Cartagena, Columbia – Day 2

Cartagena, Columbia – Day 2
Celebrity Cruises

Our second day in Cartagena, we were determined to head back to the Dungeons and shop the arcades. Our tour guide from the day before had offered to take a group into town, but we missed the ride. So we caught a taxi with another couple and split the twenty dollar fee. The driver dropped us off in the Old City but couldn’t tell us where to find the Dungeons. We noted our location so we could head back there for pickup and refused his offer to wait for us, or to come back at a specific time. We figured it wouldn’t be hard to flag another taxi in the same place.

We’d obtained a shopping map from the ship, but the streets were not labeled correctly or with any detail, and it only pointed out the ship’s recommended stores. We found these okay, but they weren’t where we wanted to go. Nobody seemed to understand when we asked about the Dungeons, or else they pointed vaguely and said the arcades were blocks away. We strolled along the streets, admiring the architecture and the wares sold by the street vendors.

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We peeked inside a cathedral that was crowded on this Sunday morning. Many patrons sat in the pews. We saw the famous clock tower.

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We climbed the wall and admired the view. The ancient wall is an attraction in itself.

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By now we were hot and tired. We trudged back to our place of origin. Buses sat waiting for their groups, but we spied only one lone taxi. The driver didn’t speak English and shook his head at my gestures. He must have been waiting on a return fare. It looked as though other cabs were driving by another section. Maybe we could hail one there. But the streets were flooded from recent rains, and it didn’t take long for us to realize that getting over to that spot would be difficult. Plus the cabs were zooming past as though already occupied.

Maybe we could find another place by the wall where there was a taxi stand. We wound through the streets, sweat dripping down our faces. Feeling lost and on the verge of collapse from heat exhaustion, I wondered what would happen if we needed medical assistance in this foreign place. We stopped passersby to inquire about a taxi, but no one spoke English. Overheated and panting, I feared we wouldn’t make it back to the ship.

Shoving aside a sense of panic, I staggered onward. As though by divine providence, I saw the familiar and very welcome face of our tour guide from the day before. He must have dropped off his load of tourists there and was hanging around waiting for their return. I waved to him. He recognized me and waved back. As we approached, I said we were ready to go back to the ship. He offered to take us to the Dungeons, but I didn’t care at that point. We followed him on a fifteen to twenty minute hike through the maze of streets to another section by the wall. Here he got us a cab and negotiated with the driver on our behalf. Greatly relieved, we dove inside the air-conditioned interior and settled back in our seats. The fare was supposed to be $15 for the two of us, but when I handed the driver my $20, he nodded and kept it. I was so glad to be back at the ship that I let it go.

A shuttle ran between the end of the pier and our ship. We gladly climbed aboard. Once back in our cabin, I rinsed my face with cold water. My complexion was red as a beet. We’re Floridians, so our sweat glands had done their jobs, but all the walking in the high heat defeated even us. Truly our guardian angels were watching over us that day to bring the tour guide our way.

Once we’d recovered, we took the shuttle back to the entrance and shopped in the spacious, air-conditioned gift shop where they sell emerald jewelry, native crafts, coffee, candy, and more. Outside, the port area is attractively landscaped with birds on display. You can catch a taxi out front. Just remember to arrange for pickup if you go touring on your own.

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After having been so stressed out, overheated, and dehydrated, I succumbed to a scratchy sore throat. This was the beginning of a cold which my husband caught from me. No doubt our resistance wore down that day, but we learned a lesson. Columbia isn’t like the Caribbean islands where people speak English and you can easily hire a cab. Nonetheless, Cartagena’s Old City is a beautiful place with flowers and ironwork on second-story balconies and romantic carriage rides. Visions of Romancing the Stone will play in your head. But now I understand how the heroine felt when she got lost on the wrong bus.

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Next Port: Georgetown, Grand Cayman

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Cartagena, Columbia – Day 1

Cartagena, Columbia – Day 1
Celebrity Equinox

Cartagena is a cosmopolitan city with skyscrapers in the new city and Spanish Colonial architecture in the walled old town. We came into the port where massive cranes showed a bustling cargo operation. Across the water is the modern cityscape, impressive in its sun-bathed brilliance.

