Chile Done!! Lazy breakfast followed by a last little stroll on the Paseo Atkinson before our taxi arrived to take us down to the terminal. Several other couples appeared to be going on the same boat as us. Check-in proved to be fairly quick and straightforward; we were a bit perturbed though to find that they take your passports and don’t give them back until after Ecuador. Were told that we had been upgraded from our inside room to one with a window which was a nice surprise and we certainly were not about to turn that down. The departure terminal is some distance from where they actually berth the ships, so after clearing customs we boarded a bus to the dock and were allowed on board. The ship had just completed a 14 day sail from Argentina round the Horn to Chile so there were a lot of people getting off, many carrying on to do the next leg and many more joining here. It was finally about 3pm before we could get into our room and it took a few more hours for our luggage to get redirected to our new room.
Arica, Chile – first port of call. We had a tour booked to the Geoglyphs and Archaeological museum. The trip took us first up a large hill with a Christ Statue overlooking the town, before heading up a valley to view the geoglyphs. Arica is in the Atacama desert and it is a very barren place – all the hills surrounding Arica are sandy and rocky with no vegetation.
The valley we drove up had the benefit of irrigation so was very lush and verdant with market gardens, but where there was no irrigation it was back to bare sand. The geoglyphs were not that easy to see as they were on a hill a distance away from where the bus parked. It was then on to the museum where we got about 40 minutes to view some of the displays, with our guide trying to give us a commentary in English. The most interesting displays were their mummies which were way older than Egyptian mummies but it was a totally different process and there was not much remaining of the original person as they took out all the organs and even removed the bones which they replaced with twigs and then wrapped the body in rags. Amazed at how tiny the people were.
Bused back into town to visit their famous Cathedral which had been designed by Gustav Eiffel and built all in steel. It had been fabricated in Europe and shipped out to South America where it was destined for a totally different city but a storm forced the ship into Arica and there it stayed. Our other stop on the tour was the old customs hall but that wasn’t open so a bit of a non-starter.
Decided to have lunch back on the boat and then took the shuttle back into town to have a wander around on our own. Nothing really much of interest – there was a lot more poverty than we saw further south. A small souvenir market had been set up to capture the cruise passengers – selling a variety of different handcrafts – we bought a small penguin made out of lapiz as a little token with our remaining Chilean pesos.
Pisco, Peru – this stop was not on our original itinerary – it was meant to have been Lima but it appears that the port was overbooked so we got Pisco. The port was again in the industrial area and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We had another tour arranged – to the ruins of Tambo Colorado about an hour’s drive away. We are still in the Atacama desert so again a very desolate landscape. We passed through the small town of Paracas and then Pisco before heading up a fertile valley to the ruins. First impressions of this part of Peru – way poorer than Chile – the majority of the homes we passed by were extremely basic – lucky if they had a concrete roof mostly just concrete walls with a thatched roof and very tiny. Hundreds of tuk-tuks on the roads as very few seem able to afford cars. We were surprised to learn about the agricultural economy – exporters of asparagus, 2nd largest cotton grower, as well as corn, tomatoes and grapes (for making Pisco, an alcoholic beverage that goes into their special cocktail – Pisco Sour). Saw a few measly looking herds of cows and goats. Bit peeved that we had to stop to “view” a textile factory where they just happened to have a shop.
Finally made it to the ruins but learned that our trip had to be cut short as we had to be back to the ship earlier than expected. Had about 40 minutes to explore the ruins – Inca period which only lasted about 50 years but had a big influence in the whole region. Very hierarchical society with the nobs living higher up the hill in a fortified enclosure complete with indoor baths whilst the slaves languished down the hill in much less salubrious surroundings. Some of the original colours on the adobe walls were still visible and you could see the outline of the rooms but of course no roofs and as is often the case with sites like this – the building materials are “re-used” over the centuries by the locals so they are only a smattering of their former glory. Earthquakes have also not helped.
Back on board and the ship left the port at 2pm so it was back to more of the same – food, entertainment, trivia quizzes. So far very calm seas, a few passing whales, land in sight from time to time with the odd passing ship. Have met some nice people but we do feel at times very much like the novice poor relation, this being only our second cruise – it seems that many on this cruise do five or six voyages each year! Figured out that we probably got upgraded to our current cabin as our original cabin probably had sick people from the previous leg. They had a bit of a GI outbreak from the sounds of it and coughs/colds are also very prevalent. They had to give the ship a thorough sanitation at Valparaiso. Our “stateroom” is comfortable enough – we probably have a little bit more room than Wanda – nice comfy bed and a small couch with a TV that is going to show the live world cup cricket matches. We are on the starboard side of the ship so do manage to see land from time to time out of our nice window. Have been to a few of the shows which have been of mixed quality – they have a 7-piece live orchestra which seems to completely overwhelm solo artists so you can hardly hear them. The theater doubles as a movie theatre. There are about 2000 passengers from all over – have met several Aussies, one lot of Kiwis, Canadians, Poms and of course Americans. Lots of French, German and Spanish speaking passengers as well. The crew of 1,000 come from 64 different countries and are a very nice bunch – so polite and nothing too much trouble.
