Thursday, May 3, 2007


(Work in Progress)
Reflections on the Cruise to Panama

I had the good fortune of taking a cruise from San Pedro, California to Panama, with various stops along the way. The 19 day cruise, which began on April 9 stopped at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Acapulco, Mexico; Huatulco, Mexico; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; Puerto Amador, Panama; Puerto Corinto, Nicaragua; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Zihuatanejo, Mexico; and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
The cruise line we took was the Regal Princess, the same ship we took on a trip to South America in 2006. The Regal Princess is apparently on its last voyage for Princess since it will be acquired by an Australian outfit that will revamp it for journeys in Australian waters.
There is much to say about the cruise. Let me start by going through the various stops we made.
Cabo San Lucas, our first stop, was a surprise – not that it was a new place to me, since I had visited Cabo San Lucas 18 years ago, when it was a fledgling resort, with only a main street to talk about and one huge hotel complex. It had one pier and the boats in the area where mostly fishing boats. Now Cabo San Lucas is a full blown resort, and it now has a longer, nicer pier for the cruise ships and others that dock there. The minute you step off the tender boats, you see shops all around you – Diamonds International, other jewelry and tourist shops aside from the smaller shops and vendors selling t-shirts, shell necklaces, ceramic whistles, and other knick-knacks. Here in Cabo San Lucas, we spent most of our time in the Giggling Marling Bar and Restaurant, where we had been to, 18 years ago. The Giggling Marlin right in the downtown area, and it has now expanded it’s area and the façade is nicer. The prices have also risen and a humble chile relleno costs almost $9. It was fun to sit there with friends, and drink margaritas and beer, and nibble on chips, salsa and guacamole.
Acapulco, the next stop, was another familiar place, since we had also visited this some 17 years ago. (I had a sister-in-law who loved organizing family trips to Mexico.) We joined a walking tour that brought us to the Fort San Diego, which had a lot of information and artifacts of Spanish Colonial times. It had information about the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco, which naturally interested me. The Fort is nicely maintained with adequate displays in the rooms. There were Chinese jars and ceramics, and manton de Manilas and other displays from this era.
From the fort, we walked to Mask Museum, and then to the Zocalo or town square with the cathedral and shops surrounding the square. It is an area that is used by normal residents, not just tourists, and it was interesting to see outdoor and side tables where they ate, and to see the stores and restaurants that the ordinary people used. We walked a short distance to a small hotel where we stopped for a soda and bathroom break. From there we walked to the house of President Benito Juarez, the creator of the Mexican Constitution of 1857. From there we walked to a souvenir shop that sold silver and handicrafts. We arranged for a driver to take us to a restaurant at La Quebrada where we watched the 1 o’clock show of the world-famous cliff divers. After the diving show, my girlfriend and I went to an artesan market where she found some hand-painted ceramics. Some artists were there, working on their pottery.
Our next stop was Huatulco, a fairly new Mexican resort. There were shops at the port community, some of them with very nice Mexican silver products – expensive, naturally. I took a $2 taxi ride to La Crucesita, a small, charming town with a central square and surrounding church, shops, and restaurant. La Crucesita, like Huatulco, is new, but built in the traditional style, and even though it has many tourists, the people are simple and nice. Here I found some lovely hand-embroidered Mexican dresses and a Mexican chocolate pot and molonillo (chocolate mixer).
Cost Rica was our next stop. From the Port Puntarenas, we took an all-day bus tour to San Jose, the capital, with a stop in the mountain town of Sarchi, famous for its colorful, hand-painted ox carts and other items. I found nesting tables, with vivid handpaintings of parrots and tucans.
All along the way, we saw sugarcane and coffee plantations; coffee is a major export of Costa Rica, along with bananas and ____. Our guide knew a lot about agriculture and shared with us real banana fruit, immature bananas, cocao fruit, even a cashew fruit.
We had lunch near San Jose in an hotel with sprawling gardens and an hacienda style restaurant – that is tiled roofing, not walls, so that you felt connected with the beautiful gardens.
In San Jose we visited the Gold Musuem, which was interesting, but not as impressive as the one in Lima, Peru. Nonetheless, it displayed miniature gold work of animal figures and gods; there was enough there to make one understand how sophisticated the pre-Columbian people were.
The National Theater was very European. Built by coffee plantation owners by taxing themselves, the theater boasts ornate 19th century neo-Classical architecture, elaborate murals, gilded baroque fixtures.
