Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Cruisin' Down to the Panama Canal!

Two years ago, before we headed to Alaska, our friends Donna and Greg said they were taking a 14 day cruise down to the Panama Canal and would we be interested in going with them.  Honestly, Ron and I had pretty much decided throughout the years that we didn’t think cruising would be for us.  We have been at ship terminals and watched the throngs descent from the ships, board onto buses, only to return a few hours later.  That just didn’t appeal to us.  But here we are, retired and professed travelers, and felt like we should explore into this opportunity.  So we booked!

January 19 was D-day.  What do you pack for 14 days when the weather from Galveston was supposed to be nasty and cold?  Was very hard to think ahead to warm, sunshiny beaches.  Yes, I over packed and didn’t pack enough warm weather stuff, but it all worked out.  I want to thank Donna and Greg for guiding us through this cruise ship lifestyle!  I’ll share our honest opinion at the end of the post about how much we really liked it.
Me and Donna boarding the ship!

There's our boat at the Galveston Dock!

We arrived at the port in Galveston around noon, with two Arctic fronts blowing, making it not feel like a tropical trip at all.  It was hard to find a place to park ourselves so we could grab some lunch and wait with our carry-on to get into our rooms.  Finally found a spot, which was cold, and enjoyed our first taste of cruise ship food, which was cold. LOL!  Our balcony room was great, and by all means was our saving grace for the trip.  We had our required safety drill and man was it cold!  Just really made you not feel too good.  Back to our rooms, unpacked and had drinks.  Long time friends Debbie and Jimmy Kilgore were also on the cruise and we sure enjoyed spending time with them!  This ended up being a long day, I was still fighting allergies, and it was just great to get in the room and chill.

Sunday found us starting the day with room service coffee.  Cloudy and still feels cold outside.  Enjoyed a dining room breakfast.  Next stop was the casino, and man, couldn’t win anything. But Debbie did do some memory refreshing for me on playing blackjack and I enjoyed that.  There was a great musician on board, Victor Chapman, who played some pretty decent country music. So we got to do some dancing before getting dressed for our first elegant night.  After a good dinner, went to karaoke and the comedy club and by then the old problem ankle was saying it was time to go home.
Loved the music and the chance to do a little dancing!

Friends Chuck and Karen from Sweeny were also on the cruise!

Monday was another sea day, but it’s finally starting to warm up and we can sit on the balcony.  What did we do on this sea day?  Lost money at the casino, got close to winning Bingo, happy hour, dancing, buffet dinner, went to a fun show, karaoke, and 2 comedy shows.  Whew!
Enjoyed the balcony!
Tuesday we visited Grand Cayman Island!  We didn’t plan an excursion, but found a taxi to take us to a beautiful beach.  Enjoyed meeting new friends.  When we got back to the ship, we were starving and really chowed down and enjoyed one of Guy’s burgers.  The seas area getting really rough out here.
Friends Debbie and Jimmy, looking marvelous!

Rented us some chairs and umbrellas. Loved the sand.

Ron got his chill on.

Toe shot equals good time, even if I still have to compress that silly ankle!

Wednesday was another sea day, and a very rough sea day it was!  Geez……

Thursday our port of call was Aruba!  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the desert!  Aruba is known as One Happy Island for the warmth of it’s people.  The fofoti trees are abundant on the northeast coast, sculpted by the winds into graceful forms.  Our guide told us that during their rainy season, they get rain for about 2 minutes at a time.  Although we didn’t have an excursion planned, when we got off the ship we signed up for an island tour $25 each.  
The harbor pilot boat coming in to help guide us.

Pretty water!

Here’s what we saw:
1 – The California Lighthouse, which is their only lighthouse. 

Desert scenery

2 – Casibari Rock formations – went for a climb on this and saw a great view of Aruba.
Climbing to the top. 

Looking across Aruba.

Donna and Greg

3 – a Catholic church.  More than 90% of the island is Catholic.

4 – Caught the sunset on the beach

The beach was full of conch shells.

Did a little shopping. Interesting fact:  all the grocery stores are owned by Chinese.

The next day was a beautiful port – Curacao!  Originally named Island of Giants by Spanish explorers for the massive physique of its original inhabitants, today Curacao is a true global melting pot of over 5 nationalities.  We had an excursion for beach time and snorkeling at Blue Bay.  Just beautiful!  Could definitely spend some time here, but only if we flew in.  Ended the day with some good balcony time. 
Coming into port

Beautiful water!

