This is a very long story, so if you just want the tl;dr, here it is:
- We were gone for 32 days and crossed 75 degrees of latitude, by ship, plane, bus, train, and taxi.
- We were in the Eastern time zone for nearly the entire trip.
- Ft. Lauderdale - absurdly wealthy, also beautiful
- Cartagena - nice colonial architecture, but not a great place for tourists
- Manta Ecuador - pleasant enough, nice weather, nice people
- Montecristi Ecuador - Panama hats
- Lima Peru - colossal architecture, but overcrowded
- Arica Chile - pretty town surrounded by the most arid desert in the world
- Valparaiso Chile - steep hills, street art, colorful
- Quito Ecuador - beautiful buildings, steep hills, crowded and difficult
- Cuenca Ecuador - beautiful, comfortable, prosperous, a nice place to be
- Loja Ecuador - not quite a small version of Cuenca
- Guayaquil Ecuador - a dirty and dangerous port city in the tropics
- Coral Gables Florida - 21st century money with a 1950’s vibe
We’ve posted quite a few photos on Picasa.
The first stop was in Cartagena, Columbia. The cruise line offered a horse-drawn carriage tour of the historic city center. This sounded pretty good: a nice easy way to get a look at beautiful, tropical Cartagena; romantic, even. So we eagerly disembarked, hopped on one of the shuttle buses, and headed into town. Where we were greeted by a convoy of horse-drawn carriages and were handed headsets that, in theory, would let us listen to the informative commentary from our tour guide, located in the first carriage, 6 carriages ahead of us. After many drill-sergeant-like exhortations for everyone to get in a carriage, we set off at a terrific pace, like Patton’s army through Sicily. Naturally the headsets yielded almost nothing but static. The carriage seats were remarkably slippery, so merely staying upright was a tiring challenge, and taking photographs was nearly out of the question, since fast-moving carriages on rough streets do not make for good shooting conditions.
We bailed out of the tour halfway through and decided to walk around the old town and get a better feel for the place, equipped with a low-resolution tourist map. We wandered around for a while, saw a couple nice parks, lots of balconies with flowers, and a couple churches. In the end we had lunch in the nice courtyard restaurant at a somewhat fancy hotel, Good lunch, priced reasonably, stopped at a shop or two, bought a carton of bootleg duty free cigarettes that probably fell off a truck somewhere, and hired a cab to get back to the port.
Colon is the port town at the Caribbean entrance to the canal. It is such a festering stink hole of drugs and crime that the local police actually prevented cruise passengers from going past a certain point about a block from the port (and why anyone would want to is a dark mystery). It is a city utterly devoid of interest or charm as far as I can tell. Fortunately, we had alternatives.
We booked a train tour across the isthmus from Colon to Panama City, a matter of 50 miles, with a bus ride from there back to the ship. The tour was reasonably interesting, with lots of information presented about the history of the canal, the railroad, Panamanian history and culture, etc. Lunch was provided. Panama City is an international money laundering center, so there are a remarkable number of large bank towers for such a relatively small city, along with the usual forest of condominium towers, abutting but effectively screening square miles of desperately squalid slums. Global capitalism distilled to its essence.
The tour afforded us a shopping opportunity. We have come to expect this, but usually the shopping is at some “artisan” workshop featuring hand-made local arts and crafts. Not so this time. We were brought to a 10-store shopping mall (with a food court! including Wendy’s burgers!) located on a jetty 5 miles from Panama City.Anyway, here’s what we saw on the tour: jungle, locks, lake, little rivers, jungle, high rise buildings, slums, beach, harbor jetty, shopping mall, US army officer quarters from ca. 1920, Bridge of the Americas, some other newer bridge whose name I don’t remember, jungle.
Next stop, Thursday, December 11: Manta, Ecuador. A medium-sized city, an overgrown fishing village, a nouveau resort town, a place with no real history. Surprisingly cool and non-equatorial feeling. We started at the local tourist information office where the very helpful chief tourist information person directed us to hire a taxi for a few hours if we wanted a custom tour of the city, so that’s what we did. We started by going to a small outdoor fish market on Tarqui beach, located next to a stretch of beach where large wooden fishing boats are built and restored. Then a tour through various neighborhoods, followed by a lunch stop where we tried a delicious fish soup called encebollado mariscos. Quite a treat!
