Panama Canal Full Transit

The Panama Canal is a 77 km, manmade, waterway that cuts through the country of Panama connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The canal is a major international maritime trade route… and on every cruisers check list.  We were up early to get a good look at the entry area near the town of Christobel.

At either end of the canal are major port operations allowing for the offloading of containers to be moved by rail instead of through the lock system.  The locks assist ships in being elevated 26 metres above sea level to a large manmade lake, Gatun Lake, and again a second set of locks allow the ships to be moved back down to sea level on the Panama City side.  The entire system was devised to allow ships to avoid the hazardous and time consuming Cape Horn route in the southernmost tip of South America via the Straits of Magellan or the Drake Passage – where we were just a few short weeks ago.

The original locks were only 33.5m wide, which is quite spectacular when you consider our ship is literally 33m across the beam, leaving barely 1 foot of clearance on either side!  Our ship has actually been built to a Panamax standard, which is the maximum allowable width before it is no longer able to traverse the Panama Canal.  The Grand class ships in the Princess fleet are unable to do this transit and instead have to access other areas of the globe by TransAtlantic crossings instead – eg:  the Grand, the Ruby, the Caribbean and Royal and Regal Princesses. A larger, wider canal was finished in 2016 and it allows for Post-Panamax ships to move through which are capable of carrying more cargo.

France was the first country to begin work on the canal in 1881, but they had to call it quits due to an extraordinary number of workers dying on the site, and a multitude of engineering problems – and I mean extraordinary numbers of worker fatalities, some 26,000 men, many of whom died due to yellow fever and malaria in a time where the role of mosquitos in disease transference was not yet understood.  Much politicking and international treatises and whatnot later, the canal we see today was eventually built under American rule and ownership, with semi-military engineering supervision and involvement. When looking at all these photos of the canal – it is most interesting to note the differing water levels of each lock, that allow the ships to move north and south through the system.  The canal was officially opened in 1914 and initially saw about 1,000 ships per year utilising the canal.  Most recent numbers see approximately 15,000 ships pass through the canal each year, and a total of 815,000 vessels had used it by 2012.
It takes 6 to 8 hours to make a full transit through the canal, and our transit was actually held up somewhat by a huge natural gas freighter moving through the new canal, and the regulations surrounding how close passenger ships are able to be to this type of ship during a transit… I guess if something goes wrong and the whole thing goes to shit in a ball of flames, they don’t really need 2000 tourists and 1000 cruise ship crew caught in the middle of a huge industrial accident like that.We were spoon fed a lot of history about the canal across the Panama Isthmus today by our destination expert, Hutch, and while I find this stuff quite interesting – feel free to zone out about now.  The first proposals of a canal across Panama date back to 1534 when Charles V of Spain conducted a survey looking for a route that would make the voyage for ships travelling Spain to Peru, shorter and easier thereby giving Spain a significant military advantage over the Portuguese.

In the mid 1600s, an English philosopher also proposed a short cut through Panama to the East Indies and China.  IN 1788, Thomas Jefferson was encouraging the Spanish to create the same short cut so they could avoid the treacherous southern transit around the Horn.  And in the late 1700s, Alassandro Malaspina (sp?) finally came up with some plans for construction of a sea level canal. Additionally, the Scots also planned, in 1698, what eventually became the failed Darien scheme, which was ditched due to ‘inhospitable’ conditions in 1700.

Another effort came about in 1843, this time by some British in conjunction with the Republic of Granada.  It was a primarily British endeavour and was set to be built in 5 years, however that all proved fruitless too.

In 1846, the US got involved in negotiating transit rights with Columbia (then owner of Panama) as their interest in being able to move gold from the California goldfields to the east coast increased.  The Panama Railway was built by the US to cross the isthmus in about 1855)…  Around the same time, a UK born engineer working for the US rolled out yet another proposal for a water canal, and the French were engage in starting building on this after their success with the Suez Canal.  Alas the French screwed the pooch (overcome by climate, disease, heavy tropical rain and forest conditions), and the original sea-level canal was ditched in favour of a lock system and man made lake approach, because they were totally unprepared for the 10m rise in water that occurs every rainy season.

By this time, more was known about the spread of yellow fever and malaria and by the late 1800s, the death rate among workers fell to at ‘tolerable’ 200 per month?!  (wtf?)  The French effort eventually went totally bankrupt in 1889 after spending more than USD$280,000,000, which wiped out the savings of over 800,000 investors.  The Panama Affair saw some prosecuted and imprisoned, though not for long.

