EXPLORER Enrichment Voyage To Central America And The Panama Canal – Part Two




Week Two

Puntarenas, Costa Rica

May 5-6, 2011

The EXPLORER Alongside the pier in Punarenas, Costa Rica, May 5, 2011

Besides being a unique ship for the cultural and educational opportunities it affords, the m.v. EXPLORER is also one of the fastest ships in the world.  After speeding through the night, we came in on the high tide at 4:00am. Costa Rica is fast becoming a popular tourist destination. On the entire voyage this was the only day we encountered any kind of congestion on the ship, as everyone was scrambling to get off for their tours at the same time. The month of May is the start of the rainy season in Central America, and nearly on cue the weather turned on us here, although it never rained heavily. We selected a tour inland to the capital city of San Jose, with visits to the spectacular National Theater and the excellent National Museum. From there it was on to the city of Grecia with a huge church made of metal, constructed not unlike a ship.

The Teatro Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica.
The metal church in the town of Grecia.
Mangoes and one of the colorful ox carts that make the town of Sarchi famous.

For me, the highlight was the mountain town of Sarchi, famous for craftsmen who make brightly painted ox carts. Their work is quite extraordinary. The drive back took us along a portion of the Pan American Highway, which with a few breaks, runs from Fairbanks, Alaska all the way to the tip of South America. Back aboard ship, the weather cooperated to produce one of the most amazing sites the eye can behold. A complete rainbow formed off the portside while to starboard the setting sun put on a heavenly show.

A spectacular Costa Rican sunset over the coast of Puntarenas, or Sand Point in English.

Although Cinco De Mayo is not celebrated in Costa Rica, it was that day, so naturally the ship put on an extravagant Mexican buffet dinner poolside. With the ship remaining overnight in port, it was movie night in the Main Lounge. Tonight, the film “The King’s Speech” was screened. One really thoughtful feature onboard is providing free popcorn along with the movies.

Puntarenas is definitely down in the tropics at Latitude 9 degrees, 58.23 minutes North and Longitude 84 degrees, 49.82 minutes West. It was a hot morning. The last cruise ship traffic is still migrating toward Alaska for the summer, and this morning the massive 71,545 gross ton CELEBRITY CENTURY was docked directly across the pier from the relatively diminutive EXPLORER.

Two former Greeks meet in Punarenas, Costa Rica. The EXPLORER and CELEBRITY CENTURY.

By now we have set a morning routine of early to rise, followed by a buffet breakfast in the Garden Lounge before trooping ashore for another tour. Today would be a break from historical sightseeing in favor of a journey by outrigger canoe along the coastline to a beautiful Pacific beach. Little did I know how hard I would have to work. Along the way we passed Puerto de Caldera where a Holland America Line ship was berthed, before crossing the Tarcoles River, with its crocodiles. Walking to the beach, the trees were filled with wild Scarlet Macaws. I have experience with rowing in the open ocean, but I wasn’t prepared for the effort that goes into moving a heavy outrigger loaded with eight people. After an hour we arrived at a beach with good waves for body surfing and a calmer area for snorkeling. Fresh watermelon and pineapple was a treat, when not in the water.

An even smaller, small ship experience on the beach in Costa Rica.

On the walk back to the canoes, I was able to spend some more time with Sir Christopher Ball, who has been on many of the same excursions with us. In my day to day life, I don’t get much opportunity to ask anyone what it is like to be knighted by the Queen, so this was my chance. He explained it in detail including the part where following the sword over the shoulders bit, he was told “Arise Sir Christopher” at which point the recipient of the knighthood backs away from Her Majesty, so as not to turn their back to her. Even more interesting, he related a story from when he was six years old and was to present flowers to Queen Mary at the start of her tour of the academy where his Father was. She ended up taking his hand and walking with him the rest of the day. With my great interest in the ocean liner QUEEN MARY, it was amazing to speak with someone who not only met the real Queen Mary, but got to hang out with her. Great stories like this are the kind that can be found on a Semester At Sea Enrichment Voyage. On the paddle back  thunder rolled over the jungle and the sea, but the rain held off until the minute we got back. Back at Puntarenas there was time for a short walk around before the 6:15pm sailing time. Night after night we have been treated to spectacular sunsets and this evening was no exception, although partially blocked by the bulk of the CELEBRITY CENTURY. The EXPLORER whistled a farewell salute and turned into the darkening night headed toward Panama.

