Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Panama and Cartegena, Colombia

Genealogy, blogs and webinars had to wait for yet another period of traveling.  This time on a wonderful tour with Overseas Adventure Travel for a trip I planned a year ago.  I've always wanted to go through the Panama Canal so this was it.  A three week trip which took 24 in our group, on a small catamaran, through the locks with an overnight anchored in Gatun Lake in the middle of the Canal.  I planned the trip so it would be at the end of the dry season and start of the rainy season so the price would be lowered, but still there would be a chance of no rain.  And it paid off... we had no rain except a couple hours while swimming in a beautiful hotel pool at the Gamboa rainforest of Panama, and a few minutes in Cartegena.   Anyway the weather was great. Just before I left Hawaii I finished reading "Path Between The Seas" by David McCullough on the history building of the canal, and I was glad I did.
     To begin our tour,  twelve of us (on a "pre-trip") flew from Panama City to Bocas del Toro for a few days on the beautiful Caribbean side at unspoiled white sand beaches and lots of snorkeling, kayaking, boating, beaching, eating and a horse ride to the beach.   My favorite snorkeling spot, surprisingly, was around the mangrove roots - I saw something called "sea pearls" amongst the coral.  Then we visited Panama City to see the Old Town ruins, the Colonial Town, and the modern city.  I was especially interested in seeing the old sites of the Canal Zone and the U.S. Military installations.  In 1989 I had orders to report to Gorgas Army Hospital for a few months, but the US invaded to oust Noriega and (luckily) my orders were cancelled.  I vowed to get to Panama some day, and I finally made it!

The trip continued west (it seemed like north) on the Pacific side to Coronado beach, stopping on our way to visit the San Carlos elementary school and take some school supplies to the kids and watch their Panamanian dances.  In groups of four or five we had lunch at the homes of the children.  The Pacific side was not as gorgeous as the Caribbean, but we traveled inland to the volcanic region and to look at endangered frogs and other creatures of the forest.  Back to Panama City and had a great view of the canal at Miraflores Locks.  Then on to the fabled rainforests of Panama to stay at the gorgeous Gamboa Resort where we took an aerial tram ride above the tree tops, seeing some of the forest creatures.  One day we visited the Embera Indian village and enjoyed a meal there and danced with them.

 The big Royal wedding of William and Kate came on at 4 am Panama time, I was able to watch Kate walk up the church aisle and stand with William before Lucille and I had to leave the room to catch our bus to the train.  We took the historic Panama Canal Railway north across the Isthmus to Colon then bussed up to Portobello to board our "Discovery" catamaran for the ride through the Panama Canal.  We were four nights on this beautiful boat, and we enjoyed every minute of it.  Going through the two sets of locks was a wonderful and educational experience.  I spent a lot of time on the bridge with the Captain and the Canal Pilot asking questions and watching how the controller worked with the pilots to arrange the ships and boats to traverse the locks so they could get as many of them through the locks as possible.  The locks run 24 hours a day.

   After the Panama Canal we stayed a night off the little island in the Pacific called Toboga.  The next day I saw a newspaper headline that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  So we were glued to the television when possible.  Just before our departure for Colombia, our guide, Deibys, took me to see where Gorgas Army Hospital had been, and I was happy to see the place that I had imagined for many years.

Five days in Cartegena, Colombia finished off our tour.  Just ten of us continued on this "post-trip" and it was wonderful.  Cartegena is a little gem - actually it is the center of sales of the Colombian emerald, so I had to purchase a small sample.  There is a lot of history from the days of the Spanish hauling out the Inca gold, both in Panama and Cartegena.  Also lots of pirate stories.  The walled fortress city is a haven of wonderful restaurants and beautiful colonial architecture.  The horse carriage ride was a highlight in seeing the city from a different perspective.  One favorite place was where they had amazing ice cream desserts, called "Crepes & Waffles" restaurant.

We saw fishing villages, had dinner on the beach after a swim, poled through a mangrove swamp in dugout canoes and many other experiences, but the most unique and fun was the time we spent in the volcanic mud at Totumo.

What an unexpected treat for the six of us who braved the long, high stairs to the top of a huge "ant hill" looking mountain to lower ourselves in a bottomless pool of grey volcanic mud.  It was like floating in a deep pool of chocolate pudding.  There were "massagers" in the pool who gave us actual massages in that mud -- from head to toe.  What an incredible experience we had there. Then we walked to the lagoon to be washed off and clothes washed out by the "washer women".  The whole thing was a once in a lifetime amazing experience.  The final day was spent on the tiny private island called "Pirate Island" a part of the cluster called Rosario Islands. Besides the great snorkeling and beach life, it was great fun going back to Cartegena on a very, very fast speedboat.  About an hour's ride, but when we criss-crossed with another speedboat the ride through the wakes was like being in a washing machine!  I was at the front of the boat with four Spainards, and we were laughing the whole way.

 So that is all about my three week trip.  Lucille and I flew back to Miami then on to Los Angeles.  Lucille's daughter and niece, quite unexpectedly took us to dinner at C & O Italian Restaurant in Marina del Rey as it was Mother's Day.  The restaurant was lots of fun, with everyone coerced into singing "When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like A Big Pizza Pie, That's Amore" -- a real Mother's Day experience!  I stayed overnight in Los Angeles, then flew on home to Hawaii.  I'll be returning to Los Angeles in June for the Southern California Genealogical Conference in Burbank combined with a couple weeks doing genealogical research, especially to get vital records, in Los Angeles.

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