We joined 6 of our friends for a cruise beginning at Valparaiso, through the canal to Miami in March 2014. We flew to Santiago a day early so had one afternoon to explore this beautiful but very large city. We were thankful the government had just discontinued the reciprocity visa fee, that saved us $320.00 per couple. The afternoon of our arrival we had a van tour arranged for our group. We saw many of the historical sites and the highlight for me was a ride on the funicular to see the Virgin Mary statue that overlooks the city. It is a beautiful, mostly clean city - it is just very large. We stayed at Hotel Ibis - good choice. It is relatively new, clean and reasonable. Rooms are small by our standards, but they are adequate. It is in Providencia area of town with shopping and restaurants close by. Breakfast was included in the room rate.
We used the same van company the next day to transport to Valparaiso/Vina del Mar (another large city). We did have a nice stop at a pretty organic winery (Emilia) on the way. I enjoyed seeing the countryside there, it is reminiscent of southern California.
Embarkation was easy. The Infinity is still a nice ship but beginning to show her age. The itinerary for this trip is restful - port days separated by sea days. We love this plan as we love sea days and getting plenty of downtime between ports. Our first day was a port day at La Serena/Coquimbo. We chose to just walk around Coquimbo on our own at this stop. It is a pretty dirty port - had to really watch where you step to avoid "land mines" (dog doo). Altogether rather forgettable.
Following a sea day we next stopped at Arica, Chile. It was a better stop. Nice plaza right beside the port shuttle selling many souveniers/handicrafts. We walked around the town some, making a stop at a "La Cocina Bomba (fire station) for a beer. The fire stations have kitchens and sell lunches but we opted just to have liquid refreshment.
After another sea day the next stop was Lima/Callao. Lima has grown so large over the years that the port city is now considered a suburb. Our group had a van tour today with Gustavo/Mystery Lima tours. It was a nice roomy van for the 8 of us plus guide and driver. He was very informative. We visited a monastery and catacombs downtown as well as seeing historical buildings and plazas. At the end of the tour we visited a more affluent section, Miraflores. Most of the group had excellent pisco sours at a very nice shopping/dining complex built onto the cliff (JW Marriott was across the street). It was a good half day tour, but we don't feel we need to return there. The entertainment on the ship this evening was very good, Pianist Juan Pablo from Cuba. He played well and was very entertaining.
Next day was another restful sea day before our stop at Manta, Ecuador where we had another private half day tour. It did not start off well as the taxi drivers made a ruckus about our van not having some sort of permit sticker. We felt it to be terribly offensive and were ready to just cancel and go back to the ship. Our guide convinced us to just walk up the street a few blocks and around the corner where we reboarded our van out of sight of the taxi queue. We had a great English speaking guide, but he was fairly new to Ecuador. The van was not the cleanest or newest we hired this cruise, but it was passable. It was full with the 8 of us plus guide(Canadian), company rep (no English) and driver (also no English). We drove to Montechristo where the authentic Panama hats are still handmade and some bought hats for really pretty fair prices. Saw a nice church and busy market in the square. We also drove up a hill to a nice monument that was very clean as well (good restrooms there). There was an interesting mausoleum there. This was the highlight of the day for me - for the most part another somewhat forgettable port stop. We opted to just drive by other stops in the town, just getting a view from the van on the way back to the ship. It was actually very entertaining onboard watching all the tuna boats unload thousands of pounds of tuna!
Another restful sea day before our canal crossing. It was the only rainy day we had (the sea day) . The weather for our crossing was perfect with some clouds but no rain. It is a memorable experience to traverse the canal. Truly an engineering feat of magnificent proportions. We opted not to leave the ship the evening we were stopped there (Colon).
Next day was another sea day. We had excellent entertainment this evening by the "Pampas Devils" - tango, percussion, bolas, tap - very good and I enjoyed this very much. Normally we are not too interested in shows, but the two I have mentioned were exceptional. We tend to get tired of comedians, magicians, singers and ship's troupes.
Last port day was Cartagena, a beautiful city. We had our best tour here with Dora Zubiria's group. Our small bus was roomy and very clean. Dora met us at the pick up point and introduced us to our guide Mercedes and driver Mario. We loved Mercedes! She was very informative, moved at our speed, had excellent English. She is a mature person with wide experience and deftly handled our day. I would definitely book with them again, and was also impressed that Dora was very prompt in her communications and easy to deal with. Unlike the other ports, Cartagena is a place I could repeat again (and we have stopped there once prior to this). We visited LaPopa, arriving before the bus crowds. We visited the Dungeon market stalls, had a drive-by photo stop at the fortress, then had an extensive walk of Old Town including a visit in San Pedro Claver church.. We did not do the Inquisition museum, but that was okay as we had seen it on the last trip - and it is a quite disturbing place in some ways. We next did a little shopping in the modern city and our half day was done!
Two sea days later and we were "home" to Miami. Disembarkation seemed to take a little longer than usual, not sure why. I was glad we had opted for a late afternoon flight rather than trying to rush to the airport. About halfway through the cruise there was a small norovirus outbreak, so stringent measures were taken to disinfect passengers and ship. There were people cleaning constantly, no serving yourself at the buffet, mandatory hand sanitizing. That was all ok with me as I see too many people that do not wash thoroughly and often. The ship crew did their best to keep all the service positions covered at great hardship with long work hours. Has to be a scheduling nightmare no matter what you try to do. Overall, I think they did a fair job of handling the situation, but there is always room for improvement, Sometimes it was a noticeable inconvenience, especially in Oceanview buffet. We all tried to "go with the flow" and stay clean!