Sunset over a Celebrity.
Back out to sea and heading south.

After five straight days ashore, it was wonderful to have a sea day to simply relax. Now in no hurry, the ship cruised along at 15.5 knots, through calm seas, with a long, slow roll over the swells. The passenger complement changed a bit with the addition of 38 students from the Tourism Management Program at Humber College in Toronto, joining the ship in Costa Rica. Previously, the average age among the 447 passengers was 61 years. The youngest guest onboard was 10 years old, with the eldest being 94. Nearly all were in great shape, both physically and mentally, which I believe can be attributed to their universal desire for continued learning and adventure. A more congenial group has rarely been assembled on land or sea. There was always a friendly smile, a quick hello, or frequently, more extended conversations. Whether passengers, staff or crew, it was a great group of people to sail with. The weather which had already been hot, turned steamy and tomorrow would be on of the high points of this voyage.

Panama Canal Transit

May 8, 2011

Canal de Panama and the flag of the Republic.

Our South to North passage, would take us from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. After a brief wait in the Bay of Panama, the EXPLORER was on the move, passing the unusual Frank Gehry designed Museum of Biodiversity situated on the Amador causeway. The enormous arch of the Bridge Of The Americas marks the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal and less than an hour later, the first locks at Miraflores. This would be a great day for the transit as the slightly overcast weather kept the day from being too stifling hot.

The new Museum of Biodiversity greets visitors at the Southern entrance to the Panama Canal.
Approaching the Bridge Of The Americas with the French dredge D'ARTAGNAN on the right.

The Panama Canal expansion project is slated for completion in 2014, in time for the original Canal’s 100th anniversary. Quite a bit of the work on the $5.25 billion effort was visible from the ship’s port side, looking west. Dozens of dredges were busy deepening existing channels. A local expert on the Canal had been brought aboard to provide a running commentary on the sights along the way. At Gamboa, the TITAN floating crane, once the largest in the world, still maintains an awesome presence.

The floating crane TITAN with the Panama Canal Authority tugs VERAGUAS and GUIA at Gamboa, Panama.

Constructed in Nazi Germany, this crane was claimed as a war prize by the United States and brought to Long Beach, California where it remained for 50 years before making the trip to Panama in 1999. As a child growing up, we always referred to it as “Herman The German” and few knew the real name. A Mother’s Day brunch was being served in the dining rooms as it was the day set aside to honor Mom. Each of the ladies received a red rose, and some like my own Mother, were lucky enough to have their son or daughter onboard with them. There was quite a lot of container ship traffic in the Canal today, but the EXPLORER was the only passenger vessel. After crossing Gatun Lake formed by the Gatun Dam across the mighty Chagres River our ship lined up for the final series of three locks that would take us back down to sea level. Being a smaller ship, we shared our lock with a private yacht, just as we had done earlier at the Miraflores Locks.

Entering the Gatun Locks with the containership APL TURQUOISE being lowered in the middle lock.
Gatun Lake and Locks were created in 1913 with the damming of the Chagres River. The Panama Canal opened in 1914.

Directly ahead of us was the American President Lines containership APL TURQUOISE, and in the adjacent lane to our portside was the 50,500 deadweight ton JPO VULPECULA. Both Panamax vessels completely filled the width of their respective locks. In many ways the Gatun Locks are the most interesting part of a Panama Canal transit. For us it marked the end of a long, fascinating day, as well as the halfway point of this Central America journey on the EXPLORER. Now that we were through the Canal it looked like we were headed out to sea. But in a short while, the ship made a big U-turn passing the myriad of ships riding at anchor and entered the Port Of Colon. The EXPLORER docked at the Colon 2000, Cruise Terminal and remained overnight. Few passengers went ashore, as it was a surprise we were even in port, and Colon is not the safest or most inviting city for an evening stroll.

