The Panama Canal
and Costa Rica
A Windstar Cruise
Feb – March, 2018
On our return from our annual trip to Bonaire, we realized that there was still a lot of winter weather to come and we should try to avoid some of it. We had enjoyed our two previous WindStar cruises so looked for another WindStar cruise that might be interesting. We came across a cruise that transited the Panama Canal and also made a couple of stops in Costa Rica, which we had enjoyed on a 2007 trip. For a number of reasons, we thought a trip through the Panama Canal would be interesting so we decided to give it a try.
The itinerary: starting in Colon, Panama.
This would be a bit of a last-minute trip with relatively little time for planning. We would be leaving just over 2 weeks after deciding to do the trip. Once again we used Vacations To Go and our counselor, James Bingley, was helpful and quick with needed information. Because this was a last-minute arrangement, some things that we would normally arrange through WindStar were fully booked and not available, so we had to make alternate plans. Some of these worked well and at least one did not.
As usual, when flying in/out of Atlanta, we were on Delta flights. The southbound flight to Panama City was an evening departure, arriving in Panama City about 10:20 PM. Since First Class was little more than coach on this flight, we opted for the more comfortable seats. We headed to the airport early to avoid Friday rush hour in Atlanta and passed the extra time in Delta’s Sky Club lounge. The flight ended up leaving about 30 minutes late but they made up all but about 10 minutes of that on the way. Immigration and Customs in Panama City was reasonably quick and simple. The return flight was out of San Jose, Costa Rica on a Saturday afternoon, so first class was too expensive to consider but we had our exit row seats. This flight was on time and, using our Global Entry membership, we got through immigration quickly, only to have to wait 45 minutes for our luggage to show up amid significant confusion in the baggage claim area.
Before we even left home, I had one good omen for our upcoming trip… at least, I considered it a good omen. That morning I was on my computer and the thought occurred to me that there might be a webcam of the Panama Canal. A quick search turned up a live web cam of the Pedro Miguel locks near Panama City. The surprising thing was the ship then going through the lock in front of the camera: It was our ship, the Wind Star! It was on the last leg of the prior cruise that was in the opposite direction and ending in Colon, where we would board the next day.
Screen picture of Wind Star in the Pedro Miguel locks
The flight from Atlanta to Panama City, about 4 hours, was uneventful and reasonably relaxing. We landed about 10:30 PM, about 10 minutes late and had a long walk through the terminal to the customs/immigration area. The formalities went smoothly and we exited out into the ground transportation area where we were to have a car waiting for us. Because we had done this on a last-minute basis there was no space available in the WindStar organized transportation and Panama City hotel, so I had made reservations at the Panama City Hilton and had arranged for a private car to take us the 30 minutes from the airport to the hotel. Unfortunately, our driver was not there. After looking for our ride for about 15 minutes and asking some local people, we just took a taxi, which worked out fine anyway.
The Hilton was very nice. I had sprung for a nice waterfront room which was roomy, comfortable, very modern, and had a great view.
Part of the view from our hotel room window.
Despite a late night, we did not sleep very late so we got up and headed for the included breakfast. They provided a very complete buffet breakfast with many fruits, breads, omelet station, many juices, and about anything you could imagine for breakfast. We knew it would be a while before we could get on the Wind Star and be able to have lunch, so we ate a good breakfast.
After breakfast we put on our walking clothes and took a walk along the waterfront. In the above picture you might see the walkway between the road and the water. It continued on for several miles and we walked much of the distance. It was a nice walk/bike way and there were quite a few people out, both apparent residents and visitors like us. One thing that surprised us was how big and how modern and developed Panama City is. The skyline of many tall buildings is really impressive. Later we were told that Panama City has become a major financial center and the large banks have brought a lot of money with them.
Some of the impressive skyline of Panama City.
By the time we got back to the hotel, both the air temperature and our body temperatures were warming up so we decided we’d had enough exercise for a while. We got cleaned up and repacked our luggage and relaxed until about 11:30. Then we checked out and got a taxi to the Bristol Hotel (only about 4 – 5 blocks away) where the WindStar organized bus would pick us up at 12:30. When we saw the Bristol and its location, I was glad that we had stayed at the Hilton as I thought it much nicer and in a better location, close to the water.
We had about 45 minutes until time for the bus to load and WindStar had set up a waiting area in a conference room complete with multiple large tables, coffee, cold drinks, and snacks. We met and talked to a number of other passengers on this cruise, reinforcing our impression that most WindStar passengers were friendly and chatty. At about 12:30 we all loaded onto a tour bus and headed toward Colon. In addition to the driver there was a tour guide who provided information about Panama and the areas we were going through during the ride. During the almost two hour ride we saw a lot of the Panama landscape as well as several waterways, including glimpses of the Panama Canal.
While we were impressed with Panama City, I cannot say the same for Colon. It appeared to be a very poor and industrial city, and certainly not as inviting and clean as much of Panama City. We unloaded from the bus and went through a quick security check before boarding the ship (which I will refer to as “the yacht” from here on, as the crew does.)
Susan (and others) are heading to the Wind Star boarding walkway.
Once on the yacht we did the standard “registration” process, getting ID cards and having our pictures taken. This took about 20 minutes and we then headed to our cabin where our luggage was already waiting for us. Lunch was more important than unpacking, so we headed to the Veranda restaurant and we quickly felt right at home.
Susan is checking out the salads available in the Veranda.
