My readers know I’m a pretty seasoned traveler, and yet I still like to take cruises now and then. I don’t agree with the decree that cruising is not real traveling or that it can’t be as stimulating as setting off on your own. This time, a Mensa group decided that the “Party at Sea” for the end of 2018 was going to be a repositioning cruise from Miami to Santiago’s port in Chile, San Antonio. When I saw that it goes through the Panama Canal. I knew I wanted to be on this boat, not only for the Canal but also for the long days at sea (although actually we had quite a few port calls.)
That decision added a new destination to my travels: South America. Since I regard repositioning cruises as actual transportation, I visited Chile, Bolivia and Peru. The total trip was seven weeks: two weeks cruising and five weeks exploring South America. This post is a recap of the cruise.
I suspect that the first port call in Santa Marta, Colombia was a result of Norwegian’s realization that they could sell more berths on repositioning cruises if they had more stops.
Repositioning cruises are twice-a-year round trips that ships make to change a seasonal venue. The Norwegian Sun was switching from cruising in the Caribbean over the summer to cruising back and forth from Santiago to Buenos Aires via the Beagle Channel for the southern summer. My first repositioning cruise was from Miami to Barcelona: Atlantic crossings usually happen in the spring and fall for summer cruises in the Mediterranean and Adriatic. It appears that cruise lines are adding a few days to repositioning cruises so that they can advertise more ports and shore excursions; the Atlantic crossing now stops at more places. Traditionally they’ve been favored by people who like the sea days and the lower price.
Cartagena: The Cartagena stop is a good example of another reason I like to cruise: I saw the colorful old town in a day without having to add Colombia to my many travel destinations. I have spent fascinating, memorable hours in Halifax, Nanaimo, Split & Dubrovnik, Funchal and Acapulco as “bonus” destinations in my world travel: places that I would probably never see otherwise (well, maybe Croatia…)
As we traveled by taxi across part of the city to a hilltop monastery with a great viewpoint, I got a look at a few diverse neighborhoods in Cartagena. These taxi rides generally reinforce one of my suspicions that cities across the world are becoming more and more similar: poor sections of towns and cities have the same types of shops full of useful plastic goods, cheap crockery and cookware for the house, plus a few instances of local baskets and brooms. Urban scenery is often architecturally similar: in the city outskirts in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe I often see many uncompleted buildings with glassless windows and rebar sticking out at the top, but with active homes and shops on the lower floors. The global lower middle class seems to be involved in endless building projects which make progress whenever there’s extra money for materials and time to work on the walls.
In the meantime, gentrification in Cartagena’s Old Town means that the old colonial buildings are being renovated and maintained. It looks like there are some metalworkers who make it possible to maintain a traditional door-knocker custom.
The Panama Canal: I was eager to go through the Panama Canal a second time. This time the new, larger locks for panamax ships are open; back in 2012 when I took a day tour through the canal these were just being excavated. It took all day for our ship to go through, so I had several viewing spots during the day: the bow of the ship, a friend’s balcony cabin for a champagne brunch, and finally a mid-deck aft seat where I ended up sharing the experience realtime on the phone with my sister Amy in Miami while she watched our ship on a Canal webcam. (Unfortunately she couldn’t catch sight of me in person because I was on a lower deck.)
Manta, Ecuador: I had a plan for this stop and was very proud when it worked. On the Internet I found a “Lodge and Reserve” that had trails through an area that also has a protected trail. I thought that there might possibly be more birdlife at the lodge than on the reserve’s trail, because developed places sometimes “encourage” the local birds to hang around. It turns out I was wrong about that (we didn’t see much,) but my plan led to a very interesting day.