We finished the morning with a visit to a small, odd, and interesting museum, located in the former house of the most wealthy family in Manta during the first half of the 20th century. The museum was on two floors. The lower floor had exhibits about the indigenous people of the region. Not really very interesting, unless you think the ability to make useful items from trees and rocks, using rudimentary tools, is interesting. The second floor featured technology from the first half of the 20th century, and was much more to my liking. Typewriters, radios, phonographs, irons, a sewing machine or two, and much more. Good stuff.Manta really is a new city, so there was not much of historical interest. The best the taxi driver could do was show us some ghastly church that was built (I think) in the 1950s. Anyway, that was about the extent of our stay in Manta, though as it happened Manta stayed with us for many days.
The cruise was originally scheduled to stay two nights in Lima, Peru, but on boarding the ship we were handed a notice saying that there was no berth available for the first night, so we would instead stop at Salaverry, and stay only one day in Lima. This was disappointing. Anyway, the ship docked in Salaverry Peru bright and early on Saturday. I would love to tell you about Salaverry and the nearby historical city of Trujillo, but I can’t. You’ll just have to look it up on wikipedia. Promptly at 6PM on Friday, Joanne and I were simultaneously struck down with amazingly severe diarrhea and nausea, so on Saturday we were both unable to leave the cabin. We were only slightly better on Sunday. We blame the encebollado mariscos, because it’s the only thing we ate that wasn’t also eaten by hundreds of other cruise passengers.
The ship docked at Callao, the port city for Lima, on Monday morning. By then we were feeling just about well enough to stray from a toilet for an hour or so at a time, so we risked going into Lima. This involved a lengthy taxi ride from the port through Callao, and through a maze of crowded streets in Lima, to the central plaza. Callao is a working city, with lots of warehouses, import/export businesses, and small fabricators, mostly housed in shabby rusting buildings, with occasional residential pockets where the houses most generally were built of block, with bent pieces of rusting rebar sticking out the top.Lane markers, speed signs, stop lights, and other traffic control indicators are only advisory in Lima, and the only rule even partially observed is the one that states that superior tonnage has the right of way. And even that is subject to individual interpretation. A harrowing taxi ride, to be sure.
The main plaza in Lima is surrounded by a basilica and former monastery, a government building and 2 arcades with small businesses. The government building in this case is the presidential palace, surrounded by a high wrought iron fence, and guarded by numerous automatic rifle wielding federal police. When we arrived, the hour long changing of the guard ceremony was just getting underway. This consisted of the gun wielding police preventing anyone from entering the plaza (why?), a brass band playing vaguely military sounding marches and what to my ear sounded like Peruvian folk music, and not a lot else until about 45 minutes into the program, when the existing guard slow goose stepped their way out and a new cohort slow goose stepped their way in. All very impressive, I’m sure.
One of the big streets near the plaza has been converted into a pedestrian mall, to encourage shopping at the many stores selling name-brand knockoffs, tourist souvenirs, cloth, glassware of dubious quality, etc. Thus answering the question of how you can shop in Lima, but leaving open the question of why.
We set sail that night, on the way to Arica, Chile. What? You’ve never heard of Arica? Well, don’t feel bad. Its main claim to fame was that it was the main export terminal for silver extracted from the infamous Potosi mine in Bolivia. It sits between the sea and the Atacama desert, the most arid region on the planet. The city itself is rather pleasant, with a well maintained central core, including a street that is closed to vehicle traffic, a very nice park, and a few buidlings dating from the 19th century. After the chaos of Lima, and the hassle of Cartagena, Arica was a nice change. But there just isn’t much there, and there is practically nothing in the vicinity of there. There is a small amount of agriculture in a canyon that descends from the Atacama, where there is a river that apparently flows every so often. The city of Arica helpfully hands out a tourist flyer listing 6 things you can see on a walking tour. We saw those 6 things, but I won’t bore you by describing them.
