Monday, February 8, 2010

Panama Canal Cruise: Aruba & Cartegena

Our January Cruise to the Panama Canal started and ended in Ft. Lauderdale Florida. In our 10 days at sea, we made stopped in five ports.

Our first stop was at the Dutch Island of Aruba where I snorkeled off a catamaran. We were docked in the capital city of Oranjestad.

On a half-day trip, we made two stops to snorkel off the boat. At one stop we had about half an hour to explore beautiful coral reefs. The second stop was right above the shipwreck of the Antilla, a 440-foot sunken World War II German freighter that has been in this spot since 1940. The water was so clear that we could clearly see the sunken ship. The fish here were more plentiful and beautiful than at the reef but the water currents were so strong that we had to hold onto the anchor rope while in the water, thus limiting our exploration.

Jim spent his day in Aruba on another excursion that included stops at a butterfly farm, an aloe factory (aloe is a major ) and to the Ayo rock formations where Aruba's first inhabitants, the Arawak Indians took shelter. He does not recommend this outing, as he did not think it was interesting enough for the time spent. I enjoyed the snorkeling but would have liked more time in the water or, perhaps, on one of Aruba's beautiful sandy beaches.

With no camera in hand, for fear of it getting soaked on the boat, my only photo is from the ship of the one high spot on Aruba, a 540-foot high hill.

The next day, we were in Cartegena, Colombia. The weather was sunny, hot, and very humid.

It was exciting sailing into Cartegena harbor early in the morning. There is the modern skyline in the background and a statue of the Virgin of Carmen in the water, much like our Statue of Liberty, protecting sailors traveling the ocean.

Our excursion for the day was a walking tour of the Old City.

Cartegena has been called the drug capital of Colombia, but, at least where we went, with our trusty guide Marcos, we felt safe.

Marcos assured us that the drug traffic has been controlled. He also noted that we were in the more affluent sections of Cartegena. We saw a beautiful historic city.

Cartegena was founded in 1533 by Don Pedro de Heredia. It was governed by Spain throughout the 16th century. The wall around the city center was built to defend the city against pirates who wanted the gold and emeralds that came from Colombia's interior and which were shipped back to Spain. Cartegena's windy narrow streets were designed as further protection against attack from outsiders.

On the short drive into the City, we got a brief look at the less affluent parts of Cartegena.

Along the way we made a quick stop at the Castillo de San Felipe, a 17th Century Spanish Fortress that, from a hillside, stands guard over the city and the harbor.

It is a major tourist attraction and is walking distance from the the cruise ship harbor. Even just getting off our bus for photos, we were immediately surrounded by street vendors. This man selling interesting zipped leather purses actually had a very nice product.

Our next stop was at Las Bóvedas. Previously, dungeons along the city wall, the cells in Las Bóvedas now house shops and galleries. For me, this area was just too touristy, with tour buses and even city buses stacked up in front.

Some of the traditional Colombian art, gifts, and clothing looked interesting, but the crowds and the heat put me off.

Looking across the street, I more enjoyed some of the city buildings and the architecture.

We then spent several hours exploring the Old City.

My first impression of the City was that its balconied buildings reminded me of Havana and New Orleans.

The abundance of public art caught my attention. The hearts reminded me of the Hearts in San Francisco, some of which are still displayed around San Francisco.

There is a theatre dedicated to Don Pedro de Heredia.

And, a lush park dedicated to Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan political leader who helped Colombia gain its independence from Spain. He was president of the Republic of Colombia from 1819 to 1830.

We stopped at the Palace of the Inquisition which is now the city's History Museum.

We had time to visit the lovely Modern Art Museum.

We even got a look at the courtyard of Casa Pestagua, an 11-room luxury hotel, in the former home of 18th century Count of Pestagua.

And, visited several other plazas, churches, and historic buildings in this vibrant and interesting city.

When I return to South American, Cartegena will be on my list of places to revisit.

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