Always a crowd!

Pretty homes

Donna enjoying the beach!

Sunscreen time!

Toe shots!

Leaving port

Saturday marks 1 week of being on a ship, and it was also another fun day at sea.  It was a long morning, and here’s why.  While on the ship you stay on ship time (for us it’s Texas CST).  However we were 2 time zones ahead. Ron got up super early cause he looked at the cell phone which had adjusted itself to the actual time zone……  Oh well. Went walking on the walking track, chilled by the pool, read and people watched, played bingo and enjoyed a social hour with some other folks we had not yet met.  Enjoyed dinner with the Kilgores, a good variety show and then the comedy club.

What comes to mind when you hear Cartagena, Columbia, South America?  For us, it’s about drug cartels and coffee.  I think our best port was Sunday to Cartagena.  We had booked a Sea Rumba and Old City Tour.  Awesome!  We got on a nice sized, double decker boat and took a ride over to the Old City.  Our tour guide, Carlos S., was fantastic.  He had warned us about the peddlers and how to deal with them.  The old city was cool. It was hot.  Saw a lot of history. Went to an emerald museum, of course it ended with walking through their showroom where we were pressed hard to buy some emeralds!  Now the ride back on the boat was so fun!  Free Rum drinks, dancing, music!  Got back to the room, showered off the sweat, and talked about the pretty cobblestone streets, good music and 16th century plazas we experienced.  Enjoyed getting food from the buffet and sitting on the balcony.

Coming into the harbor was this pretty statue.

Pretty pelicans

Traveling though the harbor

Looks like a pirate boat!

The wall around the old city

Very busy with tourists and peddlers

A sidewalk with all the country's beauty pageant winners.

It was Sunday and folks were attending mass.

Wasn't too sure about this statue.

This man painted us a picture in under 2 minutes on glass.  Amazing to watch!

A little street entertainment

A little refreshment to cool us down!

Greg's new friend. Kinda funny to watch.

Our music entertainment on the boat ride back.

The refreshment bar

Ron having a rather large time with the dancers!

Our rum drinks!

Carlos S. - a very good tour guide showing us the dance moves!

Monday, January 28 was the day everyone was waiting for – the Panama Canal partial transfer.  Panama showed us some mountainous terrain, which was different from the other islands!  I headed to the 10th floor and found a spot at the front, smack dab in the middle of the ship – a great place to see everything.  The Carnival Freedom is such a big ship that we had to go through the new locks. They say it’s more fun to go through the old locks.  It was so interesting to see how they maneuver the ship through the 3 locks.  The canal is about 180’ wide. I forget how wide the Freedom is, but there’s just a couple of feet clearance on either side.  About 14,000 ships use the canal each year. It averages about 8 to 10 hours for each ship to maneuver through.  A canal pilot boards the ship and navigates it through.  You have a tug on the front and a tug on the back, then there’s a crew on each side that ties the ship up while the water level starts adjusting.  Cool process!  Each lock you are raised (or lowered) 28 feet.

The Panama pilots boarding the cruise ship.

Maybe this boat is headed to the LNG facility at Freeport TX!

The bridge that is still under construction that will allow easier travel for residents.


Can you see the 3 locks?

Getting in position to enter the first lock.

The gate to the first lock is now completely open.

In we go!

It's a tight fit!

The ponds that help with the water and gravity.

Water has to finish rising to 28'. See the markers on the gate?

Ready for the second locks, and the gates are opening.

Into the 2nd locks

Now we're ready for the 3rd locks

And the gates are opening

Here we go!  We made it through!

Throngs of spectators watch

These guys are ready to enter the canal from the Pacific side.

In the distance is the bridge.  For now, traffic crosses the canels over the locks.  So there's a lot of hurry up and wait for them.

Here's a view of how they prepare to pull a tank through the locks.

Getting ready to go back through.  I'm taking pictures from our balcony now.

Pretty neat system how they handle the water.