Not long later, another French company picked up the project and tried to resurrect it using the old available assets, but eventually they sold out to the US for a song (all things being relative), and the US got involved in 1902.  Long political campaign and legisilative wrangling omitted here, but the US eventually finished the canal and it was opened in 1914 on President Theodore Roosevelt’s watch.
Going through the locks now – you can see what an enormous undertaking it was.  It is easily as impressive as seeing the Hoover Dam or the Great Wall of China. The Gatun locks:

After making our way through the first set of locks, we were put into a holding pattern, waiting for the aforementioned naturals gas Post-Panamax ship to traverse the new canal.  Friends of ours who have a suite on the back of the ship were having a bit of a party, and after running all around the open decks checking out the canal for most of the morning, we decided to go down and join the party tarts… aka ‘The Nookies’!    We got down to D750 and found a very happy crew enjoying the view, a quick rain shower and a lot of laughs…  Marie, Sandra, Kathleen, and Sandy all dressed up for ‘flashing’ onlookers and the local tug boat captains!   🙂  Views of the Gatun Lake…
Lunchtime with the Nookies; Terry, Barry, John and Mick (aka Mick The Official, and Original, Bad Influence!) The Girls taunting the local tug boat captains with their ‘girls’.  😉  One of the tugboats who was following us for quite some time was doing donuts in the water for our amusement and talking to us over their PA system… when we held out beers for them, they said “We wish.” and “Now, you’re just being mean!” as we were partying on the deck and they were stuck working… poor fellas.  I think they followed us for an hour hoping someone was going to flash their bits!  🙂  The Centennial Bridge  Out the other side of Gamboa we found ourselves going through the Pedro Miguel Locks and then the Mira Flores Locks.  I was back on the front of the ship on the deck 11 view deck to see this – you can really see the water levels moving up and down to move these enormous ships – our cruise ship and the car carrier that we had been moving neck and neck with all day.   The other interesting thing we learned today was the cost of using the Canal.  The tolls are set by the Panama Canal Authority and are based on the type of ship and what type of cargo it may be carrying.  For examples, container cargo ships are assessed on a unit of measurement called a ‘twenty-foot equivalent unit’ TEU, which is roughly the size of a regular shipping container.  From last year, the toll was about USD$90 per TEU… which doesn’t sound too much until you consider the average Panamax container ship can take over 4000 TEU.  Passenger cruise ships are calculated differently – a cruise ship of over 30,000 tonnes is charged based on the number of berths on the ship/the number of passengers that can fit on the ship, not necessarily the number of passengers that are on the ship.  The cost per berth as of 2016 is $111 for unoccupied berths (why?) and $138 for occupied berths. Other ships are calculated based on the amount of cubic meters of water they displace which is sounding too much by math for me. The most expensive toll ever paid was by a cruise ship called the Norwegian Pearl which paid over USD$375,000 for an expedited passage – the average cost is about $54,000 for a ship of that size, but they basically paid to jump the queue.  There was another ship when work was being carried out on the Gatun Locks, an tanker I think, that once paid about $250,000 to avoid waiting in a 90 ship queue (7 days wait) on what should have been a $13,500 toll.

And the other bit of silliness we were told about was an eccentric American named Richard Halliburton who was charged USD$0.36 to transit the channel by swimming, and his fee was calculated based on his tonnage displacement. In the image below, you can see the water racing through a culvert… this is how the lock system works – by using gravity to move metric shit tonnes of water to allow each ship to raise and lower as required. Currently, the canal is handling far more traffic than had ever been projected by the original engineers – it was estimated that it would move about 80 million tonnes of cargo each year, but in 2015, over 340 million tonnes was moved through the canal… I gotta ask myself, how much of the stuff on these container ships is full of shit made in China destined for $2 stores the world over?  Are we overdoing this moving crap around the world thing?  Something to think about…
Anyway to overcome the capacity issues, they are implementing better lighting so the canal can work more efficiently at night.  They are widening some sections, improving the tugboat fleets, deepening the draft (which is currently only 10.5m) and generally updating the entire system, along with the parallel Post Panamax sized canal.
The rolling bumpers that allow the ship to move through the canal without damage – with barely a 1 foot clearance these rollers keep the ship from rubbing along the canal’s concrete edges. In the old days, mules were used to pull ships through the canal – today ‘mules’ are still used to pull the ships through and help keep their sideways movement controlled.  Only now they are 50 tonne machines made by (originally General Electric) and Mitsubishi now.  Six of these are attached to the ship for the transit, and believe it or not the cables are sent out to the ship at the beginning of any transit by two little guys in a row boat who then pass them to a crew member on the ship who has gone out a watertight door and down a rope ladder to ‘catch’ it!  Many different methods of throwing and/or shooting the cables to the ship have been tried in the past, but the little guys in the row boats have proved most effective over time. Mules…Heading out the other side you can see the large port infrastructure at the other end of the Panama Railway… large cranes dot the skyline to unload/reload ships that are not traversing through the canal.
Elaine and Anyse enjoying the view from the Deck 10 forward viewing deck.And then, before you know it… ta-da!  We are back in the Pacific Ocean, and well, you know – we could swim home from here, right?  😉 

Cartagena is awesome!

