Many anxious travelers dream of exotic destinations but remain uneasy about their safety. Cruising is the ideal way to alleviate those fears while enjoying a region in the safe environs of a ship. Holland America Lines’ Panama Canal itinerary provides the perfect example of this concept, with visits to South and Central America and multiple stops along the Mexican coast.
Cartagena, Colombia, offers the experience of a historic, walled Colonial city, adjacent to the ultra-modern high rises of the new Bocagrande. Much of the old city’s architecture has been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Sitting atop a hill, The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas provides expansive views of the city along with the rich history of Spanish Conquistadors protecting their domain.
Aboard the MS Oosterdam, the Panama Canal passage provides a look at an engineering marvel, taking over thirty years to complete. The physical experience of rising and lowering such massive vessels is something not easily forgotten. An onboard experienced guide explains every historical and mechanical detail as you are led through the apparatus.
Once through the canal, the ship docks just off the port of Fuerte Amador, with tendered passage to shore. A journey through the old city, Casco Antiguo, represents Colonial Panama, dating back to the 1500s. The newer, modern city looms over the old with contemporary buildings and traffic congestion typical of urban living.
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Next stop, Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, offering everything from zip line tours to air-conditioned, panoramic bus rides. A Starbucks Coffee Farm, hummingbird gardens and skywalks—including trails and suspension bridges—offer amazing views and experiences. A bus trip to the small town of Esparza will include an introduction to the region’s traditions as well as songs by local children.
If you feel like taking a break from tours, the tiny town and beaches of Corinto, Nicaragua, are within walking distance from the ship. For a nominal fee, you might choose a pedicab parked just a few steps from the ship for a local perspective of the town.
Organized excursions will take you to the Colonial town of Leon, with opportunities for shopping, architecture and the San Jacinto Bubbling Mud Pots. There are also opportunities to visit banana plantations and a rum distillery.
The Central American country of Guatemala offers some of the best coffee in the world, grown in the upper elevations in the shadow of three volcanoes. A tour of the Filadelfia Coffee Estate, not far from Antigua, will take you on roads leading up to over 5,000 feet in elevation.
Along the way, you will see the restored roads in Zone Zero, devastated in 2018 as a result of the Volcano of Fire eruption. A visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Antigua, home of the Cathedral de Santiago, reveals the results of many earthquakes throughout the region.
The Pacific Coastline of Mexico offers many more ports from which to explore. Puerto Chiapas recommends a shuttle to the city of Tapachula as well as the Mayan Izapa Ruins. Imagine walking among relics dating back to 1500 BC. Another excursion will take you into the Sierra Madre Mountains for a visit to a coffee plantation that includes a botanical garden, or a rural banana plantation that provides a dose of local culture.
Next stop, Huatulco, with its beautiful coastlines. The Oosterdam docks a short walk from an inviting beach offering cool, clear water. Opportunities for snorkeling, scuba diving and other water sports abound in this region of beautiful bays and beaches.
FOOD & WINE Magazine has partnered with HAL, creating a collection of immersive culinary-themed shore excursions throughout this itinerary. Taking part in a Mexican cooking demonstration teaches the basics of tortillas and quesadillas as well as sampling regional specialties like tequila, mezcal and chocolate.
Manzanillo is one of those ports where you can roam the charming town and its creative neighborhoods. The city welcomes visitors to their downtown area with a giant marlin statue in a plaza overlooking the Pacific. Souvenir shops and restaurants fill up the main street, but a stroll through the winding stairs and residential walkways is a great way to immerse oneself into the local culture.
The beautiful resort town of Puerto Vallarta offers an eclectic dynamic of vibrant nightlife and ancient architecture. This port is described as the most “Mexican” of all with The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an architectural wonder with a rich history. The city has never forgotten the movie for which it is known, The Night of the Iguana, which featured Richard Burton at the time of his scandalous affair with Elizabeth Taylor. Images of the actors pop up throughout the city.
Some might hold negative presumptions, fears and biases of these regions, but a glimpse into their culture might leave you with the desire to return and learn more. As Mark Twain stated, “Travel is fatal to prejudice…” The sweet people of these countries exhibit a pride in their history and customs which will dissolve any insecurities the timid traveler might have once held.
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