Mary's Travel Journal: Central America Expedition Cruise

November 9, 2007: A long day on the plane

After a restless overnight at a Seattle airport hotel, we were up at 3am to begin the hurry and wait of modern air travel.

Just a few years back, I traveled around the world for a year with one backpack. Now I happily tipped the SkyCap to help us to the gate with our overloaded bags. Though I always said that I would

We arrived this evening to a welcoming band and much fanfare at the Panama City airport. It appears that there was someone famous arriving at the same time, but we were a bit too overwhelmed negotiating our bags through the crowd to the taxi stand to pay attention to the details. The taxi ride, at $37.40 came close to the transfer price and next time I’d gladly pay the difference when traveling with a child to have someone meet us at the airport, especially on such limited sleep.

Our hotel, the Albrook Inn, was a lovely colonial style villa nestled in the forested suburb of Albrook. The staff was delightful and the room both clean and spacious. We enjoyed dinner at the outdoor restaurant where the casual ambiance was just what we needed. Matthew, my 23 month old son, took off his shoes and delighted in running from the restaurant to our room and back, playing peek-a-boo around the hedges and blowing kisses at everyone within passing. After dinner we admired the sparkling pool outside our room but then dropped promptly into bed.

November 10, 2007: Panama City Exploration

We woke at leisure and enjoyed our complimentary breakfast of eggs, fruit, toast, and cereal. I left the door to our room ajar and plugged in a baby monitor. Halfway through breakfast, Matthew slipped out of bed and toddled charmingly into the outdoor restaurant wearing only a diaper.

He turned down everything except plain toast. However, still hungry, I eventually talked him into watermelon and even papaya. Finally, he polished off the eggs and seemed much happier with a full tummy. Score one for traveling to broaden the food preferences of a picky toddler!

After breakfast, we walked down a steep forest path behind the hotel, past a school, and to a playground thickly covered with moss. Matthew delighted in the slide, merry-go-round, and swings despite the soggy ground and mud surrounding everything.

Back at the hotel, I tried unsuccessfully at least a dozen times to use my calling card. The phone was working fine, but the MCI operators were no help at all. I later learned that international phone cards purchased in the US do not work well in Central America as many phone providers there block access for any cards except those purchased locally.

I finally gave up and caught our taxi to the Sheraton to drop off our bags and meet our boat group. With a few hours to spare, we walked to a mall ~ ¾ mile from the hotel. We could have been wandering any mall in the US except for the food court that had a lovely mix of local specialties in addition to the typical American fare. Aside from the menu, the food court was distinct because it offered a huge indoor playground complete with a variety of interactive coin-operated toys such as a merry-go-round, miniature pony ride, and a Noah’s ark ride that had 8 different animatronic animals that moved and made sounds when you pushed a button corresponding to the picture of the animal.

With such an engaging selection of activities, Matthew didn’t bother with eating but played steadily on the games while my mom and I enjoyed the local fare. My mom ordered steak and fried plantains and I had the grilled chicken tacos. They were incredible with fresh, grilled tortillas and melted cheese. I mistakenly told my mom that the “queso fritas” were “cheese fries” when they were actually “fried cheese”. Oh well, they were tasty either way!

Matthew cried when we finally had to pry him away from the games to meet the boat group. In fairness, he was also rightfully exhausted as it was an hour past his naptime with no convenient place to lie down. As nice as the Hotel Albrook was, next time I think I would book the same hotel as the rest of the cruise group. The rates were much higher at the Sheraton, but it would probably be worth it to have the convenience of a late check out and the simplicity of being with the rest of the group.

Back at the Sheraton, we boarded the bus for our drive to the port. Enroute, we had a short Panama City tour. Much of the city is under construction as skyscrapers are rapidly filling in space previously allotted to individual homes. The mall was all new construction that had replaced the old airport and runway space downtown.

Once at the port, we waited in a short line to embark, handing over our passports and verifying our cabin assignments. We relaxed in our cabins while we waited for our luggage to appear, then went up to the sun deck for a safety briefing and snacks.