Cartagena de Indias is a port city located on the northern coast of Columbia in the Caribbean Sea.  It is the capital of the Bolivar region and has a population just shy of one million people.  The city was founded in 1533s by the Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, though the region had several indigenous peoples living in the area dating back to 4000BC, including the Calamari people who inhabited the area where Heredia originally landed.   The Spanish were naturally very attracted to the gold found in the tombs and owned by the tribal chiefs, and they set about plundering the place… as you do.  They then turned their attention to agricultural pursuits and setting about wiping out the local population with exotic diseases.  Our guide, Mercedes, tells us that the native people did not place a great deal of importance on gold or gemstone objects, because they couldn’t eat them, so what is the point?  The Spaniards on the other hand raided all the tombs and took as much gold back to Spain as they could.

Cartagena, with its Spanish royal and viceregal presence, became a central administrative, political and economic stronghold for the Spanish Empire during the Spanish colonial period.

Our first stop in Cartagena today was up the mountain that overlooks the city, to La Popa Monastery.  The monastery was built in the 17th century and it continues to houses a community of Augustinian monks today. On the way up the mountain were markers for the traditional Catholic Stations of the Cross, however there are 14 of them, and from my heavily indoctrinated Catholic school recollections there was only ever 12… Mercedes was unable to explain away the extra stations, so I guess that one will remain a mystery.The view over Cartagena.Steps up to La Popa.This lovely cloistered courtyard has been cleverly designed to capture rainwater and funnel it to an enormous underground water cistern… the pillars of the courtyard are hollow, and water flows down through the pillars into the cistern for later use, as the subterranean water here is too salty to use for traditional wells.

The main chapel in the monastery currently houses a beautiful carved wood and gilt altar that was originally the San Diego convent in the Old City at the shrine of La Virgen de la Candelaria. Several years ago, this altar was moved/rescued, when the chapel that it had graced was being torn down to make way for a Sofitel hotel. It’s a lovely piece, and great that it was saved – though I mostly looked at it trying to figure out how they moved it… the Madonna is standing on a silver pedestal that is apparently 40lbs of solid silver.

Every year wealthy local women make the Madonna new clothing and there is a room here dedicated to her old clothes.  At first the garments looked very impressive, but on closer inspection, it was evident that most of the embroidery was done by machine so I didn’t even bother taking a photo of any of it.  #embroiderysnobsThere is a story here that the local pagan Karib and Calamari Indian people worshiped Buziraco, the devil, in the form of a golden goat, and the friar who wanted to build the monastery and the shrine to La Virgen de la Candelaria confronted the devil and his worshippers by throwing the golden goat off the side of the mountain.  The devil retaliated with hurricanes and storms until the church was completed, at which point the devil relented and moved deeper into the continent of South America leaving Cartagena alone.  The city actually experiences no storms, no earthquakes, and no hurricanes of any sort.  This weird diorama at the monastery depicts the native indians worshipping their golden goat… Mercedes, our guide, told us this story was highly unlikely, stating: “Who ever heard of a Catholic priest throwing away gold?”

From the Monastery we made a drive around the Baluarte de Santa Santo Domingo, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas and the city’s walled fortifications.  As the city gained in prosperity, it became a target for pirates and corsairs (privateers working under the authority of the French or English kings), and “Red Beard, Black Beard, Blue Beard… all the ‘Beards came here to pillage the city.” according to Mercedes.  So the city set about building a fortress, with walled compounds and castles, to protect the city from the marauders. About 13kms of the original walled fortifications that protected Cartagena still exist and they encircle the Old City which contains Cartagena’s colonial heritage district.

One thing that amused and confused me today in Cartagena, was the traffic.  Congestion was almost at BLT (Brisbane Level Traffic – which of course is a known world standard for complete traffic clusterfucks), and our guide told us, “There are 17 traffic lights in Cartagena, and the rest of the time we play chicken… though with the big bus, we play turkey.”  And that seemed about accurate.  The traffic was almost as congested as home, but with and added chaos that is usually associated with Asian cities, thrown in.  When we got to the top of the monastery first thing this morning, one of the things I noticed when observing the roads from above, was the completely congested main thoroughfares… and the literally dead empty side streets running parallel to those.  Seriously?  None of the people trying to make their way through the traffic were rat running the back streets – I was amazed as I watched vehicles moving into the mess when they could have stayed on the quiet neighbourhood streets and avoided all of it.  This Brisbanite has no idea why they persisted in using the main roads and just making the traffic jams worse when they could have stayed in the backstreets and got to their destinations much quicker?!   Oh, and nostalgically, I must have seen about 20 old G60 Nissan Patrols today.  🙂  Quite unexpected and not sure why, but they seemed to be everywhere, when you never see them at home anymore. The G60 seems to be an old work horse of choice here and it was lots of fun spotting them in the traffic.  BigSal and Trish will recognise them from the air vents under the front windscreen  🙂  