The Northern or Caribbean end of the Panama Canal.

Colon, Panama

May 9, 2011

While many cruise lines make trips through the Panama Canal, Semester At Sea is one of the few that allow for exploration of the country in depth. Six different “Field Programs” had been arranged to cover every area of interest. It should be pointed out that in addition to normal excursions, these Enrichment Voyages frequently feature “Service Visits” where participants can give back to the local community by helping with projects or donating items; in this case to the SOS Children’s Village in Colon. For a time it didn’t look like anyone would be going anywhere as the tour departures were delayed by a general strike in Panama, but within a couple hours it was resolved. In a driving rain, we boarded a bus to drive us through the outlying towns to the banks of the Chagres River. There we would board dugout canoes for a trip upriver to the Tusipono Embera Indian Village. Just getting to the canoes was a challenge as the mud caked to our shoes, refusing to be shaken off. I had read how difficult the digging of the Panama Canal had been with mud clinging to each shovel full, and now we were getting a graphic lesson in history.

A member of the Embera Indian tribe riding in the bow of a dugout canoe.
The mighty Chagres. A river of mud and a pathway into the steamy jungle.

The canoes had a motor on the back but would occasionally bump aground in the shallows and need to be poled. The deeper we ventured into the Chagres National Park, the wilder the scenery became. Arriving at our destination, we were welcomed by the Embera women collecting our life jackets and six men playing native instruments in a band. Small children played on a makeshift slide. Tour participants gathered under a large thatched roof to learn about the Embera culture, experience traditional dances and view the incredible array of basketry and crafts made by these warm, friendly people. A small lunch of fish and plantains was served in a cone of banana leafs, and each of the ladies received a headdress.

Typical Embera houses in a small portion of the Tusipono Village.

We were free to walk about the village to view the wooden homes built above the ground, or visit the clean restroom which essentially was a hole in the ground. The most popular activity was shopping for the intricately handwoven baskets, masks and ironwood carvings.

A young Embera mother and her child with a display of their elaborate basketry.

All too soon the visit was over, with the hasty admonition that the river was rapidly rising and we needed to leave now. The formerly shallow Chagres had become a raging torrent. While this trip had already been an adventure, the real thrills were about to begin. Dugout canoes with only a few inches of freeboard, are interesting vessels in which to go whitewater rafting. Actually it was brown-water from the thick mud being churned up by the river. Waves up to four feet in height towered around us, as we shot down the quickly flowing current.

The ride on the raging river was a bit more thrilling on the way back.

One muddy wave contained a Tilapia, which slapped a female passenger in the face. It is hard to tell who was more surprised, the woman or the fish. Although I am sure there was an element of danger involved, the rapid ride down the river was more fun than harrowing. Drenched to the bone and covered with mud our intrepid group of explorers returned to the EXPLORER. A worker on the dockside scrubbed our shoes clean with water and brush before we trooped up the gangway barefoot, to take care of the rest of the job in our personal showers. The daily program called “Today’s Explorer” invited us to the Piano Bar to “Sip on some rum and relax” which sounded like a good option. An excellent dinner of pasta and steak concluded a long day perfectly, as the EXPLORER returned to sea. I have been on well over a hundred cruises, and possibly thousands of tours ashore, but today’s trip ranks at the top of the best I have ever done.

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
The EXPLORER at Puerto Limon on the Eastern side of Costa Rica.

The ship arrived on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica at 6:30am in a pouring rain. After the last two days in Panama, it definitely feels like we have passed the halfway point in the journey, and are on the downhill side, even while sailing north. Clocks that had been advanced, are now set back one hour. Puerto Limon was discovered by Columbus in 1502 when he landed on the small Quiribri Island just offshore. Since we had previously been to this port on another cruise, this was a day to have some fun. And what could be more fun than riding a horse in the rain? We ended up sharing a bus with the Canadian students who were off for a day of zip lining at a place called Brisas de la Jungla, or Jungle Breezes, high on a hill overlooking the harbor. While they screamed through the trees, we waited for our turn on the limited number of horses. The delay proved to be a blessing as it gave us time to walk through the jungle trails and see dozens of brightly colored poison dart frogs.

