanish conquistadors who conquered vast territories of South America would ship gold from Peru to the town of Panama on the Pacific where it would be transported to the Atlantic by mule train.

From the mid-1500s to the mid-1700s, this route transported Spanish gold as well as silver from Mexico to be on-shipped twice a year to Spain.

The British eventually ousted the Spaniards from much of the Caribbean to claim dominance in the area. With the discovery of gold in California in the mid-1800s, the Americans now had an interest in the Panama crossing.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, engineer and entrepreneur, made the first attempt to build the Panama Canal.

By 1875, the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had built the Suez Canal a few years before, expressed an interest in building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The Suez Canal was 120 miles long. The Isthmuzs of Panama was only 40 miles across. What could go wrong?

In fact, de Lesseps success at Suez was part of his undoing. The Suez was a sea-level canal dug through sandy dessert. The Isthmus of Panama was a treacherous route that crossed vast jungles infested with yellow fever and malaria bearing mosquitoes.

De Lesseps was adamantly against building locks, believing a sea-level canal would do just dandy. French civil engineering was the best in the world at the time and the first crew of French engineers arrived in 1881.

French excavation efforts on the Culebra Cut in 1896.

Over twenty years of effort by the French ended in failure. Over 20,000 men died of yellow fever and malaria in the effort. 800,000 investors were wiped out. The de Lesseps were prosecuted in a huge bribery scandal. Even the late involvement of Gustave Eiffel could not save it. A new company took over in 1894, the same year Ferdinand de Lesseps died,  and kept what was built in saleable condition. Eventually the American government took over in 1904 and finished the canal in 1914.

The Americans took a different approach to the French. They maintained and expanded the work done on the Culebra Cut which runs for nine miles from the Chagres River (Gamboa on the map) to where today’s Pedro Miguel Locks (not far east of the Milaflores Locks) are located. But they dammed up the river in 1906 at the Atlantic Ocean, creating the largest dam and the largest man-made lake in the world at the time. Most of the distance traveled through the Panama Canal goes over the Gatun Lake and a section of the Chagres River.

Approaching the last lock of the Gatun Locks, you can see Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake in the world when it was created.

The original locks have two channels, one going in each direction. A parallel set has recently been built to accommodate larger ships. They were opened in 2016. We took the old set of locks, the original Panama canal.

The operation of the locks is impressive. The Gatun Locks raises ships 85 feet above sea level in three stages to reach Gatun Lake. Below is a video of the gates closing behind us at the first lock.

After the gates are closed, water is allowed into the lock to raise the ship to the next level. The water flow is quite swift and you can actually see it going up. The video below captures the water flowing. Watch the water level against the lock gate to see how quickly it rises.

Ships do not go through the Panama Canal’s locks on their own power. They are towed through the locks by train locomotives known as mules. Two mules on each side, fore and aft, tow the vessel.

One of the mules towing our ship.

As vessel traffic is in both directions, we entered the middle lock at the same time that a ship going in that opposite direction entered. The video below shows our ship and the cargo vessel Chasselas passing each other as we enter the middle locks.

About a thousand ships passed through the canal the first year it opened. In 2008, 14,702 ships passed through. It brings in revenue of $2 billion a year on costs of just $600 million. The Americans retained control of the canal until it was handed over to Panama in 1999. The treaty stipulates that the U.S. retains “the permanent right to defend the canal from any threat that might interfere with its continued neutral service to ships of all nations.” Panama has complete control over operations and has, in fact, expanded and improved the canal’s operations since taking control.

We were on a lower deck while passing the Charrelas and notices the shadows of people on the upper deck against the top of the freighter. An interesting sight.

The shadows of passengers on our cruise ship graced the side of the freighter Charrelas as we passed.

Finally we were in the third of the Gatun Locks and ready to enter Gatun Lake for the sailing to the Pedro Miguel Lock some forty miles away.

The last lock gates open and we are ready to sail through Gatun Lake.

Now I don’t know if this ritual is carried on by all cruise ships passing the canal, but our ship had an elaborate ritual, the Transitting the Panama Canal Official Ceremony, at noon on that day. The local native Chief Seneco and his wife, accompanied by two “mermaids” took seats of honor at the Centrum as the ship’s executive staff paid homage to the Chief and asked permission to travel across their territory.

The Chief and his wife flanked by two lovely mermaids.