After checking the city was properly fortified against piratical invasion, we were ferried (bused) to an area of the fort wall that has been repurposed for tourist shopping.  Here we found all manner of textiles, bags, hats, hammocks (I really wanted to buy one – but I haven’t strung up the two Mexican hammocks I already have!), leather goods, emeralds, sarongs, clothing, t-shirts, souvenirs and all sorts of things.  About the only thing that the shopping had in common here is that EVERYTHING was in bright rainbow colours.  Aunty Mary and I both came away with lovely satchel tote bags that would be completely at home in a gay pride parade… bright pink and rainbow colours, I love it.

Shopping is a very happy, colourful experience here, excepting where the ladies in the traditional dresses kept coming up to us, and draping their arms around us saying we could take pictures with them and their fruitbaskets for $1.  I don’t mind them making money in this way – but please don’t bump into or touch me while I am in a strange country… it makes me immediately do a complete audit of all my pockets and my bag to ensure I still have my wallet and my camera!  When playing tourist in a place like Columbia (or Rio or Buenos Aires), you are already on high alert for pickpockets without people touching and bumping into you deliberately. :/ All the souvenirs are crazy colourful.

From here we started our walking tour of the Old City in the central Plaza with a monument to Simon Bolivar who led the troops in the independence movement from Spain in 1821 (I think, memory fail possible).

In the town centre is the Historical Museum of Cartagena, which has an impressive colonial facade from the palace museum.  The facade stems from the period of the Spanish Inquisition, which of course, no one expected.
In1610, the Spanish Catholic Monarchs established the Holy Office Inquistion Court in Cartagena by royal decree of King Philip II, making it one of the three places the Inquisition was operating in South America.   The Palace of the Inquisition was in operation all the way through until 1770 and the Inquisitors were only forced to leave the city when Cartagena declared independence from Spain in 1811. And the museum itself houses many torture instruments that the inquisition used with great creative effect… we did not have time to go through the museum unfortunately, though I heard from one of my dining companions who did go through the museum, that one was able to have their torture put onto a proxy for the right price.  Yes, somehow it was acceptable to the Inquisitors to torture the slave of an intended torturee (for a sturdy donation, of course), and that slave recanting on behalf of his owner was sufficient for these sadistic priests! The Old City is the walled historic centre of Cartagena, which (like everything else in South America) has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is full of winding streets and bright colourfully painted Spanish colonial architecture.  Mercedes informs us here that many of the old private homes are now all used as hotels, bars and restaurants.  The homes were built to house large Catholic merchant families where it was not uncommon to have 10-15 children.  The downstairs of the house would be for work, trading, selling etc., the mezzanine floor would be used to house guests – as it took 55 days to sail from Spain to Cartagena, people would come and visit for extended periods of time, so most wealthy homes had space for semi-permanent guests.  The upstairs of the house would accommodate the actual family, so big enough for 10-15 people.  You can see the small balconies of the mezzanine ‘guest’ floors, under the main balconies upstairs for the family.Many of these old buildings have these mezzanine balconies, original slate and stone floors, and original brickwork from the 16th – 17thC.  Absolutely beautiful.

After wandering the Old City admiring the architecture for a while, we made a stop at the Cartagena Emerald Museum, which is designed to educate the tourist about the ‘superior Columbian Emeralds’, and of course flog as many emeralds as they can.  It was tacky and quaint and weirdly seemed to be targeting American high school students with the plethora of strange dioramas… but I felt I would be remiss in not sharing some of the pain here.

Display showing how the gems are mined – with heavy machinery and explosives, providing an interesting (propagandist?) counterpoint to those documentaries we have all seen of poverty stricken people dredging through sludge from the mine leavings looking for the left over emeralds.A diorama depicting the El Dorado Ceremony – “When the Muisca chief passed away, his nephew was acknowledged as the new chief by this people.  During a ceremony priests undressed the chief and anointed him with a viscous mixture of soil and gold powder.  Then the chief would get on a raft with large amounts of gold and emeralds at his feet.  Other chiefs decked with feathers, crowns, armlets, pendants etc carried an offering and sat on the raft.  As soon as the raft left the edge of the water, whistles, trumpets flutes and songs would play until the raft reached the centre of the lake.  The chief would throw himself into the water with his offerings and the rafter would go back to honour the new heir who was now recognised as the chief and prince.”  Not sure what is happening there?  Does the nephew get sacrificed for the actual son of the chief to take his place?
The ‘museum’ continued in an equally confusing theme full of strange little dioramas… Everywhere were signs and things telling you how superior the Columbia emeralds are to those mined in other areas of the world…
There was even a guy here hand cutting emeralds… 

… and then of course we exited through the emerald shop attached to the museum. “Would madam like to see anything?”
“Sure.  Have you got anything that isn’t green?”
In response he just went, *blink blink*, and gave me a quizzical look.
Yeah, I am not even remotely fond of emeralds at all.  So my credit card was entirely safe.