There was the usual good selection of fruits, cheeses, salad making materials and prepared salads. At every lunch there was either a carving station or a specialty service, such as custom made soft tacos, as well as a hot food section with various meats and vegetables.
The next event after lunch was the overview of the excursions that would be available during the cruise. Since we had not yet selected any excursions, we attended this briefing by Kuba (whom we knew from our Feb. cruise last year) and selected excursions for most days. Soon after this presentation was complete, the mandatory safety drill was conducted, complete with donning and adjustments of all life-vests.
Passengers were boarding this Norwegian Cruise Lines ship behind the Wind Star
With the life-vests re-stowed, most passengers gathered on the rear deck area for the departure and “Sail-Away” ceremony. Much of the harbor was taken up by large commercial shipping facilities, including a couple of large car carriers, some bulk carriers, oil tankers and container ships. There was one other, but much larger, cruise ship not far from us, and immediately behind the Wind Star was a sailing vessel that was almost an exact, but much smaller, version of the Windstar. See if you can identify the various ships in this video of the harbor.
When departing from a dock or mooring, or weighing anchor, a tradition referred to as the “Sail-away” is observed. As the sails are raised, the title song from the 1992 movie “Conquest of Paradise” is played. Although still nice, this time there were several consistent problems with the ceremony: the proper music did not start until the sails were already half way up and some of the sails had to be raised by manual control, so they did not go as smoothly. Even with the problems, we, and most passengers, still usually gathered on the deck to observe the sail-away.
In this case, we left the dock, set the sails and motored out through a gap in the breakwater where there were more than 15 large ships anchored in the area, apparently awaiting their turn to transit the canal. You can see a few of these ships in the photo below.
Sunset from the Wind Star just outside the harbor of Colon, Panama.
We went through the breakwater, turned left/port and motored about a mile, turned left/port again, motored back through another gap in the breakwater, and anchored back in the Colon Harbor perhaps a mile from where we left the dock. It seemed strange, but I guess we had been assigned a specific location where we were supposed to be in the morning to start our transit on schedule.
There was a reception in the lounge to welcome everyone and introduce a couple of the ship’s officers. Our captain was a British fellow, Chris Dodd, and this was his last cruise before taking his six month “vacation”. We had met several of the crew on our cruise last Feb. After the reception it was time for dinner in the AmphorA restaurant.
AmphorA, before the crowd arrived.
This evening, and most other evenings, we joined other couples at the tables for six. We had pleasant meals and conversations each time. The food is very good with a different menu nightly, although some “standards” are always available. The wine list is reasonably complete but they did not have several of the wines on the list that we asked for. The wine steward was pleasant, but really did not know wine very well: he did not know what “unoaked chardonnay” was and, when asked for one, he recommended a chardonnay that was very oaky (and also the highest priced chardonnay on the list). Other than this, all the waiters, servers and other staff in the restaurants were extremely proficient and provided very good service throughout our trip. After dinner we enjoyed the music of two young musicians (Diego and Ines) in the lounge until time to put an end to a rather long day. I think we both slept well to the very gentle rocking of the yacht.
Sunday morning we got up and headed to the Veranda for breakfast as the Wind Star weighed anchor and headed for the first set of locks. By the time most people finished breakfast and were standing on the decks for the best views, we were approaching the entrance to the canal system with the first major landmark being a new bridge that was being built over the Colon end of the canal.
New bridge under construction at the Colon end of the canal.
The narrator we had taken on board said the bridge was made necessary because the new locks had made crossing the canal by ferry very time consuming. As we approached the bridge, we could see that our masts would be approaching the height of the part of the bridge currently being worked on. I expected the captain and harbor pilot to cross under the part of the bridge that was still open, but I guess they wanted to make it more interesting and, as this video shows, passed directly under the construction.
A true “rowboat” comes out in front of the first of the Gatun locks.
As we approached the first set of locks, the Gatun locks, our narrator said that a “rowboat” would come out and pass a line back and forth to cable us to the electric “mules” that would assist us through the locks. I assumed the “rowboat” would just be a small powered boat, but no…. As you can see here, it was actually a man-powered rowboat. I suspect the use of the rowboat had something to do with labor or employment rules, but it was an interesting feature of the locks.
We pulled into the first of the locks with the assistance of the “mules”. All ships actually move through the locks under their normal power and the mules are there only to keep the ship centered in the lock. Once in the first lock, the lock gate behind us closed and the lock started filling with water.
You can see the water boiling up from below as the Wind Star is lifted.
One thing we noticed throughout our transit is that the Wind Star did get a lot of attention. The crews of other ships, who had probably seen hundreds of huge ships transiting the canal, came out to watch us pass. The sight of a large sailing ship, even if not an especially good sailing ship, still gets a lot of attention and many friendly waves. The Wind Star has a flat bottom with no keel, so a wind from the side pushes it sideways as much as forward. We just figure the sails are for “show”, not for “go”.
The crew of this large tanker lined up in several places, watching the Wind Star pass.
When the water had come up to the proper height, the gates to the next lock open, almost like opening a magic door.
The lock gates opened, inviting us into the next lock.
We continued on through the locks with each of the three locks lifting us by about 28 feet, for a total rise of 83 feet. It appeared rather strange when we looked back and could see the lower levels of the locks below us with large and small ships following us or heading in the other direction toward the Caribbean. When the ships were in a lower level lock, all you could see of the large ship was the superstructure.
How many other ships/boats can you count in this photo? I count at least five.
In the photo above you can see the tug and pilot boat which shared the locks with us on the way up, as well as a ship in the lower lock behind us, one in the lower lock on the other side, headed down/out, and a large bulk carrier in the lock adjacent to us.
