Hurtigruten Pole to Pole - Week nine
Tropical Waters and Remote Island Communities in the Caribbean - Colombia & Panama.
In week nine of our 13-week bucket list Pole to Pole cruise on the MS Roald Amundsen with Hurtigruten Expeditions, we explored Central America and fulfiled a bucket list item, the Panama Canal.
Day 57 - At Sea, Caribbean Sea
The most eventful item today was the incredible display of birds over lunch; we were mesmerised by the flying creatures following the ship, hunting fish, and even tackling each other for food. The Brown Boobies catch the fish, and the Frigatebirds attempt to steal the Boobie's meal.
We had a fantastic view from our window table in Fredheim.
Lunch was also impressive, and we tried the soft steam buns filled with delicious chicken and peppers; they were so good we had to order seconds.
As we chose to visit our Erik and King Richard in Fredheim today, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to order a crepe; we were delighted when the chef made a little taste of home for us, just what we needed. Simply lemon and sugar crepe! Thank you, team Fredheim.
Day 58 - Providencia, Colombia
Welcome to Country 57; moving our country tally up has been a great week, with another one later this week. We are edging closer to 60!
Coffee first, as always, over a chat with the lovely Seth, who happens to be working at Hurtigruten in the Customer Care team, he was a ball of energy, and we loved sharing our travel stories. Thank you, Seth, for popping over to say hello.
We were called to board our tender, and unfortunately, it was full, so a handful of us passengers had to wait for the crew tender, which in hindsight, was in our favour due to the tropical rain arriving for a moment, so we missed the downpour and only had to receive a light shower.
Sparkling clear turquoise waters now surround us, filling you with a sense of wonder and delight.
Providencia is a small tropical Caribbean island part of Colombia; unfortunately, they were still in repair after a significant hurricane two years ago. They are all busy still rebuilding and cleaning up, and the small village community didn't let this get them down. They were all full of kindness and warmly welcomed us. We couldn't wait to support them and give them a little financial boost to help them rebuild faster.
We welcomed the half-hour walk to town with only a light shower, and it was a blessing to keep us cooler from the scorching sun and humidity. As soon as the rain stopped, you could feel it coming back; the locals welcomed us with a big wave and hello, and to take cover under their porch as we walked by.
The island is bursting with bright colours, slowly starting to resurface from the remnants of the hurricane damage, the locals are very resilient, and I know it will be back to its full glory soon.
Our goal was to find a local establishment to support for lunch and a cold drink.
We finally arrived at one and raced in to spend the afternoon treating ourselves to sample the local Colombian cuisine and mojitos (in a can, but delicious). We chatted with our fellow passengers who had found the same venue, and our lovely new friend Seth joined us; we had a perfect afternoon full of laughter and mojitos!
Based on Seth's recommendation, we popped into a cafe nearby and sampled the Colombian coffee; not being black coffee drinkers, we were a little sceptical, but Seth was spot on, and it was incredible! Thank you, Seth!
We started our return to the tender, fortunately, found a shuttle going by, jumped in and enjoyed a singalong in Spanish with our driver and the latest state-of-the-art air conditioning; leave the doors open. We had a blast.
Stopping every so often to pick up fellow passengers and give them solace from the heat, I think we managed to squeeze over ten of us in, and our driver wanted to pick up more!
Back on the ship for a much-needed cold shower to enjoy the evening on the ship; unfortunately, we were trying to get back for the local cultural performance but arrived too late once we were showered due to the delay with the tender, and everyone was trying to do the same.
The evening was spent enjoying a few cocktails, meeting more fellow passengers, and sharing their stories of the day.
Day 59 - San Andres, Colombia
Today we arrived around 9 am in San Andrés, a Colombian island in the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Nicaragua. It'sSeth's known for its coral reefs and reggae music, which is popular with tourists.
All excursions were delayed due to a slow clearance from authorities. Once we were cleared, the passengers were on the tenders to embark on their tours. There is usually an inclusive tour and a couple of paid options to visit villages, sample local cuisines, beach days and snorkelling adventures. We commonly opt for the independent as we love to get lost in a new place and explore at our own pace.
We enjoyed a coffee from our lovely Arnel in the Explorer's Lounge (he truly makes the best coffee) and used the time to research the best places for lunch and cocktails.
Around lunch, we were on the island, a very short tender, although very hot, so try to nab a seat by the open air. Once on the island, a free shuttle was there to take you the 30 mins into town. Watch these guys as they still want you to pay on arrival, even though Hurtigruten has provided them for passengers.
A quick stroll to our restaurant on the boulevard, with views of the crystal waters and air-conditioned indoors! We thoroughly enjoyed the new cuisines, we had a day of Asian, it was most welcomed, and the cocktails were a nice warm-up to the day! After being in Canada and US for a few months, it was also a pleasant surprise to receive a lazy lunch bill of AUD100, after the average being AUD350, and we easily had six cocktails and a few courses.
After lunch, we took on the sweltering heat to stroll the beach, were quickly defeated and waited for our taxi; he messaged to say he would be half hour late, which meant we would have missed the last tender, so we hailed a cab for USD20 and were back in time.
