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|Queen Elizabeth 2 - 2006
Southern Delights - The Ports
It was then a turn South to pastures new in Mexico at Cozumel where we had our longest tour to see some of the Mayan Ruins at Tulum. Cozumel itself is an island 45 minutes by ferry from the mainland and QE2 was moored offshore, or more correctly drifting in a strong current as the piers were too small and busy and the water too deep (300m) to anchor. We were one of 6 cruise ships at the cruise terminal or drifting off shore. Cozumel is purely a tourist resort island initiated 30 years or so ago by Mexico to exploit the tourist boom by Americans and others seeking everlasting sun.
We were not sure till the last minute whether our trip would be on as the seas had been rough and winds and currents were on the limit for tender operations. In the event we got off on time on the first of the large shore based tenders, seating 600 people - much bigger than QE2 own tenders. We transferred to another tender for a further 45 minute trip from Cozumel to the mainland port of Playa del Carmen. We were then herded for the 10 minute walk to the two coaches and on our way to Tulum with a short comfort stop at a shopping area where we had a free tequila tasting, and watched some of the carving of the local black volcanic rock. We bought a pseudo papyrus drawing of the local calender to compare with our leather table which has similar Inca tooling.
It was then a short journey to Tulum itself where we had another short walk alongside the mangrove swamp to the temple area. It was well worth the journey and it was interesting to compare and contrast with those we had seen in Malta and, of course, Stonehenge. They are all lined up so the sun illuminates set pieces at the solstices. The Mayan ruins are well preserved and have a magnificent setting next to the sea - there are even a couple of little beaches where locals were swimming but we were limited in time and the ruins, dating from the late Mayan period in the 12th century were more important. It is described in the guide books as a photographers delight and we took far too many pictures, both during the hour guided section and as we walked round afterwards.
The heat was intense as we were only a few degrees from the equator and after a couple of hours we were glad to get back into air-conditioned comfort. The trip did not officially include food or drink but the tour company had provided a simple packed lunch and cold water or a soft drink. This was useful because we had been told that we could not take food off the ship and there were only a few shops at Tulum selling drinks and snacks - although there were dozens selling cheap souvenirs. The area is fairly free of insects so we just used repellent and long sleeves/trousers but further inland one needs to worry more about Malaria especially in the summer season. Overall it was a long but very well worthwhile trip, made more so by our excellent guide. We had a short time in Playa del Carmen before a tender ride which was thankfully straight to the ship - we do not understand why we had to take an extra hour via Cozumel the other way as all the tenders were shore based. The seas were quite rough and the ship was steaming slowly because of a 3 knot current so it took a long time to moor and unload each tender - our Captain sounded quite relieved when everyone was safely back on-board and he could depart.
The next stop was at Cristobal in Panama which had a huge harbour at the entry to the Panama canal. The whole Panama Canal is a marvel of engineering and had a whole run of engineering firsts when it was first completed. The French tried first and failed whilst attempting a sea level canal - it cost them over 20,000 lives mostly to disease. The Americans then took up the challenge and after clearing out the swamps and eradicating yellow fever eventually completed the canal in 1914 with 3 locks each side of the largest ever man-made lake - Lake Gatun. It remained the largest project completed by man prior to the Lunar programme. Even now it holds a few firsts including the largest lock gates ever made and most of the structures are original after 90 years. It takes a workforce of 8000 to maintain the structures, dredge the canal and carry out routine operations.The Panmax size container ships carry up to 4000 containers and they have recently restarted the building of an even bigger set of locks to take the largest current ships.We had a partial transit of the canal in 1999 up through the Gatun staircase of locks rising 85 feet to Lake Gatun. The passage takes several hours as the ship has to first be manoeuvered alongside the entry wharf by tugs and attached to railway "tractors" which keep ships central whilst they go through the locks. There are two sets of locks in parallel each consisting of three locks in staircase - where the locks run into each other with only a single gate between each. The QE2 was designed to just fit the locks and has to pay the highest tolls of any ship 170,000 US dollars for our passage payable in Cash in advance. We are also due to go through in 2008 so we chose a different sort of trip here.
