True confessions-A cruise to nowhere-8

Well, as we transverse the Panama Canal, Russia has invaded Ukraine and, once more, our route – which was heading to St. Petersburg and the Baltic will slipping the Russian port. No word yet of where we will be hiding during the three days we were scheduled to be there. Of course, if the war spreads over the next couple of months, there may be other “tweaks” to our itinerary. My personal preference would be to substitute a circumnavigation of Africa for the Baltic, but no one is asking me :-). They should change the name of the ship to "The Wanderer”.

After two months of calm and sunny weather (without being pelted with even a single drop of rain), as we leave the Panama Canal, the wind kicked up to 30 knots and the waves to 3-3.5 meters (but at least still no rain). While an ocean liner like the Queen Mary II wouldn’t even notice, our relatively petit cruise ship is bobbing and weaving. While, by now, most people should have their “sea legs”, I’m guessing there will be those who are hitting the Dramamine.


Puntarenas (Puerto Caldera Port), Costa Rica
When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we do not know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in. - D.H. Lawrence

One of the stops along the Panama Canal Zone route, Puntarenas on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast is positioned within easy day-trip distance of a number of the country’s national parks. Puntarenas is a small town that hosts josefinos (residents of the capital city of San Jose) on holiday, as well as some international tourists. The Paseo de los Turistas (loosely, "stroll of the tourists”) main drag is a wide walkway fronting the beach that’s lined with booths filled with local (and Chinese) tourist goods for sale. The only unique items are bowls and other objects made from colorful local wood.

Directly at the exit of the port at your left hand side you will see a line of seafood restaurants. They all provide free Wi-Fi when you purchase a drink or lunch.

There is a stretch of beach running from the left of the port for a couple of miles and across the road is a string of hotels and restaurants. After a couple of miles, you’ll get to a lighthouse on the point of the peninsula.

The town, a busy working port on the surface, makes a good base to venture out and explore this Central American country’s outdoor attractions. There was also a row of modern sports fishermen boats and it is reasonable to assume that there are large fish nearby.

Costa Rica’s location, between Nicaragua and Panama on the isthmus connecting North and South America, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east, supports flora and fauna from both continents.

At the exit of the port there are also lots of mini vans that say “Turismo”. These vans are waiting to gather a small group of people to visit sites of interest. The tour vans have no fixed route. The drivers carry around a list of places of interest and you simply put together an itinerary and hopefully more people will want to join your group. Make sure to negotiate a price before you step in. The price is usually negotiated per person. Taxis, recognizable by their red color and yellow triangle are also available.

After some fierce competition between tourist van companies, six of us chose Puntarenas Tourist to supply a van with free Wi-Fi, a driver and an English speaking tour guide for $20 per person for the day. The guide proceeded to try to get us to visit a plethora of tourist joints (which his company doubtlessly gets commissioned by).

Three of our group decided to head to “Crocodile Man” to take a boat ride and see the massive number of crocs and local birds living in the local river. The attraction’s entry price was discounted to $25 (instead of the usual $35) because of the van company which brought us.

The van brought the other three of us to Vista Los Suenos for zip-lining through the canopy of the rain forest. This cost $65 a person and was a pretty spectacular set of thirteen long zip-line runs.

After everyone was collected, the van took us to the pristine (but darkish sand) beach at Jaco. We chose to eat lunch at the Malecon restaurant (Jaco, Calle Las Olas). The restaurant specializes in seafood and traditional Tico cuisine. The good news is that the food was reasonably priced (about $12US a person including tip for a main course and beverage – local beer costing less than Coke-Cola) and good. The bad news was that, out of six main dishes, five were mixed up in some way or another. Not a show stopper, but just weird considering the attention the waiter paid when he originally took the orders.

While the local restaurants all specialize in fish and seafood, more typical dishes of the area include casados (rice, black beans, salad and tortilla), chorreadas (Costa Rican corn pancakes), chicharrones (fried pork belly or rinds) and churchill (typical Puntarenas sorbet).

Other local activities include snapping photos of gushing waterfalls (and swimming at the base of one, if you’re willing to walk the kilometer downhill – and then the same uphill later – to reach it), sightseeing near active volcanoes, bird-watching in nature reserves and sanctuaries, such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest and the Poas Volcano National Park, as well as ATV trail riding and horseback riding on Pacific beaches. Other places you may be dragged to are the coffee plantation La Luisa at and the largest oxcart in the world at Sarchi.