Manta, Ecuador – the equator crossing ceremony was held during the afternoon but I think the actual crossing is after Manta. Still calm seas and into port bright and early. Berthed again among containers and fishing boats so a free shuttle was provided to get you out of the port gates. Very busy harbour packed with tuna boats carrying helicopters and scores of little fishing boats. We decided to do our own thing and do a walking tour along the coast to first visit the fish market – always intriguing to see what sort of fish get caught in different waters. Squid, octopus, shrimp and tuna were in abundance as well as a very ugly looking fish which they call the dolphin fish but the Americans know it is mahi-mahi. We caught up with our fellow trivia teamsters at the market and spent a little time with them before they and we went our different ways.
Next to the fish market there were a group of local restaurants which were just gearing up to cater for Sunday lunch. On the other side of the market was the local boat building area – this was fascinating – the boats were being built right on the shore, and in wood, propped up on wooden piles with bamboo scaffolding. A mixture of new boats – fishing and surprisingly some very fancy looking large launches, as well as older boats in for repairs. The launches were being sheathed in fibreglass and I am sure there was not much in the way of safety precautions being used for that process. The beach was busy with locals enjoying their Sunday and apart from some very smelly run-off from streams feeding down to the shoreline we were impressed with how clean Manta was.
Walking back towards the port in 36 degree heat was a bit hot, so stopped off at a lovely little local shady park to people watch. Nice not to have too many tourists around and just observe their way of life. Even saw some mini-dragons hiding in the trees who were tempted down by a feed of lettuce before retreating back into their hiding places.
Nearer to the port a local handcraft market had been set up for the ship’s passengers – one of the stall holders said he had come all the way from Quito – a 2 hour trip – just to try and sell his wares. There was a nice mix of jewellery, especially pendants and ear-rings set in silver, woolen crafts and other bits and bobs. I did buy a nice pendant after some very hard bargaining. Lunch and the cool of the ship beckoned; even nicer it was to be greeted at the dock with ice-cold towels and a cold drink.
Set off from Manta just after 6pm, watching from the deck as the city lights came on with a lovely sunset as a backdrop.
Panama Transit – Up earlyish to make sure that we didn’t miss any part of the canal crossing. Reached the first dual set of locks at 8am and went through side by side with a sister cruise line vessel. Both go towards the Caribbean in the morning. The first two locks (Miraflores) took us up by 54ft. Interesting to have a ship beside you in the other lock as you get a better perspective of the workings. The helicopter pad at the bow of our ship was opened up for passengers and was an excellent place to view the transit on a fine hot day. Panama City’s skyline of hundreds of skyscrapers was visible to our right in the distance, but closer to the ship the land was mainly forested. About 30 minutes later we entered into the first man-made lake – Miraflores which had to be crossed before the last of the three raising locks – Pedro Miguel – on the Pacific side.
We were still side by side with the Azamara and the same process lifted us up another 27ft to the level of Gatun Lake. Leaving the locks, we followed Azamara via a narrow channel through forested hills for about 90 minutes before reaching the vast expanse of Gatun Lake. This huge lake took nearly 4 years to fill and is dotted with islands – the remnants of the hills that were in the valley before the area was flooded. The canal celebrated it’s centenary in 2014 – 100 years and it still functions so well! What incredible foresight those early engineers must have had.
It took until 3pm for us to get across Gatun Lake to the descending locks. About 10 ships were moored in the vicinity waiting for their turn – we sailed right in as we obviously had booked an appointed time. Three locks in succession here, each dropping 27ft. Once out the other side we sailed straight out into the Caribbean and reached it about 6pm; for the first time since leaving Valparaiso there was now some movement on the seas.
Colon, Panama – after spending the night out in the ocean, we sailed back into Colon and were docked soon after 7am. Our excursion was due to leave at 7.30 so it was an early breakfast for us. Again not impressed with the tour – this should have been a real highlight as we had chosen a trip which was to show us the current lock and then take us through the new expansion site where we hoped to learn in much more detail all about it. Our bus took us first to Gatun lock and we were able to observe a couple of boats transiting the locks from above on an observation deck – a bit of a different perspective from actually being in the ship. From there we were taken to the site of the expansion and we could look down on the works and saw a short video. A big undertaking which is due to be finished next year at a cost of US$7.5billion.
