I remember when I was a little girl about 7 or 8 years old, taking a National Geographic magazine off the shelf from my father’s collection. I would giggle at the bare-chested women and snicker at the loin cloths the nearly naked men wore. Back in the 60’s the world seemed so vast and diverse. Today it seems to be shrinking and losing it’s individuality with the exception of a few places left on earth. When you visit these unique cultures, time has stood still and little has changed.
We visited the Miraflores locks near Panama City. We went through the 4 story museum where we learned about the history and making of the canal, we saw giant bugs and butterflies encased behind glass and then watched two large cargo ships pass through the set of locks. I was shocked that the large cargo ships pay $300,000 to pass through the canal one way! This sounds like an outrageous price but considering it would cost twice as much and several weeks to go around the horn, then I guess it’s a bargain.
We took a land tour across Panama to board the ship in Colon and then headed for the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean side. We woke up to some beautiful atolls just a few feet above sea level. The Kuna people who live here have clung onto their culture and do not allow anyone from the outsiders to marry within the Kunas. This breed of people are the second smallest in stature just behind the Pygmy people in Africa. The Kunas also have the highest rate of albinos in the world. Due to the bright sun, the albinos only come out after dark. The Kuna women think long noses are attractive so they paint a black line from their forehead to the end of their nose making it appear longer and then add a gold ring through the nostrils. They also think thin limbs look beautiful so they band their forearms and lower legs with strings of beads. The islanders sew molas to wear and sell. Molas are panels of fabric worn one on the front and a matching one on the back.
After lunch we snorkeled from Dog Island. This a gorgeous white sand island adorned with palm trees which provided plenty of shade. There is a ship wreck out in front of the island where we saw beautiful tropical fish and around the back of the island, we saw colorful soft corals and coral fans. The ocean water was warm like bath water and the salt water makes everyone float.
Portobelo, beautiful port, was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and not much has changed! This port was once the richest city in the whole world and for 200 years was the commercial center for the Spanish colonies. Once there was so much gold in the storehouse that the silver and emeralds had to be piled on the street! The Spaniards sent these riches to the Queen of Spain. To protect the port, forts guarded both sides of the bay. Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan stormed the shores of Portobelo along with other pirates and buccaneers. Still, today, the floor of the bay is littered with millions of cannonballs.
The Panama Canal is a fascinating engineering feat. The whole process of passing through the canal is choreographed perfectly. The cost of passing through is based on how much water you displace. One man who swam the canal paid .36 cents. Our ship cost, $22,000 (one way)!
We headed south toward the Darien Jungle on the Pacific side of Panama to visit the Embera Village. These people, once part of the Kunas, didn’t agree with the Kuna’s cannibalism. To separate themselves they shot the Kuna’s with poison blow darts. The Kunas took the Caribbean side of Panama and the Embera the Pacific.
In recent years, the Embera people would send two representatives of their village along with their handicrafts to the nearest town to sell. The representatives would fill up with gas and head back to the village just breaking even. The Embera people were about to give up their culture to make a living in the towns. Thank goodness Cruise West made an agreement to help support Emberas if they stayed. What a shame it would be to lose this ancient culture.
We were welcomed by two little boys who paddled their dugout canoe out to our ship. As I stepped on shore, I felt like I was stepping into dad’s magazine. We were met by little children, topless women with beads and flowers in their hair, the Minister of Tourism and then the band with handmade instruments. We met the shaman, now 98 years old and training a young man to take his place. We learned about the plants the village uses for medicinal purposes from our exploration leader. The tribe did several native dances for us and showed us how to squeeze sugar cane through a wringer much like the old washing machine my grandma once had. It was delightful to watch the children line up for their portion of cane.
The natives displayed their handicrafts forsale. I purchased a flute made of bamboo from a man who demonstrated it, a basket so tightly woven it holds water, a carving out of vegetable ivory, and a small platter made out of purple heart wood.
We took a trek through the jungle across a cool freshwater river to look for spider monkeys. Instead we saw two wild boars rooting through the bullrushes. The rest of the guests watched the villagers compete with the crew in soccer. The match ended 2 to 2. I hated leaving this village. I was so fascinated by their simple way of life. They seem so happy not worrying about tomorrow and just living life to the fullest each day. I felt very blessed for having this experience and meeting this ancient culture.
Our trip continued with snorkeling off of Granito de Oro (little grain of gold). We saw sea turtles, a couple of white tipped reef sharks, trumpet fish, blow fish, brain coral and thousands of hermit crabs!
We ventured into Golfo Dulce (sweet gulf) to a botanical garden. I saw my first toucan which was drunk from eating fermented fruit. I saw tent bats asleep in the palms and strange tropical plants which I’ve never seen before. One plant had leaves that smelled like a steak dinner. No kidding!
After lunch we went further into the gulf and took a hike through the jungle. A wild turkey, which thought it was a dog, followed us and even let me pet him. If the turkey felt he was falling behind, he would surge past us and cut across the path cutting people off just like a dog. His story is quite interesting. He had fallen out of his nest as a baby and the parents abandoned him without any hope. The owners of the property hand raised him along with their dog which explains the turkey’s behavior. As we came out of the forest, we saw howler monkeys nestled near the top of the enormous trees. They didn’t howl as they seemed very content.
In Corcovado Conservation Area, I paid extra to go on a zipline through the jungle canopy. It was an exhilarating trip 100 feet off the ground with 13 different platforms. The truck ride from the beach through the rain-trenched-potholed-rugged-dirt road seemed to be the scariest part of the this additional adventure. The zipline is very safe and even those afraid of heights forgot about their fear and were proud of their accomplishment by the third platform.
At Coletes beach we had a barbecue lunch with plenty of ribs and chicken to spare. A troop of white faced Capuchin monkeys came to visit along with two beautiful macaws. It was a relaxing afternoon as some people took a hike, others played in the surf, some went on a horse back ride while others just sat and read.
The next day we went to Manuel Antonio National Park. In addition to the gorgeous beach and warm tropical waters, we enjoyed the abundance of wild animals. Crested lizards, long snouted bats, raccoons, canybera, two toed sloths, huge butterflies, monkeys and thousands of exotic plants.
The next day, and our last, we took a leisurely drive to San Jose passing through coffee plantations, small towns and stopping at the town voted to have the worlds best climate, 78 degrees, low humidity and very little rain. We did some last minute souvenir shopping before parting ways. Some of the passengers chose to add on 4 more days of adventure in Costa Rica. I wished that I had more time.
If you’re interested in this cruise, call me for more information, pricing and booking.
Chris, Cruise Specialist 800-578-1479