A Travellerspoint blog

Final days on the ship and coming home

Days 22-25

overcast 60 °F
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It's with mixed emotions that I type this very last blog on my flight home to San Francisco. What an amazing 25 days it's been! It's hard to believe it's all over. Let me first go back and start from where I left off after my last post:

We spent Friday, Dec. 28 in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. I was expecting the port city to be similar to Corinto in Nicaragua, but as it turned out, we were one of three cruise ships there that day, so there was quite a bit of activity happening almost immediately outside the gates from where we disembarked. There was a whole market place of shops and craft stands right in the terminal and although we may have been able to burn a whole day shopping there, we opted instead to travel to Antigua, which, according to Lonely Planet, is a not-to-be-missed destination in Guatemala. So we piled into a 15-person taxi shuttle with others from our ship and made the one-hour, 15-minute drive to Antigua. I found this city to being of the most bustling and enjoyable of all the places we'd been. There was lots of activity, with a good mix of both locals and tourists milling about. We ate lunch at a small place that looked a bit like a hole in the wall from the street, but once inside, it opened up into a really cute courtyard with nice natural light and cement stone furniture (in a good way). We had a great meal there (except for the micheladas - they were not what we’re used to drinking in the U.S., so if you find yourself in Guatemala my advice would be to AVOID them). After lunch, we walked around the city and popped into a couple of shops. My favorite was the marketplace full of craft stands selling goods made by the locals and where every few minutes a voice would come over the loud speaker and sing "Mercadito" over the music that played in the background. Yep, just the word "Mercadito" - that's definitely not getting out of my head anytime soon.

We did some damage shopping in Antigua, but that still didn't stop us from hitting the terminal market once we returned to Puerto Quetzal. So for those of you who may be expecting a small token from my travels, don't be surprised if it comes from Guatemala!

Once back on the ship, we settled in for two days at sea -- this actually required a bit of an adjustment since we had just spent the last four days straight in port (two in Costa Rica, one in Nicaragua and one in Guatemala). This is when the fact that we only had a few days left really started to sink in. My Spanish class wrapped up and though I'm not sure there was enough exposure there for me to retain a whole lot, I am hopeful that at least a little bit will stick (I've wanted to learn Spanish ever since I moved to CA). We also heard one more lecture from Jonathan Murray (the tv producer), which was a fun look back at the season of Road Rules they did that took place on Semester at Sea - anyone remember that? We also had one final talk from Julian Bond on race and rock & roll in the US -- it was really great listening to him recount the music of his youth and watching him bop his head in time to the music!

But we still had our final port of call: Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I felt a little bit embarrassed to admit that this would be my third trip to Cabo this year, but there are much worse places to have visited that many times in 10 months! And this was a fun destination for me personally since I sort of knew my way around and was able to make suggestions about what to do. Also fun was that there is no cruise ship dock in Cabo, so what they do is "park" the ship out in the ocean near the shore and then we take our smaller lifeboats, which are called tenders, into the marina. It was a nice change from the standard gangway down to a concrete landing like we had in every other port. Once on shore, we walked around the perimeter of the marina to the beach area and then decided to take a glass bottom boat tour out to Lovers Beach and the Arch. We saw some colorful fish along the way and even came upon a group of sea lions lounging on the rocks near the Arch. We returned to the main beach and then made camp at a bar/restaurant right on the sand, which became somewhat of a meeting group for a bunch of other folks from the ship. Experiences like that bring back memories for me from Semester at Sea, when even though you may not personally know all your fellow voyagers from time spent together on the ship, if you see others on land while in port, it's like you're old friends that go way back!

On-ship time was early again, 3pm, so after another tender ride back to the ship --this one pretty rough! -- we were on board again and it was time to get ready for New Year's Eve. Sadly, the excitement for the festivities was short-lived for me because I ended up spending the better part of the evening getting sick from something I had either eaten or drank on the beach that afternoon :(. I tried to make it to the fancy waiter-service dinner, but the smells of all the food were just too much for me so I although I did make it to our East Coast New Year's celebration at 10pm, I retired to my cabin shortly after. Paul ended up getting sick later that night as well, so who knows what the cause was. I was fine by the next morning so while NYE itself was a bit of a bust, I still got to bid adieu to 2012 with a day in Mexico and a night on a ship in the Pacific Ocean -- how many people get to say that??