It took about 20 – 25 minutes to transit each lock, including the time to physically move between the locks as well as the time to fill the lock with water to raise us to the next level. As we were exiting the last of the Gatun locks, a huge container ship was entering the adjacent lock on the outbound side. It was so big you could not see any gap between the ship and the side of the lock and it caused a loud squealing sound, apparently as the sides of the ship rubbed against the sides of the lock. Check it out in this video.
Entering the Gatun lake, we could look to our left (port) and see a part of the new, larger, locks and ships headed toward them. Although you cannot actually see the new locks in this video, they are much larger than the old locks and they will “recycle” water used in the locks so they will actually use less water from the Gatun Lake then the old locks do.
Once out into the Gatun Lake, we could see many other ships anchored or moored around the area, apparently awaiting their turn to transit the Gatun locks toward the Caribbean.
Some of the ships waiting in Gatun Lake for their turn to transit Gatun locks toward the Caribbean.
This part of the transit was very calm and relaxing, so most of the passengers relaxed or took the opportunity to get out of the sun for a while. The crew had warned us to use sun block, wear a hat, and try to stay out of the sun, but we saw a couple of people who apparently did not take that advice and got rather red.
Some passengers relaxed more than others.
For the next hour or so we cruised easily, watching the large ships passing in the opposite direction that dwarfed the relatively small Wind Star. Tankers, container ships, bulk carriers, car carriers, and some I could not identify, passed by headed for the Gatun locks. It was soon time for lunch so we took a relaxing and cool break in the Veranda to enjoy a nice meal in the air conditioning. The food was always very good and fresh so it was hard to avoid over-eating. I rationalized that I was being good by eating the sugar-free desserts they had each day.
The dessert tray at lunch in Veranda. Even the sugar-free items were good.
During the afternoon, you could go to the lounge and watch a very interesting and appropriate NOVA production of “A Man, A Plan, A Canal” featuring David McCullough. Although we didn’t watch it this day (we were too busy observing the transit) we did watch it as a “rerun” the next day. If you have any interest in the Panama Canal, I strongly suggest this program as it does give a very good insight to the planning and construction of the canal. We were almost continually amazed at the level of engineering and construction accomplished by the canal builders over 100 years ago. Seeing the size of the locks and understanding all the water channels, gate mechanisms, and water valves gives you a much better appreciation of just what was done by the canal builders.
One of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the canal to build, was the Culebra Cut: a huge channel cut through mountains hundreds of feet deep and wide. At one point of the Culebra Cut there is a relatively new bridge called the Centennial Bridge as it was opened in 2014, the 100 birthday of the canal. As with the first (under construction) bridge we went under, our masts cleared, but seemingly not by a lot.
Centennial Bridge with some of the Culebra Cut visible on the sides.
The Pedro Miguel lock is a single lock at the end of the Culebra Cut just as the canal opens out into another lake. The unusual thing that happened here is that we got company. As we approached the lock we noticed three sailboats, probably about 40 ft long, rafted (tied together side by side). As it turned out, they were apparently waiting for a smaller ship, like ours, that they could go through the locks with.
Three sailboats together with the Pedro Miguel lock in the distance.
Just so you understand the size of some of the ships…. In the photo above, the big yellow and blue structure is actually a ship in the other side of the locks. I believe it was a car carrier (probably empty) that we had followed much of the way through the canal. Anyway, we initially passed the three sailboats and then someone must have decided they should go first, so we slowed down and the sailboats powered past us. When they were close to us we could see that there were a couple of harbor pilots and line handlers on the boats to assist them through the canal, just as on any large ship. You can see them just ahead of us in this video as we entered the lock.
Now that we were “exiting” the canal, we entered the lock at the higher lake level and the lock dropped us down to the next lower part of the lake. Once we were down to the proper level, the gate opened and we left the lock, following the sailboats.
The gates open so the sailboats lead us out into the lower lake.
After crossing the mile or two of the Miraflores lake, we approached the final locks, the Miraflores locks. Once again, the rafted sailboats went in front and we followed. This time there were two locks to go through.
Pulling into the first lock, you can see the lower second lock just beyond.
This was starting to get almost routine and we passed through both locks with little fanfare. As we exited the final lock, the sailboats ahead of us separated and went on their ways.
Now at Miraflores lake level, the gates open and the sailboats lead the way out.
The next significant event would be passing under the “Bridge of the Americas”. It was the first bridge to be built across the canal and opened in 1962 so is the oldest of the canal bridges. As we approached it we could see that it was of a bit older design and beyond it you could see many ships anchored in the Pacific awaiting their transit.
Americas Bridge with the Pacific beyond it.
About this time the narrator mentioned that we were running a little ahead of schedule so the tide was not as low as the captain had planned. But, he said, the captain was pretty sure we should be able to clear the bridge anyway. What?? You can see what happened as we went under the bridge in this video. Listen just as the mast approaches the bridge. That noise you heard (just before the laughing and such) was the sound of the ship’s horn that someone “accidently” sounded at that moment. Yeah, right! Believe me, the horn sounded much louder “live” than it does in the video; I think everyone jumped a couple of inches. A little research suggests that the narrator may not have been exaggerating about the tide. The clearance of the bridge above the water level at high tide is said to be 201 feet. The height of the Wind Star’s masts are documented to be 204 feet. I don’t think the tide rises and falls by more than 3 feet, so I suspect that perhaps the Wind Star’s masts have been modified somewhat to fit beneath the bridge. At least, I sure hope so!