Our Cruise Director, Steve Davis, conducted the ceremony which included executive staff members doing penance for alleged transgressions, like knocking on stateroom doors in the middle of the night as a prank, using too much hair gel, spiking drinks in the day spa, or turning up the sensitivity of the metal detectors so everyone would beep on returning from a shore excursion.

Punishments for these transgressions got moire severe as the rank of the executives staff members got higher. First they had raw eggs mashed on their heads, then they were pied, then spaghetti poured on with tomato sauce, and when the Hotel Director and another fellow were brought forward, they had to kiss a fish.

Two executive staff members had to kiss a fish after being egged, pied, and spaghettied during the Transit Ceremony.

Cruise Director Davis revelled in this melee as he announced them and “punishments” were inflicted. But as the ceremony reached an end, Chief Seneco commented that there was one transgressor who had not been brought forward. Yes! Cruise Director Davis himself. Below is a video of Davis getting his come-uppance.

We continued on through the Gatun Lake until we got to the mouth of the Chagres River. The Chagres River used to flow all the way to the Atlantic but now most of it has become the Gatun Lake. What remains is navigable and dotted with little islands. Our excursion the next day took us by bus to where the Chagres meets the Culebra Cut and from there we took a motor boat along the Chagres to the islands near Gatun Lake. The islands are populated by monkeys.

One of the tour boats on the Money Watch tour. Note the Chagres River has been widened at points and shored up with riprap.

We saw a number of freighters along the way including a liquid natural gas carrier.

The Diamond Gas Orchid is an LNG carrier we saw on the Chagres River portion of the Panama Canal. You can see some of the lush jungle vegetation in the background.

Some of the islands dotting the confluence of the Chagres and Gatun Lake. We took an excursion here to see monkeys in the wild.

The Culebra Cut is an actual canal, started by the French and completed by the Americans. It runs nine miles from its junction with the Chagres River to the Pedro Miguel Locks.

The Culebra Cut, a man-made canal, forms nine miles of the Panama Canal.

All in all, the transit of the Panama Canal was an entertaining and informative event. I bought a book about the canal on board and the history behind it is a fascinating story of daring and courage, hardship and failure, political intrigue, and ultimate triumph. Truly one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Additional Links of Interest

Photo Gallery: Panama Canal

Here are some additional photographs of the Panama Canal.

In the first of the Gatun Locks looking back.

A freighter starts to enter the lock ahead of us. Note that the mules that tow the ships go up and down fairly steep inclines as they go from lock to lock.

Here you can see the two forward mules on the freighter’s starboard side.

The command center.

Entering the last lock.

The gates open to let us on to Gatun Lake.

Cruise Director Steve Davis after getting his “punishment” for disrespecting the Chief.

The Chagres River forms a part of the Panama Canal. It forks to the right here under a bridge. This is where we caught a motor launch to watch monkeys the next day.

Passing through the Culebra Cut, a nine mile long canal from the Chagres River to the Pedro Miguel Locks.

And as a teaser for my next post, here is one of the monkeys we saw on our excursion.

That completes our Panama Canal transit. A truly amazing experience.

Cartagena, Colombia

When we booked our excursion online for Cartagena, we knew nothing about the city. Since we booked a tour of a 16th century Spanish fort, we thought it might be a sleepy little city like Cadiz or Malaga in Spain. Malaga is actually a good size with around 570,000 people but it doesn’t seem large. It has two castles within walking distance of the cruise port along with lush gardens and cobblestone streets.

We were quite surprised to learn that Cartagena actually has a population of a million. It is a modern, bustling city and a major seaport. One thing tourists might be happy to know is that there is free wifi provided by the city. I don’t know if this is citywide or just in the old parts of the city which are tourist destinations.

Cartagena is a modern bustling city and a major seaport.

Though a modern city, Cartagena is steeped in history. And our tour took us through a lot of Spanish American history.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Our first stop was the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, an old Spanish fortress dating from 1536. The original fort was expanded in 1657. In 1984 it was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The front facade is impressive. Massive stone walls surround this hilltop fortress. Access today is by a sloped roadway leading up to the castle proper. The picture heading up this blog post is a composite of three pictures as it was too large to get it into one picture from directly in front of it.

The Castillo San Felipe is a World Heritage Site. The castle dates from 1536.