Dinner was served in the dining room with a choice of three entrees and all the accompaniments. Matthew got a bit restless after an hour of leisurely dining so I took him back to our cabin for an early night.

November 11, 2007: Cruising the Panama Canal

We woke early for a plentiful selection of breakfast options and then boarded buses to the Isla Morado, our day boat for the Panama Canal transit. The boat for the Panama Canal transit was an older, wooden, open-air vessel that apparently had a notorious past, used in smuggling operations for Noriega and later appearing in a number of Hollywood movies. We were using this boat instead of the Pacific Explorer - our primary cruise ship -- in order to guarantee a daylight transit of the canal in the smaller Isla Morado. I suspect that additional motivation may have come from the fact that canal transit fees vary according to the size of the vessel and its cargo. Rates start at $500 and increase to over $300,000 for a single transit. Average costs are $30,000. The huge Panmax vessels designed to the exact maximum specifications for the locks along the canal likely skew this average with particularly high fees.

We started our journey on the southern side of the canal in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The canal runs south-north through Panama and we transited just over half of the canal. We first crossed under the Bridge of the Americas connecting North and South America via the Pan-American Highway. Then we entered the Miraflores Locks. Here our boat was raised 27 ft and then lowered back down on the other side. This allowed the canal builders to cross the Continental Divide of Panama without having to dig as deeply. It also limits the transfer of species from the Pacific to the Caribbean side. I’m not completely sure of the details on this as I spent much of the cruise making sure that Matthew would not dash off and fall under the open railings into the Canal so I missed some of the detailed information presented by our guide.

After the next set of locks, we had lunch onboard. The exceptional quality of cuisine was even more impressive because the staff had carried everything onboard that morning with no kitchen onboard for cooking. The chef must have been up well before dawn to prepare all that incredible food. It amazed me that they could serve everything hot and fresh on the Isla Morada 4 hours after we boarded. Our local buffet restaurants could definitely use some lessons!

Shortly after lunch, we disembarked in Gamboa and took buses to the viewpoint for the Miraflores Locks. On the way back to the boat, we stopped at an artisan market where I passed on the somewhat generic souvenirs, more because I was busy chasing Matthew about then because of a lack of interest.

I have been pleasantly surprised that at least half a dozen other passengers have commented on what a good baby Matthew is. I feared that since he was the only child onboard, the other travelers might resent his presence. However, I think he has charmed his way into their hearts and earned many token grandparents. The crew is wonderful – always asking if he needs something special to eat, sneaking him chocolates and making funny faces at him. It certainly hasn’t hurt that he recently learned how to blow kisses and delights in showing off his new trick.

As I sit writing this on the sundeck of the Pacific Explorer, a giant Panmax vessel (~1000 ft long) is making a sharp turn right past the bow of our ship. It is traveling at a steep V and looks to be within ~ 5 ft of our ship. Those captains must be exceptional to maneuver in these tight spaces!

November 12, 2007: Darien Jungle and Visit to the Embera People

Number the positive comments that I have heard about Matthew in the dozens now. We had a wonderful morning visit to the Embera people of the Darien Jungle (located in southern Panama, near the Columbian border). The villagers greeted us in brightly colored skirts and loin cloths and the kids of the village quickly surrounded my fair-skinned, blond two-year old. Matthew became the Pied Piper, leading a group of a dozen children everywhere we walked in the village. He delighted in playing with the black sand on the beach and giggled as the children entertained him with their antics. They gave him a marble, showed him a giant medicine ball (and rolled with laughter as they watched him try to lift it), and had him hold a stick with a live parrot on it.

This is the third time that I’ve experienced the great joy of traveling overseas with toddler-aged children - there is no language barrier at this age! Matthew was used to not understanding others or being understood so he interacted with the children as he would with old friends. He didn’t hang back, as the adults did, unsure how to begin interactions without the crutch of common speech. Consequently, Matthew was our ambassador, linking two distinctly different cultures through the shared language of child’s play. It certainly didn’t hurt that he was so very blond and fair. He was a novelty to these children, all the more entertaining because he played as they did but looked so different.