From there it was an easy and pretty short sail into the Bay of Panama, just off of Panama City. We anchored a short distance from a marina in some islands in the bay, within sight of much of Panama City.
Again, we were amazed at the size of Panama City and the impressive skyline.
Like at the Gatun end of the canal, there were many ships anchored in the vicinity, apparently waiting for their turn. We settled down and relaxed for a while, enjoying the view all around us, as in this short video. As usual, Kuba provided an overview of the excursions that would occur the next day. Before dinner, the captain, Chris Dodd, introduced all of the ships officers, a couple of which we knew from our Caribbean cruise in 2017 and then we headed to dinner in the AmphorA.
That is Captain Dodd with the microphone with the ship’s officers behind him.
This had been a long day and, although we had not really done much, we were tired and called it a night after dinner. It had been a long, but very interesting, day on the Wind Star.
We had a 8:00 departure for our excursion today, so we had to get up at a reasonable time and get breakfast. I had already fallen into the habit of making smoked salmon, cream cheese, onions, and capers a part of my daily breakfast. That is definitely something we do not have for breakfast at home and I figured it was sure be to reasonably healthy.
We boarded one of the tenders for the transfer into the nearby marina. It was interesting just looking at all the very expensive and large boats in the marina and the names of some of them. Once on shore and organized, we boarded a small bus for our ride to the Gamboa forest area. We had a guide explaining what we were passing by and giving some of the history of the country and the canal so that made the rather long ride (about 90 minutes) more interesting. Part of the ride went right along the Panama Canal and I recognized some of the landmarks we had passed the day before. Our first stop was a resort up on a hill, overlooking a river and lake that feeds into the canal and provides some of the water necessary to operate the locks.
A view from the Gamboa Resort overlooking their pool and the lake.
We had a few minutes here to stretch our legs, drink a nice glass of fruit juice, and enjoy the views, both outside and inside were many flowering plants and some interesting sculptures of birds in flight. After our break, we got back in the bus for a short ride to several structures and activities close to the lake. The first of these was an orchid garden. Susan and I grew up with orchids in our yards, so orchids, while pretty, are nothing special to us, but it was a nice display.
Some of the orchids on display.
Our next activity was to visit a butterfly house. While nice, it was not much compared to other butterfly gardens we have been to, although we did get a bit of a shower form the water misters that were going in that area. In the last of these small buildings were some small poison frogs. They were small and somewhat hidden so were difficult to see, but at least we can now say that we have seen some green poison frogs and lived to tell about it.
The next display was a building used in the rescue of local wildlife, the stars of which are, of course, sloths. There was also a small, about the size of a housecat, type of anteater which was surprisingly cute and which had figured out where its food came from. Although within an enclosed area, it would make a beeline for anyone coming up to the enclosure, hoping to get a snack. There were also a couple of sloths and we confirmed the fact that they do move very slowly.
This guy moved slowly, even when reaching for something to eat.
Across a small street was another building with several rescued animals that were being kept until they could hopefully be released back into the forest. A couple of them were cats and I’m not sure now if they were Margays or the larger Ocelot. In either case, they are beautiful animals and it is truly a shame that they have to be kept caged up like this as they were obviously uncomfortable. I do hope these animals can be returned to the wild soon.
Although calm here, the cats paced around their cages a lot.
We loaded back into the bus and took a short ride to the base of the aerial tram. Each tram “gondola” held six people: a guide and five guests. We loaded up and headed up the tramway through the rain forest, and I do mean literally “through” the rain forest. At several points you could easily reach out and touch the foliage, but since we were not always sure just what we would be touching, we kept our hands inside the gondola. The tram took us through the forest and past open areas where we could get some nice views.
Once we got off the tram at the upper end of its run, we had a short walk a little further uphill to an observation tower. This tower was about 100 ft tall and I was concerned that some of the people on our excursion might not be able to make the climb.
Observation tower in Gamboa rain forest
But the tower used ramps at a fairly gentle angle rather than steps so the climb was relatively easy and I think everyone made it. On the way up our guide spotted a sloth hanging in a nearby tree. I could barely see it even when the guide pointed it out, so I am amazed that he spotted it so quickly. Of course, perhaps that sloth hangs out in that tree for all the tourists.
At the top of the observation tower the guides provided some additional information about the area and the indigenous people, some of whom still live in the mountains. We also had a good view from here. In this video you can see the lake and where it feeds into the Panama Canal. When we walked back down the tower the sloth was still in the same place: at the speed they move, he could not have gone far. We re-boarded the tram for the return trip, always looking for more animals. At one point the guide pointed out a Toucan in a tree close to the tram then a few seconds later, I was the first to spot and point out another Toucan in another, even closer, tree. The guide said it was very unusual to see both a sloth and Toucans at that time of day (mid-day) so we had been very lucky. I suspect he says that to everyone though.
We got back and boarded the bus for the ride back to the marina and the Wind Star. We returned to the yacht in time for a slightly late lunch and then relaxed for the rest of the day, until time for a late afternoon glass of wine and time to get ready for the evening. About 5:00 we weighed anchor and celebrated the “sailaway” as we started our way to the next stop.
It was a pretty, if cloudy, sunset this evening.
This evening, after the usual “what is going to happen tomorrow” talk by Kuba, our dinner plans were slightly different. This night we had a reservation at Candles, a restaurant set up on the rear deck with limited seating. Normally, you get one dinner at Candles on a seven day cruise and we had chosen this evening. The menu is different and the food is not really a lot better than in AmphorA, but the setting is very pretty and the service is usually a notch above the normal. An after dinner glass of wine in the lounge listening to Diego and Ines and then time to call it a day.