Cartagena has a mix of wealth and poverty, and street hawkers are common. They had their souvenir stands all along the walkway. One fellow, and we don’t know if he was a busker or hired by the castle, was in costume playing trumpet. He’d ask what country you were from, and would play something relevant. He played a few bars of Oh Canada for us.

We strolled up the sloping roadway to the first level and from there we took a long tunnel up to the top level.

This is one of many tunnels all around the old part of Cartagena. This one led to the top level of the fortress.

From the top you command an excellent view of the city.

The castle is massive and its size can be readily seen from its summit.

This photo was blended from two others to create this panoramic view.

There were a number of guard towers along the top as well as cannon emplacements.

One corner at the upper level of the fortress, with guard tower and cannon at the ready.

The one downside to cruise ship shore excursions is that they give you a flavour of a place but are too short to really enjoy something in depth. Though we spent maybe 45 minutes to an hour at the fortress, you could easily spend several hours exploring.

The Shops and the City Wall

The Castillo San Felipe is just one of ancient Cartagena’s fortifications. It served primarily to protect against an inland attack. Facing the sea is a battlement that extends around the old city. It is, in fact, a walled city.

Jam-packed boulevard outside the city wall. Traffic is pretty crazy in Cartagena. Luckily we were going the other way.

We were soon herded back on the bus and made our way to the a tourist shopping mall of sorts. Our drive tool us along a boulevard outside the wall. The shops lie just below one flank of the wall.

This long building hosts over a dozen shops, all geared towards tourists.

Our guide told us while we were on the bus that there are a lot of buskers and street folks trying to make a buck in Cartagena. He told us not to take photos of women with baskets on their heads or people posing as living statues. They will want a dollar from you for taking their picture. And others will move in trying to get you to take their picture as well.

The Carmen Mirandas were prevalent at this mall, and I found them so enchanting, I gave one a buck to have her picture taken with Janis. 

Everywhere in Central America and in Cartagena we saw women with baskets on their heads. Here’s Janis with a colorful local woman.

We saw women carrying baskets on their heads throughout the rest of our visit to Central America, most notably in Guatemala. Amazingly, they don’t hold onto the baskets or bowls. They just walk around with them perfectly balanced. It must give them a start if ever they have to sneeze! 

Behind the shops was a battlement above the wall that encircles the old city. It has been incorporated into a vast park and boardwalk. 

Old Cartagena is a walled city. On the left at the top is a sloped tunnel going down below.
The broad boardwalk above the wall. There are guard towers at junctures along the wall.

From the market we took a short bus trip to a section of the old town, historic and well preserved buildings from the past. They were a colorful sight. Many had beautiful balconies, often festooned with flower baskets.

Beautiful old style Spanish colonial homes in the old section of Cartagena.

 

Colorful baskets line some of the balconies in old Cartagena.

Now our guide had warned us not to take pictures of people without permission. Take a close look at the next picture. You’ll see the people of the tour bus walking past some of the old houses. And you’ll note a statue of a fisherman in front of one of them. Not!

Some of the old buildings in Cartagena. Notice the black statue of a fisherman in front of the house on the right.

It was one of those human statues, a busker pretending to be a statue. He was very, very convincing. I actually thought it was a statue. After the crowd had thinned, I lined him up in my camera and was just about to take a picture when he moved forward and asked for a dollar. Well he moved too soon. I hadn’t taken the picture yet and told him so. I wasn’t paying for a photo I hadn’t taken. He chased me down the street for a block demanding money and finally gave up. Below is a blown up section of the above photo. I’ve lightened the shadows so you can see it is actually a person.

A pretty convincing human statue.

If I had already taken the photo, I would have felt obligated to pay him and would have.  But these folks could really take a lesson from the human statues we saw in Malaga, Spain in 2009. There the statues have a hat for donations in front of them and if you toss in a coin, they start to move. Everyone wants to see them move. They haul in a lot of money. 

From there we went to the Museum of the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition’s tentacles reached out even to the Americas. Cartagena was the third center for this evil and nefarious monstrosity this side of the Atlantic after Lima and Mexico City.

The Museum of the Inquisition is through these gates. which lead to an inner courtyard and then to the museum.

Our tour of the museum was very abbreviated, taking in a preview section consisting mostly of signs relating the history of the inquisition in the Americas. The museum consists of three houses built around 1770 to serve as headquarters for the Court of the Holy Offices. The inquisition had been operating in Cartagena since 1610. 

