Panama Canal Cruise on the Celebrity Infinity
11/4/14 to 11/19/14
Due to the length of the review, it is in three parts to help with the download time. The links to the other pages are at the top and bottom of each page.
Page 1 - Embarkation, Ship, Dining, Entertainment and Activities
Page 2 - Ports of Call: Cartagena, Colombia; Colon, Panama; Panama Canal; Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Page 3 - Ports of Call: Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Ports of Call
We had previously visited Cartagena in 2002 using a ship excursion. We did not enjoy the city that much, especially the very aggressive vendors that would grab you to try to get you to buy their wares everywhere we went. It made it very difficult to take in the scenery when you were constantly protecting yourself from grabbing hands. We had read that Cartagena was a very nice port stop now and cruisers enjoyed their visits, so we were interested to see what had changed. The first positive was that it looked like it was going to be a sunny day rather than the forecasted rain. As we came into port we passed by the Statue of Mary in the harbor that was dwarfed by the Cartagena skyscrapers in the background. The town had grown quite a bit in twelve years.
One thing that would improve our visit was that we would be taking a private tour rather than a ship tour. This way we could see what we wanted to see; be in a van rather than a large bus and have the personal attention of the guide. For this tour we had selected the highly recommended guide Marelvy Pena (www.tourincartagena.com).
After leaving the ship and meeting Marelvy, we took a walk through a shopping area that also had a nice display of birds.
In addition to Marelvy being very knowledgeable, helpful and just a very nice person, she had a very large roomy van. This was most important since ten of us were taking the tour and we wanted to be comfortable.
Our first destination was the La Popa Monastery. Since it sits on the highest point in the city, 500 ft above the water, the location offers the best views of the city.
We then entered into the monastery’s flower-filled courtyard where Marelvy told us the history of the monastery. I took a photo of Carol by a yellow hibiscus, one of our favorite flowers. In the photo you can see the identification tag that Marelvy gave us. That let people know that we were in a group when entering the different sites we would visit during the day. I also think it kept vendors away from us that were trying to sell tours.
The interior of the monastery had many religious artifacts. There is a chilling statue of Padre Alonso García de Paredes, who was murdered in 1533.
We then went out onto the back patio area for different views of the city. We could see their large stadium in the distance.
Another reason we did not enjoy our first visit to Cartagena was due to what we saw from this viewpoint twelve years ago. Young children had climbed the steep hill and were hanging onto the edge of the cliff holding poles with cups at the end begging for money. It was a frightening memory for us that we really didn’t want to see again. We were so pleased that it was no longer allowed. Marelvy told us that the city had put a stop to the very dangerous begging practice. The area had been covered with an obstacle and razor wire. It was so sad that people were so desperate that they would send children up the treacherous mountain side. I took the below photo from the ship to show the rock cliff they had to climb and try to hold on to when we were there in ‘02.
Our next stop was at the Fortress of San Felipe. This is a massive structure that was built in 1536 and was added to over the next 200 years. Marelvy did not include time for us to climb to the top, because she said it would take too long to get up there and the view would not compare to the one we previously had at La Popa. We all agreed with her recommendation.
We next went to a large shopping area for a restroom break and shopping time. It was quite a popular place. I was quite pleased to find the vendors there and everywhere else we went much less aggressive than when we visited in 2002. It made our visit to Cartagena so much more enjoyable.
After the break, we drove to the old town, which along with the fortress we had just seen, were UNESCO World Heritage sites. This was an area we had only done a quick drive by when we first visited, so I was really looking forward to it. With the narrow streets, it was quite obvious why the large tour busses couldn’t enter the area. We thought the artwork made to look like tables and chairs on a building wall were cute.
We were enjoying the walk when a brightly colored bus drove by with kids laughing and having fun. Little did I realize that I would help them enjoy themselves even more. As I was taking photos of the little darlings, one of them sprayed something like puffy shaving cream in the air that engulfed me. I have to admit it was funny and I laughed along with them.