The next stop was several hundred miles away, so we had one day cruising “at sea”. Days at sea tend to be rather quiet and relaxing with various activities arranged by the crew to keep us somewhat busy. Normal activities were a tour of the ship’s galley, a fruit and vegetable carving demonstration, and a class on folding towels into animal shapes (which the cabin attendants are very good at). We had done all of these things on previous cruises so we just relaxed, read our books, talked to other guests, and watched the land and water go by.
The sails don’t do much good, but they look nice.
We could see land masses in the distance and occasionally we would see a large ship of some kind and a couple of small sailboats passing by. On this cruise we had an on-board “naturalist”, Eddie, from Costa Rica. He filled some of the time with an interesting presentation of “Mammals of the New Tropics” which was very well done. He would give two more such presentations during the week.
We enjoyed a glass of wine and, as usual, Kuba explained what would be happening the next day and we headed to dinner in Amphora with new friends. After dinner the entertainment for the evening was the crew’s “talent show”. I don’t think any of the performers would get very far on “American Idol”, but they put on a credible and entertaining show and each of the acts got a good round of applause. There were several singers, musicians, and an amusing routine by the chief of the restaurant team featuring comedy and magic. All in all, it was a relaxing day at sea.
This day is to be “Windstar’s signature Beach party” day. We had sailed to Isla Parida just off the northern coast of Panama and about 8:00 AM we anchored about a mile off of a nice curved beach. While not as white as typical Caribbean beaches sand, it was probably the whitest we saw on our cruise. Everyone would transfer to the island via Zodiac and enjoy a day on the beach with a grand picnic lunch. We would start off the day with a guided tour of part of the island to see the local plants and animals, so after breakfast we took one of the first zodiacs to the beach.
Awaiting the next zodiac on the beach at Isla Parida.
The tour was basically a hike through the forest with two local naturalists pointing out the various plants and explaining the environment. While there were quite a few plants and trees, there was really nothing unusual and there were really no animals to speak of at all. We heard some birds and saw one or two and there were plenty of insects and bugs, but no animals bigger than a beetle. It was a nice walk and we did get some exercise, but I think we could have done as well or better by ourselves.
After the hike we found a couple of lounges and put them where we could get some shade from the palm trees. I did get a chuckle out of a sign along the beach that said “Watch out for falling coconuts.” I agree that a falling coconut can cause significant pain and even injury, but I’m not sure that looking up so that the coconut hits you in the face would be any better than perhaps hitting you on the top of your head.
The nice beach was supplied with lounges and some ineffective sun shelters.
After we had a short rest the crew started a “bar-tending” demonstration, complete with flying bottles, juggling, and even a little alcohol mixing. It was entertaining even if the resulting drinks were a little less than stellar. We wandered down toward the other end of the beach to see what was in that direction and found a couple of trails leading off into the wooded area and a couple of signs. We a bit surprised to find a sign that showed this whole area as “for sale” as it was supposed to be part of nature preserve. I guess a nature preserve can also be private property.
The view of the beach as seen from the other end of the beach.
By the time we walked back to the main area, lunch was starting to be served, so we found a table and joined in. There was plenty to eat with all kinds of food, breads, salads, side dishes, burgers, fish, and dessert. We grabbed a couple of plates and got enough to (at least) keep us going until supper. The crew had to go to a lot of work to bring all the equipment and food in to the beach with just zodiacs available for carrying things, and then clean everything up again afterwards.
After lunch we considered taking out the small sailboat the crew had brought to the island, but the wind was very light and changing directions, so we decided against that. Instead we grabbed a couple of kayaks and paddled around some, from one end of the beach to the other and back. Unlike most Caribbean islands and beaches, there was no coral, only rocks, and essentially no fish visible. Plus, the water was not as clear as we expect in the Caribbbean. After returning the kayaks Susan took a stand up paddle board (SUP) and demonstrated her prowess with that. I took one also, but this one was an inflatable one with a soft deck and it just did not agree with my sense of balance. After another short rest on the lounges, we headed back to the Wind Star before the zodiacs got busy and crowded.
For the most part it was a normal evening, with the sail-away at 5:00 followed by the sunset in a little while. This sunset promised to be the best one of the cruise as we had a good view of the horizon in the open sea and there were no clouds to get in the way. There were a lot of people lined up along the railing of the ship hoping to get a glimpse of the famous “green flash”, and then…. well, I’ll let you take a look in this video. Dinner in the AmphorA followed by listening to Diego and Ines with a snifter of VSOP cognac was a good way to end the day.
As we woke up this morning we were just dropping anchor in the harbor of Bellavista, on the mainland side of the Gulf of Dulce (Golfo Dulca). We would only be here a short time as it is a Port of Entry for Costa Rica and we had to clear customs/immigration prior to heading to our true objective today, Puerto Jimenez, on the other side of the gulf.
The only large building we saw at Bellavista: probably had the Customs & Immigration office.
