We see the light

Our room at the Grand Hyatt at SFO was comfortable, but it had a surprise waiting for us that we didn’t discover until the middle of the night – if you got up, the room thoughtfully turned on some lights under the bed. On both sides of the bed. And the only way to stop it from happening required a visit from Engineering. If we stay there again, I’ll know to make a request to have them turn off the sensor before we go to bed.

Other than that, our stay was uneventful, and we enjoyed the continental breakfast in the hotel restaurant. We had to kill a little time before we could pick up our rental car, so we took the AirTrain back to the terminal and enjoyed the French Wallpaper exhibit in the International Terminal lobby.

After that, we packed, took the AirTrain to Hertz, picked up a car, and drove home!

I took advantage of having turned the water heater to “vacation” mode and flushed it for the first time in a long time; then we walked to Whole Foods to pick up salmon to make on the Traegar – yes, we had to do our own cooking again!

It’s good to be home.

Mostly in the Zone

Our Panama City hotel was the Bristol Hotel, conveniently located near the waterfront and the shopping district. Our room was enormous and comfortable. Breakfast was in the hotel restaurant, and, while perfectly acceptable, was probably the least interesting breakfast we’d had on the entire trip.

The day’s touring began at Panama Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We saw the ruins of the Church and Covenant of the Conception.

Panama Viejo was founded in 1520 and destroyed by the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan in 1671 – I wonder what they would have thought of modern Panama City.

The area was popular with photographers and their subjects, too.

We got back on the bus and traveled to the [Panama Canal Administration Building] in the middle of the former Canal Zone. The outside wasn’t all that impressive, but the inside rotunda was loaded with plaques commemorating the Panama Canal’s engineering achievements.

There were also busts of Carlos V of Spain, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ferdinand de Lesseps (builder of the Suez Canal),

There were also murals showing stages of the construction of the Canal, but the Canal Authority’s page has much better photos than I was able to take.

There is an invisible lock just outside the Administration Building – the building is 85 feet above ground level (the height ships rise in the lock), and the palm trees are 110 feet apart and cover a 1000 foot length, matching the size of a lock chamber.

After lunch, we decided to follow the recommendation of the Director of STRI and have a drink at La Rana Dorada brewpub on Via Argentina, about a 20-minute walk from our hotel. Our friend Desi joined us. There were several possible routes; the one we picked might not have been optimal, because we found ourselves in a neighborhood that was under construction…with narrow sidewalks, a couple of feet higher than the street…and not much pedestrian traffic. Suddenly, I heard Desi shout, “David!” – I turned around quickly. We’d gotten far enough ahead of her that a group of four people had inserted themselves between us – she felt hands tugging at her pack, and that’s when she shouted. She saw a 10-year-old (or so) vanishing behind two of the people, and they all ran into a store. She was lucky – nothing had been taken, but we were all nervous (especially her!) until we got into a better area a block later. We all had something harder than beer at the pub.

We took a different route back to the hotel – one with wide, well-traveled streets the whole way. We stopped at the [Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen](Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen) on our way – it’s a Gothic church in the heart of Panama City. People were gathering for Mass, but we were able to take a quick look inside.

It was Valentine’s Day – Diane and I had dinner al fresco at a true local hotspot, Coffee Max. We split a burger and each had a mango water smoothie – it was delicious! And the company could not have been better!

The Post-Tour Begins

We left the ship just before 8am.

Disembarkation was easy – though they did have dogs sniff all of our luggage! We boarded a bus and took a quick driving tour through Colón en route to the Panama Canal Expansion Visitors Center. There wasn’t much to see in Colón, but our path did take us by the Monument to the Founders of Colón, who were Americans working on the Panama Railway.

A short time later, we were at the Agua Clara Visitor Center near Gatun Lake, on the Canal Expansion. We watched a movie about the canal, saw a very large ship go through the lock (note the sliding lock gates here, versus the mitre gates on the original canal), and spent some time and a little cash in the gift shop.

