Friday, March 27, 2015

2014 25th Anniversary Trip Part 11: Guatemala

After Costa Rica the ship headed out for one day at sea before getting to Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. It was a quiet day of recovery at Sea before our next port...

"School" buses
We arrive at Puerto Quetzel on time, and this time there was no problem with disembarkation. Many of the cruise Director's staff was on hand to make up for the issues we had at Costa Rica. We quickly found our bus for our full day tour to see the Mayan Ruins.

City Model
We boarded a full size bus to head up for the 2+ hour journey to our destination. I found it interesting that aw we left the port, a police vehicle tagged along behind us. We got to see several volcano cones heading out, including one that was puffing smoke. But about 30 minutes into the bus ride, the bus started to have trouble shifting. Ten minutes later the bus pulled to the side of the road, Our tour guide told us another bus was called as the bus we were in was faulty. The police were outside standing guard. Surprising we only waited about 15 minute before another bus pulled up and we all transferred to the new bus. Since we were now a bit late, we skipped the "potty break" stop to head directly to our destination.
Cyn in front of old Temple Ruin

We passed many ex-US school buses along the way that were now jitney passenger buses, many decked out in odd colors, some still had the name of a US school district on the side. Now I know where school buses go to retire.

Old Altar
Soon we arrived at our destination, Iximche. This was one of last Mayan cities being built in 1470, and then conquered by the Spanish and abandoned in 1524. But the history felt very real here. There was a small museum giving the history of the site including a scale model of the city at it peak. 

We walked thru the ruins of the city. The only other groups were local school children. The local high schoolers were very intrigued by foreigner interested in their heritage. They practiced their English on us, and asked to have photographs of us taken with them. It was rather fun. 

Group photo
We even walked into a ritual by the local direct decedents of the Mayan who were offering goat sacrifice to their Gods, ad they still consider this location sacred ground. Out of respect no photos were taken.

Soon we were back on the bus. As we got back to the little village before the highway, the bus had to maneuver thru some tight corners. At on intersection, the bus driver had to go back and forth several times to make the the tight corner without taken out the local businesses awnings. We all applauded as he made it without scratching the bus or anything else.

Our next stop was a late lunch at a local cantina, The meal was included as part of the tour. We had a nice grilled chicken with refried beans and a local beer (we did not dare to drink the water). Outside of the cantina were many vendors selling their wares.

The rest of the bus ride was uneventful.  We had time to go thru all the shops at the port and bought a few things. I had also set up a geocaching event in the port, as there were no geocaches near the port or along our journey to Iximche. Two cachers from the ship did show up for the event while drinking coconut juice, straight from a coconut, and another local beer ($2 a beer was cheap).. son we were on board ship. I continued the event on the ship as it was leaving port in the Crown Lounge. 2 additional cachers showed up. The goal for all of them, including myself, was to add Guatemala to our caching map!
A Ball Court

We really enjoyed the day, and the shore excursion to Iximche was the best ship lead excursion we have been on to date. 
Temple Ruin

Old City square
Temple Ruin with a Tree growing in it.

Monday, March 02, 2015

2014 25th Anniversary Trip Part 10: Costa Rica

Needless to say after the Panama Canal, the excitement waned a little bit, but we still had 
The Chef in from of tonight's dinner, Lasgna

half a cruise to go! The day after the canal was a day at sea. The ship had a Make a Wish Fundraiser walk up on deck and were selling t-shirt signed by the crew which Cyn purchased. While she was relaxing and enjoying the morning, I was taking a behind scenes tour of the ship.

Crew Mess
The behind the scenes tour is rather expensive, but it was worth to see. I am very interested in logistics and operations of anything. The first stop was the Galley. We were lead by the head Chef of the ship. He was obviously very proud of his galley and staff. The Galley was on 2 decks. We also went down to deck zero and saw the stores area of the ship. They waste no space.
Engine Control Room

We got to see the crew mess and break areas and had a chat with the HR director on board. We also had to do a security check. At this point a security guard had to be with us.

Backstage, a lot of wigs
The tour then took us down "I-95" then runs through the center of deck 0 to the Engine Control room. We could not see the actual engine room (darn). But we did get to see all the control and cameras for the engines. The Legend of the Sea maybe a small ship, but she is the fastest in the Royal Caribbean Fleet. She is also used as the first ship to open any new port for RCI. She has a lot of plaques up on deck 9 with all the new ports she has been to on behalf of RCI.

The bridge
The Bridge
After the Engine Control room we went down to deck -1 to the Laundry room. We then went up to backstage of the theater and even chatted with the ships entertainers.