Verdict on the Emerald Museum:  4/10, wouldn’t do again… just weird.

After this we were taken to another retail outlet hawking Colombia’s other famous export – coffee!  Samples all round of coffee, and coffee flavoured everything, and apparently one should really try the chocolates which are – you guessed it – coffee flavoured.

But ever being a contrary little thing – I hate coffee and don’t really like chocolate either.  So I went for a wander in the streets instead of being assaulted by the coffee smells.  There are lots of people selling colourful wares along the streets in the Old City.  Mostly hats, coral necklaces, bags, textiles, and little wristbands that say ‘Cartagena’ seemed to be really popular – but everything is crazy colourful still.

Columbia is one of the few South American countries never to be under dictatorial rule, this is in part due to the fact that members of the military are unable to vote – as we know, most dictators emerge from military coups.  Military service is mandatory for 18 months for every male at 18 years of age.  The only exception is where a family has a singular male child – obviously this is because if anything were to happen to that male child, there would be no ‘man in the house’ to look after the remaining family. (insert a dry futile nod to the blatant thriving patriarchy, here)

Our next visit was to the Monasterio de San Pedro Cláver, a Jesuit temple that is part of a large monastery with religious buildings that include the Cloister of San Pedro Cláver and a small archaeological museum. It was built between 1580 and 1654, and apparently the body of Saint Peter Claver is located in its main altar.

Directly in front of the church is the bronze sculpture Mujer Reclinada, (RecliningWoman) by an artist named Botero.  He copped a lot of criticism for placing a naked woman directly outside the Monasterio de San Pedro Cláver, with people saying it was inappropriate for a statue of this type to be placed beside a church – his response?  Have you been to the Vatican? It is covered in naked people.  Touche Signor Botero.Buy your own Mujer Reclinada… Inside is another cloistered courtyard which is also home to an active monastery community.Many of these items in the Collection of Religious Art were created form the 16th to 20th centuries, being sacradotal in origin, many of the artists names were lost.  These items have been either donated to the Jesuits or rescued by them when buildings were being destroyed for redevelopment.   This altar is an example of what a modest chapel may contain – as compared to the impressive gold worked altar at La Popa.  You can see a Freemason influence with the all seeing eye of God at the very top of the altar.The ceiling at Monasterio de San Pedro Cláver.
And the nave that contains the remains of San Pedro Cláver. In the courtyard was some domestic macaws clambering all over the tourists.  I have to say with those large talons and pointy looking beaks, I only held them momentarily and it was with some trepidation!  I don’t trust birds.  😛 

Our next stop on the walking tour was the Monument Torre del Reloj – which is also the largest slave square in the city.  Cartagena owed much of its wealth and prosperity to the slave trade and it was here in this large square that slaves were brought to be traded and sold to wealthy land owners, and subsequently shipped off to other areas of the Americas.

Now the area houses many restaurants, cafes and art galleries.

The Cruise Terminal at the Port of Cartagena has got the best set up I have ever seen at any cruise port – there is cafes, bars, a huge duty free shopping complex, a large aviary full of beautiful macaws, parrots, peacocks and even a flamingo habitat.  They also have various monkeys and iguanas living in the area and animal keepers there looking after the animals (and the tourists!).   It was a very pleasant welcome to the city.

All up a fabulous day that ended with Happy Happy Hour with the Nookies – MIck and Marie, John and Kathleen, Terry and Sandra, Barry and Sandie and myself taking full advantage of happy hour drinks … which may not have been my best laid plan considering how dehydrated I was feeling after spending all day walking around in the very hot and humid conditions of Cartagena… but great company and interesting tales always seem to overcome annoying little things like logic, and four vodkas later, I was staggering back to my cabin – this might have been partially the result of the ship moving at nearly 20knots in the chop as we hightailed it towards the Panama Canal, but the vodkas certainly didn’t help with the feeling wobbly on my feet!   🙂

Cartagena is absolutely on my list of places to come and spend more time one day… Andres, if you are reading this – you must let me come to Columbia with you next time you are coming back!  <3


Curacao is in the Dutch Antilles, and while they are an autonomous state, they are still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands… apparently. But buggered if I had ever heard of the place before I saw it on this itinerary.  It is in the Caribbean and that is good enough for me.  

