Pat and Dave’s Tremendous Tropical Trek – PART 3: Panama and Jamaica

In Part 2 of this blog series, I described our shore excursions in Cozumel, Mexico, Belize City, Belize, Roatan, Honduras, and Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. Now it’s on to Panama and Jamaica before returning to the USA.

Colón, Panama Wednesday, March 15, 2023)

The ship sailed from Costa Rica Tuesday evening and arrived at the at the docks in Colón at 9 AM Wednesday morning. Our shore excursion for the day took us on a 45 mile, one-hour bus trip to the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve.

Along the way, our tour guide told us that Colón is a poor city that rarely receives the promised government funding which instead goes mostly to Panama City, at the western end of the canal. As you can see on the map above, Gamboa is located roughly at the midpoint of the canal. As we neared the reserve, we passed by the prison where the infamous Manuel Noriega spent the final years of his life. The guide regaled us with her version of Noriega’s capture by the US military – while holed up in the Holy See’s embassy, US troops surrounded the building and played Van Halen music at ear-splitting volume for days until Noriega unsuccessfully tried to walk past them dressed as a woman. I suspect she may have embellished the facts a bit.

The Rainforest Reserve is associated with a rather fancy resort, where we stopped for a pre-tour rest break including a refreshing tropical punch drink.

View from Patio at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Then it was on to the aerial tram. While waiting to board, I was bitten twice on my hand by mosquitos. I quickly applied some repellant, but I wouldn’t have needed to. Interestingly, I never saw another mosquito before or after that on the entire trip through the tropics. That was surprising to a Minnesota native who sometimes gets multiple bites every minute in Grand Marais in the summertime.

The tram carried us up through second-growth rainforest to an observation tower high on a hill once known as “naked hill,” since it was clear-cut during the canal construction in the early 1900s, but it is now thriving with lush, green jungle plants due to rainfall in excess of 200 inches per year.

Rainforest View from Aerial Tram
View from Aerial Tram
View from Aerial Tram

Once we reached the top of the tramway, we took a short walk through the jungle to the observation tower. On the way up, we passed an old tank-like structure formerly used as a toilet for visitors. I learned that it was closed many years ago because people did not like the idea of sharing the toilet with native fauna such as boa constrictors. When we reached the top, the observation tower provided spectacular views of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal, including the eastern end of the so-called Culebra Cut through the continental divide.

View from Observation Tower
View of Chagres River and Lake Gatun from Observation Tower

After our return trip on the tram, we were treated to a tour of several exhibits at the Reserve displaying hummingbirds, butterflies, orchids, and sloths.

Orchids at the Rainforest Reserve
Butterfly Exhibit
Blondie the Sloth — she thinks she’s very special
The sloths at the reserve are all rescue animals

Then it was back to the ship, which dropped anchor at about 6 PM to join the queue for our transit through the Gatun Locks and into the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal (Thursday, March 16, 2023)

Here’s an expansion of my map showing our transit through the canal locks:

We had never heard the full story of the building of the canal before attending lectures on board the ship, and we found it absolutely fascinating. I’ll try to condense it down to a few sentences.

The initial work on the canal was begun by the French in 1881, buoyed by their success in digging the Suez Canal from 1859 to 1869. The French plan was to dig all the way down to sea level as they had done in Egypt. However, excavation was far more difficult due to the terrain and the raging torrent of the Chagres River during the 10-month long rainy season. Worst of all, the laborers were decimated by malaria, leading to eventual abandonment by the French in 1899. The US, which had previously built a railroad spanning the Isthmus, then negotiated a treaty with Colombia to build the canal. When the Colombian parliament rejected the treaty, Teddy Roosevelt engineered a revolution by local rebels, and the newly independent Panama then agreed to the treaty. Roosevelt later summed up his efforts by stating, “I took the Isthmus.”

The US effort began in 1904 with an enormous mosquito eradication program led by Dr. Walter Reed, since by then it was known that mosquitos are the vector for transmission of Malaria. The US design also abandoned the sea-level concept in favor of a more feasible plan: a huge inland lake, Lake Gatun, was created by damming the Chagres River, and locks were built at each end of the Isthmus to raise and lower ships between sea level and the lake level. In this way, the excavation through the continental divide, known as the Culebra Cut, was reduced by 85 feet of elevation, eliminating an enormous amount of effort. When the canal was finally completed in 1914, one man famously described the feat thusly: “We have married the seas by divorcing the mountains.” Even with this revised plan, the building of the canal is still heralded by many as the greatest engineering feat in history.