The last stop was the bridge. The captain was not up there but the first mate was who gave a tour. What a great view. The tour ended in the main restaurant for lunch with a small parting gift.

The show for the ending was Sing City by the ship's entertainers. Cyn and I really enjoyed the show!

The Costa Rica Train
The following day was out next port, Punterenas, Costa Rica. The ship arrived late and then we had gangway problems. It turned into a mini-disaster as the crew kept giving passengers conflicting information on what deck the gangway would be on. One we got off we found our shore excursion bus. We could tell the tour operators were feeling rushed as they were running nearly one hour late.
Pretty river, no crocs

We took a train/crocodile tour. This was probably the most disappointing excursion we have ever taken. The train ride was short, with not much history about the train. The line is narrow gauge and used to connect Punterenas with San Jose. But after an earthquake several years ago, the line was abandoned. This short section with a tunnel survives. I estimate the train went about 3 miles thru a tunnel, then we backed up about .5 mile to re-board the busses. The bus then took us to a river crocodile tour. We board a boat with about 20 people looking at wildlife and allegedly looking for crocs. We saw the head of one from a distance. Then we went back and they had local fruit to eat. The bananas (or were they plantains) were good. But we were very rushed by the tour as they needed to head back to pick up the afternoon tour groups.
Pretty Flora

Once back at port, there was a crafts market with very inexpensive gifts. This was the redeeming value of the stop. We got a dish of ice cream, which got us free wifi so I could Skype Emily to see how everything was doing (Our cat had a urinary tract infection which Emily had to deal with). I also went over to a local pub to have a local beer. Puntarenas itself was not much once you go 1 block away from the pier. I would not recommend it for sightseeing.
Puntarenas "beach"

Entertainment on the ship for the evening was Dee Dee Martin. As I writing this nearly a year later, it did not leave me any lasting impressions.

On to Guatemala....

Monday, January 05, 2015

2014 25th Anniversary Trip Part 9: The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal
Ah, the post I've been waiting for, the whole reason why we took this cruise, other then the fact it was our 25th wedding anniversary, the Panama Canal. It turned out to be a VERY long day!!!

We woke up at 5:30am, as we were scheduled to transit the canal starting at 6am! Right at 6 we crossed over the bar from the Caribbean to enter the canal area. Soon the tugs boast came out to meet us, and it was barely light out.

The new Canal Lock doors for Gatun
Nearly the entire ship was on the outside and forward deck to watch us slowly inch towards the first set of locks at Gatun. It was pretty crowded. The crew had cornered off an area to allow the ship photographer to take photos of passengers as we went thru the canal, which we took advantage of.

On the ship's PA they gave a history of the canal as well as pointing out what was going on  step-by-step, including when the Ship's captain was no longer in charge as a canal Pilot was on the bridge. This becomes an important fact later in our journey.
The old French Canal

We saw the remains of the original French attempt to build the canal to the ships right. Even current PanamaMax ships have nor hope trying to go thru the original French size canal. On the ships left was the making of the new set of locks which are 50% bigger then the current locks. The new lock doors were sitting at the entrance waiting for their placement. They were HUGE! After listening to our guide in Panama yesterday, as seeing the status of construction, I think 2018~2020 is realistic as to when the new locks will be finished, not 2014/15 which was the original plan.
A "Mule"

Soon our ship was connected to the "Mules" at the first set of Gatun Locks. Mules are electric locomotives that run along the side walls of the locks that keep the ship centered as it moves thru the locks. The mules so not pull/push the ship. The cables are kept taut or slack to ensure the ship never hits the lock walls. They are powerful little beasts. Their electric power comes from a slot between the rails, much like streetcars in Washington DC and New York City did back in the day.

Soon we were in the first lock. Once in the lock with the doors closed, it takes about 8 minutes for our ship to rise enough to enter the second lock. Gatun has 3 sets of locks before allowing us entry into Gatun lake. Each lock requires the addition or release of over 26 million gallons of water. Luckily they were ships going up and down on either side of the canal, so ultimate "only" 26M gallons of fresh water from Gatun Lake is washed out to sea for every ship that transits the canal.
Entering Gatun Lake

By around 10~11am were started our transit across Gatun Lake and into the Culebra cut. This was a very slow transit with ships everywhere. Gatun Lake is the source for water fro the canal. Luckily it rains a lot in Panama to be able to have this huge man-made lake. But Panama does have a dry season, where they were in the middle of, so the lake was lower than normal. This would prove important later on in our journey

As stated  earlier, the French had tried to build a canal before the Americans. But the French plan to to have a level canal. There was thought that the Pacific and Caribbean had different water levels, but that is plain false. What is true, is the Pacific side has tidal influences which can affect the water height by up to 18 feet depending on the time of day. The french plan did not work, and with Malaria, it made it impossible. Soon the Americans took over and decided to go over the mountains. 

