Cruising: The Panama Canal & Mexican Riviera

NCL Star, originally uploaded by oliviatejeda.

Fourteen days, nine ports, two people, one tiny cabin, and the Panama Canal.

I don’t know what that sounds like to you, but to me it sounds like the ingredients for a fantastic trip. I might be a little biased, though, because the memories of that very trip are so fresh that I’m still wandering around the house looking for the buffet.

Hon and I just returned from a two-week cruise aboard the Norwegian Star. We boarded in Los Angeles and sailed south to Mexico (Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, and Huatulco), Guatemala, and Costa Rica. After passage through the Panama Canal we headed north with a stop in Columbia before ending our trip in Miami. We flew home weary, happy, and ready to board another cruise soon.

We both love cruising, and I get the sense that we could easily spend weeks at sea, but we picked this particular cruise based on itinerary. We both wanted to see the Panama Canal, so that was the deciding factor in this case, but there were some added bonuses, too.

Bonus #1: Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala

A stop in Guatemala allowed us to explore more of this country that is so dear to me. My father, who passed away in 2003, was born and raised there. He moved to the U.S. with his parents and lived here for nearly 50 years, never returning to his homeland. He talked about Guatemala from time to time, sharing his love for the country called the Land of Eternal Spring. The first time I visited, like this time, was via cruise to the east coast at Santo Tomas de Castillo. We hiked into a rain forest and swam at Las Escobas, a waterfall near Puerto Barrios.

This visit took us to the west side where we docked at Puerto Quetzal and took a tour inland to Antigua Guatemala. This was a wholly different experience from the last one. We didn’t go through any rain forests and stayed in more densely populated areas. It was still a rich experience, and I felt my Dad close by the whole time I was there. Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala, but after a series of earthquakes in 1773, the capital was moved to its current location in Guatemala City. What remains in Antigua has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bonus #2: Puntarenas, Costa Rica

I’ve never been to Costa Rica but have always heard so much about its beauty. In high school, my family hosted an exchange student from Costa Rica, and that’s when my interest in that country was piqued. Our quick visit (a seven-hour stop) didn’t allow for much site seeing, but it was enough to let me know that I want to go again and spend more time.

There isn’t a lot to see right at the port in Puntarenas, so we booked a tour to Sarchi, a region known for its brightly colored, hand-painted crafts and in particular its ox-carts. Las Carretas seemed quaint and rustic to me, but I understood their importance once I learned about the role they played in Costa Rica’s history. In the late 1800s, when coffee plantations started to develop, oxen pulled the coffee over rough and muddy terrain to the ports. Nowadays, the carts are a symbol of Costa Rica’s history and its artistic heritage.

Bonus #3: Cartagena, Colombia

It truly was a bonus that we got to see Cartagena again. This was our second visit and this time we toured the city on our own. When we were there last, we learned that there’s nothing to be afraid of in Cartagena. Everything you hear about crime and drugs, etc., did not infringe on our time there. I’m not naive enough to say it doesn’t exist, but Old Town Cartagena was as safe as any city in the U.S., perhaps more. 

I’ll be writing more in depth about all the stops on our cruise, but dinner is waiting so it’s time to say good night. Thank you for reading!