While not a place I would choose as a primary destination, it is a pleasant touristic oriented area offering activities from lush jungle destinations to pristine beaches along the Pacific.

The US Dollar can be used here (sometimes with a poor exchange rate) and local currency is only required for public transportation.

Panama City
Panama City is the oldest Spanish settlement on the mainland of the Americas, founded in 1519 by Pedro Arias Dávila (Pedrarias the Cruel). The settlement was used as a base for stealing Peruvian gold and silver and transporting it back to Spain via a road that linked Panama City with the Caribbean Sea. The immense wealth that passed across the isthmus attracted pirates and buccaneers, who conducted raids throughout the region during the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1671, the Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan sacked Panama City, and the settlement burned to the ground. The ruins of Panama Viejo, or Old Panama, can be toured today, but it’s basically not much more than some ruins.

In 1673, Panama City was rebuilt in what is now known as Casco Viejo; it was heavily fortified and the city was never taken again. At that point, what we now know as Panama was a province of Columbia. Colombia effectively achieved its independence from Spain by 1819, declared its independence from Spain in 1821 and the country was recognized by the United States in 1822, when President Monroe received a Colombian diplomatic representative in Washington.

The Panama crossing declined in importance until the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, when thousands of forty-niners used the isthmus as a shortcut from the East Coast of the U.S. to California.

On November 3, 1903, Panamanians had revolted against the Colombian government, declared an independent Republic of Panama, and established a provisional government junta in its new capital, Panama City, and the United States recognized Panama as a separate nation three days later. With the opening of the canal in 1914, Panama City became one of the most important centers of trade and commerce in the Americas.

Panama City is one of Latin America’s safest cities. The city’s high standard of living, and banking secrecy laws has resulted in the city becoming one of the world’s primary tax havens.

Both taxis and Uber serve the city and Uber is very cheap here.

The city’s Natural Metropolitan Park is the protected home of more than 200 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles.

The Jazz Festival in mid to late January is one of the best in the world, and it’s free." The weeklong series has ticketed indoor events but hosts one free full-day show in Plaza Cathedral in Casco Viejo. Bring your own chairs, picnic lunch, cold beers, and sunscreen (

If you are into early morning jogging, you can watch the sun rise over the city by running along the Amador Causeway.

The restaurant Casa Blanca (, Plaza Bolivar, Calle 4ta, San Felipe) is a somewhat expensive restaurant serving delicious ceviche and seafood.

The restaurant Chimborazo, famous for its parihuela, a seafood stew that “gets you walking again” after a hard night out on the town, is an institution.

The city’s massive public markets also serve food.

Fish Market - Mercado de Mariscos (Between Avenida Balboa and Calle 15 Este, Casco Viejo,
Open: daily 04:00-17:00. Restaurant open 11:00-19:00, closed every third Monday of the month). Panama City’s busy fish market has stalls selling the catch of the day. Octopus, oysters, clams, squid, shrimp, scallops, and a wide variety of fish are sold regularly. They can be fileted and wrapped to order. One of the fun noshes is to try various fish and octopus ceviche (a popular traditional South American raw seafood dish). In the restaurant on the top level of the market it is possible to sample the produce for sale. Ceviche in stalls surrounding the market.

Mercado San Felipe Neri - Mercado Público, (Between Avenida Balboa and Calle 15 Este, Casco Viejo, Open: daily from the early hours). It is situated next to the Mercado de Mariscos.
This massive air-conditioned covered food market sells fruit and vegetables, meat, grains, spices, and local prepared dishes. The restaurant section is next to the meat market. The food is popular, varied and cheap, but might appear a bit too “rustic” for the average tourist.

Raspados (Sno-cones) made from ice shavings, fruit syrup, and a dollop of condensed milk – are available from vendors with hand carts, are famous in Panama City. The carts at Las Bóvedas (Plaza Francia in Casco Viejo) have been around “forever”.

IMPORTANT NOTE: You should expect to be able to negotiate to about a half of the original asking price in artisan markets and from street stands in this area

Definition: Molas are the traditional handmade fabrics woven by the Guna Yalas. Natives of San Blas Islands, the Gunas stand out for their unusual, flashy style that mixes square pieces of fabrics with embroideries inspired by body painting, birds, butterflies, leaves, and nature. These moles panels should cost between $10-$25, depending on the complexity of the workmanship and can be extraordinarily decorative.