Gatun Lake control house, finished in 1913,
the canal opened in 1914
The canal opened in 1914 with 3 sets of locks on the Caribbean, and 1 set of one, plus another set of 2 locks on the Pacific side. The total canal length is about 48 miles. The canal overshadowed the first American Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Railroad (not the UP/CP line in North America), but the Panama Railroad is still an important lifeline in Panama. The locks do not require any pumps. The only energy used in canal operations is the opening of the lock doors. Water is strictly gravity fed thru gate valves. Very efficient, just with a huge water loss. The new set of lock intends to be able to recycle 50% of the water, which is good since the new locks will require more water. But again, gravity will be it friend, with the addition of water storage. An interesting fact about the canal, is when you head from the Caribbean to the Pacific, when you exit on the Pacific side, you will be further east then when you started in the Caribbean. Bizarre, yes, but when you look at a map, most of the transit you are heading more north/south then east/west. So geography over-rules your common sense.... Check it out...

New bridge over the Culebra Cut
After going thru the tight Culebra cut, we enter the Pedro Miguel lock. It is single set of locks that drops the ship from Gatun Lake into Lake Miraflores. This is where the dry season, and that the Canal Pilot is in charge becomes important.

The ship connected to the mules again, just like at Gatun. We entered the singe lock with out fan fare and soon we were dropping about 31 feet. The the forward lock door opens and we slowly head into Lake Miraflores. 

The "notch" in the control house roof was caused by our ship
As the side "fly" bridge was starting to go past the Control house, something happened with one of the tensioning cables from the Mules that allowed the ship to sway towards the building. The Fly bridge is wider then the ship itself, then there was a crashing sound. The fly bridge was crunching the roof of the Pedro Miguel control house. Roofing tiles came crashing onto the rails for the mules below. However the ship never stopped moving. Stopping would cost more money. Ground workers quickly removed the tile pieces to allow the locomotives to pass. Later the Ships Captain explained, that yes he was on the bridge, but the Canal Pilot was in full charge of the ship, including the tension cables on the Mules. It sounds like there were a variety of factors that lead to the incident.
1) The fly bridges on the Legend of the Seas, had been made a little wider during a recent retrofit since the ship had been thru the canal last.
2) Lake Miraflores was lower then normal due to the dry season.
3) One of the cables on the mules was allowed to go slack when ti shouldn't have. 
Miraflores Visitor's center as seen from our ship.
We saw the canal the day prior from the visitor's center.

All 3 factors worked together to allow the roof of the control house to be damaged. However, Royal Caribbean International, or the Captain of the Legend of the Seas, will not be held accountable, since the Canal Pilot was in charge. The Captain seems to smile when he said that, and maybe he should charge the canal to fix the paint scratch on his ship :).

After that excitement we were soon coming up on the last set of lock, Miraflores. These 2 locks till lower the ship from Lake Miraflores into the channel that takes us to the Pacific Ocean. There was not excitement like the last set of locks, but a send of accomplishment was building on the ship. Before long we were on the Pacific side and by 6pm we were crossing under the Americas Bridge and heading to sea.
The America Bridge and our exit from the canal

In total is took us 12 hours to transit the canal from end-to-end. I walked about 5 miles on board ship watching its progress. Admiring the engineering of the 1914 canal and seeing the building of a 21st century canal was awe inspiring, and exhausting. Royal Caribbean paid about $300K in tolls for us to transit the canal, with the use of pilots and tugs and Mules. The Bucket list item complete!!!

For the evening, I believe we skipped the night's entertainment, but did eat sushi at the Izumi Grill for dinner. Soon we were in bed for the night. It was hard to believe we still had 8 days left on board ship....

Gatun Locks looking towards the Caribbean

A bit taken out of the Pedro Miguel Control House
Roof tile on the trackway
The new Gatun Locks under construction
The canal
Railroad crane for canal maintenance

Looking back from the Pedro Miguel lock
Note the gap between the ship and the canal wall...
Dredge in Culebra Cut preparing it for the larger ships

Gatun Locks
Canal Tug

Gatun Lake

Culebra Cut

Railroad Crane