We stopped at a statue of a reclining naked woman that appeared to be a popular photo opp. We took photos of the girls with her, then they took photos of the guys. You will notice that the men behaved better than the girls.
The walk through old town was really enjoyable. There were so many pretty buildings with flowers everywhere.
We saw a large door on one of the buildings that had a small door on one of the panels.
A large group of horse drawn carriages passed by us. I thought it was kind of unusual to see that many at one time, until I noticed that the people had Celebrity excursion stickers on them. It was a ship tour they were all taking.
We passed through more charming streets on our way to the Gold Museum. At the museum, we first went up to the 2nd floor because the 1st floor display had too many tourists in it already. There were lots of unusual pieces in the displays. I thought it strange that a bunch of smaller pieces were piled into a ceramic bowl.
When we went back down to the first floor, I understood why the space was limited. We were actually entering a vault. Along the walls were more displays with gold objects.
One of them was used to decorate men’s private area. Rather strange.
The most interesting display was of more than 100 gold nose rings.
After leaving the museum we came across street acrobats that were putting on quite a show. They were very good and earned contributions from our group.
Continuing our walk we past by more interesting buildings and monuments.
We came to the square in front of the Cathedral of San Pedro Claver. It was built in 1575, destroyed by Sir Frances Drake eleven years later and then rebuilt in 1602. Father Claver was canonized in 1888 for his work in helping African slaves; and is now the patron saint of slaves. His remains are in the cathedral.
We did not have time to visit the interior; but the metal statues on the square in front of the cathedral were most interesting.
We continued our trek past different areas. We liked the shrubs with pretty purple flowers.
On the way to meet the van to take us back to the ship, we got a nice view of the fortress in the distance.
After Marelvy dropped us off, we thanked her for a wonderful tour. She had done a great job. My opinion of Cartagena had greatly improved. It was indeed a nice port stop, especially when you have a great private tour. We walked back through the nature center and saw some more birds, as well as a small dear walking around freely.
When we got back to the ship, there was a very long line of passengers waiting to board. Since we were only in port from 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM, most passengers and tours were getting back around 2:00 PM.
From the ship we could see the La Popa Monastery at the top of the hill in the distance. We could see why the view from there was so good.
As we cruised out of the port area, we passed close enough to the Statue of Mary to get decent photos. I was amazed at how large the statue was. From a distance it hadn’t been nearly as impressive as it was this close up.
Cartagena had been a most enjoyable port stop, with a lot more ports to come.
The day before we would enter the Panama Canal, we docked in Colon for the day. The weather was very cloudy and it had been raining. There was a brightly colored shopping area right beside the dock that looked promising.
We had booked a private tour with Roberto Whitaker of Robtads Tours (Robtads2@hotmail.com). When we booked this tour, we had no idea what an awesome tour we were going to have.
He was going to take us to both the old and the new canals. We were particularly interested in seeing the new canal construction site, since we had done a partial transit of the canal in 2002; which went into Gatun Lake and came back out later in the day. On our way to the old canal, he pointed out different sites in the city while telling us about Panama and the canal. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the canal, the rain was pouring down pretty hard. We saw a couple of the older canal mules, used to guide the ships through the canal, on display.
To get to the canal viewing stands, we had to climb up a lot of stairs. Definitely not designed for people with mobility issues; and there were no elevators. After climbing all the stairs, we could look down below to the other locks that were at a lower water level.
Roberto had surprised us by getting special permission, which is not normally available, to visit the canal control room. We had no idea what that entailed, but we were excited to see something that isn’t on the normal canal tour. We sat in the regular canal viewing stands while we waited for the OK to head to the control room. The Regent Seven Seas Mariner was passing through at the time. I enjoyed watching the mules pulling the ships through the various canal locks, especially when they go up or down the inclined areas.
