Our trip to Santiago (SCL) began with an affirmation of why we travel a day early to the departure port. Delta's maintenance schedule evidently needs improving.
You will complete the Chile immigration form on the plane. A second form is needed for customs that you pick up in the SCL airport. Neither form is needed to purchase the reciprocal fee. In SCL there are at least two places to purchase the reciprocal fee ($140 US in March 2012). The first is immediately as you exit the aircraft. The line got very long at that point. There is a second place beside the immigration line. The line there was shorter in our instance. But widespread reading of this account may change those dynamics. :) The cash and credit card lanes are the same. It takes much longer to use cash because they meticulously inspect each bill. Bring pristine currency if you use cash. The immigration line moves pretty quickly.
The line to customs (after claiming your bag) is also very long. Be careful to declare any food items on the immigration form. Chilean customs is serious about confiscating listed food and fining people.
It took over an hour from landing to navigate out of the airport. We walked across the driveway to the Holiday Inn and were very pleased with the property. It was quiet, very clean and very convenient with fast internet access.
Get some Chilean Pesos at the airport or ATM if you are independent travelers here or in the other two Chilean ports. Santiago is a nice city and one or two days is plenty to see the historic cites.
Being functional in Spanish and having a local friend, the next day we chose the cultural adventure of going to the bus station in SCL for travel to Vina, near Valparaiso. We wanted to see that beautiful city too. The bus took 2 hours. They are the big comfortable seats and a toilet in the back of the bus (take your own paper). For $7 each it was very nice. Vina is about 30 minutes away from the cruise port along a gorgeous bay-front drive. Walking straight through the small bus station is the taxi stand. NOTE: Straight across the street is a Lider market (owned by Walmart). A good place to get your soda's to take aboard. The McDonald's there also probably has Wifi but we didn't check.
Check in on Infinity was less organized than in other ports and I am glad we arrived late in the day when it was less crowded. Warning! The contract said to be on board 90 minutes early for the 7 p.m. departure. We arrived at 4:15 to discover a 4:30 all aboard! (The lifeboat drill was at 5). I did not look to see if folks arriving later had any issues. We rode a bus for about 5 minutes from the terminal to the boat. There is supposed to be free Wifi at the terminal but we didn't find the signal on our Iphones when hurriedly checking.
Celebrity keeps the passports until you clear Peru, so bring a copy of your passport to carry with you.
La Serena is a delightful town. We again chose the local bus to travel the thirty minutes from Coquimbo (Port) into La Serena. It costs 500 Chilean pesos per person ($1). We asked a man at the port where to catch the bus and he walked us out of the port and stood with us at the spot. We walked out the port gate and went straight across the street (not right or left out of the gate). We stood on the corner facing back toward the ship. The bus came from our left and had a sign in the window "La Serena Directo." Our new friend waved it down and we paid Pesos as we entered the bus. I was concerned he was going to try for a tip but he was a nice guy trying to help a guest to his city. He gave good advice on what to see and cautions about safety. (Snatch and grab is evidently common). The buses we rode there and back were old, rickety and full. They hold about 26 people. Tell the driver "Plaza de Armas". You will pass a modern 70 store Mall Plaza La Serena on the right (and may want to spend your time there). About 5 minutes later the driver will let you out on the corner of the road heading to La Serena city plaza. The bus will go straight. You want to head up the hill. For us, we turned left (following the direction of the bus) from where he let us out and turned right to walk one block up the slight hill to the plaza. We found no free wifi and spent a couple of hours online at a cafe.
The plaza is lovely. La Recova market (three blocks away from town down Calle Arturo Prat road) is a great place to walk around and purchase souvenirs. There are several cafes with WiFi on that road too. I think La Recova would take dollars and were very chatty and friendly in Spanish. We never saw any hawkers trying to get us into their store. There is no bargaining here unless there is a large quantity purchase.
At the market I asked where to catch the bus back, suspecting we didn't have to walk back through the plaza where we got off. A friendly young waiter walked us one block to the road and helped flag down the bus. The sign in the front window said "Coquimbo directo" Again, we were surprised at the friendliness of the people. Experience though advices caution and circumspection.