Subsequent work has included building of a second dam on the Chagres River in the 1930s, on the south side of Lake Gatun, to add reservoir capacity for canal operations, and the construction of additional locks as described below. The US agreed to return the canal to Panama in a treaty signed by Jimmy Carter in 1977, and Panama assumed complete control on December 31, 1999. Operation of the canal has subsequently been a great success for Panama.

We awoke early on Thursday morning as the ship was approaching the locks, excited to witness our passage into Lake Gatun. I went up to the main deck at about 6:30 to find a good spot for watching, but unfortunately the best spots were already occupied by a throng of earlier risers. I jockeyed around to various spots taking pictures left and right, but eventually decided to go back to our stateroom and observe from the balcony, where Pat had wisely decided to spend the morning. I’ll try to explain what we observed from our various positions during our transit of the locks.

As we neared the canal, a tender boat pulled alongside our ship and a canal pilot boarded the Viking Star. Somewhat later, a larger tender boat arrived and some sixteen or eighteen canal workers boarded the ship. I’m not sure what they all did, but some of them deployed ropes that were used to attach the ship to electric vehicles called “mules” which run along tracks on both sides of the channel. More about those later.

Approaching the Gatun Locks (to the right). The Aqua Clara Locks are on the left.
Entering the Gatun Locks
Looking back toward the Atlantic Bridge

We entered the Gatun locks at about 7 AM. The series of three Gatun Locks each raised the ship by 28 feet. As we passed through the locks southward from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Gatun, other ships were also traveling northward toward the Atlantic in a parallel channel. Passage through each lock required three steps: closing the gates behind the ship once it had entered the downstream chamber, opening valves that allow fresh water from the next chamber to flow in and equalize the depth in the two chambers, then opening the gates in front of the ship. This process required about thirty minutes, so that our passage through the three locks took an hour and a half.

These locks, built at the beginning of the 20th century, are only 110 ft wide. The Viking Star is 94 feet wide, relatively small for a ship passing through the canal these days. Even so, this leaves a gap of only 8 feet on either side of the ship if it is perfectly centered in the channel. Many larger ships have only a foot or two to spare. As the ship passed through the locks, the mule operators adjusted the cable tension at the front and back of the ship to ensure that it did not impact the canal walls during transit under its own power.

I was amazed to learn that each passage of a ship through the Gatun Locks results in a discharge of a stunning 26 million gallons of fresh water from Lake Gatun into the Atlantic Ocean. Then, when a ship passes through the Pacific locks, or returns through the Gatun locks to the Atlantic as the Viking Star did, another 26 million gallons of water flow out of the lake. 52 million gallons per ship every time! When I heard those numbers, I was initially consumed by guilt. My desire to see the amazing canal was contributing to the wasting of an incredible amount of potable water that is desperately needed in other parts of the world.

Of course, that initial thought doesn’t actually make any sense, since even if there were no canal, the vast majority of the 200 inches of annual rainfall would still flow out into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the raging Chagres River. All the dams and canal are doing is regulating the outflows in a manner that allows ships to pass through the Isthmus, while also generating power through hydroelectric plants at the dams. Once I realized that, I got back to the business of reveling in the brilliance of the world’s greatest engineering achievement. However, it is worth noting that climate change does in fact threaten the viability of the canal. Should the rainfall diminish significantly over time, canal operations may be limited by the water available in Gatun Lake.

Also of note is that a second set of locks was built in parallel with the original ones, the Aqua Clara Locks, completed in 2016. These locks are much wider and longer than the Gatun locks to accommodate modern vessels, and the operation of those locks is designed to recycle 60% of the fresh water, significantly reducing the potential future impact of climate change. We did not see the Aqua Clara locks in action. We also  did not see the locks at the Pacific end of the canal, but they are similar to the ones on the Atlantic end – the original locks completed in 1914 and newer, larger locks with the water recycling design completed in 2016.

At any rate, when we had passed through the third lock, the mule cables were disconnected and our ship sailed into Lake Gatun at about 8:30. Tender boats again came alongside the ship, this time to pick up the pilot and the other workers. The ship remained in the lake for some three hours. Off to the east, we could see some larger ships approaching the new Aqua Clara locks for their passage to the Atlantic. Around 11:30, our ship began to head back toward the Gatun locks, and I headed to the front of the ship to secure a good spot for a bird’s eye view of our return transit. Once again, tender boats delivered a pilot and other canal workers before we entered the northbound channel of the Gatun locks at 12:30. I watched from the front of the ship until we had passed through the first lock, then once again went back to our stateroom to join Pat on the balcony for the passage through the other two locks.

more After all that blathering, it’s time for some pictures, don’t you think?