The museum is on the other side of a courtyard. A large sign gives the history of the buildings and the inquisition.

A sign at the entrance has the curious wording:  Inquisicion Derechos Humanos y Convivencia – Inquisition, Human Rights & Conviviality. There is nothing convivial about the inquisition, but a large sign relating the history of the buildings and the inquisition explains the incongruity: “This house, being a space dedicated in the past to the intolerance, today is turned into a scenario of healthy conviviality around the Memory of the City and its people.” 

Inside were displays, mostly signs, explaining the history and practices of the inquisition.  There were also a few replicas of torture devices used to extract confessions from the accused. One sign notes that no accused was ever acquitted by the court.

Replicas of some torture devices were on display. Elsewhere in the museum were a rack and other larger devices which we did not see.

What could have a person arrested by the court? In a word, heresy. The sign below explains.

If you were anything other than a good Catholic, you could be hauled before the ecclesiastical court. Those indicted included indigenous people and Jews.

The Inquisition in Cartagena operated for over two hundred years, from 1610 to 1821. During that time nearly 900 people were prosecuted. Five were burned at the stake. There were 56 autos de fe, a ceremonial procession at which the accused were to confess their crimes. These could be compared to the Stalinist show trials in the Soviet Union. 

Outside, another courtyard showing more instruments for the destruction of human beings – a gallows, and, curiously, a guillotine, though the guillotine was never used in Cartagena. It was used by the French at Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana.

A gallows on display in another courtyard.

After our short visit, we proceeded through Simon Bolivar Park with its large statue of the liberator of South America. Known as El Libertador, he liberated  Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama from the Spanish Empire.

A statue of Colombia’s national hero, Simon Bolivar, know as El Libertador.

And from Simon Bolivar Park we walked to the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver.  Pedro Claver was a Spanish Jesuit priest and missionary who, ironically, arrived in Cartagena the same year that the inquisition started – 1610. But he was not one of the zealots. According to Wikipedia, “he was deeply disturbed by the harsh treatment and living conditions of the black slaves who were brought from Africa.” He ministered to slaves all his life. 

Iglesias de San Pedro Claver – the Church of St. Peter Claver. He is known as the patron saint of slaves and seafarers.

 

The beautiful altar of the Church of San Pedro Claver.

The church was built during his lifetime and was completed the year he died. Originally named the church of San Juan de Dios, it was renamed in San Pedro Claver’s honor after he achieved sainthood. He is regarded as the patron saint of slaves and seafarers. 

The dome above replaced the original dome in 1921.

Our guide asked us if we had ever seen the bones of a saint. No one had, but after the tour, we all had. San Pedro’s bones are housed in a glass case under the altar.

The bones of San Pedro Claver are housed in a glass case under the altar.

From the church we went out to the square and the surrounding neighborhood. Buildings in Spanish colonial style have a certain charm with their bright colors and window boxes.

Town square across from the Iglesia de San Pedro Calaver.

It happened to be Janis’s birthday that day so we visited a gem shop endorsed by the cruise line. Colombia is known for its emeralds and I got her a beautiful ring with three emeralds. Down the street a bit we arrived back at the Simon Bolivar Park. 

Besides emeralds, Colombia is best known for its coffee. You may remember the coffee commercials promoting Colombian coffee.

Now I don’t know if Juan Valdez was a real person or if he was an ad company’s creation, but he became the iconic symbol of Colombian coffee. We did not see a Starbucks in Colombia but were delighted to discover there was a Juan Valdez Cafe across from Simon Bolivar Park. Naturally we had to have a coffee there.

We just had to have a genuine Juan Valdez coffee!

The area was a bustling one, lots of traffic and street vendors. I have an eye for the quirky when we travel. I am always intrigued by the offbeat and weird. Note the street hawker in the photo below. There is enlarged closeup after that.

The street hawker on the right had an unusual sign and an unusual product. Below is an isolated, video-enhanced part of the photo.

 

Yep! She was selling an aphrodisiac made from Big Ass Ants! No! I did not buy some!

She was not the only street vendor selling Big Ass Ants aphrodisiac. I saw at least three in the area. 

In any event, our tour was now at an end and we hopped back on the bus and back to the port. But there was one more place to visit. There is a small but excellent zoo at the port.