The only thing I knew about this place was that the capital city of Willemstad has a very unusual waterfront that looks like Amsterdam, but it is painted in bright Caribbean colours, so I was quite looking forward to seeing that.

Today I had organised a group tour to take in 1) the ‘Mysterious’ Hato Caves; 2) the Flamingo Lake; 3) a guided snorkel beach stop and 4) a chance to see the aforementioned colourful town of Willemstad.  We met our guide Nell, (superfluous story about people not being where they say they will be, omitted here) and found ourselves crammed onto a shuttle bus and half of us sitting on jump seats!  Not an auspicious start – but those who had been on tours with me previous were pretty damn happy that, uncharacteristically, the air con was working… so off we went on our island adventure.

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Barbados in 25 words or less…

White Beaches.
Blue skies.
Sea Turtles.
Beautiful calm waters.
Bob Marley.

Yeah, I can’t back that up… I don’t think I have ever written anything in 25 words or less, so here’s the rest of it:

We found ourselves on a full day catamaran tour of Payne’s Bay in Barbados*, with three stops scheduled – one for snorkelling with sea turtles, another stop with an opportunity for snorkelling on a shipwreck, and a final stop at a lovely white sand beach for a swim or a bit of a wander.  Lunch was included, and (in spite of people’s enquiries about the possibility of sharks in the area), the most dangerous thing I saw all day, was the open bar!  Seriously – as much free grog as people could put away.  After the snorkelling of course…

The catamaran was a lovely modern boat with plenty of space for up to 85 passengers – I think we were closer, in numbers, to about 60 (in age demographics too, come to think of it).  It was BCDs all ’round unfortunately, and because Barbados is so closely aligned with the US and so accustomed to US tourists, the BCDs were mandatory.  Not so impressed at that, I have enough trouble diving down, without a bloody bouncy device.  But c’est la vie!  Aunty Mary and I had our own snorkels and face masks, but we hadn’t packed our fins.  As it turned out there were no fins allowed, and we could quickly see why.  Most of these people were not frequent snorkellers and I must have been kicked by persons with various situational awareness challenges, about four times.

The turtles were completely oblivious of the sudden influx of well-fed cruise ship tourists and were swimming in among us just floating on the current and doing turtle type things.  They were quite happy to swim up close to us.  Hint for new players, if the turtle swims away from you – don’t chase it…  They’ll come back, but not if they think they’re being chased.  These guys were about 3’ long, so not as big as the turtles we swam with in the Whitsundays, but they were a lot more comfortable around people I think.

Turtle bum…


After our little turtle swim, we moved the boat about a kilometre or so and were directed towards a dark shadow underwater to explore a recent shipwreck. The boat itself had been a famous party boat (the name of which escapes me right now), and it had sunk in about 2002, so it didn’t have lots of established corals on it, but it was a nice haven for lots of fishes. It was a bit of a struggle to swim the 50m or so against the current to get to the shipwreck, but because I was the first to jump in off the catamaran deck rather than wait for the steps, I managed to have a paddle around and a look about before the rest of the group caught up. Once the rest of the group got out there, all my photos have dog paddling OAPs in them! lol. One of the boat crew who was supervising in case anyone got into trouble in the water had bought out some food to feed the fishes and when he suddenly threw it all in the water, the fishes came up out of the wreck and I found myself surrounded by these little stripey little guys.  It was very cool.

After this, we had lunch of BBQ chicken, fried fish, cheesy macaroni, salads and ALL the rum punch. The bar was fully stocked with just about every spirit and mixer you could think of, as well as wines and a local keg of beer. Ever seen an Australian knock back free grog? No, me neither, and it was flowing strong and plentiful, so much so that no one even complained when Bob Marley’s, ‘Buffalo Soldier’ came on for the fourth time!

What a beautiful day… after lunch, we hoisted sail and went down to some beautiful sandy beaches for another dip – those that weren’t too busy enjoying the boat and the booze that is.  The crew were busy telling us of famous local residents – Rhiannon owns this large white house up on the beach, Paul Simon often zooms past on his jet ski to say ‘hello’ (actually, they told us that Paul Simon came past once to say g’day to James the captain of our little boat, and they had an English high school cricket team on the boat… the crew told the cricketers that Paul Simon was coming to say ‘hi’, the teens, having very little idea of who that was said hello to the famous singer, and then promptly all down trowed and mooned him!).  I guess if you had a choice and could live in Barbados or LA, I know which one I’d be choosing.