The citizens of Panama had a referendum over the extension and voted overwhelmingly for it to proceed. The new canal will be able to take longer and wider ships but it is only a single channel. The cost to go through is based on cargo or passenger capacity – the cruise ship paid $340,000 and a fully laden cargo ship pays around $150,000. Currently about 40 ships transit each day. We didn’t really get a lot of information on the expansion, or a close look or opportunity to ask questions, hence our disappointment.
The drive back through Colon was an eye-opener – streets and streets of dilapidated looking buildings hardly fit for habitation but were definitely lived in. Colon prides itself on having a tax/duty free zone with some 3,000 shops but I am not sure who shops there as not many off our ship seemed to visit it. The only tidy part of town was just over the road from the port.
Cartagena, Columbia – Another fine day for exploring. Met up with our trivia teamsters Joan and Eric and their pals Bruce and Chris to share a taxi-van ride around the city. Leaving the port gates we were bombarded with touts trying to get us into “their” vans and finally settled on a very reasonably priced one at $10pp for 4 hours who assured us that he spoke good English – only to find out that he wasn’t actually going with us!! No worry the driver spoke some English. With our preferences of “no shopping” explained, we were on our way. Just outside the gates – our driver’s “brother” hopped in and very soon he had switched with Alvaro and was now the driver. Not quite sure what was going on there, but I think it was so that he could talk to us without having to concentrate on driving (of which the utmost concentration is needed!) Traffic was rather manic. We got a tour of the different social levels that exist from 1-7, with 1 being the poorest. Chris had wanted to visit the vegetable market which happened to be in the level 1 zone, and Alvaro was adamant that he couldn’t take us there and be able to keep an eye on six of us and make sure we were safe. No amount of persuasion could make him change his mind, so we had to be content with just driving by. We drove around many narrow streets, with street vendors peddling fruits, veges and drinks while Alvaro kept pointing out the druggies to us. First stop was a small fort overlooking the harbour, it had been reconstructed in the 1940’s and had a small restaurant in a part of it. Back into the van and through another maze of streets, one-way streets and chaotic traffic to come to the old city – wow what a neat place – surrounded completely by walls and inside beautifully preserved and renovated houses with spotless streets.
Visited the fort from the outside, which was impressive, followed by a mandatory stop at the old barracks which have been converted into a row of little souvenir shops all selling the same things, for his first attempt at getting us to buy something – without luck! A lot of the streets were closed for cleaning until midday so we were taken to the new city where the level 7 people live in fancy apartments. Next stop was a “museum” which turned out to be an emerald shop, with admittedly an interesting museum where a knowledgeable lady explained the process of mining and processing the Colombian emeralds. On site they had their own jewellers crafting stones into lovely pieces of jewellery but again poor Alvaro didn’t have any luck with getting a kick-back as none of us were interested in buying. Back into the van to return to the old city where we finally got to walk around. We could have spent ages just wandering around the fascinating streets – flowered balconies, nicely painted houses and super clean streets.
There are no locals resident in this area – just hotels, restaurants and shops. Not quite sure what the object of the next “enforced” stop was – Hard Rock Cafe for a free drink – it was so noisy you couldn’t hear yourself think. We all escaped from there and were taken along to the Cathedral to have a look inside. Alvaro deemed that we had now done our dash so it was back to the port – driving here is really not for the faint-hearted; golden rule”don’t make eye contact” just barge out blindly!! Made it back to the port in one piece – all agreed it was a great experience and for us the best shore day yet.
Another surprise when returning was the mini zoo at the port terminal. In lush gardens monkeys, tamarinds, lizards, deer, birds and even bunnies were roaming freely with some other birds in cages. So cool to see maccaws and toucans at close range. Back on board with plenty of time to spare. The one thing you don’t want is to miss the boat as they don’t wait for stragglers if you haven’t booked one of the ship’s excursions and it wouldn’t be any fun to be stranded in a strange country as you are encouraged to leave you passport on board. Lovely to go out on deck to farewell the city to a gorgeous setting sun. Once clear of the port and surrounding islands it was back to lumpy waters and a gently rolling ship.
Sea days for us had been taken up with plenty of reading, participating in all sorts of trivia games and creaming loads of “super” prizes – we have enough playing cards, luggage tags and t-shirts to last for the rest of our trip. Dinner times we opted to share tables with other travellers and got to meet a lot of different people from all over the world.