The highlight of the day, though, lay ahead, in the Gatun Basin. The bus parked under an overpass and we walked down a path to the Gatun River, where we met our guides and boarded their dugout canoes for a journey to the village of Embera Drua.

Of course, the canoes had 40-horsepower outboard motors and we were required to wear life vests!

It didn’t take long to arrive at the village.

This village makes its living from tourism, so they greeted us enthusiastically.

Millie, a 23-year-old who had a BA in Business, was working on her MBA, and would be going to Japan in a few months to present at a conference if the coronavirus permitted, gave a brief talk about the village and its people. There were 20 families, about 80 people; they had moved here from the Darien in Colombia about 13 years ago because FARC controlled their area and it wasn’t safe. They had better economic opportunities here, and better education was available for the children – in the Darien, going beyond elementary school required leaving their community, while they have an elementary school here in the village and the junior high and high schools are only an hour away.

Tourism gives them the chance to make money and preserve their culture instead of moving to the city and being absorbed by it – they want us to share our experience on social media and encourage friends and family to visit (and I’m happy to comply!).

Millie spoke in Spanish and Joshua, our guide, translated to English for us.

While Millie was talking, some of the women prepared lunch for us (fruit, followed by fried tilapia and plantains served in a banana leaf cone – absolutely delicious!)

After lunch, we took a tour of the village, including the most distracting classroom I’ve ever seen.

Our guide was one of the village elders.

We returned to the center of the village for a show of music and dancing.

There was one more chance to shop (some of the villagers accepted credit cards, and there was good cellular Internet available), then it was farewell.

A couple of hours later, we were in a very different environment – Panama City.

We had to figure out dinner on our own for the first time in a week; we walked a few blocks with friends to the waterfront and had wonderfully delicious seared tuna at Azahar.

We ate outside – the view wasn’t half-bad!

It’s our last full day on the ship

We visited one of the San Blas Islands today to enjoy a morning on the beach, a chance to meet the Guna (or Kuna) indigenous people who live there, and a “coconut walk” around the island.

We saw some of the residents – they had a small market set up and Diane bought a small mola purse (with a shark in blue). They were happy to pose for photos for $1, too.

The buildings they used were mostly made out of thatch, but they did also use some modern plastic when appropriate.

We didn’t snorkel – again – and returned our gear, unused, when we got back to the ship.

In the afternoon, we got a preview of what to expect on the post-tour (starting tomorrow) and attended John Meffert’s lecture on Teddy Roosevelt and the Gateway to Empire.

The day ended with the Gala Dinner…and packing.

Crossing the Panama Canal

The ship sailed away from Panama City early in the morning and we were entering the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Lock by 8am.

Even though our ship was small by Canal standards, it was large enough to require being guided by a pair of locomotives, called “mules” – there was one on each side of the ship.

Fairly soon, we were near the lock gates.

They don’t like to waste water, so we were accompanied by several smaller ships, including a local sightseeing boat loaded with daytrippers

and an even smaller passenger vessel, the Sundance Sunset which we nicknamed the “S. S. PortaPotty” for obvious reasons.

The Sundance Sunset tied up to the other ship for the transit through the gates; I’m not sure why.

About 45 minutes later, we had cleared both chambers of the lock and were about 50 feet higher in elevation, on the way to the Pedro Miguel locks, just southeast of the Centennial Bridge.

The process at the Pedro Miguel locks was very similar; this time, we could see traffic coming the other way – the container ship Maersk Innoshima. It’s not quite a Panamax ship, but it dwarfed us (233 meters long versus our 131 meters).

There was traffic moving on the Canal Expansion, too, which can take even larger “New Panamax” ships like the [Mendeleev Prospect]. It’s painted green, says “Powered by Natural Gas” in large friendly letters, and carries crude oil…but it’s greenwashed crude oil!


We spent a good part of the crossing inside, out of the sun, but we did go out from time to time for photos!

By 2:30, we were midway through the third and final lock, the Gatun Locks, which have three chambers. You can see the Atlantic Bridge in the distance.