At this point on the cruise we were getting pretty good at negotiating with the taxis that came to the docks at port stops. I wanted to get a taxi by the hour for about six hours. After waiting for the first herd of passengers to find English-speaking drivers, a younger driver with no English gave me a good price (with the approval of the dispatcher; not sure how all that worked, but he knew that the low-hanging fruit was already on their way in their premium-priced taxis.) Xavier and I set off out of town and had a great day. He even came on the hike with me after we finally found the lodge and reserve, and it’s a good thing he did because we got lost on the trail and he was the one who figured out how to get back! Having the car and a driver I could kind of converse with was great, because this coastal area had several different climate levels to check out: beach, desert, rain forest, and areas in between. (Xavier took this photo of us and emailed it to me.) All that work on Spanish during the summer and fall really paid off.
Trujillo, Peru: Since I like to seek out art when I travel, I ended up seeing a lot of the art of the vanished South American civilizations. Watching John Leguizamo’s video Latin History for Morons before the trip made me realize that South and Central America had civilizations with cultures, histories, nations, religions, mathematics, languages and art with a scope similar to that of European history. Most of us know quite a bit about what went on in Europe in previous centuries because we look at the art, listen to the music, and study the philosophy and literature. Most of it is there for us to enjoy. But unfortunately the heritage of the Americas has pretty much been lost.
The stop at this port in Peru gave us access to some archeological sites. I went to the Huaca del Luna because it has art still in situ (“imperial” art, but art nonetheless.) I never got much of a sense of how design differed through different ages and different cultures (which I can easily observe with western art), but I just took in what I could at sites and museums and let my impressions add to my meager understanding.
Sea Days: For you non-cruisers out there, if you like settling in for a road trip or a long train ride where you only have to think about the present, that’s what cruising is, but for as many days as you want: plus eating and drinking are effortless and someone makes your bed twice a day.
I always love my little cabins, where life becomes very simple and convenient. You’ve got a cabin steward who not only cleans and gives out fresh towels every day, but also provides evening turn-down service along with the requisite towel sculpture (as if they didn’t have a million other things to do during their long days.) The only regular chore I had was washing out shirts and underwear. For food, you pretty much wait until you’re hungry and then go get something to eat.
It’s true that your leisure activities are supported by a huge crew who in earlier centuries would be called servants: this is always a thought- and conscience-provoking aspect of travel. I believe, and I may be wrong, that most of the crew makes enough money to improve their lives and the lives of their families at home. At the same time I know that many leave their children in the care of grandparents during their six to nine month contracts. Some crew are middle class folk, mostly young, who paid attention to their foreign language teachers at school and thus have a valuable skill to bring onboard. One cocktail waitress told me that her cruise salary was going towards the eventual purchase of an apartment in Colombia, since she had no expenses while working on the ship.
I always hit the library first thing and check out a few escapist books: I can spend hours reading outside enjoying warm weather and watching for birds, whales, and dolphins. There are little problems to occupy the mind: for instance, where to find the nearest coffee early in the morning and where the best places to sit on deck are during various parts of the day. My cabins usually don’t have coffeepots. I could ask for one, but on two cruises in a row I’ve ended up deciding to pop out on deck every morning immediately after getting up to see what the day’s like. This often leads to interesting conversations with some of the other early risers. I’ve found that there are usually a few people on every cruise who spend most of their time on deck, and these are often the folk with wide curiosity and knowledge. A couple of times I’ve met retired sailors (for example a yacht mover) who have taken to cruising as a more relaxed way to be at sea.
While there were some jazz musicians that I followed around during evening happy hours, for the most part I ignored the entertainment offered by the ship. But the crew did a great job with Crossing The Line when we came to the equator. They let us dress up in sheet togas, after which we went on parade through the Crossing the Line party (which had to be in the big lounge because it was raining outside.) We had the mandatory King Neptune and his consort Flora (who noisily gave surprise birth to a pair of octopuses.) We got baptized with shaving creme. And we got a certificate. Crossing the equator for the first time was important to me, and I felt that I had been sufficiently welcomed into the society of Shellbacks. (Eventually I saw the Southern Cross, but not on the voyage because it was overcast every night.)