Mercado Nacional de Artesanías - The National Handicraft Market (Panama Viejo, next to the Visitor Center, Open: Monday to Saturday 09:00-16:00, Sunday 09:00-13:00)
This is located next to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Panama Viejo and is a good place for buying souvenirs. (Our purchase here was a basket-weave, colored mask in the shape of a beaked bird.) Besides Panama hats, local sellers also present typical Panamanian pre-Columbian and pre-Hispanic artefacts. Some of them are copies of the masks and jewelry that were made by the indigenous people who lived in Panama before the Spanish conquest, while others are woven Embera bowls molas or masks.

Mercado de Buhonerías y Artesanías (Avenida Central Calidonia, behind the Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz museum, Open: Monday to Saturday 09:00-17:00)
Craft market selling ceramics, jewelry, souvenirs and textiles made by Panama’s indigenous tribes.

The Mercado de Artesanías 5 de Mayo is best known for crafts such as molas, painted ceramic bowls, woven baskets, textiles and dolls in traditional outfits, though you can also pick up touristy souvenirs. It’s the place to shop for a panama hat in Panama City (even if they are actually imported from Ecuador – or nowadays, China) or a hammock.

Multiplaza (At: Vía Israel, Open: 10:00-20:00 Monday to Saturday, 11:00-19:00 on Sundays)
This large modern mall has some of the most exclusive shopping in Panama (expensive – think along the lines of what people who hide their money in Panama might buy ?). It contains over 300 stores and restaurants, supermarket, banks and a movie theater. There is a free discount card as well as a free shuttle for tourists traveling from Multiplaza to Metromall. The card can be obtained from the Panama Shopping Card booth at either mall, upon presenting a passport.

Walking Tours in Panama City
Historic Casco Viejo
The below self-guided walking tour is bases on Frommers:…
Free (tips solicited) English language guided walking tours are available (10AM, 3PM) from:…

Start: At Plaza Independencia.

Finish: At Iglesia de San José (a 2-block walk from Plaza Independencia).

Time: Approximately 2 to 4 hours.

Best Times: The streets are quieter on Sundays, and churches are most active. Some restaurants and museums are closed either Sunday or Monday.

  1. Plaza de la Independencia

There are three parallel streets through Casco Viejo – Avenue A, Central and Avenue B, which are crossed by perpendicular numbered streets. It’s worth it to crisscross the neighborhood to see the sights.

We began our self-directed walking tour by taking a ship-supplied shuttle bus to the Plaza de la Independencia. This plaza is where Panama declared its independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903. The Mercado Nacional de Artesanías is on the corner if you crave local souvenirs (bargain to about 50% of the initial price).

The Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral), easily recognizable by its contrasting gray, ashlar-stone facade flanked by two white neoclassical bell towers inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The cathedral took more than 100 years to build, and is one of the largest in Central America.

On the south side of the plaza is the Museo del Canal Interoceánico (museum devoted to the building of the Panama Canal). The neoclassical building was built in 1875 as the Gran Hotel, and converted into Canal Headquarters by the French in 1881; later it was used as offices for the U.S. canal commission. Next door, on the second floor of the Palacio Municipal, is the Museo de la Historia de Panamá, a (not very interesting) display of exhibits charting the history of the Panamanian republic. The Hotel Central, on the east side of the plaza, was once among the most luxurious hotels in the Americas, built in 1880. It has been renovated and reopened.

Walk north on Calle 6a Este (from the middle of the plaza, toward the city skyline of Panama City) to Av. Alfaro, and turn right.

  1. Palacio Presidencial (Presidential Palace)

Calle 6a Este leads to the Presidential Palace, but you’ll have to show your passport (or a copy) to the security guards on the street before they’ll let you pass. This is the White House of Panama, the offices of Panama’s President Torrijos, and it is a gorgeous Spanish mansion with a Moorish interior patio and fountain (you can’t enter, but you can take a peek from the outside). Two African herons – whose Spanish name, garza, is the reason the palace is also called the Palacio de las Garzas – glide back and forth across the front patio. The city skyline views from this street are outstanding.