The village itself was composed of thatched huts on stilts and a small concrete common building including a school and clinic. Kids at school wore the traditional Panamanian uniform (white shirt and blue skirt/ slacks) while the children who were too young (or too excited by the boat arrival to go to school) played topless in very little clothing.

I hadn’t been looking forward to this visit, as I hate the thought of a large boat arriving and demanding an “authentic native performance” in exchange for a boatload of tourists eager to purchase souvenirs. However, I was very impressed by the day as a whole. Yes, they did perform a native dance for us, but it really felt like a celebration for all. The Pacific Explorer is the only boat that stops at this village and it only stops a few times a month during the short cruise season so it really is a special holiday celebration for the locals as well. They seemed to look forward to the novelty of visitors and were excited to share their traditions with us (rather than feeling as though they were performing on demand).

Our guides were also impressive in that they did not try to pretend that this remote village lived a purely traditional lifestyle. They explained quite honestly how the villagers’ lives were a mix of native traditions and modern conveniences. Their clinic and school were both simple, but could easily have been located in a suburb of Panama City without looking out of place. However, in many ways, their lives were still based on the traditional, self-sufficient, subsistent economy that had existed for hundreds of years. The sport of soccer perfectly embodied this mix of traditions. Each village had a soccer field and the villages competed against each other, just as two modern towns might. The difference, however, was that village boys would hike sometimes a full day to reach the next village for a competition. Because of the distance and the difficulty getting there, soccer matches were a big occasion. After the match, traditional feasts and dances were often held. This allowed villagers from different areas to meet each other and offered a great way to promote intermarriage, diversifying the gene pool and developing common bonds between areas.

This cross-village cooperation was important, as well, because the area that they lived was unfortunately quite dangerous. Just outside the village, we saw a Panamanian police officer (they don’t have a national armed service) with a machine gun. He lived in a fully fortified barracks, complete with satellite TV. His job was to protect the villagers from outside threats. Unfortunately Columbian rebels had historically raided villages such as this one, kidnapping young boys for armed service, stealing food, and taking advantage of the women.

The villagers were usually safe while at home, but faced threats while traveling for soccer matches or going to the nearest towns to sell their handmade baskets. We did have a chance to purchase souvenirs while we were there, in this way delaying the need for them to travel to sell their goods at least a bit longer. I gratefully bought a few souvenirs and paid a lovely ancient looking woman $1 to paint a black temporary tattoo on my ankle using ink in a glass Coke bottle. The villagers themselves all had tattoos, often covering most exposed areas. These tattoos were used for decoration but also served the duel purpose of protecting their skin from the sun.

Back on the beach, Matthew spent nearly an hour playing with the older (maybe age 5-7) boys in the sand. They painted their faces with sand to make him laugh and had crab races down the beach. These interactions were particularly fun to watch as most of our visit, it had only been the girls and very young boys who played with Matthew. The older boys looked on from the sides, obviously curious, but apparently too firm in their gender roles to interact with a baby. It was not until they were alone, separated from the adults, girls, and younger boys that these older ones had the chance to satisfy their curiosity and play with the unusual looking blond boy who had appeared on their shore.

Matthew loved being one of the big boys. He also delighted in sitting where the tide would wash into him and he could dig his fingers into the sand. When it was time to go, he screamed and kicked, reminding us that he was only a two year old and had found a place on this trip where he felt right at home.

By the time we headed back, the tide was coming in with such force that our zodiacs could barely get moving against the crashing surf. We returned to the boat for another incredible lunch and a quiet afternoon enroute to our next stop.

November 13, 2007: Granita de Oro

This morning we arrived at Granita de Oro, a small island near Coiba Island, off the coast of Panama. The island took ~ 20 minutes to circle via kayak and was the perfect picture of a deserted tropical island.

We had snorkeling training in the morning and then headed off the island after a mid-morning brunch. Mom tried snorkeling, but her fear of water became too overwhelming when it was coupled with the awkwardness of walking in fins and trying to see out of a mask. She opted out and waited on the beach with Matthew while I went.

I saw many brightly colored fish and a white-tipped reef shark while snorkeling. However, I didn’t want to leave my mom for too long so I soon headed back. Other travelers continued on seeing a turtle, another shark, a few eels, and more.