We could see very little of the town of Bellavista itself, but they had a nice little harbor with a dock that had a US Coast Guard Cutter tied up. While it is always nice to see “representatives” of the US when in a foreign country, we did somewhat wonder what they were doing here. About the time we finished breakfast, the paperwork was done and we weighed anchor and headed out of the harbor area. Susan decided to join in the yoga class this morning, conducted on the upper rear deck, so I went to the forward deck to watch our progress from there. The gulf is about 10 – 12 miles wide at this point and it took us a little over an hour to cross it. About half way across I noticed some splashing in the water about 100 feet off the port side and realized it was a small pod of dolphins. They paralleled our course for a couple of minutes, seemingly checking us out. They were occasionally jumping completely out of the water, not just rolling to breath. There was a mother and small dolphin that I saw jump completely out of the water twice; the baby alongside and slightly behind the mother, but in perfect formation. Unfortunately, I was so entertained by the dolphins that I completely forgot to pull out my camera before they disappeared.
The Wind Star approached Puerto Jimenez and anchored about a mile offshore. It was a very small community with a small dock and a bay where numerous small boats were anchored or effectively beached during the low tide at the moment. We were scheduled for a kayak excursion that would not start until 1:00 in order to coordinate the kayaking with the high tide in the Mangroves we would be visiting. Since we had the morning open, Susan and I took the first Zodiac in to the beach to look around. After cleaning the gray sand off our feet and getting our shoes on, the first thing we heard, and then saw, were some large Scarlett Macaw parrots in a large tree close to the beach.
Two Macaws in the middle of the photo and another in the upper left.
They were beautiful and large birds and were also very noisy. You can see and hear how loud they are in this short video. After watching the parrots for a while, we headed along a narrow road, leading into town. Eddie, the on-board naturalist, had told us that every town in Costa Rica, no matter how small, would have a school, a soccer field, and a church. This was exactly correct about Puerto Jimenez as we quickly located all three items. The town was small but reasonably well kept and the people seemed pleasant and friendly. We saw one person, probably an older teenager, pedaling his bike with a large fish hanging off the front. He saw me fumbling to get my camera out and stopped and posed long enough for me to get a photo, then waved and pedaled on down the road.
We wondered if this fish might be on the menu in AmphorA tonight.
The town was an interesting mix of businesses and some government. One building appeared to be some mix of a town hall and courthouse. There were several restaurants, including a pizza place, a couple of general merchandise/souvenir shops, and some with an interesting mix of products to sell. One small shop had appliances (washer/dryers, refrigerators), motorcycles, and cell phones.
One of the main intersections in Puerto Jimenez.
We headed back toward the little harbor, stopping at a nice dock to look around and cool off in the breeze and shade of the dock. It was obviously still low tide, although the tide was starting to come in. Quite a few boats were stranded on the beach, awaiting the tide and it was obvious that the tide must rise/fall by several feet in this area.
The tide had started to come back in, but still a lot of sand showing.
Our excursion was to depart the yacht at 12:45, so we headed back to the beach, took a Zodiac back to the Wind Star and grabbed an early lunch to be ready. Once again we took the Zodiac in to the beach, where the waterline was now much further up the shore as the tide had come in quite a bit. Everyone stopped to watch the Macaws again for a while, then we loaded up into a couple of vans and headed about two miles to the kayak excursion starting point. We went through the normal paperwork (liability releases and such), got our paddles, and headed down to the little beach where there were a bunch of kayaks awaiting us.
We had a lot of kayaks and a lot of paddlers.
Some people had never kayaked before and this would prove interesting later. There was a mix of single and double kayaks so Susan and I both grabbed single person kayaks. After a little introduction by one of the leaders, we all loaded up and started to paddle. We were starting in a sort of a channel that was lined on both sides by mangroves. After about 20 minutes of paddling, the channel started to narrow, going from about 300 feet wide, to barely wide enough to get a kayak through. Well, it really was not that narrow, but some of the less experienced paddlers thought it was.
Some paddlers had trouble maneuvering through the more narrow areas.
We got past a couple of narrow areas and then the little river opened out a bit, with less growth along the sides and more room to maneuver. This section was through some old and large mangroves. And I do mean large mangroves! We have paddled in mangroves several times in the past but I have never seen mangroves this tall or large.
These “old growth” mangroves were the tallest and biggest I have ever seen.
By the time we got to this area, the paddlers were doing better and it was a relatively quiet and nice experience. One thing that surprised us though, was the almost complete lack of any animal life. We did not see any fish, only a couple of birds, and not even any crabs in the mangroves. We paddled for a little while as in this video, then came to sort of a dead end and turned around. Most of the time we had been paddling we had been going with the incoming (flood) tide, so we could almost drift along. The excursion was timed to arrive at the turn-around point at the height of the tide so we would be riding the outgoing (ebb) tide on the way back. As experienced paddlers, Susan and I had been hanging back toward the rear of the group to be able to help any stragglers or anyone needing assistance. After the turn-around, we were in the front of the group and were a bit surprised at the behavior of some of the paddlers. There were at least two couples, both in double kayaks, who were apparently experienced paddlers, but they just had to be in the front of the group. Since they had been in front at the turn-about point, they were then in the back and started working their way forward. Being up front had no rewards; you didn’t see anything different and you would not finish any sooner, but they apparently had a very competitive nature and had to get in front of everyone else, even gently pushing other, less experienced paddlers, out of the way. I blocked them a couple of times, making it look like normal maneuvering, but when they had the chance, they moved out in front.
About 2/3 of the way back, we pulled up on a sandy bank where a narrow (200 ft.) strip separated the river from the ocean.
The beach is nice, but I still prefer white sand to brown or grey.