New Year's Day marked our very last day at sea. Most of it was pretty quiet with folks packing up and preparing for their journeys home (some people were headed all the way back to London, Paris, Australia, even Japan!). Last night we enjoyed a few bottles of sparkling wine (so my champagne toast came 24 hours late) with some of the friends we made on board, which was a great way to say goodbye.

And that brings me to today. The disembarkment process was pretty smooth this morning and we flew through customs at the San Diego port. Then it was a short ride to the airport and a quick flight home to San Francisco. And just like that, it was all over!

So now it’s back to reality – what a discouraging thought! This trip was yet another amazing experience, brought to us by the ever impressive Institute for Shipboard Education (the parent to both Semester at Sea and Enrichment Voyages). I would definitely encourage anyone who may be considering a cruise in the future to look into the trips that they offer. The Enrichment Voyages are typically scheduled in December/January and April/May. There’s a wonderful European voyage planned for this Spring that I would kill to go on! Here’s a link to their official site: http://enrichmentvoyages.org/. I do get credit for referrals if I ever sail again (and of course I do plan to) so make sure to mention my name if you end up booking with them!

I’m working on getting all my photos uploaded so those will soon follow. Thanks to everyone who followed along with me on voyage. I can’t wait for my next adventure!

Posted by aweinstein 1/3/13 16:58 Archived in USA Tagged ev Comments (0)

Costa Rica and Nicaragua

Days 18-21

sunny 95 °F
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Since we left Manta, Ecuador, on Sunday we’ve visited two more ports: Puntarenas, Costa Rica, and Corinto, Nicaragua. We spent one day at sea after Manta, which happened to be Christmas Eve. The day was business as usual, which for me included Spanish class and another keynote talk by Julian Bond, this one on race in America. It wasn’t quite as personal as his first talk since it was somewhat of a history lesson, but he’s still an amazing speaker and a pleasure to listen to, regardless of the topic. That night we had our special Christmas Eve dinner, which was also very nice and a good time. We spent the rest of the night at the piano bar on board the ship, which eventually morphed into an impromptu dance party at about midnight – definitely a very unique Christmas Eve for the Weinstein kids!

On Christmas Day we arrived in Costa Rica. What a beautiful country! During our first day there, we set out to find a beach to spend the day on with a group of about eight others. We ended up at a place called Caldera Beach, about a half hour’s drive from Puntarenas. We enjoyed the sand, the warm water, a couple of cervezas and ate a seafood lunch at a nearby restaurant. The beaches were fairly crowded and we learned that this is a typical way to spend the holiday for Costa Rican families. I think I could live with that – Christmas on the beach every year? Sign me up!

Our second day in Costa Rica we were in for a real treat – zip lining! And it did not disappoint! We drove for about an hour from Puntarenas to Jaco, which is up in the hills a bit and covered in rainforest. Once we got there, we were each fitted for our equipment (a series of harnesses plus a helmet and heavy gloves), slathered in sunscreen and covered with bug spray. Then we spent the next two hours zipping (literally!) between 12 separate platforms built high in the treetops above the forest. It was super fun! I thought I’d be more frightened to take the first plunge, but it really wasn’t very scary at all – it was just really fun (I keep saying that, but it totally was). And once you really got the hang of it, it was a blast. We purchased their professional photos of us in action, so those will definitely be posted once we get back.

We sailed from Costa Rica a little bit on the early side (on-ship time was 3pm, as opposed to the more typical 5 or 6pm in most of the other ports), but that was due to the fact that we were scheduled to arrive the very next morning in Corinto, Nicaragua. We made it right on time and that’s where we spent the day today. Corinto is a sleepy little port town, so we decided instead to head about an hour away to the city of Leon, Nicaragua’s second largest city. It has a certain old world charm with its cobblestone streets and colonial-style architecture. We visited the Cathedral of Leon, which is where the man they call the father of modern Spanish literature, Ruben Dario (and a local Nicaraguan hero), is buried. You’re able to climb up to the rooftop of the cathedral, which offers some beautiful views of the city center and also the multitude of mountains and volcanoes that surround it. In fact, there was even one volcano that was in the midst of an eruption while we were there! We took plenty of photos and they are pretty surreal. We heard that the volcano hasn’t seen any action for at least 40 years, so this was a rare occurrence. It was a beautiful but somewhat unsettling sight! In fact, if you want to check out pictures of the volcano from Nicaragua and some of the other happenings along the way during our trip, check out Enrichment Voyage's Facebook page. Maybe you'll even see some pics of us!