The Gatun Dam to the east as we entered Lake Gatun
Biding time in Lake Gatun after our southward transit of the Gatun Locks
Approaching the Gatun Locks for our northbound passage back to the Atlantic
Attaching the mule cables and entering the first lock chamber as a southbound ship passes by
Approaching the closed gate in the first lock chamber
Lock gate opening
Tender Boat arriving to pick up the canal workers

At about 2:05 PM, we sailed out of the Gatun locks and under the impressive Atlantic Bridge into the waters off the Port of Colón, where the tender boats returned again to pick up the canal workers. Finally, at 2:45, we headed for Jamaica, still in awe of the amazing marvel we had witnessed.

Incidentally, we were told that the fee charged for our canal transit amounted to $150 dollars for each stateroom on the ship plus other fixed fees, amounting in total to approximately $140,000.

Montego Bay, Jamaica (Saturday, March 18, 2023)

Our ship docked in Montego Bay at about 8 AM on Saturday after sailing for 41 hours from Panama. A deejay with huge speakers was set up on shore to entertain us throughout the day with festive reggae and other upbeat music. Our tour for the day didn’t leave until 1:30 PM, so we had a lazy and relaxed morning and lunch on the ship before heading for the bus. The tour was also quite low-key as we travelled to a privately owned bird sanctuary where we were able to get up close and personal with swallowtail and mango hummingbirds in an open veranda beneath a thatched roof. We also strolled around the well-kept grounds admiring the lush vegetation, other bird species including finches and doves, and a small herd of ultra-cute goats.

The veranda at the bird sanctuary
View of Montego Bay from the veranda
Swallowtail hummingbird approaching Pat for a drink
The swallowtail enjoyed his or her drink …
… while I enjoyed mine — a world-famous Red Stripe Beer, brewed in Jamaica
The goats were kind of shy …
… until they got to eat as well
Foliage at the bird sanctuary

During the tour, we experienced the only rainfall of the entire trek. However, it very conveniently waited to rain until we were seated in the covered veranda, then stopped as we took our stroll, then began again as we rode the bus back to the ship. On the bus, our guide taught us a bit of Jamaican patois, the commonly spoken language on the island. The easiest words? “Ya mon!” Before we passed through the security check back at the port, the guide explained that the security person would board the bus and ask to see our shipboard passes. We were instructed to hold up the cards and exclaim: “Seetcha!” I presume that was derived from the English: “See it here!” The dozen or so guests performed this duty to perfection, and the smile on the face of the Jamaican woman lit up the entire bus.

After returning to the ship, we stood on our balcony and joined many of the other passengers in singing along and dancing to Bob Marley’s “One Love” and other favorites while the music blasted from shore. As the ship left the dock at about 5 PM, our Jamaican deejay enthusiastically thanked us for visiting, wished us peace and happiness, bid us farewell, and asked us to come back again soon. We sailed off toward the US in fine spirits, prompting some of us to emulate the well-known Jamaican hero and fastest man on earth.

Sailing away from Montego Bay
Channeling my inner Usain Bolt

Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Tuesday, March 21, 2023)

After two more days of sailing, the ship returned to the same dock we had departed from two weeks previously. I had hoped to see some other islands as we sailed back to the US, but once Jamaica faded from view, we were never close enough to the other islands to see anything but the vastness of the Caribbean Sea. Reflecting on the journey as we sailed, Pat and I both agreed that, while the Ocean Cruise was great, we enjoyed our River Cruise experiences more, primarily because we were always doing something interesting every day, with more frequent stops and easy access to the shore locations even when not on the Viking excursions. In fact, while the long days of cruising in between the six stops on the Ocean Cruise were very relaxing, they also grew a bit tiresome since neither of us was super excited about the multiple onboard activities available.

After our final breakfast on board, we disembarked from the ship, walked through a skybridge to the port terminal building where we found our luggage, and proceeded without incident through US customs. We boarded a Viking bus and were ferried back to the FLL airport in plenty of time to catch our return flight to MSP. While at the airport, we had one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten, a sloppy, half-cooked buffalo chicken pizza, and we knew that our fabulous vacation was over.

So, there you have it, readers. It was a fantastic trip, any way you want to evaluate it. Farewell for now … until we venture on another blog-worthy trip sometime in the future.