We sailed under the Atlantic Bridge and anchored in Cristobal Bay for the evening, having made the westbound crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The passage through the Panama Canal was the raison d’etre for the trip, but once you’ve seen one lock, you’ve seen them all!

In the evening, we enjoyed a classical piano recital by the ship’s pianist, Sergey Yurchenko, and bought his CD as a souvenir of our passage through the canal.

Touring Panama City

Even before we docked at Balboa Port, we could see the ships waiting at sea for their turn to cross the Panama Canal.

Our morning tour took us to the BioMuseo and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Punta Culebra Nature Center, both located on the Amador Causeway in the former Canal Zone, just a few minutes from our docking spot. As we drove there, we passed what I thought was a parking lot – the cars and trucks there were waiting for drivers to take them across the Isthmus because it was cheaper to unload them, have someone drive them across, and put them back on a ship than to pay the freight to send them through the canal! I wonder if the odometers get reset?


The BioMuseo was designed by Frank Gehry – inside, we learned about Panama’s natural history and its amazingly diverse wildlife.

Panama’s National Bird, the male Harp Eagle

The best part of the BioMuseo was spending time in the gardens outside, seeing the biodiversity in the real world.

Red Ginger
Lily pads
Fig Tree

And we couldn’t forget why we were in Panama – to explore connections, like the Bridge of the Americas, which connects North and South America over the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Paciifc Oceans.

Punta Culebra Nature Center (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)

We got back on the bus and drove to the Nature Center – the Smithsonian was one of the groups on the tour, and the Director of STRI was one of the expert lecturers, so we were treated very well indeed!

We could see the remains of the old quarantine station (for yellow fever) just offshore.

When Noriega was the dictator of Panama, he used the aquarium here as a lounge – the bar is still here (but there was no beer to be had on the day we visited).

And of course, there was nature in profusion, like two-toed sloths

and a beautiful bird

and sea stars and sea cucumbers

and one BIG iguana!

Casco Viejo (San Felipe)

After lunch on the ship, we returned to the bus for a walking and shopping tour of the old city. John Meffert from the National Trust was our leader – we’ve traveled with John many times (in fact, we chose this trip because he was going to be the Trust’s leader), so we knew we were in good hands.

There’s a lot of construction going on in the old city – gentrification in some places, just maintenance in others.

John pointed out the sign offering “free entry” at the front of La Mayor – and explained that it was a brothel. Entry might be free, but….

We continued on to the Church of the Sisters of Mercy.

There’s an altar to Saint Hedwig inside – Panamaians pray for her intercession in their housing needs, and when their prayers are answered, they place a minature house on her altar. She must be good at interceding!

Gentrification and renovation are happening at a brisk pace, so you can see the new and the rather old side-by-side.

The house on the right is to be renovated sometiime

We stopped at Mosaico chocolate shop, which occupies the building which was the home of Tomás Arias, one of the founders of the Republic of Panama. The chocolate was excellent.

We wandered around the old city for a few more hours; many people, including Diane, bought Panama hats, but I didn’t need one – they’re actually made in Ecuador, and I’d bought one there in 2018.

We returned to the ship for trivia, dinner, and a show (“Frida”, about Frida Kahlo, told through dance and song). The docks stayed busy with ships making Canal transits; we would join them tomorrow.

Cébaco Island

We spent most of today onboard, enjoying delicious food and drink and attending lectures about Panama, the Smithsonian Tropical Institute (which we’ll visit tomorrow), and marine microbes.

Our only landfall was on Cébaco Island, Panama, which is far off the beaten path – we enjoyed the scenery and walked on the beach; the only wildlife we found were snails, hermit crabs, and fish.

Manuel Antonio National Park

We were the first group to leave the ship today, which meant we had to be on the tender at 6:30am. The tender took us to the town of Quépos, where we caught a bus to Manuel Antonio National Park and were met by our guide for the day, Luis.

We didn’t have to wait long to see wildlife – this three-toed sloth was waiting for us just inside the entrance.