Cute little poison dart frogs come in many brilliant colors.
The Rio Blanco from horseback.
Danger in the jungle! That was the dog's name who had a tendency to run between the horses hooves among other life-threatening activities. He was a well-named Chihuahua.

In the meantime, the rain also stopped making for a much more pleasant ride. Along the way from rainforest down to the Rio Blanco we saw the most amazing array of flora and fauna. While not an avid bird watcher, I could certainly appreciate sightings of toucans, parrots and a rare Great Potoo, imitating a tree branch. Even back in Puerto Limon the wildlife continued to amaze us with sloths and parrots right in the city park, and a large iguana by the ship’s bow.

Iguana off the Port bow.

Following the now well-established pattern of 6:00pm departures, the EXPLORER once again cast off her lines. A very special reception was held in the Glazer Observation Lounge for past passengers that had sailed on any of the previous ships operated by Semester At Sea. One guest had been on the first voyage back in 1963 aboard the m.s. SEVEN SEAS, while other participants represented each of the later ships including the s.s. RYNDAM, s.s. UNIVERSE (previously named UNIVERSE CAMPUS), s.s. UNIVERSE EXPLORER and the current EXPLORER. A former Dean, Carroll Cotten and his wife Ellen, who had been in charge of the Fall voyage on the RYNDAM in the tumultuous year of 1967, were there along with former and future Dean John Burkoff and his wife Nancy from 2007. It made for an interesting continuum of faculty, students and staff covering the entire 48 year history of Semester At Sea voyages.

Some of the guests from past Semester At Sea and Enrichment Voyages.
Former Deans of SAS, John and Nancy Burkoff with Carroll and Ellen Cotten.

The sea days between ports pass all too quickly. There is never a shortage of things to do. The Enrichment Sessions continue, along with the art and photographic workshops, Spanish lessons, wine tasting, and the Explorer Seminars presented by passengers and even some of the staff who seem happy to contribute much more than their contracts require. If these diversions are not enough, there is always the option of a treatment in the well-appointed spa on Deck Seven. Compared to other ships, prices for a massage, facial, manicure or other services are quite reasonable. There is also a small gymnasium adjoining the spa and numerous weight machines on the starboard side, outside on a sheltered portion of the deck. Also outdoors, just forward of this area is a combination volleyball and basketball court. For more sedate activities, there are three cocktail bars available to enjoy your favorite beverage along with a wine counter at the entrance to the dining room. Drink Of The Day specials start at $3.50, and most bottles of wine are priced at $17.00.

A quiet evening on deck, en route to the next adventure.

While the EXPLORER may eschew the glitz and glamour associated with most modern cruise ships, it certainly is a vessel that grows on you. The first two weeks went by so quickly and each day seems to have gotten better and better. Now with just a third of the voyage remaining, there is a tinge of sadness that this can’t go on forever. On the bright side, another week is about to start and coming up there is more of the Caribbean coast of Central America to see. In fact, four more ports in four different countries as the ship sails on.


Return to PART ONE

All photographs by Shawn J. Dake, c.2011

Dedicated to my Mother, Dr. Gloria Reitz-Dake, who introduced me to the world, the world of travel, and to Semester At Sea.

Thanks to Martin Cox, Caroline Dake, Dr. Gloria Dake Ph.D., Dr. Kelli Palmer Ph.D., Lucille Renwick and all the officers, crew and staff of the good ship EXPLORER.



Click here for Part One

Click here for Part Three

See also Shawn Dake’s article from April 2011:

EXPLORER Cruise Ship/Floating University by Shawn J. Dake

May 10, 2011

Shawn J. Dake

Shawn Dake

Shawn Dake

Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years.  A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary.  A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs.  Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America.  With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
Shawn Dake

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