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The Panama Canal: Still a marvel

Panama Canal
After an overnight cruise from Cartagena, the Island Princess arrived early on Monday morning at the entrance to the Panama Canal near Colon, where four mules — mechanized tractors on the sides of the locks — helped move it into the Gatun Locks. Less than a half-hour later the ship emerged into Lake Gatun.

Holm arose early and secured a place on the crowded front viewing area while her husband, Ralph, stayed in their balcony cabin, “where he got to see the very few inches between us and the sides of the locks.”

Although the mules help maneuver the large ships into the locks, it is largely gravity that moves them from one level of the canal to the next as the giant locks are either filled or emptied with water from the lake.

“I realized we were getting higher, but you don’t feel a thing; there was no movement at all,” said Holm. “It’s so fascinating to me how this happens. The gates are the same ones they have been using since it was built.”

Passengers had several shore excursion options while Island Princess turned around in the lake and returned through the locks. Although the canal is a highlight of the trip, Panama offers rich rain forests, historic colonial cities and native Indian villages for cruise passengers to explore and visit.

Holm’s Texas Travelers took a motorcoach to the Pacific side, stopping at the Miraflores locks visitors center on the way for another close look at the canal in action.

“There is an information center with displays, films and shops,” she said. “We walked out the back and were right there at the locks. You get to be the pedestrians standing on shore while you watch a ship go by very, very close to you.”

Panama City, the Pacific entry to the canal, is a city of striking contrasts: the historic area, with narrow streets and diverse colonial-era architecture and ruins, and on the other side of the bay, a modern city filled with high-rise buildings.

“It’s an interesting mix of the extremes people live in,” said Holm. “There is the extremely modern, bustling city and then this old part that is a reflection of the past.”

“The canal was, of course, everyone’s favorite part of the trip,” said McCamish. “Some got off the ship, and others didn’t, but we all agreed that passing through the Gatun Locks was the highlight of the entire trip.

“It was such an interesting and educational experience. We learn just a very little about the Panama Canal in school, not nearly as much as there is to learn.”

Costa Rica

A short half-day cruise brought the ship to Limon, Costa Rica, where passengers could explore the country’s verdant rain forest; fascinating wildlife; and banana, coffee, sugar cane and cocoa plantations on foot, in boats, by zip line or aboard an aerial tram.

Although one member of her group said the sloth sanctuary he visited was one of the highlights of the trip, Holm got the rare chance to see a mother sloth and her baby in the wild during a boat trip through the Tortuguero Canals.

“We saw sloths up in the trees,” she said. “The guide told us how babies stay with their mothers for six to eight months. Because of predators, they only come down once a week to ‘do their business.’ She [the mother sloth] makes her way slowly down to get into the water. While we were there, we saw a mother sloth just approaching the water.

“The guide said you would never see that again if you came once a week for the next 50 years. We were very fortunate to see that.”

The group then took an aerial tram into the top of the rain forest. “It was not a zip line,” said Holm. “You go slowly way up high and then come back. We got to see the canopy of the rain forest and then took a short walk on the floor of the rain forest.

“The guide would just stop and kneel down and show us things like the hole of a tarantella. We also saw ant mounds; huge, huge hills that have millions of ants in them. I was not believing how big they were.”

The final stop after a day of cruising was Ocho Rios on the northern shore of Jamaica, an area known for its blue-green mountains and white-sand beaches.

One of the most popular things to do on a Jamaica cruise stop is to climb Dunn’s River Falls, which cascade 600 feet over a rock staircase to the Caribbean.

“You are climbing up through this rushing water; you end up getting soaked,” said Holm. “You wear special shoes that give grip. It’s not an easy climb; you hook arms like a human chain and go in and out of the water. If you have never done it, it’s absolutely amazing.

“The natives are barefoot and run up and down with a video camera and never get wet.”

If you don’t want to get wet, you can walk to the top on an adjacent walkway.

Other areas that are part of offered shore excursions are Coyaba Gardens, with tropical jungles, waterfalls and a museum; Jamaican Estates, which offers a look at plantation life; Fern Gully, with more than 500 species of tropical ferns; and the 4-year-old Sky Explorer Chairlift at Mystic Mountain that takes riders 700 feet above the rain forest.

Holm and McCamish agreed that a negative aspect of the Jamaica stop, which is a fact of life in many developing countries, was the number of people trying to sell souvenirs and tours.

At the waterfall, Holm said that from the time they parked the bus, “there were a ton of open-air kiosks, an entire city of touristy stuff.”

“Most of us just walked off the ship to explore the immediate area shops and restaurants,” said McCamish, “but were bombarded and extremely hounded by the ‘tour’ natives trying to get us to take this tour or that or trying to get us to buy something.”

However, that didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the cruise.

“Our group really enjoyed everything about the tour,” said McCamish.

Islands in the Sun Cruises  and Tours Inc.