Tuesday found us in Limon, Costa Rica.  We had an excursion – the Veragua Rainforest Trail and Tram.  Limon is home to another multi-cultural community, with roots in Italian, Jamaican and Chinese cultures, brought in to help build a railroad.  Not too impressed with our visit here, might be better to fly in and get away from the docks and what the ship offers you to do in the short time you’re visiting.  The rainforest was pretty and it was cool to see sloths and howling monkeys and colorful frogs.  It was a good experience.  We had the best meal ever at the steakhouse that evening.  Was fun to get dressed up and then go dancing at the pub. 
Sorry I don't remember what this fruit was.  Nice and chocolate tasting.

Baby bananas

Our tour guide ran out and grabbed a green and black tree frog.

Do you see the sloth?

These are birds nests in the tree.  I can't find my note on what type of bird it was.

Up close look at one of the nests

Dinner after our excursion.  Green frog tea!

The path of our tram ride.

This is their dry season, so not much to the waterfall.

I think this was a papaya.

Many beautiful flowers. Lots of hummingbirds.
Newbon, our room steward, was very creative!

Beautiful dinner!


Wednesday was another sea day.  Ron is also starting to get sick so he stayed in all day.  The highlight of my day was getting dressed and going to the Captain’s Cocktail Party.  Free drinks and snacks!
Emma, our British cruise director and me!

Thursday was our last port – Cozumel.  Ron is still sick but at the last minute he decided to go ahead and go on our excursion we had planned.  I felt like we needed a little history so I scheduled an Ancient Culture/Mayan Ruins trip. But man oh man is the water pretty here!  We got into port before 8, our excursion was at 11. So we decided to get off the ship with the first wave of folks and go do some shopping.  I think it’s a little sad, maybe disappointing is the better word, that that’s what appears to us to be the cruise life.  Hurry up get off ship, hurry up go shop and everyone is trying to sell you something, then hurry up and get to your excursion, hurry and hurry up through the stops you have and hurry up to get back on the boat.  But that’s our opinion.  So our excursion took us to the San Gervasio Mayan ruins.  I was a little disappointed, guess I was hoping for pyramids.  These ruins remind us of a lot of the ruins in New Mexico and Colorado.  What was interesting was that these ruins were based around fertility, which meant you had to understand the lunar cycles.  The tour also included lunch, authentic Mexican food, and a tequila tasting. 

Beautiful water here!

Our lunch spot.

At the heart of the ruins were the sacred precinct of temples where great ceremonies were staged.  The name Ixchel can be translated as “the woman with white skin,” and is linked with the mother goddesses and the moon, because she is considered an energy that provides fertility, to the earth as well as to animals, and sexual power and birth.  In the codices we find the representation of two goddesses, one young and one old.  The second one is considered companion of the supreme god Itzamma, and is related with weaving and painting.  This sanctuary received distant pilgrimages from the entire Mayan region, especially women seeking to ensure a fruitful marriage. 

Friday was our last fun day at sea.  Ron is sick so I found ways to entertain myself again.  An astronomy talk, Bingo, packing for our disembarkment, reading and dinner with Donna and Greg.  Saturday morning we arrived in Galveston in the fog around 6:30 a.m.  There was a lot of noises on our last night, which meant not much sleep.  We found a spot to sit and wait for disembarkment.  Finally got to the truck around 11:30. Went to Salsa’s for some great Mexican food, and home back at Brazos Bend State Park around 4.  Mounds and mounds of laundry.

So to answer the question – did we like cruising?  There was good and bad about it.  Since we’re used to not having a sticks and bricks home, being on a boat for 14 days wasn’t hard to do.  Will we do it again?  Doubtful.  Now a river cruise to another country might be on the horizon. Will we go back to the Caribbean area?  Probably, but only if we fly in.  The downside for us was getting off at the ports, rushing, avoiding everyone that was peddling their goods, and being limited to the ship’s hurried schedule.  We also got weary of ship food for the most part.  Oh – and dodging those scooters, or as Ron calls them, the plate holders!  They said the average age of this cruise was 72.  I guess a cruise is easy for folks with disabilities to enjoy a vacation and I am happy for them to be able to go. 

Well, with the government shutdown being temporarily blocked for a few weeks, we will be able to leave the state park here and head out to our next volunteer spot in Stonewall, Texas – the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.  Heading there on Friday, February 8.  Once we get into the ranch, if the government shuts down again, we will still get to stay.

And that's a wrap on our cruise!

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