The park was busy, even at 8am; fortunately, there were viewing platforms off the main path so we could look at wildlife without being trampled.

They have white-faced monkeys here, just like Curú — this one looked surprised to see us.

Luis didn’t carry his spotting scope in vain – we never would have seen this dragonfly without it.

We probably could have used the scope to see these baby bats better.

But this iguana was hard to miss.

Of course we took a selfie to prove we were here!

Hermit crabs enjoy having a nice beach.

There were nice flowers to look at even after we left the park on our way back to the bus, like this hibiscus.

Quépos itself is tourist-oriented, with shopping and services along the waterfront. They are also ecology-sensitive, turning thousands of plastic bottles into a sailfish sculpture.

We returned to the ship and sailed away, en route to Panama.

Curú Wildlife Refuge and Tortuga Island

We got off to an early start today for a tour of Curú Wildlife Refuge; we were in the last group, so we didn’t have to leave the ship until the comparatively civilized hour of 7:45am. We were greeted with flowers upon arrival, like this one, bravely fighting off the depredations of the leafcutter ants.

Frank, our guide throughout Costa Rica, was there to meet us, too.

He helped us understand and appreciate what we were seeing and see what we would have missed, like this termite mound in the sky.

Or this “tree chicken” (black spiky iguana).

Why did the crab-eating raccoon cross the road?

I don’t know – Frank didn’t tell us.

There were birds all over the place, but you had to look carefully to find them.

Groove-Billed Ani

And sometimes, we needed to use Frank’s spotting scope to see the bird, like this Broadwinged Hawk.

But this white-faced monkey was easy to spot with the naked eye.

Our last view of Curú was from the Zodiac.

Naturally, we had to wear life vests any time we took the Zodiacs!

The Zodiac docked at the stern of the ship; we had arrived just in time for lunch, as if it had been planned that way!

They gave out snorkeling equipment right after lunch (we’d brought our own masks and snorkels, but we’re not picky enough to want to haul fins around!) and took us to Tortuga Island for some beach time. We were advised that the water wasn’t clear, so we didn’t snorkel, but we enjoyed wandering around the beach and checking out the shop.

The Captain’s Gala Dinner capped off the evening. They took advantage of the weather and did the introductions outside, letting us enjoy the scenery and the breeze instead of being cooped up in the dining room or auditorium as has been the case on most of the cruises we’ve taken.

Cloud Forest and Ship

We left the Royal Corin Hotel about 9am for our 60-mile journey to Villa Blanca Cloud Forest for a guided walk on the El Silencio Trail. Unlike yesterday, there were no hanging bridges to worry about, so I was ready to do the whole thing!

As we were driving to Villa Blanca, I kept seeing signs for Lands in Love Resort along the roadside. The signs were mostly in English, but quite a few were in Hebrew, which surprised me. Eventually, we got to the resort itself – it looked like it would be an interesting place to go if we ever return to Costa Rica.

The Hebrew says “Guest House”

The whole trip to Villa Blanca took us through lots of lush green countryside.

We arrived at Villa Blanca, disembarked, and met our guide for the walk, Candy.

The Hummingbird Garden was the first place we stopped on the trail – they don’t want to disappoint visitors, so they lure the hummingbirds with feeders. It works!

I was impressed with how colorful the vegetation was.

Maracas (Shampoo) Ginger
Macaw Plant
Shrimp Plants
Tiny Orchid

And there was wildlife, too, like this whiptail lizard:

Eventually, the trail ended and we found ourselves at the Chapel (a popular wedding destination).

We wandered around a little bit and found another oxcart on display.

After that, we walked back to the main hotel building for lunch, returned to the bus, and drove to Puerto Caldera to embark on the Dumont D’Urville, where we met the people who hadn’t gone on the pre-tour. There were briefings, the lifeboat drill, and dinner, but somehow I took no photos!

Thus far and no farther

Breakfast was (surprise!) a buffet in the hotel restaurant – I liked it much more than the dinner buffet the night before.

