Wednesday, January 19, 2022

January 18th – A Brief Glimpse of Guayaquil

When you’re cruising the world during a pandemic, you need to expect a few last minute changes and obstacles, and that’s what we got today in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. We got off the ship to find that the city had just gone into Red Alert because of a high number of Covid infections. That meant that the authorities would only allow us to do “Panoramic Tours” – i.e. not getting off the bus at any point.

But, when you think back to what Guayaquil was experiencing at the start of the pandemic in 2020 – so many dead that its morgues and cemeteries were being overwhelmed and bodies were being just dumped on the street – maybe it wasn’t surprising that the city’s authorities were being so abundantly cautious.

To make sure that we didn’t break their stringent protocols, we were even given a police escort all the way round – no-one was to be allowed off the bus, even for a toilet break (on a three-hour trip, that was a challenge for some of us!). We did have one bizarre visitor get on the coach though – at one point, a heavily-armed policewoman got on with a ventriloquist dummy telling us to take some photos. No one could fathom why this was happening, but at least it was an attempt to make the city more welcoming.

Actually, a couple of decades ago, this was a place where you’d probably be glad not to get off the bus, such was its reputation for crime and disorder. However, Guayaquil has undergone something of a renaissance in the last few years, so what I was seeing from the bus made me keen to explore further.

Of course, you can never get a real sense of a city from a bus window, but these were the overall impressions.
1. The huge number of policemen and security guards absolutely everywhere. There must be better ways to make your city safe.
2. This is a very mixed city – some very smart areas and some really seamy areas in close proximity, which is an explanation for the proliferation of razor wire and iron bars on every door and window.
3. There were lots of people sweeping streets and there wasn’t much graffiti – there appears to be some good attempts to restore civic pride.
4. The city seemed to have a nice buzz about it – lots of people waving hellos at us.
5. Guayaquil appears to be on the up – a decent public transport system and plenty of new building projects show that this is a city with a plan.

So, it was sad not to get the full Guayaquil experience today, but at least we saw enough of the city to want to come back.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

January 15th – A Walk on the Wild Side at the Manuel Antonio National Park

From the unremarkable port of Quepos, we took a quick drive to the wonderful Manuel Antonio National Park – Costa Rica’s most popular National Park. It’s also one of the smallest National Parks in the country, but it packs a hell of a punch, in its range of ecosystems and incredible bio-diversity. 

We trekked through thick rainforest and dense mangroves, emerging at an absolutely gorgeous beach of idyllic white sands that looked like something from a tourist brochure. Our guide was excellent at pointing out what we were passing on the way – it was the small details (insects, leaves, bats etc) that were as interesting as the stand-out sights of sloths and monkeys.

Apart from the land crabs that had easily-spottable bright red legs, most of these forest creatures were doing their best not to stand out from the crowd, so we needed the guide’s eagle eyes and his powerful telescope to make out most of the amazing fauna he somehow was able to spot in the dense foliage. He’d point out a sloth or an iguana in the trees that was impossible to spot with the naked eye, but then his telescope would bring these remarkable creatures into focus.

One animal that it was impossible to miss was the howler monkey, who announced his presence with a huge roar, and just as we looked up to see his presence rustling away in the trees directly above us, he attempted to pee on us. This really was nature in the raw.

With the heat and humidity, it was a fairly exhausting trek, but great fun to get so close to nature. Costa Rica is somewhere we need to come back to.

January 14th – Experiencing Pura Vida in Puntarenas

Everywhere you go in Costa Rica, you hear people saying “Pura Vida” to each other – a ubiquitous phrase which appears to have multiple meanings, from “yes”, to “no”, to “no worries” to “hello”. But, the phrase – which literally means, “Pure Life” - really sums up this peaceful Central American nation. Here, the natural world comes first in a country where over 25% of its territory is protected National Parks.