Turn right on Calle 5a Este, and head south 1 block, then turn left on Av. B. Walk 1 block until you reach Parque Bolívar.

  1. Plaza Bolívar

One of Casco Viejo’s prettiest spots, Plaza Bolívar and the buildings that surround it have been spruced up over the past few years, and there are several cafes here for those who feel like stopping for a coffee or snack.

There is a commemorative monument to Bolívar in the center of the plaza. The grand Palacio Bolívar (now the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Relations), is on the northeast edge of the plaza. The totally restored Salón Bolívar, site of the famous 1826 congress organized by Bolívar to discuss the unification of Colombia, Mexico, and Central America. The historical importance of this salon prompted UNESCO to declare Casco Viejo a World Heritage Site.

Next to the Palacio is the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís (Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi), one of the original structures from Casco Viejo but nearly totally destroyed by fires in 1737 and 1756. It has most recently been restored in 1998.

It was at this church that we had one of those unexpected experiences one occasionally gets while traveling. My wife had to use the toilet and I asked one of the guards at the front door if they had a “bano”. He led us up the stairs to the third floor, which held the organ and the “facilities”. I tipped him a couple of bucks which apparently was a big deal because he unlocked a door and showed us a tremendous nativity scene of miniature figures and tableaus covering around a 30 foot (10 meter) length. He then opened another room which held an equally large display of an amusement park – complete with motor driven Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, hot air balloons and so on. Truly a fantastic display.

Across the plaza, on Avenida B and Calle 4 Este (you’ll pass it when arriving at the plaza), is the Iglesia San Felipe de Neri, one of the first churches built in Casco Viejo (1684-88). Though damaged by fires, the church has recently been restored and is worth checking out, at least from the outside. The church apparently opens to the public only twice a year.

Turn left on the south end of the plaza onto Av. B to visit the:

  1. Teatro Nacional (National Theater)

Built between 1905 and 1908, on the grounds of the old Concepción Monastery, the lovely Teatro Nacional hosts theater and classical-music and ballet performances; unfortunately, they do not have a website and their show calendar is available only by calling tel. 262-3525, or by visiting and clicking on “Calendar.” The cost to enter and poke around is $1 (50p) per person. It’s open Monday to Friday 8am to 4pm and sometimes on the weekends (but with no set schedule).

Continue along Av. B (the street bends and changes names for 1 block to Calle 2da) until it ends at Av. Central. Turn left on Av. Central (Calle 1a) and follow until arriving at the stairs to the Esteban Huertas walkway. Walk up and circle the:

  1. Plaza de Francia

The Plaza de Francia (French Plaza) is a Casco Viejo highlight, a historically important site and a delightful place to stroll around and crunch on a raspado (Sno-cone) from one of the several vendors. There is also a wonderful fresh breeze here. When you head down Calle 1a, the road turns into an inviting and lovely walkway called Paseo Esteban Huertas, which is partially covered by pretty bougainvillea. You’re walking atop las bóvedas, or “the vaults,” which originally functioned as a Spanish dungeon and later as a jail, storehouse, and offices. Oficina Casco Antiguo (tel. 228-3664;, offers free Saturday tours (in Spanish), leaving from its offices at 9:30am. This walkway also runs along the old defensive wall that once protected the city. From this vantage point you can see the Bridge of the Americas and ships lining up for their turn to enter the canal.

Continue along the walkway and down to the French Plaza. Along the route are booths of indigenous people from the San Blas Islands selling molas and other artifacts. Make sure to bargain to about half the ariginal asking price here.

Originally the main plaza (Plaza de Armas) of Panama City, it is now a commemorative monument to the failed French canal effort. Also here at the plaza is INAC, the National Institute of Culture, which has an art gallery (Mon-Fri 8am-5pm) and the French Embassy.

Head back to Av. A and walk west until reaching Calle 3ra. Here you’ll find the:

  1. Iglesia de Santo Domingo & Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial

Only ruins remain of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, built in 1678 but victim of several fires including one in 1781, from which time it was never rebuilt. The church kept its fame, however, through the building’s unusual supporting arch made of stone, which survived the fire. The arch, called Arco Chato, was unusual in that it was long and not very arching, seemingly defying gravity. When U.S. senators debated whether to build a canal in Panama or Nicaragua, they took the arch’s longevity to mean that little earthquake activity made Panama a safer place to build. Next to the ruin site is the Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial.