The Port Oasis is a small but excellent small zoo at the cruise ship port. The “T” seems to have fallen off the sign.

The zoo featured lots of tropical birds as well as some animals, all indigenous to Colombia.  I have put together a separate photo gallery of the zoo.

All in all, Cartagena was one of the more interesting ports we visited. It is well worth a visit. Maybe circumstances will allow a longer more extended visit in the future.

Links of Interest

Photo Gallery: Cartagena, Colombia

Here are some additional photos of our visit to Cartagena. The picture above shows a panoramic scene of the city through a gun turret at the top of the fortress San Felipe.

The highest point of the fortress of San Felipe can be reached by these stairs or by a narrow, sloping tunnel.
Janis with a cannon overlooking the city.
Yours truly with a captured cannon. Cannons that were captured were cemented upright into the sloped road leading to the top of the fortress. They were then used to help haul goods up the slope by throwing a rope around the cannon and pulling.
The Colombian flag flying above the castle.
On the roadway below, vendors have set up their wares.
Part of the castillo was undergoing restoration while we were there.
At the castle summit.
The statue of Simon Bolivar in the park named after him.
The old city is surrounded by this wall. Cannons are still in place in some spots.
The owner of the second shop in this mall was the smart one. He made his washrooms free to the public, which resulted in a lot more traffic for his store. We bought a dress for our granddaughter there.
One of the shops at this mall. They were all very similar though they differed in some of the products they were selling.
A guard tower and some public art on the boardwalk atop the city wall.
The church of St. Peter Claver.
This lovely colonial style building is across the street from the church.
There was a collection of metal sculptures in the plaza.
In the distance you can see the St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral.
Our ship, the Vision of the Seas, awaits our return.

Photo Gallery: The Port Oasis EcoPark

Adjacent to the cruise ship port in Cartagena is a small zoo called the Port Oasis EcoPark. It features a lot of birds and a few animals as well, notably two giant anteaters.  Admission is free. Here are some photos.

Both Scarlet and Blue-and-Yellow Macaws abounded at the Port Oasis. Both are indigenous to Colombia.

Here a Scarlet Macaw is grooming a Blue and Yellow Macaw, while their friend raises his wing as if to say “Nothing to see here folks!”

A quizzical looking Blue and Yellow Macaw. Macaws are part of the parrot family. They are among the most intelligent of birds.

The South American Red Squirrel is a very bright red, more so than his North American cousin.

Not sure what this critter is. It was in the same pen as the giant anteaters.

Yes, the giant anteater is native to Colombia. They really are quite large with very narrow pointed head.

This pair of giant anteaters seemed to like hanging out together.

The EcoPark is owned and operated by the Port of Cartagena. It has lush jungle vegetation and really is an oasis in the middle of an industrial area.

We had seen this beautiful tropical plant before, at the Cloud Forest conservatory at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay.

There were also flamingos and black swans. While flamingos are native to Colombia, I do not believe black swans are.They are an Australian bird, though black swans are known to be nomadic.

A pair of flamingos.

The Port Oasis EcoPark is a delightful mini-zoo and well worth a visit. It also has an extensive gift shop.

Our Panama Canal Cruise

One of the things on our bucket list was to take a cruise through the Panama Canal.  On Nov. 15 we did just that. It was a sixteen day cruise that left from Fort Lauderdale, traversed the Panama Canal, and ended up in Los Angeles. There were six ports-of-call along the way.

Our ship was Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas. She was specifically built to do the Panama Canal circuit and barely fits in the locks of the canal. This was our second time on the Vision as we had taken the same ship on a Mexican Riviera cruise in 2006.

We left Fort Lauderdale a bit late.  Every cruise starts with a bon voyage party on the pool deck but it was raining when we left so the party was moved to the Centrum, the big open entertainment space that vaults from the fourth to the eleventh floor.

Looking down at a dance party at the Centrum from the eighth floor.

Today’s post will give an overview of the cruise with separate posts about each port of call to follow. This was our seventh cruise and our longest to date. After two nights and a full day of sailing, we arrived at our first planned port-of-call, Georgetown on the Grand Cayman Island. This was a tendering port, which means the ship does not actually dock. It lies at anchor nearby and passengers are ferried back and forth to the mainland on small craft called tenders.

Unfortunately, the seas were a bit rough and for safety reasons, the tenders could not run. The captain made an announcement and we sailed on by.