We spent our first night in the room; after a hot and humid day, it was nice to hide away; we were incredibly spoilt by our beautiful team in Lindstrom, who was only happy to deliver our meals. Thank you, Raymond and Helen 🙏
This evening we received a letter to advise another country has been removed from our Pole to Pole due to COVID restrictions on cruise ships. To avoid the risk of the vessel being quarantined, Peru has now been cancelled, and we now have an additional port in Ecuador and four sea instead. Hopefully, we will be surprised with a new destination from Ecuador to Chile🤞 Nicaragua was also cancelled for the same reason this week.
Always walk the beach before you decide to frolic in the water, and do a sanity check on the health of the water.
Day 60 - Bocas del Toro, Panama
A busy week of counting new countries for these two slow travellers, last year we visited six countries and already three this week!
Bocas, as the locals refer to it, is the archipelago of Panama. It stole our hearts from the island vibe and the beautiful people, and with stunning views, it is fast becoming a gastronomic destination right up our alley!
A new country, the ship and passengers, needed to be cleared; after a few hours, we were across to explore Isla Colon, one of the three islands in Bocas, which is attached to mainland Panama. The zodiacs were out to whisk us to shore, the sun was taking a break, and the rain was to keep us company; we didn't let this get us down. We just ducked out of the walking excursion and escaped to Meren Pool Club, a new beach club, to stay dry and quenched for the afternoon.
The food and cocktails were excellent, and the Panamanians' beautiful nature and the beach club's decor and design were very chic.
All places have incredibly high-speed wifi and English menus, so a perfect destination for digital nomads.
We bar-hopped our way back to the ship and loved meeting the locals for a chat; even as we walked along, we were enthralled in conversation with locals.
After a few chats with the locals and feeling at home with the island vibe, think of Koh Samui in Thailand. We are already planning an extended stay in Isla Colon, Panama.
We enjoyed a drink with the lovely Emilie from Hurtigruten, with her boundless positive energy and fellow passengers and headed back to the ship to make our way to Colon.
Day 61 - Colon, Panama
This morning was disembarkation day; we woke to a very peaceful ship as all guests had checked out to explore Panama City and to travel home.
The Pole to Pole guests were fortunate to be on an organised excursion of Colon, which we were grateful for, as after researching online, it isn't recommended to do it independently.
Below is the local prison, which was in very dire conditions, but a reflection of reality today in the city of Colon. For a city home to the Panama Canal with a revenue of approximately 15 million per day.
Colón is a city and seaport in Panama, on the Caribbean Sea, near the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal; it has traditionally been known as Panama's second city.
The vast Colón Free Trade Zone offers tax-free shopping, and there are over 3000 stores in a nearby pocket of the city. It is the distribution centre of all goods for South America.
A bus was waiting to take us on an excursion of popular sites near Colon. With Carlos, our guide and Jorge keeping us safe on the road, we drove through the streets of the outskirts of Colon. Seeing the reality of the living conditions for the people and the city was quite disheartening. Carlos was describing to us only yesterday the areas we were going through were one metre underwater, so they were dealing with the remnants of the flooding.
First up was a surprise visit to the Northern entrance of the Panama Canal, Gatun Lock, where they have a visitor centre and viewing platform to watch the ships in transit.
We were all very excited to hear one was leaving the last chamber and another entering the first. We got the whole experience from the viewing platform, the chamber gates opening and closing, and seeing the power of gravity as the water rises and releases in the lock chambers.
It was genuinely fascinating, especially as we would all experience the transit on our ship the following day.
Information overload as we learned all about the Panama Canal and the country of Panama, here are some fun facts below.
As we were heading back to the bus, we were surprised to see we had a visitor out front, a Coatis, which is part of the racoon family. He was familiar with having humans in his presence, so we all took the opportunity to snap some pics of our first Coatis sightings.
Next, we visited Fort San Lorenzo. To access the fort, you drive through an abandoned US army training base during the Vietnam War, a dense jungle rainforest and mangroves, hearing stories about the crocodiles who cross the roads at night to hunt; therefore, no night walking is recommended unless you are keen on being their appetiser, to also the road we travelled on being nicknamed 'crunch road' when the crabs are migrating, as millions come to the area to do so. It becomes impossible to avoid them as you drive through.
We arrived at an 18th-century, well-preserved colonial military structure within half hour. UNESCO seaside ruins with sweeping views of the mouth of the Chagres river.
We strolled through the historic site and admired the panoramic views.
We even came across an army of very disciplined little ants delivering food and shelter to their home. The little things, we were all enthralled by the ant's trail.
Upon leaving, we were also treated to another Coatis visitor as we departed.
Carlos was an excellent guide; the insights he shared were just the right amount, and we picked up many fun facts. We were whisked back to the ship whilst getting a drive-by tour of Colon and the sites; also advised to steer clear and stay in our bubble of safety on the ship.
A fantastic morning, a bucket list item was checked off, and after a quick duty-free shop, we were back in the safety of our floating home for a delicious lunch at Fredheim.