My doctor had told me to try to drink a glass of apple juice every day on the trip – that was easy at the Marriott in San José, but I couldn’t find any apple juice here, so I asked the waiter. A few minutes later, he brought me a glass of very fresh apple juice!

After breakfast, we got on the bus to go to Arenal Hanging Bridges Park for a nature walk. We broke into groups based on walking speed and took off with our guides. We visited the Pollinator’s Hotel first.

Our group was going to take the full walk, crossing 16 bridges in all, 6 of which were the famous hanging bridges.

We arrived at the first bridge; I was a little nervous because I don’t like heights.

From Wikipedia, taken by Liz DeCoster, used under CC License; click image for original.

I got on the bridge and took a few steps. It started shaking. I went a little further, and I started shaking. There were five more hanging bridges ahead – I realized I couldn’t do it, turned around, and got back to solid ground. The rest of the group, including Diane, continued on the walk; I retraced my steps and enjoyed the parts of the park I could reach without hanging bridges. I still got to see flowers!

I bumped into one of the other groups and got to see birds through the guide’s scope, too.

Eventually, Diane’s group returned and we all got back on the bus for the trip into town. La Fortuna is a small town, but it had lots to look at and a wide choice of restaurants. We joined Mike and Debbie from our group at Pizzeria La Parada for a nice veggie pizza, followed by gelato (it was a hot day!).

We wandered around town until it was time for the bus to bring us back to the hotel, doing a little shopping and looking at the volcano.

We relaxed at the hotel, then got back on the bus to go to Eco Termales Hot Springs for an enjoyable dip. We had dinner poolside back at our hotel and called it a day.

¡Adiós, San José! ¡Hola, La Fortuna de San Carlos!

We packed up our belongings to be put on the bus and enjoyed a final great breakfast at the hotel (this time, inside). Then we boarded the bus for a quick tour of downtown San José, beginning at the Teatro Nacional.

The theatre opened in 1897 by demand from the wealthy families who had sent their children to Europe to study and wanted culture when they returned – the families even started to pay for it, but it wasn’t completed until the government kicked in revenues from import taxes. The theatre wasn’t quite finished for its first performance (Faust) – there weren’t any windows, doors, or seats! The capacity is 1200 people – these days, big name performers want a bigger audience, so they play in stadiums; the theatre actually gets more money from tourism than from performances.

The ceiling of the theatre lobby features “The Allegory of Coffee and Bananas”, which was on the old five-colones bill. The artist never visited Costa Rica, so there are more than a few mistakes in the paining, such as the lampposts and coffee pickers on the beach!

We dodged the street vendors outside the theatre (several of whom would have been happy to sell us the old five-colones bill!) and walked a few blocks to the National Museum, which occupies the former Bellavista Barracks of the former Costa Rican Army. You can still see bullet holes on the outside of the museum from the 1948 Civil War (the Army was abolished after the war).

Once inside, Frank gave us a quick tour of the pre-Columbian section of the museum and left us to wander around on our own.

We enjoyed a last view of San José from the roof of the museum and got back on the bus.

Our next stop was for lunch at La Finca Restaurant in Sarchi, where we enjoyed grilled sea bass.

We had a little time to walk around Sarchi and admire the public art (and do a little shopping).

Three hours later, we were at our home for the next two nights, The Royal Corin Thermal Water & Spa Resort Loto Spa, on the outskirts of the town of La Fortuna de San Carlos, very near the Arenal volcano. The town got its name in 1968 when the volcano erupted, killing 82 people, but the eruption spared the town. The hotel was beautifully-landscaped with outdoor pools fed by hot springs; dinner was a buffet.

The view from our room was quite pleasant!

Coffee and Chocolate

The hotel provided a great buffet breakfast in their open-air restaurant – we chose to sit outside in the shade to enjoy the atmosphere. After breakfast, we met our guide for the day, Frank, and got on the bus for Doka Coffee Estate on the slopes of the Poas Volcano.