While we went to check out the beach and ocean, the guides set up some very fresh and tasty fruit: fresh local pineapple and watermelon. Some people jumped in the ocean and cooled off that way. We hung around there for about 20 minutes before getting back in the kayaks for the remaining 15 minute paddle back to the put-in point. We walked back to the kayak shop building, rinsed the sand off our feet, and loaded back into the vans for the short ride back to the beach were the Zodiacs were waiting for us. Our group was one of the last to return to the Wind Star so as soon as we boarded, the Zodiacs were loaded and we weighed anchor for another Sail-away.
This evening was a rather special meal and event: the on-deck bar-b-que and dancing. We have done these BBQs twice before so knew what to expect, but the
amount, variety, and quality of food is really amazing. There was everything from delicate prepared salads to carved fruits, to a whole roast pig (although a small one), plus beef, paella, ribs, grilled lobsters, and a whole tableful of desserts.
Just a few of the salads and a large bowl of large shrimp.
After everyone has had their fill (or “overfill” in some cases), the food and cooking stations are cleared away and the music is started for a series of “line dances”. These are mostly the standards like Achy Breaky Heart and Macarena. The crew leads most of the dances with a few of the passengers joining in. There are also a couple of planned songs, such as YMCA where some of the crew show up “in costume” to dance along.
Most of the passengers are watching the dance show, rather than participating.
All in all, it is quite a show that ends up with a very long “conga line” that snakes all around the rear deck of the ship and gets lots of passengers to join in. After the festivities were over, we stopped by the lounge for a cognac and to listen to the entertainers a little while before turning in for the night. It would be an early morning the next day.
Our day in Quepos had several possible excursions: a tour of Manual Antonio Park (which we had done on our visit in 2007), a “Canopy tour” through the forest, also known as zip lines (which we had done) and a boat tour of the mangroves (which.. you guessed it). The other excursions didn’t sound interesting so we decided to return to Manual Antonio Park as it is big enough that we were sure we had not seen everything. The only thing is that it required a 7:00 AM departure in order to get to the park before the crowds, so we had a rather early morning. We were up early, had a quick breakfast and were ready to go by 7:00. We loaded into a tender for the short ride to the new and very nice marina. On the walk to the bus we noticed a liquor store in the marina and filed that information away for later. We boarded the small (20 person) bus for the 20 minute ride to the Manual Antonio Park but, about half way there, we made a slight detour and pulled off the road. There was a sloth up in some trees alongside the road.
The sloth seemed right at home in this tree.
We stopped and took pictures of the sloth then someone pointed out a Scarlet Macaw in a dead tree close by. We watched the Macaw and sloth for a while then loaded up and headed out. The guides acted as though both of these sightings were a surprise, but I suspect the sloth is a regular in that tree (they normally only come down from a tree once a week) and the Macaw seemed to be nesting in the tree so it was a planned stop.
The bus parked close to the park entrance and we took about a quarter mile walk to enter the park. The park had changed quite a bit since out last visit. There were now elevated walkways through much of the park to lessen the impact of foot traffic.
These elevated walkways provided a good view and reduced the impact on the environment.
One of our first sightings was a White Faced Monkey close to the walkway. He was going from tree to tree and didn’t seem to even notice the visitors walking by. We saw several sloths up in the trees but by now they were getting common and you really could not see much of them; just a ball of fur that moved very slowly.
We stopped to look at a number of interesting animals, such as a lizard with a “helmet”, a bird on the ground you really could not see, and a huge grasshopper. Although the guide did not point them out, I thought some of the plants were about as interesting as the animals, including several huge clusters of bamboo.
We did come across a a couple of howler monkeys going through the trees close by. You can get just a quick view of them in this video. Unfortunately, they did not emit the loud sound that they are named for. One of the cuter and more memorable sightings was a relatively common little tree frog. It was peeking out of an opening in the side of a small tree and, with all the people watching it, you got the impression it was wondering just what it had done to warrant this attention.
Kind of reminded me of “Kermit the Frog”.
After about 90 minutes of touring the park, we got to one of the beach areas which effectively marked the end of the park tour. But this is also where the White Face Monkeys hang out, looking for handouts, as well as a family or two of Raccoons who are very good at stealing any food left unattended. The monkeys are smart (Eddie had told us that White Face Monkeys are one of the smartest species of monkey and I believe it.) The monkeys tended to be smart and the raccoons just plain aggressive and persistent.
The raccoons were on the hunt for tourist food.
Although the guests are told to not feed the animals, someone always does. I happened to be recording this White Face Monkey when a visitor fed him and then a guide told him to not feed the animals. He should not have fed the monkey, but it did give me a decent video.
This monkey got a piece of fruit that he was not supposed to have.
After watching the antics of the monkeys and raccoons for a while, the guides led us back out of the park. On the way we stopped to watch a mother deer and her fawn in the wooded area where you could barely see the fawn because it was camouflaged so well. We made it back to the where the bus was parked and some other tour company people had set up a table with fresh fruit and drinks. Again, the pineapple and watermelons were fresh, juicy and delicious.
The fruit was a welcome refreshment after the hike through the park.
After stuffing ourselves with fruit we got back on the bus and headed back to the marina. We made a quick stop to verify the sloth was still up the tree and the Macaw was in his dead palm tree. Three couples got off the bus in the main shopping area of Quepos and we finally saw them again much later, returning on the last tender back to the Wind Star. When we were dropped off at the marina, Susan and I headed to that liquor store we had seen earlier and found a couple of bottles of Café Rica to take with us. Café Rica is a coffee liquor and is only sold in Costa Rica and is rather special. If you ever get a chance to try or buy some, grab it! We headed back to the Wind Star tent on the dock and had a glass of nice cold water while waiting for the next tender.
