The last couple of days have been non-stop activity, from hiking through rain forests to white water rafting along a tropical river at the base of a volcano. And the entire way, the weather has been ideal. Even in the thick of the jungle in Panama, the temperature was only about 88° (which was a little stiff with the high inland humidity, but no complaints here).
Right now, we’re heading almost due north, about 15 miles off the northwestern tip of Nicaragua. The sea is a little rough, and the wind up on deck is pretty wicked, but the combination of sun, sea, warmth and wind is perfect. For the second time in three days, I watched the sun rise, getting an early start in the gym and then two miles of laps around the pool deck.
Our first stop on this leg of the trip aboard the Brilliance of the Seas was the Panama Canal. I was up at 5 a.m. to watch as we passed the breakwater, about six miles out from the canal. Off in the dark distance, I could see the markers, green on the left and red on the white, that marked the channel leading to the canal entrance. Set in the middle were the lights of another cruise ship ahead of us. As we slowly approached the canal, the sun rose gently over the port city of Colón, with its lighted container ship cranes creating what looked like a line of Christmas trees along the shore. (I was confused for a while because I thought the sun should come up on the horizon ahead of our ship, but the Panama Canal runs north to south.)
I’ll spare you the details of how the canal works, other than to say that very little has changed since it opened in 1913. For example, the navigation cables that attach each vessel to locomotives on either side of the canal are still carried out to the ships via two men in a small rowboat. Once connected, the locomotives literally pull the ships through each lock.
I couldn’t help to contemplate the significance of the canal, especially once we were out on Lake Gatún, the nearly 50-mile-long manmade lake that connects each end of the canal. As we took a small motorboat out on the lake to reach the island of Barros Colorado, home of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, we darted in and out of the wakes from massive container ships that were sailing from the opposite ends of the globe. One ship had two 80-foot yachts, tightly wrapped in plastic, tied down to its deck, while another had containers full of BWMs bound for the Pacific side of the canal.
Barros Colorado was the real highlight of Panama, given that the roads and highways in the country had more potholes than Washington’s 14th Street Bridge in the dead of an icy winter during the Barry administration. The island is a protected reserve that houses up to 60 researchers who study everything from the soil composition of the rain forest to howler monkeys and the effects of global climate change. We hiked for about 90 minutes through some of the thickest areas of forest, spotting monkeys and other wildlife. Our guide Wendy, who works four days a week as an air traffic controller in Panama City, was inspirational. As for the rest of Panama? Well, given a choice, the country isn’t high on my list of places to return to (the port city of Colón reminded me of a slum in Phnom Penh, only Cambodia was about five times cleaner, had fewer stray dogs, and generally smelled better).
Costa Rica, on the other hand, is an almost magical place. It is a beautiful nation of mountains, rain forests, plantations and rivers. As a whole, the small towns and villages we saw on our 90-minute drive from the port of Limón to the Carmen section of the Reventazon River were cleaner than my own neighborhood in Washington on a busy Saturday night. We rafted through the river’s Class II/II+ rapids for a couple of hours before having a delicious lunch of beans and rice and then heading back to the port, where we stumbled upon a family-run stall where the mother and son were selling gorgeous handmade wood products with intricate inlays. Oddly enough, it was the same family who sold my sister-in-law an inlaid bowl that she gave us after visiting Costa Rica two years ago. The workmanship is among the highest quality I’ve ever seen, and since Shawn and I love the natural colors of different varieties of wood, we left Puerto Limón with several parcels.
Durante mi vacacion, practiqué mi lengua española en una variedad de situaciones, incluyendo en restaurantes, en el mercado, y con los trabajadores en nuestro barco. ¡Aprendí que mi español es mejor que yo pensamiento! La gramatica es dificil, así que necesito practicar mas. Por ejemplo, en Costa Rica, yo no recordé como utilizar el verbo “tener” (!!!), pero la guia del rio me ayudó. (Yo tengo, tu tienes, el/ella tiene, nosotros tenemos, vosotros teneis, ustedes tienen)
The research station at Barros Colorado (we only saw one crocodile).
Shawn and Sean (front left) tackle Costa Rica’s wild rapids.