We started with a cup of iced coffee with cinnamon, milk, and chocolate in their snackbar.

Jonathan from Doka took us on the tour of the plantation and processing facility. Ripe coffee cherries are red, and there are typically two beans per fruit. The pickers use the red baskets to collect the cherries; each plant is visited multiple times as beans become ripe. They are paid by weight ($2 for 13 kilos) and a good picker can pick more than 150 kilos in a day. Most of the pickers are from Nicaragua because picking doesn’t pay enough for Costa Ricans!

The processing starts in the coffee receiving station – they drop the beans in the water to separate them by weight and density. The heaviest beans are the highest quality, but nothing is wasted.

The next step is “coffee peeling” – the machines use friction to remove the pulp from the fruit and sort by size.

The beans then ferment for 32 hours and are taken outside to dry in the sun, followed by mechanical drying.

The coffee is then bagged and rests for four months.

Most of the coffee is exported unroasted, but they roast some for their own line, “Cafe Tres Generations” which is sold locally (and also available online). Low-quality beans are sold unroasted into the local market. I bought a bag of roasted beans to bring home.

We left Doka just before noon and Frank passed out some snacks to tide us over on our trip to Sibö Chocolate. I was surprised to notice that the cassava chips were Kosher, complete with the Orthodox Union’s hechsher!

The trip was uneventful, except for one hairpin turn when the bus stopped, hanging over the edge of the road. Frank had to get out and direct the driver around the bend.

We arrived at Sibö Chocolate a few minutes later; it had started raining, so we dashed inside for lunch and the “Chocolate Experience”.

Lunch was delicious, but it wasn’t the main attraction – we were there for chocolate, and the owners (Jorge and Julio) obliged with a 90-minute presentation and tasting.

We began with a fresh cacao bean (and instructions to suck on it, not bite it).

It had a slightly fruity taste and was slimy – not what I expected! As the tasting continued, they told us about the history of chocolate around the world and especially in Costa Rica. Along the way, we enjoyed a reconstructed Mayan chocolate drink (supposed to be an aphrodesiac and a cure for Montezuma’s Revenge), but the main attraction was a selection of six truffles made by Sibö.

We brought a few bars of their chocolate back to the hotel – none survived the entire trip, of course.

We finished the evening in the Executive Lounge at the hotel, talking with one of our new friends, Desi (who was the host for the Nebraska group on the main trip).

Super Bowl Sunday

We had an uneventful flight; I did think it was unnecessarily cruel of American to put the flights to San Jose CA and San Jose CR at adjacent gates, but we picked the right one.

The scenery was interesting as we approached San Jose.

We had no problems getting through Customs and rode to the hotel (Marriott Hacienda Belen) with a few of the other people we’ll be traveling with for the next couple of weeks.

Because I’ve got status with Marriott, they gave us a nice welcome platter with a couple of local beers to tide us over until dinner!

The hotel grounds are lushly landscaped – we wandered around a bit but only took one photo.

We had a nice dinner and then wanted to watch the Super Bowl, especially the ads, but even though there was an English-language broadcast on the hotel TV, the ads were all local and in Spanish. Oh, well.

Off to Dallas!

We left today for our Panama Canal cruise (with lots of additional travel in Costa Rica and Panama). There are, unsurprisingly, no non-stops between San Jose CA and San Jose CR, so we’re overnighting at DFW.

There are two Hyatt Hotels at DFW – the Grand Hyatt inside the airport and the Hyatt Regency “adjacent to Terminal C”. I had enough points for either hotel, but only the Regency was available, so we stayed there. “Adjacent to Terminal C” means that you can walk to the hotel through several parking lots or take the shuttle – we wound up doing both, taking the shuttle with our luggage but then walking back to the terminal through the parking lots to get exercise. It wasn’t a bad walk, but there were lots of stairs, so I’m glad we didn’t have to carry our luggage that way.

The view from our room wasn’t bad, but next time, I think I’ll try to stay on-airport.