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Our air-conditioned bus tour took us through city streets and up a hill with winding hairpin curves to the highest point in the city. Ten crosses along the way marked the road for drivers. At the top is La Popa Monastery, now a tourist attraction. Built in the 1500s, it serves as a museum to the past. Outside the entry gate are vendors hawking their wares. These natives can be very persistent, and you are expected to haggle for a good price.

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Once past the gate, we entered a brick plaza. Our guide took us into the building. Inside was a two-story courtyard like the one at Vizcaya in Miami. We viewed the Chapel with its wooden pews and enormous gold ornament on the dais.

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Outside, we took photos of the panoramic view. You could see the city and the sea beyond.

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From here we drove downhill and toward the old town, where we stopped to view Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This is the largest fort South America. It’s fully intact and very formidable. If you were marched inside as a prisoner, likely you weren’t coming out. It reminded me of the Count of Monte Cristo’s story. This was like something you’d see in a movie. We didn’t go inside on our tour, but it would have been a very interesting excursion. Vendors hounded us again, selling costume jewelry, leather belts, handbags, colorful paintings, hats, sunglasses, and tacky souvenirs.

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Next we entered the walled city. This was the first time I’d actually been inside a city with an ancient stone wall fully functional with ramparts and all. We had a quick stop at the Dungeons that are now shopping arcades with 23 enclosed stalls. We’d barely time to look around at the leather goods, souvenirs, coffee beans, woven hammocks, linen tablecloths, tee shirts, hats, mugs, and jewelry. Here it would have been nice to have an hour or two to shop instead of twenty minutes.

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Then we joined our guide in a walking tour of the Old City. It’s a maze of streets, lined by vendors selling more of the above. We saw fruit carts loaded with mangos, peeled pineapple wedges, bananas, and coconuts. Food vendors sold fried corn cakes.

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At the Emerald Museum, we went inside for a quick tour. According to our guide, Columbia has three main exports: coffee, emeralds, and a third item not mentionable. We all laughed at that remark, knowing what he meant. I enjoyed the displays in the museum, but this part ended in a rushed visit to an adjacent gift shop. Then we emerged into the bright sunshine to carry on.

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Next we went inside the Naval Museum, where we browsed among interesting displays relating to the region’s history. A folkloric show was performed for our benefit. This lasted about ten minutes, and we each received a bottle of water for refreshment. While I liked seeing the museum, this part I’d give up in favor of more shopping time at the arcades. Restrooms were available here, at the monastery, and by the Dungeons. We vowed to return ourselves to the arcades tomorrow. This was an excellent tour, covering many of the city highlights.

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Next Port: Cartagena, Columbia – Day Two

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Colon, Panama

Colon, Panama
Celebrity Equinox Cruise

An amazing sight met our eyes as we approached Panama. Dozens of ships anchored off shore, awaiting transit through the Canal, or so we presumed. The sky lightened to a cloudy day.

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We took a tour to Safarick’s Zoological Park and Gatun Locks. Our guide, a young woman, hardly spoke at all. She offered very little information. Later she told us this was her fifth tour and she’s sixteen years old. Obviously, she needs more training.

The city was a garbage dump, literally. There’s trash everywhere, mounded by the roadside and strewn across yards. Stray dogs roam around and scavenge off the trash. It’s amazing that disease isn’t more rampant here. As we did the day before, we had liberally covered ourselves in insecticide containing DEET, and I wore my Insect-Shield brand gauzy sweater (available at Amazon) over my shirt. Electric wires are strung overhead as we passed through the city. Buildings in Colon looked like condemned structures, crumbling away and leaning inward, but people still lived in them. Laundry dried outside on clotheslines. Air-conditioning units stuck out from windows for those who could afford them.

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The drive took us out of the city and along a well-paved, modern highway for nearly forty minutes. Lush tropical growth lined the roadsides. So did garbage. Even as we passed through small towns, we saw trash piled up.