From the town of Puntarenas, I took a trip along the Tarcoles River to see some of the wonderful array of wildlife (and particularly birdlife) that lives along its banks. Even for someone who’s not really into bird-spotting, it was quite amazing how much there was to see. We started off with views of wading herons and hopping vultures along the river’s edge; in the trees were pink spoonbills and eagles holding onto freshly caught fish; and in the air were soaring frigate birds and enormous pelicans. Our guide reckoned that we saw at least 30 different species of birds in our time on the river.

However, the stars of the show were the menacing-looking crocodiles lurking on the banks or floating like logs in the river. Most of the time they were still as statues, but then they’d leap into life and suddenly launch themselves into the river. We were told that they weren’t considered a danger to humans (which must have been a relief to the fishermen on the banks), but they had been known to take down the odd cow who ventured too close.

My favourite sight was of the Jesus Christ lizard (he literally walks on water), but he was too small and fast for me to capture on film; while the capuchin monkeys jumping around in the trees were great to watch. Sadly, most of my photography consisted of blurry shapes in the trees, so these photos are the best of a bad bunch.

January 12th – The Panama Canal is Busier Than Ever

If ever there was a sign that the world is bouncing back from the Pandemic, then it was the sheer volume of traffic that we were sharing the Panama Canal with. If global supply chains have been disrupted, they now appear to be well and truly back on track – as we watched all those massive container ships go past, it made you wonder what was in there, and where it was going (and, whether the world really needs so many manufactured goods to be shipped around the world).

The new locks for the canal were completed in 2016 and they’ve pretty much doubled the capacity of the canal, which meant that we were towered over by some absolutely huge container ships, LNG carriers and supertankers, that wouldn’t have been able to fit through the old locks. The biggest ships pay over $1million to pass through, so the Panamanian government must be doing ok out of it. 

However, we went through the old locks – whose simple but supremely efficient engineering is as awesome now as was when it was completed 108 years ago – they still use the original gates manufactured over a century ago.
For me, the most amazing thing about transiting the canal, is the experience of being on a ship as it’s physically lifted up the 85 feet to the central section of the canal - basically an aquatic bridge that takes you over the mountains from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There are no pumps involved in the gates – just water power and gravity.

A World Cruise is made by the exotic destinations it stops in at, but sometimes just passing through is as good as stopping.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

January 10th & 11th - Carnival and Coffee in Colonial Cartagena

This is what World Cruising is all about. After 2 years of not leaving Europe, you forget the adrenalin rush of visiting somewhere so utterly different from your own home. And, if you’re looking for an exotic destination with warm tropical weather, amazing history, and a pulsating street life, then Cartagena in Colombia is hard to beat.

You just have to look at the amount of work the Spanish put into protecting this colonial gem of a city back in the 17th and 18th centuries, to know that Cartagena was an incredibly valuable possession. The galleons that set sail from here back to Spain would have been full of precious gold and silver that would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s money – the values of each ship’s treasures are mind-boggling.

We explored the rambling ramparts of the simply enormous San Felipe Fortress, and walked alongside sections of the 7 miles of thick walls that surrounded the Old Town. And, what they enclosed was pretty special – a superbly-preserved collection of colourful colonial houses, lavish churches, and huge palacios that were so evocative of times gone by.

But, rather than being just a living museum, the thing that marks Cartagena as special is its local colour and vibrant street life. We got a glimpse into this with an amazing World Cruise Event that was full of music and dance – pulsating drums that turned our walk from our outside venue to the restaurant into a full-on street carnival. After so many months of lockdown, this was a joyous sensory overload!

Our second morning here was a much more sedate affair – perking ourselves up with a demonstration of Colombian Coffee. I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but it was interesting to learn about, and it gave me a much-needed boost of caffeine to re-invigorate myself after last night’s energy-sapping fiesta. When your city’s as lively as Cartagena, no wonder the locals are addicted to coffee.

What a great way to start the 2022 World Cruise.