We stayed at a nice hotel - the Gervasoni - housed in a former (large) house, overlooking the port, with a pleasant outdoor terrace and helpful staff.We walked all over the narrow flat area along the shore, visiting a few plazas, each surrounded by church, government building, and businesses on 2 sides - you know the drill by now. And of course we visited the market - astonishingly large and crowded and with unbelievably low prices on produce and meat.
There is street art everywhere in Valpo - much of it quite talented and provocative. I’m not talking simple graffiti here, but actual art. Political, sexual, social, fun, whimsical, or just weird. On main boulevards, alleys, remote side streets. Really, everywhere.On Monday, with help from the hotel staff, we got a taxi to take us to the Pablo Neruda house and museum. This is possibly the main point of interest in Valparaiso, so it seemed strange to me when we arrived there that neither the hotel staff nor the taxi driver knew that Monday is the only day of the week that the house is not open. Being located near the top of the tallest hill in Valpo we decided to just walk back - downhill, after all. Not a bad choice, because it gave us ample opportunity to look at street art. But that hill was the steepest I’ve ever been on, in a city. If I ever decide to retire to Valpo, the first thing I will do is invest in a clutch repair shop - I’ll be set for life.
You can guess by now what was surrounding the main plaza. The colonial era buildings are pretty impressive, earning the distinction of being designated a World Heritage Site by the UN a few decades ago. During our two days there we mostly walked around, looking at one plaza / church / government building after another.
Meals in Quito were a slight challenge, offering a choice between rather sketchy-looking but low-cost places on the one hand, and quite upscale and formal places on the other. We tried both, with no apparent ill effects. When you see small restaurants offering “almuerzo” (lunch) it means they have a fixed-menu offering of soup and a main course, usually consisting of rice or potato with meat in a sauce, and some cooked vegetables. In our case we paid $3 each, so good value and good eating. The more upscale restaurants were still quite reasonably priced, with attentive service and excellent quality food, always accompanied by bread and various sauces that, I guess, you spread on the bread.In all, Quito is not a place I would want to go back to. Don’t get me wrong: it is every bit as beautiful as you’ve seen in the travel books, but it just wasn’t a comfortable and pleasant place to be. The crowds, the hills, the traffic, the altitude, and the general shabbiness combined to make our stay there less than it might have been.
Our hotel was located 5 or 6 blocks from the main plaza. This plaza was different from the rest: it has two churches, an old and a new. The new church (19th century) has 3 blue domes visible throughout the city, lots of beautiful stained glass, and a magnificent alter. We were unable to see the interior of the old church - it seemed to be closed. There is, apparently, a museum attached to it, with religious art.
Finding good meals in Cuenca is easy, with a range of restaurants from the $3 almuerzos to very nice $12 entrees (equivalent to about $30 entrees in the states), and everything in between. Naturally there are many shopping opportunities, if you like that sort of thing.In all, Cuenca seems quite prosperous, and well run. It is a place I would be happy to visit again.
The city is bordered by two rivers, and has a gate / building at the north end of town which in earlier times served actual defenive purposes. As recently as 1941 Loja fought off an invasion from Peru, though I suspect the gate was not of much use by then.It’s an attractive city, with plazas strung along the main street like beads on a string, each with its own attractive church (and government building). But the overall vibe in Loja was nothing like Cuenca. It felt vaguely unwelcoming - to tourists, at least. Nothing at all overt, and the people we interacted with were courteous bordering on friendly. I wouldn’t mind going back, mostly to see the surrounding countryside, including Podocarpus park.
We flew to Miami and stayed overnight in Coral Gables - a very wealthy community doing its best to to keep up with the times, but feeling nonetheless like it’s stuck in the 50s. Not necessarily a bad thing. Our flight home was in the evening of the next day, so we passed a pleasant afternoon at a small movie theater watching North By Northwest, then headed to the airport and home.
We’ve put up a lot more pictures on Picasa