Pat and Dave’s Tremendous Tropical Trek – PART 2: Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica

In Part 1 of this blog series, I described our activities while traveling to our departure port and on board the Viking Star. As promised, I’ll move on now to describing our shore excursions. In this installment, I’ll cover our first four stops as shown on the map below: Cozumel, Mexico, Belize City, Belize, Roatan, Honduras, and Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.

Cozumel, Mexico (Friday, March 10, 2023)

After two days of sailing covering more than 600 miles, the ship docked in Cozumel, Mexico, a 250-square-mile island located off the southeastern shore of the Yucatan peninsula, about 40 miles south of Cancun. The name is derived from the Mayan “Ah Cuzamil Peten,” which means “the island of swallows.” Cozumel has become a hot tourist spot and a snorkeler’s paradise since the discovery of the world’s second largest coral reef system by Jacque Cousteau in the 1960s. The Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park was established in 1996 to protect the resource. Though Pat would have loved to go snorkeling, I’ve demonstrated my ineptitude at that several times in the past (comical to her, near fatal to me), so we opted for a different activity. We departed the ship and walked through a touristy area in the port of San Miguel before boarding a bus for a 10-mile drive through the Cozumel countryside to the Mayan ruins at San Gervasio.

The structures at the San Gervasio site date to around 1000 to 1200. The Mayan people there were flourishing when the Spaniards first travelled to the island in 1518 and established good relations, but were soon decimated by smallpox brought in by subsequent explorers. The population today is still almost entirely of Mayan descent, including our tour guide, Paco.

Our Mayan Guide, Paco

The Mayan settlement was a hub of worship of Ix Chel, the goddess of the moon, childbirth, fertility, medicine, and weaving. Pre-Columbian Maya women from the mainland would try to travel to the site and make offerings at least once in their lives. Paco pointed out several pieces of obsidian, which is not native to the island but was brought to the site by these pilgrims as gifts to the goddess.

The Mayans built a stone road through the jungle from the northern edge of the island all the way to the site, where visitors entered through a stone arch. Remains of the original road can still be seen. The altar in the central square and most of the structures are laid out so that the sides face precisely to the north, east, west, and south.

The Main Square at the San Gervasio Ruins
The Entry Arch and the Mayan Road to the Coast

The site also features a sinkhole, networked to others on the island through underground aquifer, that was used to obtain potable water. The sinkhole apparently had been dry during periods of drought since remains of an altar were found well below the normal water level.

The Sinkhole

The building called Las Manitas, named for the red-colored handprints on the interior walls, was the home of the Mayan ruler.

Las Manitas (zoomed in to see handprints below)

One of many interesting anecdotes that Paco shared was the origin of the name “Yucatan” for the nearby Mexican peninsula. Apparently, it is derived from a Mayan word that was given in response to Spanish explorers who asked, “What is this place called?” Later scholars learned that what the Mayans were actually saying was “We don’t understand you.”

After our tour, we returned to the boat for activities described in Part 1 before sailing off into the sunset.

Belize City, Belize (Saturday, March 11, 2023)

We awoke the next morning in Belize City, or more precisely, anchored 2.5 miles off shore, since the Belize City harbor is too shallow for ships at only five feet deep. Belize is the country formerly known as British Honduras until its independence in 1981. (Many people seem unaware of where Belize is – as one of our guides told us, they changed the name but forgot to tell the rest of the world.) It is the smallest and least populous of the Central American countries (23,000 square miles and 440,000 people) and the only one that does not border on the Pacific Ocean. The official language is English, but the natives also speak Belizean Creole, a mixture of broken English, French, and who knows what else.

On the Tender Boat heading fir Belize City
Welcome to Belize City

For the second day in a row, we opted for a tour of Mayan ruins. We left the ship on a small tender boat (capacity about 80 passengers) for the trip into the Belize City harbor, where we boarded a bus for a one-hour trip to the ancient site of Altun Ha. Two Creole “sistas” served as our guides, describing the sights in the city and the Belizean countryside. They also had fun trying to teach us some Creole. When they spoke very slowly, we could almost understand what they were saying, but when they spoke at their normal speed it was completely unintelligible.

The Altun Ha site was much more extensive and more accessible than the one on Cozumel. It was first inhabited during the Pre-Classic Period of Mayan history with the first major construction beginning in about 100 BCE. The site reached its peak during the Early Classic Period, from 200 to 600 AD and began to decline thereafter. The most impressive structures are large pyramids that served as ceremonial and civic centers as well as tombs. The impression I got was that the lower floors initially served as residences for the rulers and upper classes, then as tombs when they died. New residences were then built on top of the tombs for the new rulers. One interesting aspect of the construction is that the Mayans had no pack animals or wheels, so transport and erection of the huge stones must have required enormous amounts of human labor.