Our new fellow passengers were embarking, and everyone was excited to kick off their vacation. They have all been an absolute delight onboard, sharing travel stories and the new segment as we explore the West Coast of South America.
Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador; more on this next week
Until 1979, Colon was part of America. US citizens can retire back in Colon and receive 20 years tax-free.
80% of Panama City is Chinese due to the building of the railway, and 80% of Colon is from Barbados and Jamaica due to the canal. Every little town has a different influence.
Ships transiting through the canals pay for all containers/cabins, irrespective if occupied or empty. On average, it is 350k per ship to transit the canal.
The canals make an average of 12-15 million a day in revenue, and the minimum wage is $600 per month.
A dry canal refers to offloading containers in port and then using rail to transit the cargo, and another ship waits to collect on the other side to continue the move. Some companies want to save dollars, so they opt for a dry canal.
Panama Canal was inaugurated in 1914; for 85 years, the US operated and had government control.
In 1999 the canal was transferred to Panama; they now operate and manage the route; a new lock was built to transport more cargo and more than 40,000 workers to make, and the larger canal was inaugurated in 2016.
The old canal does not recycle water; the new one uses the same water three times, then refreshed to avoid pollution and only recycles in the dry season.
Fifty-two million gallons of water are released from the lake each transit in the old canal.
Up to 10,000 people work in the the canal today; best salaries in Panama are from the canal; the top level is 500k a year for pilots.
The locals of Colon are now making their home kitchen a restaurant, cooking up home feasts for people to enjoy for a small cost, eat healthily and support local businesses since COVID.
Day 62 - Panama Canal Transit
Today was the transit through the Panama Canal, an experience both Wayne and I have had on our bucket list for over 15 years. We booked a cruise back in 2009 but decided to change our plans and postponed the cruise (which never eventuated).
We were advised we would enter the first Gatun Lock (the Atlantic exit) at 8.45 am, so we set the alarm and were up and ready.
The ship was on schedule, and we commenced our entry into the first chamber (as we are a smaller ship, the old canal chambers were for us), there were three in total, and we were supported by a tug boat at the front and rear, along with the mules (locomotive trains). It takes about one hour to go through the three chambers as you experience the waters in the chambers using the force of gravity to raise you and bring you to the same level so we can continue on our transit to the South Pacific.
The day was spent cruising through the Panama Canal, luscious green jungle scenery for the next five hours. We enjoyed this from Lindstrom, followed by our balcony; it was warm and humid but a once-in-a-lifetime experience; we captured lots of videos and pictures!
We arrived at Miraflores Lock (the Pacific entrance) around 5 pm, and the same process to enter, lower and exit the chambers; this was perfect timing to call my Mum and Dad in Australia, who also wanted to share this moment with us, they were also able to enjoy it over the wifi. However, some video images were blurry but didn't ruin the moment.
Once through the last of chambers, we had completed the entry into the Pacific Ocean; it was a beautiful evening, blessed with a vivid and colourful sunset, over a backdrop of ships all waiting their turn to cross into the Atlantic Ocean.
After experiencing the Panama Canal locks from both outside and inside the ship, we felt the visit to watch the ships transit the locks was much more enjoyable; once on the ship, it is difficult to understand the full power of the process due to visibility, but all the same, we loved having the opportunity to experience both sides.
Our lovely team spoiled us again this evening, and we enjoyed our dinner in the suite. A special thank you to our dear Aries and the team in Lindstrom.
Day 63 - At Sea, Crossing the Equator, Ecuador
Week nine finished with the crossing of the Equator from the North to the South Pacific Ocean.
The sun was shining, and we were all treated to the Equator crossing ritual during the afternoon.
The ceremony is a long-standing tradition of initiation that commemorates a sailor's first time crossing the Equator.
King Neptune, the Captain in this case and the team all came out in preparation for the baptism.
King Neptune is said to be the ruler of the seas, and this entire shindig is orchestrated to appease the King by showing him respect, keeping a sailor away from the perils of the sea and bringing good luck.
We all queued up for the tradition, and Wayne, of course, was first; we were baptised with a splash of ice and bright red liquid (just food dye) and a refreshing spray from the fire hose as we crossed the Equator by the Captain and crew.
It was definitely much easier than the Arctic Circle crossing, where the ice-cold water and ice ceremoniously drizzled down our backs in a few degrees!
Everyone was energised and enjoyed the moment, with lots of laughter. There is a renewed energy on the ship for the new leg as we embark on our Ecuador and Chile segment. Unfortunately, Peru has been skipped due to local restrictions for COVID, which is outside of Hurtigruten's control, but it will always be there for another time.
The poor expedition team were the ones who copped the worst of it, being their first time to experience the crossing.
We followed this with the captain's welcome in the lounge and a meet and greet with the new members of the crew who have joined us for the next South American segment.
Dinner was next, and we celebrated the lovely Barbara's 69th birthday; she joined us with her hubby for the new leg with the team. Smiles all around.
We all retired early and prepared for our new destination, Manta, Ecuador, and our 59th country.
We can't wait to share 'week ten' as we explore the undiscovered gem of Ecuador.