Roberto introduced us to our guide, Luis, who told us that we would have to walk across the top of the actual lock gates to get to the control building. How cool was that? Unfortunately Carol had hurt her knee and was not able to go with me, nor was our friend Bill as they were both using canes. But they were able to wait in the stands where they could see us and take some photos of us later. By the time we went across, tourists from the cruise ship had arrived and were asking how they could go to the control room. They were most envious of us.
When the big gates are closed, a yellow railing pops up to be used by the workers as they walk across the top. When the gates are open the railing is lowered. Roberto told Jim and I to go first so we could take photos of the others crossing over the gates. It was such an awesome thing to be able to actually walk on the canal gates.
Before walking up to the control room Luis explained what we would be doing and to be very careful where we were walking, since it isn’t normally a tourist attraction or open to the public. We had a nice view of where the mules go under the control room between the two canal locks.
As we climbed the steps, I was glad that Carol and Bill had stayed behind. There were a lot of steps and I don’t think they could have made it. Luis introduced us to several of the people working in the room. They were very friendly and happy to show us around their control room.
The control room itself was most interesting. In the middle of the room were the old controls with manual knobs and lots of analog gauges. I particularly liked the representation of the gates; which would show the gate positions for the operators. The analog lock depth gauges were interesting also. It must have been a beehive of activity with people running around turning knobs and moving switches before it was computerized.
Now that it is all computerized, everything is done with monitors and keyboards. There were monitors everywhere to make it possible to see what was going on as well as to show pertinent data. We were surprised that the control room had only been computerized in 2005. The original control system had lasted for 90 years.
Then Luis asked if I wanted to open a lock gate. You better believe I did! How cool would that be? All I would have to do is move a mouse and click two boxes. Once I got my hands to stop shaking from the excitement, there was nothing to it. I had opened the locks of the Panama Canal. Just too cool! Definitely a once in a lifetime experience. After I opened my locks, Carole and Gail got to close another lock. This was one awesome excursion.
After the control room tour was finished, we went out on the landing to watch the ships pass by. This was a great vantage point with giant ships passing on either side of us. The rain had finally stopped and it looked like it would be sunny for the rest of the day.
It was a great place to take photos. There were so many containers on these massive ships.
I was also able to get a photo of Roberto and his good friend Luis. Before we left, I went back in to the control room to thank them for letting us visit their amazing facility.
Carol was able to take a photo of us on the landing with her iPhone. She was also able to get me crossing the gate on the way back.
Berfore we left the canal viewing area, Roberto took a group shot for us.
On the way out, I was able to get some photos of the visitor center, since I couldn’t earlier when it was raining.
Roberto next took us to where four of the massive gates for the new locks were being stored. In total, there were sixteen of these to be used in the new canal. They are 95 feet tall, 190 feet wide and 33 feet deep. You can see how small Carole looks standing next to one of them. She is in the first photo in the red blouse. Talk about feeling insignificant.
I went under a gate to see what it looks like from there. I was treated to a great photo opp looking up through one of the openings. I won’t be able to get a shot like that once they are installed!
As we were driving over to the new canal area, our driver spotted some monkeys, so we stopped to take photos. It wasn’t the best photo conditions; but we got to see a lot of them swinging in the trees. Before long there was a crowd watching them from other vans that had stopped.
When we arrived at the new canal visitor center, Roberto told us that the canal authority said that the canal is 81% completed and should open the first quarter of 2016. We had some time to kill before a video about the canal was to start, so we walked over to the viewing area. It was quite a view of the unfinished locks. The large gates will slide in and out of the openings. This viewing area will continue to be a great place to visit after the canal is finished to watch the ships move through.
Looking at the canal locks, they appeared to be rather narrow. The whole project is so huge that the individual areas look small compared to what they actually are up close. But then I also realized how small the giant gates looked that were being stored in the locks compared to when we had seen them on land. The new canal was huge. We could see the slots where the gates would be moved to and mounted. Roberto told us that each lock would have twice as many gates as were required, so that the canal could continue to operate while a gate was having maintenance performed on it. On the old canal, if a gate was down, the whole canal had to stop while it was fixed.