Temple/Tomb at Altun Ha

The guides told us that, while human sacrifices occurred at other Mayan sites, the rituals at Altun Ha were limited merely to bloodletting and non-fatal piercings and mutilations. Those “lucky” enough to be chosen for these rites were given allspice to induce a euphoric state and deaden the pain. A number of large allspice trees are still growing on the site.

The stepped pyramids acted almost like a magnet, drawing us to climb. Pat went first, on the building called Structure A1, an important temple and tomb with a wide, tapering staircase, while I thought about whether my arthritic knees could handle it. Eventually I succumbed to the lure, and found that going up was not too bad but coming down was terrifying. I managed it by going sideways and, for the final half dozen large steps, easing down on my butt.

Pat was First to Climb

Emboldened by this success, I had to climb the largest structure on the site, which had some scary access stairways on one side and in the rear. Pat opted to stay on the ground for this one and serve as the photographer.

The Largest Structure at Altun Ha
The Conqueror (but I was too wobbly to go closer to the edge!)
The Rear Access Stairs

On the bus ride back to Belize City, we passed through what is called the “dead center” of town. The main highway actually runs directly through a cemetery! The guides continued to regale us with information about Belize. One odd fact they proudly told us is that there is no welfare system in Belize. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” one of them said, claiming that this wisdom comes from the Bible. I’m no Biblical scholar, but this struck both Pat and me as the antithesis of what Jesus stood for and seemed at odds with the guides’ claims that Belize is a religious and compassionate country. Since tourism is essentially the only industry, it also seems rather difficult to sustain. Mahogany exporting was the first major industry during Spanish and British colonial rule, with slave laborers brought in to harvest the trees. However, mahogany trees are now essentially nonexistent, despite being the national tree of Belize, since they were literally all taken away.

On the tender boat back to the ship, I snapped the picture that I used as the “featured image” for Part 1 – just in case you were wondering how I got a picture of the boat in the middle of the ocean.

The Tender Boat Returning to the Viking Star

As we settled in for the evening and the boat set sail again, we decided that we had had an “Un-Belizeable” day in Belize.

Roatan, Honduras (Sunday, March 12, 2023)

When we left the ship on Sunday morning, we found that it was docked at a very modern cruise ship port called Mahogany Bay, on the island of Roatan. We were told that our ship would be one of the last to visit the island for several months as the rainy season would be starting shortly, running from Late March until early September. Roatan is located about 40 miles north of Honduras in the Bay Island archipelago, also very popular for snorkeling due to the same reef that runs south from Cozumel. We boarded a bus for a one-hour trip to Gumbalimba Park a private history and eco-adventure park founded in 2003.

The Cruise Port on Roatan
The Cruise Port on Roatan (Mahogany Bay)

We first learned about the island’s history by visiting an exhibit near the entrance to the park. Needless to say, Christopher Columbus is not a revered figure here, where the indigenous people first welcomed him only to be sold into slavery, infected by European diseases, and subject to brutal treatment. The island became a haven for English, French, and Dutch pirates before eventually being populated by Garifuna natives deported from the island of St. Vincent by the British in 1797. Britain then ruled the island until ceding it to Honduras.

Diorama at Gumbalimba Park

Another exhibit included an impressive collection of butterflies, moths, and other insects native to the island.\

Butterfly Exhibit at Gumbalimba Park

We then went on a walk through the park where we encountered iguanas, agoutis, macaws, and capuchin monkeys as well as lush tropical plants and trees. We even crossed a river on a wobbly suspension bridge, which added a bit of excitement. The macaws and monkeys had been trained to interact with the visitors and were very friendly, as you can see below. However, all of the animals roam freely in the park – there are no cages.

This young girl was more nimble than I on the suspension bridge …
Macaws mate for life and can live for up to 80 years
Here I am with some new friends
The Capuchin Monkeys were also very friendly
Too bad our condo has a no-pets policy
This tree split into two trunks which then rejoined
The jungle foliage was lush and beautiful

All in all, I think the Gumbalimba tour may have been the best shore excursion of the entire trip.

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica (Tuesday, March 14, 2023)

After two days of sailing, we docked in Puerto Limon. Columbus anchored his boat in this bay on his fourth voyage in 1502. As we were told by our guide, the native people welcomed him and brought various gifts in his honor. Columbus remarked that it must be a very “rich coast” – i.e. “Costa Rica” – if the people could afford such gifts. In fact, Costa Rica was not rich in gold and silver, consisting primarily of dense jungle and volcanos. Who knows if this story is true.