Our only glimpse of the Caymans as we sailed on by. We missed swimming with the turtles.

The islands were named Las Tortugas by Christopher Columbus because of the abundance of turtles there. These creatures were hunted to near-extinction and the islands renamed the Caymans after the caiman, a smallish member of the alligator family. Turtles have made a significant comeback and our planned excursion was to a conservation centre, home to 11,000 green sea turtles . Part of the adventure included an opportunity to swim with yearling sea turtles. We were sorry to have missed it.

In any event, we sailed on for another day and half and arrived at the next port-of-call, Cartagena, Colombia on November 19. There we visited an historic Spanish fortress and other venues around the city. I’ll cover those in a later post but leave you with this picture of the fort.

The Castillo San Felipe de Barajas dates from 1536.

With six ports-of-call and a full day traversing the Panama Canal, that meant ten full days at sea. What does one do on a sea day? Well, all modern cruise ships are outfitted with a wide variety of facilities including a full-size theater. Each travels with a contingent of in-house singers and dancers as well as a small orchestra. These are invariably first class.

One of the singers and  four of the Vision of the Seas dancers perform with the orchestra.

Every evening there is a theater show, even while in port as the ship usually leaves before showtime and sails overnight. And there is a full entertainment staff that organizes various events around the ship during the day. There are several bands to entertain and perform at dance parties. One of the bands on our trip was called The Celebration Band and they performed regularly on the pool deck as well as in the Centrum.


The theater shows usually feature first-rate entertainment and there were magicians, comedians, and singers on hand. The Vision of the Seas singers and dancers put on a couple of Broadway style extravaganzas. Our favorite entertainers included the magician Bill Cook, the comedians Wilde & James, Landry, and the Queen of Southern Sass, Etta May. The comedians usually performed a late night adult show as well.

Magician Bill Cook is a master showman.
Comedienne Etta may is smart and sassy.

Of the singers brought on to perform shows, our favorite was Australian sax player and singer Hayden Smith and his wife Alexa Jayne. They did two shows at the theater and then performed at a dance party in the Centrum. A terrific show.

Besides the entertainment, the Cruise Director’s staff organized a wide variety of events like trivia quizzes, contests, and educational things like learning origami or how to play better bridge.

From Cartagena we sailed overnight to the Panama Canal. Wow! What an adventure. The Panama Canal is one of the greatest engineering feats in history and traveling through this historic landmark was a thrill. I’ll be doing a separate blog post on the crossing as there is so much history and background to relate. For now, I’ll leave you with two pictures of the crossing.

Our cruise ship is waiting for the last gates of the Gatun Locks to open so we can proceed. Meanwhile a freighter is ready to enter the locks going the other direction.

Many miles inland is the Culebra Cut, a deep trench dug into the earth as part of the canal.

Another activity which has been a feature of every cruise we’ve taken is an art auction. Park West Galleries conducts such auctions on most major cruise lines. And on this occasion, we bought a painting, the third time we have bought art on a cruise ship.

An art auction at sea. This pic is from our first cruise in 2005. I didn’t take photos of the auction on this voyage.

The painting we bought is called Euterpe-Jupiter, part of a series featuring Greek Muses. It is digitally produced on aluminum through dye sublimation and is hand signed and numbered by the artist. The print edition is 130. The picture arrived by Fedex yesterday fully framed. 

Euterpe-Jupiter, a limited edition by Peter Nixon, is digitally produced on aluminum through dye sublimation. It is hand signed and numbered by the artist. It is part of a series of pictures of the Greek Muses.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fine dining that you get on a cruise ship. All Royal Caribbean ships have large formal dining rooms as well as a large cafeteria style restaurant called the Windjammer. Cruising is like going to an all-inclusive resort as all meals and food is included in the price of the cruise. Alcohol and soft drinks, however, cost extra. There are also several upscale restaurants which you have to pay for. You can opt for a scheduled time for dining or pick open dining. We opted for eight o’clock meals. Our waiter, assistant waiter and head waiter were top notch.

Our waiter Francisco from Mexico, head waiter Hans from Germany, and assistant waiter Andrii from Ukraine. Hans was a raconteur and always had a story, a puzzle or a joke to tell.