We finally reached the zoo with its rescue animals just as the skies opened with a torrential downpour. Fortunately, we had umbrellas and rain ponchos I’d had the foresight to bring. The steamy humidity and puddles on the ground did not encourage exploration. The animals were in confined cages, and this sight compared to the zoos at home left me in sad dismay. I didn’t bother walking through the aviary. Flamingo Gardens in Fort Lauderdale has an expansive aviary, and we’re used to Disney’s Animal Kingdom where the creatures have plenty of space to roam. These might be rescue animals, but their living conditions leave a lot to be desired. I suppose the zookeepers are to be commended for their preservation efforts in the limited space available to them. It’s helpful if you want to see some of the native animals up close and personal, otherwise I wasn’t so thrilled with this part of the tour. But that might be me, since I’m spoiled by other parks. We did see spider and howler monkeys, macaws, and more. The gift shop is tiny but there if you want a souvenir.

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Back on the bus, the guide gave us banana muffins and bottles of water. Most of these tours take four hours or more and you miss lunch. Wisely, I’d brought packaged snacks from home that I carried in my bag.

Next we drove to the Expansion side of the Canal. Here our bus had to wait in line as an enormous container ship came through.

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After the gates closed, traffic from the other side crossed the bridge first. It’s one-way at a time. Once across, our driver parked at Gatun Locks where we had plenty of time to explore. It was pouring rain again. Fortunately, the viewing platforms are under cover. There’s a lower level platform by a set of restrooms. Up a couple flights of stairs, you can get a higher view of the original Panama Canal in both directions.

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We watched a ship coming in from the higher level on the left. The water gradually drained until it matched the lower level on the right. Then an alarm sounded, warning anyone on the walkway crossing over the locks that the gates are about to open. The double set of gates slowly swung open, and the ship moved through. The entire process was fascinating. We spied a container ship coming from the right side in a farther section of the Canal. Note the locomotives pulling the ships. View my video here.

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According to our guide, ships have to book passage up to eight months in advance. The cost is in cash and can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. This depends upon weight, cargo, and number of passengers. The Panama Canal is truly a wonder, but I wonder even more where the revenues go. Certainly, they don’t reach the citizens who live in squalor.

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At the port, a couple of small gift shops inside the terminal sell Panama coffee, chocolate-covered coconut or pineapple candies, tee shirts, Panama-style hats (NOT made in Panama), tote bags, and souvenirs. These are air-conditioned shops and have enough of a selection that you don’t have to look elsewhere.

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Next Port: Cartagena, Columbia

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Puerto Limon, Costa Rica

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
Celebrity Equinox Shore Excursion

On our way out of the port town, we noted tin-roofed residences painted coral, aqua, and sand colors. Barbed wire and guard bars on windows were widely evident. So were electric wires in overhead tangles. The city had a third world look, although our guide said education is mandatory, and they have a high literacy level. Nicaraguans take the more menial jobs. It’s a mountainous country but not near the coast, where our air-conditioned bus took us to the Tortuguero Canals to see the wildlife. The mountains rise 12,000 feet in the highest place. Our tour guide was excellent, keeping up a running commentary along the way. He’s a Catholic who goes to church only on three occasions: “when we hatch, match, and dispatch.” He went to school to become a professional tour guide, and his training shows.

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The open-air boat ride took about two hours. A roof provided shade as we cruised slowly along, stopping up close to see animals such as a small red dart frog, a sloth, howler monkeys in the trees, various birds, a blue butterfly, iguanas, and Cayman gators that are smaller than alligators. The water was murky brown, possibly stained from mangrove roots.

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Back at the boathouse, we used the restrooms and ate a snack of juicy sweet pineapple and fresh bananas. We gulped down the cold water offered. There’s a small souvenir shop with tee shirts and carved wood items, plus Costa Rican coffee for sale.

Traffic in Limon was congested. Driving in the city was a free-for-all with cars going every which way at intersections and no traffic lights. If there’s wealth in this country, we didn’t see it by this coastline. A tour to the rainforests would be another good choice, but since the mountains are distant, it probably takes a while to get there from this port town.

We noted a gift shop near the entry gates, but it didn’t look too inviting. Since we don’t need any more wood carvings or native handicrafts, we passed on this opportunity and went back to the ship.

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Next Port: Colon, Panama

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