Our shore outing for the day included a bus ride to a nearby river and a peaceful boat ride where we observed the lush vegetation, multiple birds, a caiman lolling in the water, and howler monkeys cavorting in the trees. I’m posting some pictures, but you can barely make out any of the wildlife as the background vegetation seems to drown out the animals. Trust me, the experience was wonderful, even if I don’t have the photos to prove it.

On the boat in Costa Rica
The river was calm and quiet, but we could hear the Howler Monkeys
There were half a dozen Howler Monkeys in these trees — see if you can find them
Best of all — no mosquitos!

Back at the Cruise Ship dock, we checked out some of the usual touristy stuff …

… before returning to the ship, where we attended a lecture entitled “The Stupendous Story of the Panama Canal,” by historian John Freedman. By this time we had sailed about 1600 miles, drawing ever closer to the principal attraction of the cruise. I went to bed that night with visions dancing in my head – not of sugarplums but of the amazing canal.

OK, that’s it for Part 2. In Part 3, I’ll cover our stop in Panama (including Colon and Gamboa), our transit of the Panama Canal locks, and our final stop in Jamaica.

Stay tuned …

Pat and Dave’s Tremendous Tropical Trek – PART 1: The Beginning and the Ship

As past readers know, I’ve been documenting our travel experiences through a series of blog posts. (The most recent of these was Pat and Dave’s Post-Covid Continental Caper, describing our travels in September of 2022, from Geneva to the Rhine River, the Mosel River, and on to Paris with Viking River Cruises.) Having just returned from our first ever Ocean Cruise, I’m posting yet another chronicle. Speaking of chronicles, I almost titled this one Pat and Dave’s Caribbean Cruise Chronicle, but somehow that didn’t seem to have the right panache. I probably could have come up with something better, but didn’t want to waste too much effort on the title, given my atrocious alliterative ability. Having now set the stage, let me begin the blathering.


In my introduction to the Continental Caper, I explained that we had originally booked that trip in 2020 but had to cancel due to Covid, rebooked it for 2021 but again had to cancel, and finally made the trip in September of 2022. The Tropical Trek was similarly plagued by Covid, this time not only postponing it twice but also changing the destination. We had originally decided to take a trip with Viking Ocean Cruises to Greece and Turkey in fall of 2021, rebooked that for January of 2022, then cancelled again as the omicron variant blossomed worldwide.

The deciding factor regarding the second Greece/Turkey cancellation was the requirement to have a Covid test in Athens before being allowed to return to the US. What if we tested positive? We’d be quarantined halfway around the world for two weeks in some Covid prison with a pile of dirty laundry, scrambling to make flight arrangements. As we contemplated this unsettling proposition, we decided that maybe a tour starting from and returning to the US would be a safer bet. Thus, on our third try, the Ocean Cruise to Greece and Turkey morphed into an Ocean Cruise to the Panama Canal!

We had several reasons for deciding on Viking Ocean Cruises as opposed to Norwegian or Carnival or one of the other major cruise lines. First, we were very impressed with Viking River Cruises on our two trips with them (the Danube River back in my pre-blog days of 2014, and the aforementioned Geneva to Paris trip). Second, we get a catalog from Viking at least every other month, so we often spend time salivating over the potential itineraries when we are not actually travelling. Third, the Viking ships are much smaller than those of the other cruise lines. Pat and I are rather introverted souls (I blame my Finnish heritage and genes for that, which seem to have leaked and spread to Pat during our 44 years of marriage) and have no interest whatsoever in the social aspects of cruising. Simply put, we presumed it would be much easier hiding away from some 900 guests on a Viking ship than 6,000 on another line.

At any rate, after more than a two-year wait, the date for embarking on the Panama Canal cruise finally drew near. Our flight to Fort Lauderdale was scheduled for 7:35 AM on March 7, so we had booked an overnight stay at the Intercontinental Hotel at the MSP airport for March 6, to avoid a 4 AM trip to the airport on travel day. I was in Grand Marais delivering copies of my latest best-seller wannabe, Watery Grave, to the local bookstores on Saturday, March 4, so I was a bit behind the eight ball as far as preparations go. By Sunday evening, I was back in Minneapolis but still hadn’t started packing, even though Pat had her things all ready to go. I finally got going on Monday morning, loading our large, worn-out suitcase to the brim with my CPAP, travel junk, and enough clothes to cover the entire trip without doing laundry. As we prepared to head down to the condo lobby to wait for our Lyft driver, I stuffed my moccasins into the outside pocket, zipped it up, and watched in shock as the entire zipper disintegrated. I frantically dredged through the utility room until I found some duct tape to slap it back together before we rushed down to catch our ride.