As I type this, we’re sailing toward Puerto Quetzel, Guatemala. It’s hard to believe, but it’s our second-to-last port - so sad! I do have to say that the last few days have been among my favorites so far on this voyage. I especially loved Costa Rica and of all the places we’ve been, that’s definitely one that I’ll want to go back to. As all the locals in Costa Rica say, pura vida!

Posted by aweinstein 12/27/12 20:06 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged ev Comments (2)

Lima, Peru, and Manta, Ecuador

Days 13-17

overcast
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This post will feature reports on our two most recent ports: Callao (Lima), Peru, and Manta, Ecuador.

Callao is the port that we were scheduled to be in the longest: three whole days! It’s an ugly little port city about an hour’s drive from Lima, which is the largest city in Peru. During our first day we spent the morning on a walking tour of Plaza de Armas, which is the main square in the old section of the city. We toured Casa Aliaga, the best-preserved colonial mansion in the Americas that has been occupied by the same family since 1535 (we even saw one of the current residents there, known as “The Count”). Next we walked through Santo Domingo, one of the oldest convents in Lima and an “architectural masterpiece.” After the tour, we met up with one of Paul’s friends who happened to be visiting Lima, which is also his hometown. We ate lunch at a fabulous restaurant called “La Mar,” where we sampled some delicious ceviche and I tried the famous Peruvian drink called a pisco sour (tasty but definitely sour!). After lunch, we checked out a beautiful park in the Miraflores section of the city called JFK Park (they love Kennedy in Lima) and then did a little bit of shopping at the Indian Market. We headed back to the ship in the late afternoon and in the midst of traffic. We had one more night in Peru, so we started thinking about staying in the city for our second night instead of trekking all the way back to the ship. We came back and searched online, found a reasonably priced and well-situated hostel, so that’s what we did for our second night.

The next two days in Lima were spent doing a lot of walking, exploring Miraflores and the neighboring section of the city, Barranco. We visited a mall built into the Cliffside called Larcomar, walked along the ocean on the Malecon, and went to a spectacular nighttime fountain show, complete with bright lights, lasers and music. The one major drawback to Lima that I feel compelled to mention is the traffic. Wow, can it get bad! We made the mistake of heading to the fountain show at about 6:30pm, right at the height of rush hour. It took us 1 hour and 15 minutes to get there, about 20 minutes of which were spent at a dead standstill. And we’re not talking about a specific accident sort of cause for the traffic. No, this was just daily gridlock. After the fountain show ended, we headed back to almost the same spot where we had left from and it only took about 12 minutes. Crazy.

After Lima, we spent one day at sea as we sailed back to Ecuador for our second stop in that country. Jonathan Murray has joined the ship, and he gave his first keynote talk yesterday. He’s the Murray of the famous Bunim-Murray production team, responsible for MTV’s “The Real World,” E!’s “The Kardashians” series and its various spin-offs, and a number of other reality TV shows. He spoke about the reality TV genre and gave us some insights on how cast members are chosen and what it’s like behind the scenes. He also gave us some sneak peeks at the new seasons of his shows. It was a pretty interesting talk (I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I do love his work!).

Today we were back in Ecuador, this time in Manta, which is a small fishing town just below the line of the Equator known for its tuna fishing. We spend a couple hours on the beach and then joined a tour to the Pacoche Forest. We learned about all the flora and fauna, watched families of monkeys play high in the trees above us, and even saw two tarantulas (fortunately, they were dead). We ended the day with a great-tasting and very inexpensive Ecuadorian seafood dinner.

Tomorrow we sail toward Costa Rica, which I’m really looking forward to! Immediately after the two days in Puntarenas, we have one day in Nicaragua and then another in Guatemala. Tomorrow night is our special holiday dinner on the ship. Should be lots of fun!