Arica is another pleasant town. The port provides a free shuttle from the ship to the port gate. From the gate is a five minute walk to a plaza with a beautiful church. Wise merchants set up across the plaza with souvenirs. The prices there were similar to the ones we found in town at the other market areas we discovered. The Wifi at McDonalds was very spotty so we walked on up the 21 de Mayo pedestrian mall and found a much better free signal. Turn left at McDonalds to find another small and fascinating market area. Go a couple of blocks then turn right for a block or two and turn right again to come back to the main pedestrian mall. Be advised on the high altitude excursion. Tablemates indicated over half of the people on their bus were seriously affected by the altitude, the bus was not air conditioned and the road was treacherous.
Lima information is under the Port review area.
There were multiple whales, sea birds and several pods of porpoises all along the coast. The provided binoculars in Concierge rooms are very low magnification (i.e. useless). Bring your own.
Manta Ecuador is an interesting cultural experience. There is a free van to the gate and the local representatives had a very good free map. A turn to the right from the gate takes you to the archaeological museum, a KFC, an internet cafe and Supermaxi supermarket (20 minute walk). The free museum is worth maybe 15 minutes (has clean toilets). Turn left from the gate for a 15 minute walk into the plaza Civita. The streets are dirty and the sidewalks uneven. The heat and rain caused us to choose the Celebrity shuttle (roundtrip $5.50) into town. Ecuador uses US dollars as their currency. The craft market in the plaza provides an excellent variety of art, cloth goods, knick knacks and lots of Panama hat options for men and women. We bargained a hat from $45 to $20 (it did not have the Montecristo liner). We bought two beautiful drawings on feathers, again negotiating almost half off the initial price. Check all the stalls before making a purchase as prices and quality varies. Tuna boats next to us at the port were unloading dozens of huge tuna.
Celebrity provides a basic brochure about the Panama Canal. We purchased Richard Detrich's "Your Day in the Panama Canal, Northbound" online based on recommendations in CC. But it is poorly written and there is nothing there that couldn't be found online for free or in the brochure. The ship board book is much better. The ship commentary is brief so do some research to prepare for what you see.
We were up early for the approach to the Canal. There are three sets of locks, one approach you will want to be in the Constellation or higher and one from the helicopter deck (which they opened due to the beautiful weather). You will want to be on deck four for one lock to see it close up, and on the aft restaurant to see the closing of the rear gates one time. The rest of the time the balcony is great. We were on starboard and luckily had the other canal lane on that side. There is no way to know which lane will be assigned. It was fun watching a huge tanker go through the locks next to us. Be sure to alert family to Google the web cams and watch you go through.
Cartagena, Columbia is a great port. Additional information is under the Port review area.
Our room attendants were very good but did not have the seeming magical quality of earlier cruises to unobtrusively clean the room immediately upon our leaving in the morning and evening. NOTE: There IS a cheese, fruit and cracker option for those who find the Concierge room canapes to be less than appetizing. An advantage of the new Solsticized ship is the improved wifi access from the staterooms. The new night light in the bathroom is also nice. Our AC seemed to be improved too. It is disappointing that the opportunity was missed to fix the shower curtain issues (magnets on bottom of the curtain or a convex track). Also surprising they didn't respond to the dozens of posts and comments requesting a guest laundry like Princess and QE2 have. Also need to recognize the aft restaurant is too small and too close to the aft balconies to allow a smoking section.
Entertainment varied widely. The guest magicians and acrobats were great. We enjoyed the classical trio and the guest lecturers. The regular evening shows were not the caliber we expected from past cruises.
We enjoy the variety and quality of the buffet for Breakfast. We also like the variety at lunch. The pizza, sandwich, burger and ice cream stations are great. The fish chips this year were not as good as the last cruise. All of the Chinese, Filipino and Thai dishes are too heavily influenced by Asian Indian flavors. Dining is very good but there were more options that weren't as good than we have had on past cruises. Service is always very good.
The United States specialty restaurant is very good. The service is excellent and the food is good. We had the Lobster and Dover Sole with the Chocolate souffle for dessert. To us it is not worth the extra cover charge.
FLL is a good port. We arrived at 4:30 a.m. for the scheduled 7 a.m. disembarkation. We walked off when they cleared us at 7:15 and got through the immigration line in minutes. Taxis did not arrive until almost 7:30. Confirm the driver is using the meter for the fifteen minute ride. We shared a cab and gave the driver $13 for an $8.50 fare. He said that was not enough but couldn't tell us why. Delta downsized two aircraft so there was no early stand by. We got online using the free FLL wi-fi until we got on our 12:45 flight.
Overall a great itinerary on a great ship with great service.