Friday, 15 March 2013

The Great Panama Canal Cruise, Day 7, Costa Rica

Continuing the live blog of our day-by-day Panama Canal cruise, sailing round-trip from Fort Lauderdale with Princess Cruises.

(NB: Apologies for the delay, but the internet connection at sea today has not been consistent)

Limon

This small Central American country has become a big name in tourism in recent years, and we are very keen to see what it has to offer in today’s visit to its largest Caribbean port.

In truth, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica is the ‘wet’ one, with an astonishing amount of rain – around 200 inches – per year, leading to the rich, verdant rainforests that cloak the coastline. Under heavy clouds, the terrain marches inland to a string of mountains that effectively cut the country in half, the highest peak towering to 13,000ft.

We are told this is the first ‘dry’ day in almost a week, the town of Limon having endured five straight days of rain, which gives the whole place a damp, rather downbeat appearance. We are docked barely five minutes from the town centre and there is also a highly worthwhile little craft market inside the port area, providing plenty of shopping opportunities for those who don’t want to stray too far from the ship!

In truth, the 30 or so little stalls under one roof feature some of the most original and enjoyable arts and crafts we have yet seen on the cruise, with some outstanding woodwork, pottery and artwork, including some eye-catching pictures hand-painted on neutral-coloured bird feathers. There is also plenty of high-quality Costa Rican coffee to be had (around $10 a pound) and even a few salon stalls featuring manicures, pedicures and hair-braiding.

Walking out of the port authority building, we cross the street to a rather down-at-heel park and turn left into Limon’s main street. Now, this is not your typical Main Street; this is Central America, and not the tourist version. It is the heart of a typical working community that probably had its hey-day in the 1950s and is busy but not thriving.

The streets are fascinating but slightly challenging; pavement maintenance is not high on the agenda here and many buildings look in need of some urgent TLC. The 1941 building housing the central produce market is well worth a look as, again, it is very much a working facility and makes for a neat contrast with the Colonial splendour – and tourist appeal – of Cartagena.

Those who like things neat, clean and inviting will probably not want to venture this way, but those who enjoy seeing the beating heart of another culture will certainly appreciate Limon. There are probably back-streets where visitors should not venture, but the main street and market are perfectly viable. This is not the scrubbed, tidy, identikit and tourist-inspired Caribbean but the genuine, down-to-earth, working reality, and our impromptu walk is both invigorating and charming.
We return via the rather sodden pathways of the park, where some inexplicable statues hint at former glories while we also engage a few local children – probably about 13 or 14 years of age – and are told, in excellent English, about some of the delights of Limon, including “very good Wi-Fi,” which comes as something of a surprise, as does their farewell greeting of “Have a good day, sir!” Clearly, the youngsters here are a polite bunch.

Back on board, we are a bit early for lunch so make a last-minute decision to try the Daily Trivia contest in the Wheelhouse Bar. Much to our surprise, our two-person ‘team’ manages 18 out of 20 and finds itself in a tie for first place. The tie-breaker question asks how many seats there are in the Princess Theater – we guess at 750, the other team suggests 1450. We are closest (the exact figure is 635) and so it is victory for Team Veness!

After a quick lunch at the International Café (which is proving a big favourite with us for meals, snacks and speciality coffees, especially their salads and paninis), we are off on our chosen shore excursion, a trip to a Banana Plantation and Canal-boat eco-tour.

Before we have gone far out of town, our driver, Bosco, spots a troupe of howler monkeys in some trees and stops for a photo opportunity, while he also stops at regular intervals to dive into the underbrush with his machete (every coach-driver’s chosen accessory, it seems!) and return with some choice item of fruit or plant-life for our guide, Erick, to explain.

It is a thoroughly entertaining double-act that keeps us amused all the way to the Filadelfia Del Monte plantation, where we can see huge stalks of bananas arriving by special zipline courier (which has to be seen to be believed, as the workmen coast in along these long overhead cable-ways), to be sorted, cut, cleaned and sized before they are shipped out.

This plantation employs around 500, and the bananas are packed ready for the two-week journey to the US or the three-week trip to Europe.

After the half-hour stop, we drive on to the eco-tour, which also offers a small craft stall and some drinks and fresh fruit. For the next two hours, we cruise up and down a narrow waterway that parallels the coast at a distance of just a few hundred yards.

Here, among the genuine rainforest for which Costa Rica is well known, our boat captain and Erick conduct a master-class in the local flora and fauna, pointing out tree sloths, howler monkeys, and a host of bird-life, as well as several emerald basilisks (a genuine prehistoric-looking reptile) and iguanas.

The bird-life includes various kingfishers, herons, egrets and other tropical varieties, including a superb black-collared hawk, and our guides’ ability to spot this amazing variety of wildlife is absolutely astonishing, highlighted by an encounter with 10 tiny, sleeping fruit bats, each only a few inches across and perched in line half-way up a tree trunk. From just a few yards away they were all but invisible, but our captain spotted them from 20 or so yards distant.

We could easily have spent hours more cruising up and down this intriguing waterway, which opened out at one point to a river almost 100 yards across, and we were very impressed by the overall picture of Costa Rica that emerged from our day ashore.

Back aboard, we are again grateful for a hot shower to freshen up, and we take in the 6.30 performance of the main evening show, Dance!, which is definitely the best of the big production shows so far, with an excellent finale featuring a Lord of the Dance type Irish ensemble.

Dinner turns out to a be a wonderfully protracted affair on a table for 10 in the Bordeaux dining room, as we chat merrily away until the staff are busy clearing he tables all around us! It is Italian Night in both main dining rooms, and the highlight is undoubtedly the special course of penne arrabiata served up by our head waiter Marius, who mans a cooking station nearby to turn out a non-stop supply of freshly-made pasta in a spicy garlic-tomato sauce.

Marius has already proved to be a huge aid with our low-sodium diet at each meal, but now he proves a dab hand with the frying pan, too!

Tomorrow – A Day At Sea.

For more info and bookings – in the UK, call Princess Cruises on 0843 373 0333 or visit the expert cruise agents of The Cruise Line Limited on this link; in the US, call 1866 335 6379, or visit www.princess.com.