Back on board the yacht we had a slightly late lunch and then relaxed for most of the afternoon. The sun was setting as the yacht weighed anchor and pulled out of the Quepos area. This time we got a good view of the sunset without an island getting in the way. See if you can detect the “green flash” in this video. As we were heading to the lounge for the farewell reception, Prast, the manager of the Candles restaurant, stopped us and asked if we’d like to dine at Candles again tonight. Since you can normally only do this once on a 7 day cruise, we said “sure!”. I suspect someone had cancelled so he was trying to fill that table. I don’t know if he had been looking for us or if we just happened to come along at the right time. We headed on into the lounge for the reception where Kuba and the Captain both said a few things about the cruise. At one point the captain actually seemed to choke up and had to stop for a few seconds. This was his last cruise before his vacation and you could tell that he apparently felt a connection with his crew.
We had one unusual event at this reception also. One of the officers, Wesley, had organized an auction. He had taken some of the charts used on this cruise, complete with some of the course lines drawn on it, and had it signed by the officers. It would be auctioned off and the proceeds would be used to buy phone cards so the crew could afford to call their families back home more often. The bidding was pretty active and ended up a war between two people with a winning bid of $525. The winner got a very nice memento of the trip and the crew should get lots of phone time. This was only the second time this auction had been done but it appeared to be very successful. If you watch the next video you can get a glimpse of the chart next to the wall behind the crew members.
At the end of the reception came a normal part of the Wind Star tradition: the crew sang the song “Sailing” with the guests joining in at the end of it. It is a bit long, but here is a video of the song. We then went up to the open deck area where Candles is located and had a very nice dinner, although the menu was the same as our previous night at Candles earlier in the week. One of the desserts was “red velvet cake for two”, a large slice of the red velvet cake. Our waiter asked us what we wanted for dessert and I said that since there were two of us on a lovely romantic evening with a full moon overhead, we had to have the cake.
A full moon overhead as we leave Quepos on our last night.
After dinner we made one last visit to the lounge to listen to Diego and Ines and enjoy a glass of cognac. After listening for a while we told them good-by and headed to our cabin to do some packing to get our luggage ready. Unlike previous cruises, we did not have to put our luggage out the night before disembarkation and we just got everything organized so we could finish packing quickly in the morning.
We had to get up early (6:00) to make sure we had our luggage out for pickup before 7:00. Once our luggage was out, we headed for breakfast and to say good-by to the waiters and other staff and guests that we had gotten to know during the cruise. After a good breakfast (we were not sure when and what lunch would be) we waited for our turn to leave the yacht. A little after 8:00 our group, that would be taking a bus to San Jose, was called and we piled out of the Wind Star, identified our luggage, and got on the bus.
Kuba appeared to be standing guard over the luggage on the dock.
The bus ride to San Jose, the capital of Cost Rica, took a little over 90 minutes so we arrived at the airport about 4 hours before our scheduled departure. There was a tour guide on the bus to talk about Costa Rica and what we were seeing along the way and to pass along some interesting fact about Costa Rica, like the surprisingly large amount of technology based business they do; it is even a bigger part of their economy than tourism.
At the airport we checked in, cleared security and found our departure gate. We just relaxed, took a few short walks around the terminal and generally wasted away a couple of hours. About noon we decided to see about something to eat and ended up getting Quizno subs and quickly found out that US airports do not have a monopoly on overcharging for food in the airport. We boarded our plane a little after 2:00 and had a decent flight home. We had made sandwiches from some breakfast bread and meats that morning on the Wind Star, got a couple of small bottles of wine on the plane, and enjoyed a simple meal on the flight.
Global Entry got us through immigration and customs quickly but we had to wait about 45 minutes for our luggage to appear. Once we had our bags we grabbed the shuttle to our car and headed home. It was a good trip but, as always, it was good to get home.
If you ever get the chance to take a trip through the Panama Canal, do it! I was continually impressed by the engineering and construction that went into the canal system when it was built over 100 years ago. I also suggest that, if possible, you do the transit on a small ship such as the Wind Star as you feel much more a part of the process than I think you would on the deck of a huge ship.
I hope you enjoyed this rather long report.
Just outside Colon harbor https://youtu.be/EqZXeo-hvkA
passing under the new bridge https://youtu.be/_-RK7HxkST4
rowboat in the locks https://youtu.be/VjwCPm1tbhU
huge ship in locks https://youtu.be/4l6L_aVOkhk
leaving the Gatun locks https://youtu.be/DP9qqU5_1nc
Entering the Pedro Miguel https://youtu.be/BXyrW9jupEU
Passing under the Americas bridge https://youtu.be/rGaPL4IEfww
Ships in Panama Bay https://youtu.be/gumoXJxKl_M
On the Gamboa tram https://youtu.be/Fj4uFk8-f84
View from the Gamboa tower https://youtu.be/7GeIHU7ah7I
sunset at Isla Paridas https://youtu.be/NRZtgwuCZnQ
Scarlet Macaws at Puerto Jimenez https://youtu.be/IjrJ3Ht8aoQ
Paddling in the mangroves https://youtu.be/j-77CsdzbJE
Howler Monkeys in Manual Antonio https://youtu.be/_Ag22bLwVlM
White Face Monkey being fed https://youtu.be/aHPK2YBQb4M
Sunset leaving Quepos https://youtu.be/f4ww7-os87E
Crew sings Sailing https://youtu.be/y81lCNhxMaM