The next stop was the Panama Canal, and our ship sailed through the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel locks, to the ____ lake, which was created by damming up the _____ river. We had great views from our balcony and the bow of the ship, and saw how the locks closed so the height of the water could be raised or lowered, and the ship on it, allowing it to sail to the next part of the canal, once the locks were opened.
We learned the history of the Panama Canal: as early as the 16th century, the Spaniards had already considered building a canal to traverse the 50 miles that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The French attempted building a canal, like the Suez, that would connect both oceans. After ____ years and the loss of 22,000 people, they gave up. The Americans took over this project, but decided to use locks to raise the ships up, then down across the 50 mile expanse. Construction took place from 1904 to 1914 (?) with a loss of 5,600 lives. (Fewer lives were lost this time because the Americans had figured out that many of the diseases were vector caused – mosquitos causing malaria and yellow fever.)
Our ship sailed around the lake, then turned back to the Pacific side and docked at Fuerte Amador. We were able to visit Panama City – seeing Casco Viejo (Old Panama), which had been built by the Spaniards in the 1670s. It is an area that is undergoing gentrification; some buildings have been restored and are in great condition; some still in ruins; some areas are somewhat slummy. But looking at the sea walls, the fine architecture of the 17th century buildings, one can imagine what it might have looked like and what it can look like once the gentrification process is completed. Clearly, the government has cleared this area of slums, and has encouraged development; but more progress is needed.
We drove down Balboa Avenue through modern Panama with its skyscrapers and condominiums, to get to the ruins of the old city. Apparently Sir Henry Morgan had sacked and burned this city back in the 1600s, prompting the transfer of the capital to the Colonial Panama.
Puerto Corinto in Nicaragua was the biggest disappointing, not that the excursion did not provoke thought. The tour included a day trip to the ruins of Leon Viejo, a city built by the Spanish Conquistadores, and destroyed by the 1610 eruption of the Momotombo Volcano, burying the city in ash, until it was dug up in 1967. The tour also included a visit to Leon, where we had lunch in El Convento, a charming restaurant which had been a nunnery. It had a lovely inner courtyard with fountain, and those lovely airy rooms that open toward this courtyard. This particular hotel reportedly charged $40 a night, a king’s ransom in Nicaragua. From there we walked to an old 16th century church, not unlike many of the churches in the Philippines; and from there, we walked to the Cathedral. We visited the church, which houses the remains of the Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario; we climbed the steps to the roof of the cathedral where the view was nice. The city stretched around us, and many of the tiled roofs gleamed red; the roads were narrow and grid; the cloister below us was charming. But there is something depressing in Nicaragua. There are no flowers; whatever trees are around seem to be alive out of obligation. There is little joy in the places we visited. People are poor, but more than poor, because we have seen poor places, this place seems sad and gloomy. I do not know if this is a result of the awful unrest this place has been subjected to: the Sandinista, the Contras, etc.
Puerto Quetzal in Guatamela was like a breath of fresh air. At the port, there were stalls brimming with handicraft; there was a band playing lively Latin music; there were flowers, color, a vibrancy and promise in the place – unlike Nicaragua. The bus ride to Antigua showed green rich fields of sugar cane, tall trees, jungles; the highway was wide, clean, and in good condition; there were factories, oil refineries, signs of progress all around. Antigua, which was founded in the early 16th century, suffered a number of earthquakes in the 1700s, and the Spanish government moved its capital to Guatemala city. Antigua “froze” in time – and it is now one of the best examples of a Spanish colonial town. It reminded me of Cuzco – it’s huge central square had the cathedral on the one end, and government and other offices surrounding the square. The fountain in the middle of the central park had a woman holding her breasts, and water spouted out of her nipples. A walk from the central park brought us to the La Merced church (1767), painted yellow with white highlights on its façade. Antigua’s streets were grid and the buildings in a block were attached with walls facing the street. The courtyards were inside and rooms of the house oriented so they opened out to this courtyard. It was quite a joy then to walk down the streets, find a door ajar, peek in to find a courtyard with fountain, and plants, vines, flowers. There were quite a number of native people in their native dress, colorful handwoven wraparound skirts and colorful tops, and caps. The different tribes seemed to have their own weaving pattern. The patterns reminded me of the weavings in Northern Philippines – zigzag designs, reds, greens, browns, yellows, stripes, designs that suggested alligators, birds.