Mom and I tried taking out a double kayak with Matthew but he really did not like the idea of having to sit down in the boat so we opted to play on the beach with him instead. I’ve never seen so many beautiful, unbroken shells anywhere. The beach was also active with hermit crabs scampering around spilled juice and other crumbs left by our travelers.

On the way back to the Pacific Explorer, we saw three spotted jumping out of the water. Our zodiac driver brought us ~ 10 ft away as we tried to click pictures. Mom was so excited to finally see dolphins. Matthew, however, had promptly dosed off when the zodiac started moving and didn’t stir in all the excitement.

We spent the evening watching movies in our room. Matthew was watching a DVD while we watched the VCR. He decided he wanted to watch Snow White on VYS instead so I told him "after our movie." He repeated asked for Snow White and finally gave up and snuggled into me. An hour later, he was nearly asleep with his eyes drooping and his body limp against mine. As the credits rolled for our movie, he leapt up and shouted "Snow White." What a sweetheart! He had sat patiently that entire hour, obviously constantly thinking about his movie, but knowing that he had to wait until "after our movie" to say anything more.

November 14, 2007: Casa Orquidea

This morning we took a short rainforest hike. I spent most of the time pacing ahead of the group to try to get Matthew to sleep in the backpack so that he wouldn’t make any noise and disturb the wildlife. We saw a few howler monkeys high in the trees and soon returned back to the boat.

In the afternoon, we visited Casa Orquidea, a privately owned botanical garden. Despite the torrential rain, the gardens were beautiful with hundreds of flowers representative of the area.

November 15, 2007: Corcovado National Park

We started with a rainforest hike near Corcovado National Park. The group moved slowly with frequent stops. Matthew eventually became restless so I branched away from the group to take him back to the beach. He had fun filling a cup with water, sand and rocks and letting the waves crash against his legs.

A trio of hungry capuchin monkeys arrived to watch the crew set up our beachfront buffet. We took lots of great pictures as they scurried along the treetops just overhead.

Matthew wanted to take a boat ride so we road the zodiacs back to Pacific Explorer and then returned for lunch on the beach. As always, the food was amazing and plentiful.

Back at the Pacific Explorer, we put “Snow White” in for the eighteenth time and hoped Matthew would take a nap.

November 16, 2007: Manuel Antonio

We arrived at the beach of Manuel Antonio National Park and walked through the park to the small town. We had signed up for the optional “Rainmaker Canopy Tour” so a bus picked us up in town and drove ~45 minutes into the mountains.

There I strapped Matthew into a backpack for the 3 hour walk up the mountain. We traversed suspended bridges in the canopy but saw very little wildlife- only a millipede, toad, and anole. I was disappointed that the trip had been advertised as a “canopy tour” when we really only spent ~ 20 minutes on the canopy bridges. The rest of the time was spent on a steep and humid rainforest walk. We really would have seen much more wildlife if we’d stayed with the group in Manuel Antonio. There they saw three slots, capuchin monkeys, a howler monkey, and more.

Upon returning to the town, Matthew needed a break so I played on the beach with him while mom went shopping. Matthew played with a naked little two year old Asian boy, splashing in the waves and dumping sand. Once again, they made instant friends without any language barrier to hold them back.

It was the first town that we had encountered since Panama City and grandma loved the chance to finally buy souvenirs. She returned laden with shopping bags and I set out, determined to gather as many Christmas presents as I could in the next half hour. I bartered very little at first, thrilled to just be able to buy unique presents. Finally, I got back into my bartering groove and started negotiating a bit more. I also got a quick chance to call home with my international phone card that finally worked!

After we returned to the boat, the staff put on a slide show with photos from our journey. There were some great shots and we had the chance to purchase the CD of images with the profits going back to the Embera people.

November 17, 2007: Disembarking and crossing Costa Rica. Aerial Tram Enroute

We disembarked in Herradura on the Pacific side of Costa Rica near Jaco. We traveled by bus across the mountains to San Jose in the Central Valley. There we transferred immediately to a van for our customized Adventure Life land tour. We needed to cross the country to overnight at Selva Bananito Rainforest Lodge on the Caribbean side.