One of the fun things on Royal Caribbean cruises is that a couple of times the entire wait staff or kitchen staff will march around the dining room and congregate on the staircase to sing or dance for us. The head chef gave a short speech in which he talked about the spirit of good will and friendship that characterizes a cruise ship. People from 67 countries were on staff on our ship, a veritable united nations.

Before closing, I’ll just give you a quick rundown of our other ports-of-call. I’ll be doing a separate post on each. I’ll include one pic from each below.

Every stop has a variety of excursions to choose from. You can also get off the ship and make your own arrangements, which sometimes is the better option. We took a tour at each stop.

The first was stop was Cartagena, already mentioned. The second was Panama where we took an excursion called Monkey Watch where you get to see monkeys in the wild.

A Capuchin monkey seen during our Monkey Watch tour.

Our third stop was Costa Rica where we took another boat ride to see crocodiles and lots of tropical birds on the Tarcoles River. 

A snowy egret on the Tarcoles River in Costa Rica.

Our fourth top was Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala. We opted to take a tour of the ancient city of Antigua. Founded in 1543, it served as the first capital of Guatemala.  Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions forced the capital to be relocated in 1776. Antigua has been rebuilt over time and is now a popular tourist attraction with its historic architecture and seventeenth century feel. 

The Iglesia de La Merced in Antigua, Guatemala

Our fifth stop was not originally on the itinerary. But because the Cayman stop had to be scrapped, our Captain worked behind the scenes to add Huatulco, Mexico to the trip. We took advantage of the opportunity to visit a private beach up the coast where we lounged in the sun and swam in the bay.

Secluded beach near Huatulco, Mexico

Our final port-of-call was Puerto Vallarta. This was our third visit to this lovely place but I’ve never gotten around to posting a blog about it. I’ll borrow from all our visits when I do. On this occasion we took a sailing yacht along the coast to Los Arcos, a couple of mammoth rocky outcrops frequented by hundreds of pelicans. 

Sailing past one of the Los Arcos – the arches, a couple of rocky outcrops where pelicans nest.

As the end of our cruise approached, there was a big farewell show at the theater and in the Centrum a grand ceremony called the International Parade of Nations. Representatives of all the 67 nations employed on the ship gathered waving their flags. Some gave a short performance. It was a colorful and exciting affair and a fitting close to a fabulous cruise. The fellowship and good will that abounds on these cruises is inspirational. Maybe the true road to world peace is to have all the world’s leaders take a cruise together to see how people can live in fellowship and harmony.

Follow the link below for an additional photo gallery.

Photo Gallery: Panama Canal Cruise

Here are some additional photos and videos of our cruise. The photo above is of the ship in port at Huatulco, Mexico. I’ll be adding separate posts for the canal transit and the ports-of-call later.

The pool deck

 

The Celebration Band playing on the pool deck

 

Our state room. We went for an inside cabin to save money. Balconies are nice, but we were out and about much more than we were in our room.

 

One of several large ship models aboard the Vision of the Seas. Art work abounds on cruise ships. A nautical theme is popular.

 

Another model ship

 

Public art on one of the stairwells. Each landing on each staircase had some sort of art, ranging from modern to items like these which had a classical Greek air to them.
Janis and I at dinner on one of the formal nights.

 

The theater was called the Masquerade Theater and had a medieval theme on its drop curtain.

 

The brass section of the Vision of the Seas Orchestra. Most of the nine piece band were Ukrainian, including leader Sascha on the trombone, but there was also an Israeli, a Pole and, as I recall, a Bulgarian. They were amazing. A very tight band and very versatile.

 

There were a couple of shows featuring the Vision of the Seas Singers and Dancers

 

The four singers – the one second from left is Sarah from Vancouver, Canada. The dancers and the orchestra are seen in the background.

 

One of the last shows had all the executive members of the crew join in as well as some of the kitchen crew.

 

The kitchen staff also did a couple of parades around the dining room. The head chef gave an inspiring speech.

The wait staff also had a couple of parades around the dining room and danced for us.

 

The Centrum was always a hive of activity. Here are Mr. and Mrs. Smith – Hayden and Alexa Jane, putting on a great show.

If you’ve ever played Where’s Waldo, here’s a variation – find my wife Janis!

 

Early in the voyage, Cruise Director Steve Davis conducted lessons for anyone who wanted to participate in learning the Thriller dance moves. Near the end of the trip, the forty of them, made up like zombies, performed for the crowd.