Posted by aweinstein 12/23/12 19:04 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ev Comments (0)

Panama Canal, days at sea and Guayaquil, Ecuador

Days 7-12

sunny 73 °F

Well, it's been five days now since my last blog and here's a recap of what I've been up to:

After our day in Panama, we had three straight days in a row at sea. The first one was spent transiting the Panama Canal (did anyone catch us on the canal cam??). That was a very cool experience. We entered the first set of locks at about 6:30 am, which is also when a narrator joined us on the ship to give us a play-by-play of what was happening. The locks are used to lower the ship down to a different water level. The ship moves into this concrete box-like structure and the water starts to slowly be let out so the ship begins to sink down. The very first set of locks brought us down 85 feet! The other two sets were each about 30 feet. So we started in the Atlantic Ocean, went through the three sets of locks and ended up in the Pacific! There are just a couple key details that I'm leaving out that make up the process, but you can Google it to learn more (and because there are many other sources that are much more educated on it than I am!). But it really was a very cool and memorable experience.

The next two days were business as usual for days at sea - for me, this typically means eating breakfast, going to Spanish for Beginners class, then catching a few lectures and/or workshops on topics like travel writing, politics and the Constitution, photography, civil rights, etc. Then it's lunchtime, followed by potentially another talk or a yoga class or maybe a game of bingo. Eventually it's dinner time, which we usually opt to have in the Garden Lounge and at the buffet. There is a seated, waiter-service dinner but so far we've reserved that for only the Captain's Dinner and will do it again on Christmas Eve and NYE. After dinner, there's usually some kind of entertainment in the form of a comedian, a magician, a singer, a guitar player, a piano player or maybe a movie night. Then its drinks at the piano bar or at the lounge, where they have a DJ who plays music. They do try hard to keep us busy and we try hard not to complain about the repetition - but the three days in a row on the ship did make us just a little bit stir crazy! I'm having a hard time remembering how we did it for even longer stints on Semester at Sea!

But yesterday we finally made port again in Guayaquil, Ecuador. They scared us a bit with travel advisories and cautionary tales about how this was going to be the most dangerous port we were visiting, so we were slightly nervous about this one. But we ended up having a great day. A group of six of us piled into one taxi (yes, literally, we piled in) and headed into the downtown part of the city, where our first stop was the Iguana Park. Can you guess what you see at the Iguana Park? Yep, lots of iguanas, who call the place home and just roam about freely, walking where they want, sleeping where they want, and doing their, ahem, business where they want, regardless of whichever poor tourist may happen to be crossing beneath the tree they are presently perched in (we did not befall this misfortune personally, but we did witness a couple others who were not as lucky). You really can get pretty up close and personal with the iguanas, so it was kind of cool.

From there, we went to find the Malecon, which is a river walk that runs along the water and takes you to to an area called Las Penas, which is a 444-stair climb that you can take to a great lookout point high above the city. I had been feeling under the weather the past few days (I've caught a cold on the last couple of trips I've taken - it's becoming a really annoying pattern!) so I was dubious about the feat, but I managed to pull it off! And the payoff was great. Guayaquil ended up exceeding our expectations and we had a great day, capped off by a visit to one of the most famous shops to sell authentic Panama hats (yep, these are actually made in Ecuador, not Panama - another thing for you to Google!).

Today was another fairly uneventful day at sea and tomorrow we reach Peru, where we'll be for three days. I'm looking forward to exploring Lima, which I've heard great things about. I'll fill you in on my next post!

Posted by aweinstein 19:31 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ev Comments (0)

A rough day at sea; Cartagena, Colombia, and Colon, Panama

Days 3-6

sunny 83 °F
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It’s been three days since my first post and here’s a recap of what you missed:

You may recall that I ended my last post with the famous last words of “should be another great day,” in reference to the following day that was to be spent entirely at sea. I’m going to take full blame for jinxing the entire ship and all passengers aboard because the next day was certainly not “another great day.” It was a rough day. Rough as in the sea. Rumor around the ship was that we were on the tail end of a storm, so although there was no rain, there were definitely unsettled waters. I was feeling pretty nauseated for a good part of the day, but once I took some seasickness medicine I started to feel better almost immediately. Poor Paul did not have it so easy. He spent most of the day in bed (amateur). I did make it to Spanish for Beginners class and also to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s talk. Both were great – Spanish lessons are something I’ve always wanted to do and with a workshop offered during every day we’re at sea, I’m hoping the repeat exposure may make some of it stick. Justice O’Connor is a fascinating woman, having grown up on a cattle ranch in Arizona and then becoming the first woman on the Supreme Court. And even in her old age, she’s still extremely opinionated!