After our beach stop, it was back to the docks.  I had a thoroughly enjoyable day and would highly recommend Tiami Catamaran Cruises if you’re ever in Barbados and want a lovely day out on the water.  The only downside of doing a tour like when you are only in town for one day is that we didn’t get to see anything of the island – its villages, the town or anything else.  We had originally planned a half day snorkel tour, and then a few hours to check out the town, but things didn’t go to plan… instead we still had a marvellous day, but to be honest, the things we saw and did – we could have been off Airlie Beach or Townsville or Cairns.  Yep, we are just that spoiled living in Australia, that I thought sailing around Barbados for the day was just like home!

EPILOGUE (or maybe it should have been the prologue…?!):

*We had a tour booked through the ship today to go snorkelling with some turtles or something (more evidence of my getting fed up searching shore activities), only we ran into some unexpected hiccoughs with the logistics of getting ashore.  And by ‘we’, I mean, the entire fucking ship.  I woke up at 0530 and we were not moving.  This is not normally a bad sign, sometimes it means we are ahead of schedule or the local pilot is embarking… but when we were still not moving at 0630, I was mentally doing a little ‘uh-oh’.  

Turns out there was a dirty big P&O ship – the Azura – in dock already in Barbados, and they were doing an overnight stop, so naturally they had snivelled the best spot at the dock.  No problem ordinarily, but they had roped off a secure area around their ship (this is SOP for all ships), and we were not able to traverse through that secure area.  This is a problem, as they were between us and the port terminal.  So at the last moment, our ship of nearly 2000 passengers was advised that we were going to have to use the port’s shuttle system to drive us the, what? 300m from our ship to the port terminal.  And the problem with this is… their shuttles only seated approximately 25 people.  

No shit.  OMG, I felt so sorry for all the customer service facing staff involved in this mess, but they had to hand out tender tickets to call numbers to get people off the ship for a 300m drive.  All the people with ship tours were meeting at the cruise terminal – normally not a problem when you can just walk straight off, but this?  We got to the dining room to collect a ticket at 0750 and were given tickets numbered 744 and 745… which was not great when we were supposed to meet our tour group at 0820 at the terminal.  We took up a seat in the dining room and patiently waited for some numbers to be called.  The first batch I heard were number 32 to 57 or something, and it was, ‘Oh dear’.  People got really cranky really quickly, but there was nothing the staff could do about it.  It’s just one of those things.  I was determined that nothing was going to wind me up today – after Iguazu, I am just accepting that some things are beyond our control and there is no point in getting all wound up about something.  So we waited.  And unfortunately were forced to listen to the griping of the people around us who were very vocal in their displeasure.

Eventually, we got called and processed off the ship.  Got into our shuttle, drove the 300m and ta-da!  We were at the cruise terminal.  It was now about 0930.  We ran into a very harried looking Ilena, the ship’s Shore Tours Director, who informed us that our tour had left, that they couldn’t hold it any longer for us.  There was about six of us there who had missed it.  I shrugged, and thought, ‘Oh well, we will cab into town and find something else to do, and they will refund us for the tour cost. No biggie, there are turtles to snorkel with back home.’  Instead, Ilena said she had two different tour options she could put us on – they both went to the turtles and one was leaving at 10 am, and the other leaving at noon.  We went, ‘Sure. We will join the group leaving now.’  She scribbled a different code on our tickets and off we went to join a different bus.

We climbed on the bus with some others who had missed our 0820 group, and we were asking each other if anyone knew what this tour was actually doing… at which point the uptight old biddy behind me said (quite loudly), that, “*Those* people were on a cheaper tour, they shouldn’t be coming with us on our expensive tour!”  Oh FFS.  The ship is doing what they can to ameliorate the losses of people who, through no fault of their own, were unable to make their scheduled tours.  We didn’t care which tour we were thrown on… well, I didn’t – especially if it meant I didn’t have to replan our day on the fly! If we had been a bit later we might have found ourselves shanghaied onto a rum distillery tour or something.  But seriously?  Some people will find complaint with anything. I am getting a bit tired of these world-weary constant cruisers who know everything, have no patience, and who are all too happy to bitch and moan about ANYTHING.  


Fortaleza is the capital of the state of Ceara in the northeastern region of Brazil.  We are not fare from the equator here and it is hot and humid. While the actual ‘fort’ was established by the Dutch around the 1650s,the region was already a well established stronghold of the Portuguese empire since 1550s.  It is now the fifth largest city in Brazil with a population of 2.6 million people.   Looking at a map, I had no idea how close this region was to Africa, and Europe… probably something to do with the fact that most maps I’ve grown up with have Australia in the middle and depict Africa to the west and the Americas to the east and you don’t really think about how close the other continents are.

To quote the (rarely) useful port guide that the ship provided for us:

“For centuries, histories have debated the claim that Spanish explorers Vincente Yanez Pinzon was the first to step foot in what is now known as Fortaleza; however, recorded history begins wth the arrival of Portuguese navigator Pedros Alvarez Cabral who arrived in 1500 and formally claimed the area for Portugal.  The Dutch invaded in 1630 and built a fort on the coast but just 15 years later, the Portuguese expelled the Dutch, seized the fort and named it Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora de Assuncao – Fortress of Our Lady of Assumption.” 