We went back and watched the informative videos about the new canal in the large theater. They were pretty good. After the video we went back to the viewing area for a little while before rejoining Roberto to go back to the ship. When we got back, everyone thanked Roberto for a once in a lifetime tour. He had outdone himself and greatly exceeded our expectations. Since we still had some time before we had to be on the ship, it was convenient that we had been dropped off at the back of the brightly colored shopping I had seen that morning.
It had been a great touring day. As good as it gets!
The Infinity was scheduled to enter the Gatun Locks at 7:45 AM. Everyone was up early to get a good viewing position around the ship. Since we had been through the locks before, I knew that we would be passing through the locks for a very long time. I didn’t try to get a prime spot since our cabin veranda was in a great location; but did want to see how crowded it was. As was expected, every inch of railing space was full, with some several people deep; and we still had 45 minutes before we entered the canal. Fortunately the weather was very nice and it was actually pretty mild for Panama. We passed by where the giant gates for the new canal were being stored.
The Captain had even opened the helipad to provide more viewing space. To get to the helipad, we would need to go through the deck 5 entrance to the theater and walk up the hallway behind the theater to get outside. People were lined up outside of the theater; which meant it was a very long line. Since they wouldn’t let more people onto the helipad until other people left, they were standing there a long time without seeing anything.
I went back to our cabin to check out the view from there. I was surprised that both lanes of the canal were being used for one way traffic to go into the lake, unlike the previous day where the lanes were used for two way traffic. It worked out better for us, since we were on the starboard side and entering on the port side that usually is the outbound lock, so we could see the activity between the locks. Our friends Bill and Sandra were in the cabin next to us also enjoying the view.
We heard a loud noise and then we saw water rushing out of a water drainage canal next to us. We also noticed a water leak between two of the gates. Since they don’t have redundant gates like the new canal, they can’t do maintenance as frequently as they would like.
I was enjoying watching the action; and was looking forward to passing by the control room we visited the prior day.
While looking back at what was happening behind us, I saw Bob waving at us from the Promenade Deck. I went down to see him and took a photo of him breaking the rules by touching the canal wall. A guard was constantly telling everyone “Do not touch the walls”. Whenever he walked the other way, everyone would touch the walls. I had to go back up to our cabin to clean the crud off of my fingertips after committing the illegal act.
When we got up to the control tower I took a photo of the front of the building where we had been taking photos from the previous day. I then walked to the back of the ship to take a photo of the gates we had walked on.
Around 10:00 AM, I thought it might be a good time to check out the helipad viewing. There was plenty of room now and I was able to just walk right to it.
The view from the helipad was great as we were getting ready to leave the Gatun locks and enter the lake. We could see ships waiting for us to leave, so that they could enter the locks and continue their journeys. We also had a nice view of the Gatun Lake Dam.
As we cruised along the lake, I had an appreciation for the workers who built the canal. The thick jungles that we were looking at didn’t look like an easy place to work in, especially before they were able to eliminate the mosquitos that caused Yellow Fever.
Cruising through the canal almost felt like a river cruise with land on both sides of the ship. Large dredging vessels were working hard all along the canal.
I had been looking forward to seeing the Culebra Cut, the narrowest part of the canal. As we were getting close to it, the clouds that had been steadily building let loose with a torrential rain storm. It was quite disappointing. I still had to get photos of the Culebra Cut and of the New Millennium Bridge. I felt rather foolish running around on Deck 11 with my umbrella protecting my camera while taking photos. I would move from one protected area to another until I would venture out into the heavy rain for the best views. The cut was rather interesting in that it was cut out of mountains and all we can currently see is their tops. I took a photo looking back from the ship to show how narrow the area was.
When we got close to the bridge, the water was just pouring off of it. What a bummer. But it is was something we will remember.
Twenty minutes later as we approached the San Miguel lock, the rain had stopped and everyone was out taking photos again. We hadn’t gone very far from the New Millennium Bridge.
