By Vair Clendenning
Every year we decide that we’re going to Huatulco again and every year we go through the same travel trauma, how are we going to get there? Do we fly direct from Calgary or do we fly to Florida and visit friends before flying to Huatulco through Mexico City? Is there a better route that we missed, are there better flights than WestJet and Air Canada? All of these choices make travel decisions difficult for us seniors.
Last year in the Mexico City airport, my wife, Donna, felt sick, so off she went to the First Aid Station. Turns out that she was suffering from altitude sickness and once she was hooked up to an oxygen bottle she felt fine. Mexico City is 7300 feet above sea level and that’s a little high for Miss Lazy Lungs, so no more flying through Mexico City.
No stopping in Mexico City and we have reduced our travel options by one and that kind of leaves us with flying direct or driving. But wait, I don’t want to drive, so I found a new option: travel to Huatulco by boat. Go online to Vacations To Go (www.vacationstogo.com) or call your travel agent and check out cruises going through the Panama Canal with a stop in Huatulco. I just checked Vacations To Go, and there are two in December 2018 going east to west. You want to go east to west because west to east is usually a five-day cruise and that’s not worth the cost.
Thursday, December 21, 2017, and we are boarding the Coral Princess in Fort Lauderdale, for a 14-day cruise through the Panama Canal from east to west. We switched from our favourite, Holland America, because this Princess cruise was the only cruise to Huatulco that fit our schedule. Our 14-day cruise will end after 10 days when we jump ship in Huatulco on December 31.
Boarding was quick and easy because we arrived at 2pm and the line-ups were long gone. Because I booked the cheapest room available, we didn’t have a room assigned to us. The baggage guy took our bags and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get them. “ We’re on Caribbean time so we don’t worry.
We proceeded to check-in and had a chat about staterooms with the check-in lady. Then she gave us our cards and said, “Have a nice voyage,” and off we went. Not off the ship, off to our stateroom. Everywhere we went a nice person was standing at the ready to direct us to our stateroom. We couldn’t have gotten lost if we tried. Stateroom D212, I’ll never forget this, I opened the door and we had a balcony stateroom, perfect for going through the Panama Canal and Donna was ecstatic. Whoever had booked this room cancelled at the last minute and the room became available. We didn’t book a room when we booked the cruise because it’s cheaper that way. Don’t book the room, take whatever is available upon check-in and you save money. This time we got lucky, we were nice to the check-in lady Pamela and she returned the favour and it paid off. Thank you check-in lady.
Our luggage finally showed up about 7pm, just in time to unpack and go to bed for Donna; I stayed up till 8pm. Between check-in and luggage arrival we explored the ship. Not to worry, we found somewhere to eat without too much difficulty.
We have two sea days to enjoy before arriving in Aruba. This time it’s not the A-B-C Islands, just the A. The Aruba stop is just a half-day, so it will be off to the beach and maybe some Starbucks and free Wi-Fi if time permits. With luck, time won’t permit.
One little item on Princess that needs discussion is the shower. I told you we were assigned a balcony stateroom and that’s good. The shower in the stateroom is so small, that you have to get out of the shower to turn around and that’s not good. The shower stall is two feet by two feet minus two square corners. Donna wanted to know how I knew how big the shower stall was so I told her I measured it. Then Donna wanted to know where I got a measuring tape from and I told her I brought it with me. She seemed surprised that I would bring a measuring tape on a cruise but I thought it was normal to bring a measuring tape on a cruise. Don’t all men do that?
Anyway, back to the shower. We have established that the shower stall is less than four square feet in size. The showerhead is a fixed showerhead and it doesn’t move so it sprays half on the person showering and half on the wall, which is not good because you can only use half of the four square foot shower stall.
As I said earlier, our first stop is a half-day in Aruba. A half day in Aruba is beach day, so I voted to go back to Eagle Beach and Donna voted to go to Palm Beach. Tie vote, so Donna won and we went to Palm Beach. I haven’t quite figured out how that one worked, but Donna said it was a fair vote and away we went.
Christmas Day is our second stop, and we dock in Cartagena, Colombia. There is a lot of history in Cartagena – the Old City, Las Murallas, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena’s Cathedral, La Popa Monastery and the Las Bóvedas dungeons. They were all completed, rebuilt, or renovated after Sir Francis Drake tried to demolish them in the 16th century. None of these historic buildings has changed for 415 years, and Donna and I tour them all in two hours flat.
Boxing Day 2017 – The Panama Canal – The canal cruise takes between six and eight hours, and for an extra $24,000, the Coral Princess moves to the front of the line-up. We arrived about eight in the morning and go straight into the canal at the Gatun locks. The Gatun locks raise the ship 85 feet above sea level in three lifts and we then sail out of the lock into Gatun Lake and cruise for 77 kilometres to Pedro Miguel lock. Pedro Miguel lowers us 28 feet and we then cruise into Miraflores lock which lowers us the last 56 feet and we’re back at sea level and through the Panama Canal.
I know it sounds simple and it is for something that took 33 years to build and has operated without flaw for over 100 years. All the water movement is gravity feed, no pumps to break down, and the gates are now operated by 40HP electric motors.
The ships are moved through the canal locks by modern mules (a type of electric locomotive that costs $1,000,000) and in a nutshell, that’s how the canal operates. Now you know as much about the Panama Canal as I do.
December 27 is a sea day, and what do we do on sea days? Sea days consist of eating, sleeping, tanning, eating, playing Trivia, swimming, watching movies, eating, drinking coffee, resting, sitting, sitting doing nothing, eating; all these activities tire us out, but we can rest when we get to Huatulco in four more days.
If we’re in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, it must be December 28, and we are scheduled to take a ship’s tour, having signed up for a four-hour Jungle River Tour for $69.95 each. The first and last hours are spent on a bus, and we have shopping stops before we get on the riverboat and after we get off, so the actual time on the river looking for crocodiles is about 1½ hours. We see a number of crocodiles sleeping on the riverbank, so I work it out and it costs us about $20 per croc. In addition, we saw hundreds of birds, and they were free.
Next stop is San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, ut no more tours. When we get to San Juan del Sur, the sky is overcast and it looks like rain. After a leisurely breakfast, we take the tender ashore to explore. I must have been an explorer in a former life, because we do the entire town in under two hours and go back to the ship for more R&R. Tomorrow is a sea day, so I need to rest up for all our activities at sea.
Today is Sunday, December 31, and the day we disembark the Coral Princess in Huatulco Mexico. To disembark a ship before the final stop, you have to apply—in advance of departure—to your cruise line for early disembarkation. Once approved, you will receive an Approved Route Deviation Request letter. Three or four days before arriving in Huatulco, take your request letter to the ship’s front desk and ask to speak to whoever deals with customs in port. The front desk will find that person, who will walk you through the disembarkation procedure and give you whatever forms you need to fill out. It’s as easy as that.
The cost of cruising to Huatulco is about ten times the cost of flying, but it also takes ten times as long so it evens out. We enjoyed it so much that we’re booking a Holland America cruise next fall to do it again. For us, it’s so long to Mexico City and hello to the open seas.
Read more about Vair’s adventures onhis blog: