Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Panama Canal Cruise, Day 5 – Colombia

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


Having sailed smoothly right across the Caribbean Sea, our arrival this morning on the northern coast of South America is a memorable one as we negotiate the islands and navigation entrance to the port of Cartagena, Colombia’s fourth-largest city.

It’s hard to know what to make of this at first, as it isn’t immediately obvious what you’re looking at as Coral Princess moves into position in the big container port docks. On either side is a large, built-up area, with high-rise condos on one side and low-rise urban sprawl on the other. Somewhere in the middle is the 17th century Old City and the fortress of San Felipe, but neither is visible from our initial vantage point.

It is going to be a hot day – with the forecast for temperatures of 86F, 30C, and no rain, but high humidity – and so it is time to break out the high-factor suncream. It may be March, but sunburn is still a very real danger in this latitude.

We are booked on the City Highlights & Fortress tour, and there is initially some confusion and crowding as half the ship seems intent on assembling in the Bordeaux dining room for the tours. But things are soon sorted out and we are off in plenty of time to meet the fleet of buses waiting along the dock.

Tour No. 9 is our tour, and we are bus No. 6 with Corpus as our guide and Lucco our driver, navigating the crowded morning streets with ease. For the next four-plus hours we are treated to an in-depth look at the history, architecture and culture of this key point in Colombian history dating back to the 16th century and fighting through the depths of the Inquisition, the maraudings of French and British pirates, an invasion by British-American forces in 1741, and the battle for independence from Spain in 1811.

The Old City is an absolute gem, a masterpiece of colonial Spanish architecture with overtones of San Juan, Havana and St Augustine, and the Fortress provides a magnificent overview of both Old and New sections. Corpus keeps up a steady stream of insightful info and we also get two good shopping stops to view local crafts (and buy some of the excellent local coffee, to top up my supply from Hawaii last December!). The tour concluded with a drive through the new Bocagrande island district, where modern hotels and condos bestride the landscape, along with the inevitable shops and cafes.

The ever-present local vendors and hawkers are a little tiresome but most of them do respond to a polite ‘No, gracias.’

It all makes for a fascinating look at this unique part of the world, where the African slave trade first flourished and gave rise to all kinds of cultural anomalies over the centuries, and we felt there was still plenty of the Old City to explore in a future visit.

The mid-afternoon sailing ensured we got another look at the island entrance route, in bright sunshine this time but, by late afternoon we were back in the south-western reaches of the Caribbean, making full-speed for the Isthmus of Panama, with the promise of an early start (i.e. at first light) tomorrow!ighlightH

Tomorrow – The Canal.

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.