Once at the airport hotel, we looked at the sad, old suitcase, with the duct tape peeling off and the outside pocket beginning to gape open again, and decided there was only one thing to do. We jumped on the light rail to the Mall of America and bought a new suitcase. After repacking our stuff, we trundled the decrepit old suitcase down to the front desk and bid it farewell forever. As we readied ourselves for bed, I pulled out the cords we had packed for charging Pat’s iPhone and watch and my iPad. “That’s nice,” I thought, as I attempted to plug the USB-C connectors into the USB-A ports on the adapters we had brought along. “Now we need to buy adapters with USB-C ports, since we left those at home.” Which we did after checking our bags at the airport on Tuesday morning, paying about twice what they would have cost anywhere but at an airport. Adding up the costs for the hotel, the suitcase, the adapters, and a couple of meals, we were nearly $700 in the hole and hadn’t even left town yet!

But things began to go better once we finally got on the plane. The direct flight to Fort Lauderdale was a breeze compared to the marathon of getting to Geneva for the Continental Caper. We were met at the FLL airport by Viking representatives and boarded a bus for a fifteen-minute drive to the cruise terminal where our ship was waiting. We got out of the bus and checked in at a reception desk in the terminal while porters delivered our luggage directly to our room. Excitement building, we boarded the ship to begin our adventure.

The Ship

We were two of 911 passengers booked on the Viking Star, nearly at its full capacity of 930. It looked pretty big when we first saw it, but it was dwarfed by some of the larger ships we subsequently encountered. Here are some photos of the ship I captured during the voyage:

The Viking Star (right) and the Norwegian Breakaway in Cozumel, Mexico
The Viking Star in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica

We spent the first couple of hours on board wandering around the nine decks and finding the various amenities, and I was surprised that it didn’t feel crowded at all. That was in part because not everyone had yet boarded, but also because the various restaurants, bars, libraries, pool, theater, and so forth are spread out throughout the ship so large crowds don’t accumulate in any particular location. I’ve posted some schematics and some photos of various parts of the ship below.

Viking Star Deck Schematics
The Explorer Lounge
Mamsen’s Lounge

When we rebooked the trip to Panama after canceling the Greek cruise, we found that we had chosen a somewhat less expensive journey, so we ended up with a little more to spend on the trip in the form of a credit we had to use or forfeit. As with the Rhine/Mosel trip, we elected to use some of the extra credit to upgrade our room from the basic option to a fancier one. We ended up with a nice room with a balcony on Deck 6. Here are some photos of our stateroom, number 6083:

Our Stateroom (looking toward balcony)
Our Stateroom (looking toward entry door)

The room upgrade wasn’t enough to use up all of the credit, so we also ended up getting what Viking calls the “Silver Spirits” package. This allowed us to get so-called premium wines and bar drinks at no additional charge throughout the trip, with a limit of $100 a day. This is in addition to the house wines and beers and various special drinks available to all guests at any of the restaurants. We weren’t able to drink as much as we could have, and the Silver Spirits option wouldn’t have been worth it except that we needed to use up the credits. Even so, the trip felt a bit like a booze cruise, and we came back wearing most of the extra calories around our waistlines.

Of course, alcohol wasn’t the only contributor to those extra pounds. The food on board was excellent and plentiful. There were four main restaurants:

  1. The World Café is a self-serve smorgasbord with a huge variety of foods available during breakfast, lunch and dinner times. I estimate that 200 people could eat there at any time. While the food was self-service, friendly servers brought beverages as requested, including water, juice, wine, beer, coffee, tea and who knows what all. I liked this place the best because I could wear my jeans and hat and select any eclectic combination of food that struck my fancy. We ate most of our meals here.
  2. The Restaurant is a classic eatery with servers who take food and drink orders and deliver to your table. The menu offered fewer options than the café, but the food was perhaps a bit better. I could wear my jeans and hat for breakfast and lunch, but at dinner they have a silly no denim and no hat policy. Collared shirts only, of course. Just because of this policy, I brought along the only non-denim pants that I own, which I bought some ten years ago and hadn’t worn for at least five years. I did manage to get them on, buttoned, and zipped, but I felt like an overstuffed sausage as I waddled off in them for the first time. We ate at The Restaurant three times, once with my jeans and twice with the fancy pants.
  3. Manfredi’s is a rather fancy Italian restaurant that accommodates about 60 people and requires an advance reservation. The menu offered fewer choices than The Restaurant, but the food was excellent, and we ate there twice.
  4. The Chef’s Table is the fanciest of all, accommodating around 40 people and also requiring reservations. A meal consists of five courses, each but the palate-cleanser paired with a suitable wine. The menu is fixed and based on a specific ethnic cuisine which changed every third or fourth day during the voyage. We ate there twice – the first time with a Mexican menu, the second time Xiang Chinese. The food and wines were divine. As Silver Spirits guests, we got the premium wines, which may almost be enough to make that option worth it.