Enroute we stopped at the Rainforest Aerial Tram where we took a lovely one mile gondola ride through the rainforest canopy in torrential rain. Despite the rain, it was a wonderful perspective on the rainforest and I finally saw my first sloth! Matthew enjoyed the ride and it really was a perfect adventure for families of all ages. The gift shop offered a variety of fine chocolates and coffees by Caffe Britt so we also took advantage of the rare opportunity to do some souvenir shopping.

November 18, 2007: Selva Bananito Lodge

Our room at Selva Bananito has a lovely verandah with two hammocks overlooking the rainforest. The room has a high ceiling, wooden walls, and a tile floor. After the twin beds on the cruise, the queen beds here felt positively luxurious.

We spent the morning on a rainy but peaceful horseback ride. About five minutes into Matthew’s first ride, he promptly fell asleep. Despite the rain, we really enjoyed the beautiful ride. Our horses were thankfully very docile and didn’t require much guidance from us. The ride took us across the farm and along the border of the nearby rainforest. We spent a full two hours riding and could have gone longer, but Matthew had woken up and was starting to get a bit more restless.

We returned for lunch and a short break. That afternoon the rain was still coming down hard so the guide asked if we still wanted to make our planned zip line excursion. Was he kidding? I had been looking forward to zip-lining since my first brief introduction to the idea at another kid’s birthday party 20 years ago. We were set to go as long as he felt it was safe in the rain.

I put Matthew in the backpack and we headed out across the farm and into the rainforest. The trail was extremely muddy and I was thankful for the large rubber boots that got sucked into ankle-deep mud more than once. The hike was not far but still felt challenging given the steep and slippery terrain. Once we entered the rainforest, we were sheltered from the rains, but the heat was more noticeable.

We hiked to the first platform and set Matthew down, asleep, in the backpack as we got geared up to go. My mom went first, harnessed in with multiple safety back-ups, gloves, and a helmet. She zipped to the next platform and I followed behind. What a rush! We took a few minutes to enjoy the view and then headed back to the main trail on a separate zipline.

Matthew had woken up shortly before I zipped out so the guide graciously volunteered to watch him during my short ride. As I zipped back, he looked up happily at me. The guide asked if I wanted to take him with me on the next ride and I asked how we could do that. He had brought a child’s harness, gloves and helmet for Matthew and carabineers to attach Matthew to the zipline as well as to me. I asked Matthew if he wanted to go "up in the trees" with mommy and he enthusiastically shouted "up in the tees."

We hooked Matthew up and did another zipline circuit with all of us. Matthew adored the ride. From that point onward, he spent the rest of our trip shouting "up in the tees again!" whenever something would remind him of the experience.

We hiked back to the lodge for dinner and an early night.

November 19, 2007: Whitewater Rafting on the Pacuare

Mom had offered to take Matthew on this day so that I could go whitewater rafting. Her transfer would arrive after lunch and we would meet back in San Jose at the same time. I woke extra early to meet my rafting transfer. They drove us to the put in and provided a thorough safety briefing.

Because we were in the first raft on the river that day, we had to be able to work well together as we would be mapping the route for the other rafts in our group and other companies to follow. Our guide was very experienced and the rafting was exceptional. The Pacuare offered a mix of class III-IV rapids that completely swallowed our raft with waves that rivaled any rafting I had done previously. Many of the travelers in our group had never rafted and everyone had an incredible time.

For lunch, we stopped at a small black sand beach and flipped the raft over for a table. The guides prepared a fabulous fresh lunch of tortillas and various sandwich fillings. Then we were back on the river for some more great rapids. As we became a better team, our guide decided to have a little fun and we tried some of the gentler rapids (still class III mind you!) backwards or turned the raft in circles as we went through.

Back at the rafting headquarters, we enjoyed photos of our adventures and then boarded a bus to San Jose.

We spent our last night in a beautiful hotel, Le Bergerac, with exquisite service and a French restaurant on-site. I just wish we had planned more time to enjoy it! Next time we’ll need to spend at least part of a day relaxing in San Jose before heading home…