We took a boat trip on the Chagres river followed by a walk in the rain forest. The Chagres was the start of the original crossings made by the gold miners heading to California for the 1849 rush. It was quicker and easier to come down the East coast and then cross the isthmus to pick up another ship to California, rather than cross the country by land. We had an extremely enthusiastic guide and a small party of 20 people in a small bus. He had an extra spotter so we halted in all sorts of places to the dismay of other drivers to observe the wild life - even before we got to the river we had seen sloths, alligators, monkeys and many small birds, herons, egrets and vultures. We had to cross the narrow swing bridge at the Gatun locks and we had a quick look at the remains of the deserted town while waiting for the bridge, as well as the scheduled look on the way back.
We saw quite a lot of wildlife from the boat including several families of Howler monkeys well named as their calls call be heard for up to one and a half miles. The river has been dammed upstream to feed Gatun Lake and the locks and acts as a spill way for heavy rain. We were actually very close to the locks and covered quite a small distance as we were mostly looking for wildlife close into the banks and forest.
After about an hour we disembarked and took a short amble along a forest track again being enthusiastically shown a variety of wild life from giant ants to birds and monkeys. It had been raining and the forest track was very muddy although it was flat - it went along the line of the old railway track. The trip said that we should wear walking shoes, and we had put on our hiking boots because of the wet weather - other people only had flat shoes or even beach sandals. There were many wet feet and muddy trousers by the end. We stopped to look at the end of the ill fated early attempt at a canal by the French. Tens of thousands of lives were lost to Malaria and Yellow Fever. No-one realised that it was the mosquitos which were the problem. The Americans almost eliminated the malaria mosquito threat before they started work on the canal and in the cities and canal zone the threat is now only small although inland it is much worse. In late November it was not the season, and anyway we were well covered and had plenty of the strongest DEET type deterrent so left with just one bite. We had started a course of Maleron tablets, just in case, but decided there was no risk and stopped them after the first one. Other people were less careful about deterrent and we noticed our ship representative was covered in many dozens of big red bites the following day, we hope just from the small non malarial mosquitoes. They still itched.
On the way back we stopped for half an hour at Gatun Locks to watch the ships being worked through. When we passed the locks earlier in the day the ships were all going up the flight - now it was after noon and they were all coming down. We finally got back after 5 hours, far longer than we expected because of our guides enthusiasm. He warned us at the start that it was a 3.5 hour tour but he always took longer. We just managed to get into the Lido restaurant for lunch - they kept it open for an extra half hour because they knew that some of the tours were delayed back.
For various reasons the schedule had been changed from that in the brochure and the next visit was to Cartagena, in Columbia. We had stopped here before but not gone ashore because last time there were no shuttle buses through a no-go zone round the docks. This time shuttle buses were running and one could get to the relatively safe old walled town - there are 7 miles of walls up to 50 ft thick and numerous forts and batteries protecting the various access routes to the town and anchorages. In the 17th century Cartagena was second only to Mexico city in commercial importance in the New World.
We walked round taking far too many pictures of the pretty houses with their balconies, and looked into the cathedral which was open for Mass. We also visited two of the museums but the one which we had initially wanted to visit - the Gold Museum - was closed for renovation work. We understood that some of the exhibits were in the Museo del Bolivar which we assumed was the museum opposite on the Plaza del Bolivar. Unfortunately it was the Palacio de la Inquisicion which was interesting anyway and did have some interesting history as well as the torture instruments. It was the site of many notorious trials and the equipment gives a chilling picture of how God's Justice was meted out. The other museums in the building were the Anthropology and Colonial Museums.
Our shuttle bus pickup was next to the Naval Museum, which had a very comprehensive display and increased our understanding of the importance of Cartagena and how and why the area had been so comprehensively fortified as pirates, privateers and Spanish colonists fought over the golden riches of the area. The massive city walls took nearly a century to build and cost most of the fortune pillaged from the interior and further fortifications and batteries continued to be built to protect the periphery. As well as a city of gold it also had one of South Americas largest slave markets.
We were glad to have seen Cartagena especially because of our interest in Gold and also because of the link to Trevithick. Columbia has a very bad reputation but it seemed safe in the old city and there was a tremendous police presence - sometimes it seemed there were more police than tourists or locals in sight. They were even sitting in the Museums, watching everyone. One visit is probably enough to the city and we could not see any interesting trips around the area. As an aside, both Panama and Columbia lacked in modern telecoms and we could not get any recognisable mobile coverage and certainly no GPRS or 3G data connection.
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