I have a feeling that is the shortest version of that particular history you’ll ever see.  :/   It continues…

“Fortaleza became an important port and agricultural centre in the 18th century but its fame flourished 200 years later when Brazilians discovered the city’s quaint charm, abundant sunshine and sprawling beaches.  Today, this bustling port is a welcoming haven to travellers from around the world seeking relaxation.”


Fortaleza was probably the dirtiest city we have visited so far, with the most obvious evidence of poverty, homelessness and a genuine sense of ‘don’t walk off the tourist routes, this place is not safe’.  

We were on a ship tour today, our first so far this cruise, and unfortunately we were held up nearly an hour late in leaving the ship due to a 3m swell in the HARBOUR.  The ship was swaying back and forth against the dock, meaning the gangway was rolling back and forth making it very difficult for people with mobility issues to navigate.  We know this sort of thing can tends to make the tours a bit rushed, and today was no different – we were given a very glossed overview of Fortaleza.

Never mind, we eventually disembarked, and were met by a large Brazilian guide named Marcello – who had a good command of English, but who also possessed the the most dreadful monotone.  He explained to us repeatedly that there was as significant wealth gap in Brazil, and it was no where more obvious that in Fortaleza.  Apartments on the waterfront were extremely expensive and only available to the very wealthy.  The average income was somewhere around 980 Brazilian Reals PER MONTH.  That is little over USD$300 a month.  To live ‘well enough’, a family needed about 2000 or 3000 Reals income per month, so that means that the bulk of people here, are living below the poverty line.

Our tour took us through an area called ‘Future Beach’, which sounds like it was largely purchased by speculative investors some 30 or 40 years ago, however the future that ‘Future Beach’ promised never came to pass.  No major developments occurred here and the area is largely low set, private dwellings belonging to the lower socio economic demographics of the city.   

Across the city was the Cathedral Metropolitana de Fortaleza. Built in 1978, it is built in a high gothic style reminiscent of many European cathedrals.  The Cathedral was to be our first stop in the city, unfortunately, due to Carnivale being on, the Cathedral was closed and we were unable to go inside… it is an impressive enough building, but in sore need of some restoration work to clean the stonework.  

Nearby is the large and chaotic Mercado Centro.  The Central Market is a four storey building crammed with stalls of people selling local handicrafts – lacework, leatherwork, carved timber, souvenirs and exotic tropical fruits and local food.  We wandered around the market for about 45mins… it was hot, humid, packed with tourists (foreign and domestic), and so noisy.  Aunty Mary found a nice top, but other than that we didn’t hang around.

No lace, Mrs Bennet!

After the Markets, we went to the famous Theatro Jose de Alencar.  This particular famous theatre is a three story Art Nouveau style theatre with an intimate space for 800 patrons.  It has an interesting front foyer building with a salon that seats 120, and a courtyard between the foyer and the theatre.  It is a lovely little theatre and I imagine there is not a bad seat in the house.  The theatre was opened in 1896 and has a lovely garden space attached, and for some reason it is important to note that the steel in the ironwork came from Glasgow in Scotland?! (though I have no idea why on that last bit).

The Theatro is lovely, but it’s seriously at risk… a place like this should be air conditioned for temperature and humidity control – the timber and the ironwork are well looked after, but the frescoes are receiving too much light and the humidity are going to eventually destroy them. 

Drove past the old prison – right in the centre of the city.

After this we went down to Fortaleza Beach Front.  Fortaleza has many sea breaks built far out into the ocean to preserve their beach areas.  Leaving large expanses of sandy beaches perfect for recreating on.  The beaches were nice… though being on a ship tour, we did not really have any time to enjoy them.  
This could be quite a nice play to holiday… and it is apparently very popular with domestic tourists, as well as foreign ones.

And after this we drove on back to the ship via a famous shopping district that was also all shut up for Carnivale .  It was a bit of a flat day out really.  Fortaleza probably has many beauties, but with the Cathedral and most of the town all shut – some white sand beaches are not really going to pique the interest of a bunch of Aussies.

The main shopping street… over 500 retail stores, mostly fashion, shoes etc.  None of it open.  Felt like a ghost town.

I have a feeling that Fortaleza could be a lovely place to visit – lots of cultural offerings, lots of seaside restaurants, but as a day trip destination, and in the middle of Carnivale when everything from the shops, to the museums to the cultural centre is all closed up.  Probably not.  Sorry Fortaleza, but you’re not one of my favourite ports on this trip… perhaps I’ll return one day and gain a more favourable impression.