Continue 1 more block to Calle 4ta, turn right and walk 1 block to Av. Central. Here on the east corner is:

  1. Casa Góngora

This structure, built in 1760 by a wealthy merchant, is the best preserved example of a Spanish colonial home in Casco Viejo. The Casa is also now home to the Casa de la Cultura y del Artista Panameño (tel. 212-0388), a cultural center for local artists, with occasional live jazz music, folkloric presentations, fashion shows, and changing art exhibitions.

Head up Av. Central, crossing the Plaza de la Independencia (where you started). Continue on to Calle 9a to:

  1. Iglesia de la Merced

Built in 1680, this church was transferred, stone by stone, from its Panama Viejo site. The facade is still an excellent example of one of Casco Viejo’s oldest buildings.
Walk south down Calle 9a until you come to:

  1. Plaza Herrera

The lively Plaza Herrera is dedicated to General Tomás Herrera, in honor of his battle for independence when Panama was still part of Colombia. Park benches here are good for people-watching or just for resting.
Walk 1 block east on Av. A to Calle 8a. You’ll come to:

  1. Iglesia de San José

Your last stop is at the most famous of Casco Viejo’s churches, the Iglesia de San José, and its baroque golden altar. The story goes that when pirate Henry Morgan raided Panama Viejo, a priest had the altar painted black to hide it from looters, later moving the altar to Casco Viejo. However, studies place the altar’s stylistic details in the 18th century, casting doubt on this legend. From here you can head back to Plaza Independencia by walking 1 more block east on Avenida A, turning left on Calle 7, and walking 1 block.

Enter Panama Canal Cristobal

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes back home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow” – Lin Yutang

The Panama Canal stretches for 80 km from the edge of Panama City to the Caribbean port of Colon. One could easily plan an entire vacation on Central Panama with its beaches, reefs, islands, mountains and rain forests, but unfortunately, while we have traversed the Panama Canal numerous times, we have generally been stuck on a ship and with barely enough time to wave goodbye.

As David McCullough recounts in his sweeping history The Path Between the Seas, it was a combination of sheer human might and engineering prowess that today allows ships to cross the Panama isthmus, saving sailors from making the dangerous, almost 13,000-kilometer (8,000-mile) journey around the tip of South America.

The canal was completed in 1914 and takes about 8 hours to fully navigate through a series of locks designed to lift the ship over the isthmus. . The U.S. had partial control of the canal since it was made and it remained in U.S. territory up until 1999 when full control was turned over to Panama.

Along the way, the ship will cruise through the largest man-made lake in the world, Gatun Lake, which was formed during the canal’s construction. The lake’s largest island is Barro Colorado, that is a biological reserve operated by the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute.

Ships are pulled by special locomotives called “mules” – so close to the channel wals that you could nearly reach out and touch them. There is also a huge “panamax” freighter in the canal adjacent to ours (there are two channels) and it seems like there is only about a foot of clearance on each side.

While its construction was an engineering marvel (and it is amazing to see the design still working a century later), after a couple of hours or so of reminding oneself of the previous trips, watching a cruise ship passing through all day rivals watching paint dry for interest, interspersed with short intervals of panicked activity to grab a camera for interesting photos (for example, heading under the “Bridge of the Americas”. That said, the construction of the new larger canal channels parallel to the existing ones by a Chinese firm has changed the flow of world commerce.

Cruising Panama Canal

“Dare to travel on new paths” – Lailah Gifty Akita

Exit Panama Canal, Balboa


Incidentally, due to 35 knot headwinds, tomorrow’s stop at Curacao has just been cancelled, adding to the long list of itinerary hacks.



They should change the name of the ship to "The Wanderer”.

How about “The Flying Dutchman”?

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That would make it sound like one of Holland Americas :slight_smile:

There is lots of speculation aboard about what will replace the three day Russian stop (or more if things spin out of control in the Baltic). My own preference would be to jettison the Baltic, cut through the Suez Canal and wrap around Africa (which was originally part of the plan anyway). Another option would be to spend a few days at Gdansk to allow travel to Warsaw, Krakow, etc.

We’ll see.


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They should change the name of the ship to "The Wanderer”.

How about the Marie Celeste?

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