Fortunately the next day we were scheduled to be in port at Cartagena (Cart-ah-hey-nya), Colombia, so that put an end to the unsteady footing. We signed up in advance to take a walking tour of the historic walled section of Cartagena. We didn’t really know what to expect, but what a beautiful city! Bright colors, sea views, varied and picturesque architecture – we were pleasantly surprised. We learned a bit about the history of the city, visited an old military fort called San Felipe de Barajas and shopped at “The Dungeons,” which were originally built to store provisions for the troops and are now home to a marketplace that sells crafts made by the indigenous people.

After lunch, we really got lucky. Kristin, the blogger whose contest I won and the reason I’m on this trip, sent out an email to a couple people she knows on board this ship offering to put us in touch with a friend of hers (and Semester at Sea alum) who now lives in Cartagena. We jumped at that, because we all know there’s really nothing better than being shown around by a local. So we met Chelsea and a few other fellow Enrichment Voyagers at the historic clock tower in the Santo Domingo square of Cartagena. We went to eat at a local spot and had the lunch special – an appetizer (carrot soup – yum), an entrée (chicken with a mango sauce and rice and beans) plus a drink (sort of a lemonade slurpee). It was delicious and cheap - $12 each! Then we walked around some more, scoping out the fruit stands on every corner, asking Chelsea about the ways of the locals, and admiring the beautiful colors everywhere. Right before we had to leave to board the ship for our departure, we stumbled upon a 12-or-so-person band getting ready to play an outdoor concert in a small square in front of a church. We sat down for a few minutes and were able to catch them playing the Colombian anthem, the Cartagena anthem and one additional song. It was quite cool.

After that, it was back to the boat and then back out to sea. The waters have been much calmer since that one bad day, which is great news. Today we also had a day on land, which will only happen at one other time during this trip – that is, to be in two different ports two days in a row. Today we visited Colon, Panama. It’s unfortunate for Panama that it had to follow Colombia because there’s really no comparing the two. This part of Panama is rundown and the city of Colon is somewhat depressed. We were warned not to leave the cruise ship terminal in Colon since it can be dangerous for tourists. Lucky for us we had signed up for an excursion here as well, so we were all set. (I should add that what we heard about Panama City sounded like that is a much more cosmopolitan part of the country so it’s not like Colon everywhere.) We took a tour bus out to Lake Gatun, which is part of the Panama Canal. We attended a talk last night given by one of the professors on board the ship, which was the perfect way to set the tone for our visit there today. We learned about how and why the canal was built and the many years of political struggle over control of it. The Gatun serves as an important reservoir for the operation of the canal locks. It’s basically situated between the locks and is about a 10-mile stretch. While on the lake, we passed a number of cargo ships and even a Chilean tall ship used for training military students. The highlight, though, was the monkeys. We saw a bunch of capuchin white-faced monkeys (even a momma with her baby on her back!) and some howler monkeys as well, but they were up high in the canopy. The capuchins were not shy at all. One of them even jumped on top of our boat and ate a peanut out of Paul’s hand! In addition to the monkeys, we also saw a couple of hawks high up in the sky and even spotted a small baby crocodile just moments before it slinked into the water and disappeared.

Tomorrow is the day we get to transit the Panama Canal in our ship, the MV Explorer. If you want to try to catch us on the Canal Cam, there is a website: www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html. Our ship is blue on the bottom and white on top with a large Semester at Sea logo that looks like this:

I’m looking forward to transiting the canal. During my SAS trip, we went through the Kiel Canal in Germany, but I think that one is much smaller, so this should be a memorable experience.
Thanks for reading!

Posted by aweinstein 12/13/12 19:49 Archived in Panama Tagged ev Comments (0)

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