Unlike the Gatun locks where there are three sections, San Miguel only had one. So there was a lot less activity; but it was just as entertaining to pass through.
Once again the size of the large freighters was most impressive, especially when we were below the water level and they were above.
We continued our slow cruise through the canal until we approached the last set of locks, the Miraflores Locks. We could see them while we were passing through the San Miguel locks. These would be the last two locks before we entered the Pacific Ocean. From the ship, on the right side, we could see where the access channel was being constructed for the new canal. Like the Atlantic side, this side would have three locks, eliminating the need for a San Miguel section. It looks like there is a lot of work to go before it is completed.
Once again we moved into the locks. People had gotten used to the locks by now and there was plenty of room at the railings.
On the left side of the ship, we could see the spillway. As we passed further into the locks, we could see the water pouring over it.
The Miraflores Locks has a very large visitor center. For some reason it was packed with people. As we approached the building, we would hear synchronized yelling welcoming us there. The passengers would wave and yell; but with no coordinated effort we couldn’t compete with their performance. Apparently there were many school children visiting that day. With it being the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, the Panama’s government wants every child to be able to see it. Since many of the children’s parents haven’t seen it either, they come with them. It was nice to see so many people excited to see the Infinity going through the canal.
As we moved through we could see the unfinished locks of the new canal. I am no engineer; but it certainly didn’t look like the construction was 81% complete. Most people felt the same way. I hope that we were wrong and it is completed in 15 months. It was 6:00 PM and we had spent 10 hours cruising from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. I had spent way too many hours on my feet running around the ship looking at the canal from every angle. I was surely glad the next day was a sea day.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
During that sea day, we could see the mountainous coastline of Costa Rica. It was far in the distance; but was quite pretty. I was surprised that for some reason there was a very small piece of rainbow showing just above the water.
Since we had wanted this cruise to be a bit more relaxing, we didn’t book any tours for Puntarenas. When we arrived, we were pleased to see the sun with a forecast for a mild day. We were docked at the end of a very long dock with a small town at the other end. At 8:30 we went up to the Constellation Lounge to attend the Remembrance Day Ceremony which was discussed earlier in the review.
Carol planned to stay on the ship for the day; but I wanted to at least look around the dock area. When I got off the ship, I walked to the end of the dock and took a photo showing the length of it. I heard later that there was a free shuttle; but I wouldn’t have taken it anyway. I also had a nice view of the beach. Later in the day, I was able to take a photo of the shuttle that looked like a train.
I like to take a photo of the ship for the first page of a review. I hadn’t been able to get one at the previous ports, so I thought there might be a good opportunity if I walked down the beach to get a good angle of the ship. I walked a long way out and got an OK shot; but would have better ones later in the cruise. When walking back, I was able to get a view of the length of the dock. It also showed how the beach wasn’t being maintained very well with all the driftwood on it. I guess since the beach is so long and there aren’t that many people on the beach, they don’t worry about it.
Along the beach were lots of vendors in their small temporary booths selling all sorts of handicrafts and souvenirs. They were doing a lot of business.
Since I hadn’t researched Puntarenas before the cruise, I looked at a sign that showed a map of the city and the attractions. The only thing that appealed to me was the cathedral, so I headed that way. I wasn’t expecting much and was very pleased when I saw quite an attractive building with a lovely statue near the entry.
The interior was rather plain; but I have been spoiled by having visited many ornate churches. I thought the columns added a very nice touch.
After leaving the church I happened upon a group of statues in a park. I am not sure what they represented; but it did provide something else for me to take photos of.
There really wasn’t a lot to see in Puntarenas, unless you are interested in water sports or buying handicrafts. Walking back to the ship, I got some more shots of the beach.
I found another tourist attraction near the dock. It was a popular photo opp.
With the ship being in Puntarenas from 8:00 AM until 8:00 PM, I had a lot of time to just enjoy the ship for the rest of the day.
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