And we close off this overview of the Panama Canal cruise with this photo of the International Parade of nations celebration. 812 crew members from 67 countries worked o n the Vision of the Seas.

Remembering Notre Dame

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Janis and I had the pleasure of spending a week in Paris in 2011 to mark our thirtieth anniversary and we loved it. One of the truly fabulous cities in the world. I’ve written about a number of our experiences there but never got around to writing about Notre Dame. We visited that grand piece of history on our fourth day.

Construction on the cathedral started in 1160 and was completed one hundred years later.  Although many of its religious icons were destroyed by the anti-clerical French Revolution, the interest sparked by Hugo’s great novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, led to a major restoration project in 1844. It has undergone various renovations ever since and was undergoing one when it caught fire on April 15th, 2019.

Notre Dame Cathedral – Sept. 20, 2011

The front facade shows its two bell towers, perhaps its most iconic feature which featured significantly in Victor Hugo’s novel.  But before ascending the towers, we took a look inside with its vaulted ceilings and magnificent stained glass windows. Regrettably, I had a piece of crap camera back in the day which doesn’t really do it justice.

Interior showing some of the stained glass and the vaulted ceiling. Much of this magnificent interior was destroyed in the fire of April 15, 2019.

The stained glass features were made possible through the use of flying buttresses.  These graceful arches on the outside of the building support the outward pressure of the walls, permitting the walls to be thinner and higher because of the reduction in mass.

The rear of Notre Dame.

But the pièce de resistance for us was the bell towers. There was a bit of a line-up as they can only be accessed by a long narrow staircase.  But it was worth the wait. Only one tower, the South one, was open to the public at the time. A narrow walkway surrounds the tower.

The walkway around the bell tower has some high metal fences added for safety. It was over one of these walls that Quasimodo threw the maniacal priest Claude Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The towers are sixty-nine meters high (226 feet) and were the tallest structures in Paris until the construction of the Eiffel Tower.  The view is panoramic. The photo below shows the Pantheon to the South.

The Pantheon as seen from the South bell tower of Notre Dame. The Sorbonne University is just in front of it and the Luxembourg Gardens are to the right.

One of the interesting features of Notre Dame are its gargoyles, chimeras and Strixes.  Gargoyles are the many rain spouts sticking out from the walls at intervals. Chimeras are statues of mythical creatures with the body of a lion and the head of a goat. And Strixes are flesh-eating creatures resembling an owl or bat.

One of Notre Dame’s chimera.

We entered the bell tower and checked out the massive bells.  The largest bell, known as the bourdon, survived the French Revolution intact. Many of the other bells were melted down by the revolutionaries. All the bells have names.

The Bordon Emmanuel weighing in at 13 tons, is the largest bell at Notre Dame. It is tuned to F Sharp.

Looking up towards the skylight at the top, you can see that much of the superstructure is made of wood. Wooden construction makes it vulnerable to fire like the one that destroyed the Eastern part of the cathedral.

Looking up towards the skylight, you can see a lot of wooden planking in the superstructure making it vulnerable to fire.

After visiting the bells we took a stroll around the outer walkway which gives you some excellent vantage pints for seeing the rest of the cathedral. The picture below is a composite of two mismatched photos which I fixed up a bit with Photoshop, but the bottom left and upper right were created by autofill and are a bit distorted.  But it captures mot of the back end of the church which was destroyed in the fire.

Composite picture shows the four roof lines and the spire or flèche which were destroyed in the fire of April 15, 2019.

Below is a view of some of the flying buttresses as seen from the tower.

Flying buttresses seen from the south tower.

Walking around the parapet we enjoyed spectacular views of the entire city. We also could see the North Bell Tower. Each tower also has a small turret off to the side and is covered by a skylight.

Skylight and turrret on the North Tower.

The plaza below the front facade of the church is a popular spot for Parisians to have lunch or just sit and enjoy the sunshine. The photo below shows a riverboat going by as well as many visitors to the plaza.

Looking down on the plaza from the bell towers.

We leave our tour with a view of the spire or flèche which collapsed in the fire.  After the picture you’ll find a link to an additional photo gallery.

The spire, destroyed in the blaze.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Notre Dame and are much saddened by the fire that destroyed so much of it. It was an important piece of history and a fabulous work of art.  We are grateful that we had an opportunity to visit it eight years ago.  Below is a link to a photo gallery.