So, I was forced to wear my fancy pants (which are actually just a pair of Dockers, but non-denim) and collared shirts for a total of six meals. I was always out of the pants within five minutes of returning to our stateroom. The funny thing is, they seemed to fit better as time went by in spite of my expanding waistline, probably due to stretching of the fabric. They didn’t rip, however, and if we ever go on another Viking Ocean cruise, I’ll make sure I can still fit into them – heaven forbid that I might buy some new pants.

In addition to the main restaurants, there were also several other places to eat and drink:

  1. The Pool Grill, near the pool, as you might guess, which served hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, and salads. We ate lunch there several times. The hamburgers may be the best I’ve ever had.
  2. Mamsen’s, named in honor of Viking CEO Torstein Hagen’s mother, of all things, served excellent waffles, soups, open faced sandwiches, fruits, and dessert tarts and rolls.
  3. The Wintergarden served a British-style tea every day at 4 PM, including several sandwiches and desserts, accompanied by either a pianist or a violin/cello duo. We partook of this delightful event six or seven times. Pat always had tea, but I opted for Prosecco. (I had to try to make that Silver Spirits thing worthwhile, you understand.)
  4. There were also bars all over the ship, including the Viking Bar, the Explorer’s Lounge, the Aquavit Bar, the Pool Bar, the Atrium Bar, and my favorite, the Torshavn. Why was it my favorite? Because the other ones only carried one or two single malt Scotches, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, even though they showed some others on their menus. I was growing tired of the same bland ones every day until I discovered that the Torshavn also carried Laphroaig, Glenmorangie, and several others, but by that time there were only four days left in the journey.
Afternoon Tea and Prosecco in the Wintergarden
Drinks at Poolside
More Drinks at Poolside
How much Prosecco can One Man Tolerate?

In addition to all the great food and drink, there was some sort of entertainment going on almost all the time. In the large Theater, we attended an ABBA review performed by an earnest and talented quartet that just didn’t quite manage the desired vibe, I think mainly because either the Agnetha clone or the Anni-Frid clone (I couldn’t tell which one) had too much vibrato. We also attended a hilarious comic magician show, and we watched the Oscars broadcast live in the Theater. There were all sorts of shows we didn’t go to, though we occasionally overheard some of them as we roamed the ship, including a Beatles revue, the Viking Band, a couple of Broadway-style singers, a guitarist, the aforementioned pianist and classical duo, and the Irish cruise director with a lovely accent who, as we heard other guests saying, sang like an angel. They even broadcast Puccini’s Turandot by the Metropolitan Opera.

Other activities on board included line dancing, trivia contests, enrichment lectures, discussion groups, and all sorts of things that I can’t even remember. There was a spa, a sauna, and a snow room, which Pat walked through and said were quite nice. And, of course, there was the pool, where dozens of people lounged for hours at a time, and maybe 50 deck chairs which were filled constantly from early morning until dinner time. The pool crowd might have provided some enrichment of another sort, except that the average age of the guests had to be around 65 or 70.

In short, there was plenty to do on the ship. While many of the guests seemed to have formed into social groups that did everything together, Pat and I, true to our natures, pretty much just kept to ourselves. We chatted occasionally with other folks during meals, but we didn’t actively socialize at all. This was one difference from the River Cruises, which had far fewer dining venues. As a result, people tended to sit at the same tables for dinner every night and even we curmudgeonly folks struck up friendships wit a few other people. To reiterate, while there were 907 guests on this trip, it never felt overly crowded, and we were happy just being there by ourselves. We especially enjoyed sitting on the balcony with our books and various beverages.

Enjoying our Balcony

The Itinerary

Here’s a map of the journey indicating the various stops that we made along the way.

In Part 2, I’ll finally get around to talking about our shore excursions, including stops in Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, and Costa Rica.

In Part 3, I’ll cover our stop in Panama (including Colon and Gamboa), our transit of the Panama Canal locks, and our final stop in Jamaica.

Stay tuned …