Puerto Quetzal Is the main port on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. There is very little at the port itself. We were fortunate and moored at the Marina, where there was a market area with 80 - 100 vendors selling souvenirs, and a couple of bars/cafes.
We took the Coffee Estate and Antigua excursion. The tour started with an hour and a half bus ride to the coffee plantation – Finca Colombia. The plantation is close to Antigua, is family owned, and had been run by the family for four generations. The tour of the plantation itself was conducted by the owner (her son now manages the enterprise). Not surprisingly, coffee growing is more than a job to her; it is her life and passion. The tour of the plantation itself was fascinating. Our visit was completed by an opportunity to sit in the garden and enjoy the coffee and local "cookies". And, of course buy some coffee.
We then had 15 minute ride to Antigua.
The tour of Antigua started with a visit to the Jade factory, which I found mildly interesting but could happily have missed. As is common, the greater part of the facility was a shop. The stop here was 45 - 60 minutes, which for me was at least 30 minutes too long.
We then walked to the main square where our guide described each of the main buildings. By the time we arrived there, the Cathedral was closed, and we were not able to go inside. Missing out on another cathedral was not a major deal for me. In Antigua, we were continually subjected to street vendors selling their goods, here they were mainly women. One in particular tried to sell me a rather attractive blanket. The price started out at $60, by the time we were round to the other side of the sqare the price was $10 and we were on first a first name basis. Mainly because I didn't want to carry it, I didn’t buy it. I have no idea whether it was truly hand-made.
We then went for a pleasant, although unremarkable, buffet lunch before walking back to the bus for our ride back to the ship.
My initial impression of Antigua was disappointment. It is not a particularly attractive city. Upon reflection, and after talking to some of our fellow cruises, I realize I would have enjoyed it more if I had the opportunity to wander around by ourselves. Time constraints would have meant we couldn't have done the coffee plantation as well however.
One of the pleasant surprises was how much cooler it was in Antigua than at the ship. The temperature at the ship was 95 - 100, at Antigua, at elevation of some 5,000 feet it was in the 70's. Unfortunately, it was very misty, and the surrounding volcanos were all but invisible. From what our guide was saying, this was not unusual and had been that way for several days.
Riding to and from Antigua, you realize that Guatemala is a poor country. Once down from the mountain side, You drive through sugar cane fields, along a road that is the main highway serving the port and Guatemala city. The towns you pass by are made up largely of shacks, and litter is scattered along the entire route.
This was another short stay, and since there is no dock, we had to be tendered ashore. Actually that turned into a good thing, because the view of Cabo San Lucas from just off-shore is better than most on-shore. We did invest $10 each for a water taxi to give us a 45 minute excursion to the Arch Rock, which proved to be money well spent. I am not sure how you would get to see it on foot, and it would be a shame to be there and miss it. The whole Land’s End rock formation was worth taking the boat to see.
The town itself is the usual collection of souvenir shops and bars. The Marina is provides sights of some nice, expensive, yachts. However there is evidence of the impact of the recent recession – development projects abandoned half finished.
We did not take an organized excursion in Cartagena. We took advantage of the free shuttle to the end of the pier, and took a taxi to the old town. I had decided to get some Colombian currency for the trip, although I don't think it is necessary. US Dollars are accepted to the point that the price is typically given in Dollars, you often have to ask to get it in Pesos. The price for the taxi worked out to be the same in Pesos or Dollars. A couple of purchases we made were definitely less expensive in Pesos, and a couple of small places only accepted Pesos. The old town is safe, although we were continually being asked to buy something from the street vendors, including taxi drivers wanting to take us back to the ship. Official taxis are easy to identify, they are bright yellow, and the driver wears a light blue shirt with the word Taxi all over it. Most of the taxis seemed to be the same model car. We were warned that the areas between the cruise dock and the old town were not safe, but this did not impact us. Cartagena is pleasant place to spend a couple of hours if the street vendors don’t get you down.
Everything we had read and heard about Colon told us it is not a safe place to try and do on your own. We opted to take an excursion that visited the visitor centers for the Panama Canal expansion and the existing locks. This turned out to be really interesting excursion. We went first to see the expansion. After a 20 minute video went to two observation points to see the work being done and the construction site for the new locks. Truly amazing. We then were bussed to the existing locks, and got great views of a fully loaded container ship and a cruise ship going through. We were fortunate that there were only two buses at these sites. When we actually came through the locks the next day, there were many more people there. Getting a good viewing spot would have been a lot more difficult.
Driving through Colon, you do have to travel through some of the poorest, most rundown neighborhoods I have ever seen. It is easy to understand why the cruise people warn you not to go out alone.
There is fairly large shopping area within the "safe" confines of the cruise port where you can find a number of bars and cafes (most of which seemed to provide Wi-Fi access). In addition there is a supermarket and a duty free electronics store. It didn't seem to me that there were any great deals there.
Our stay in Puerto Vallarta was short, the ship left at 2:30 p.m. We took a taxi to the old town for about $20, and strolled along the board-walk. I had brought Pesos with me, which once again proved unnecessary. We were able to get a better deal on a handbag that my wife wanted, but I wouldn’t bother with Pesos next time I went.
Puerto Vallarta was a pleasant surprise. They have done a good job at developing the Boardwalk, and it made for a very pleasant stroll.
The "port" at Puntarenas is a simple jetty jutting out to the sea. It is just wide enough to allow a bus in each direction and limited foot traffic. The distance along the jetty from the front of the ship is probably 150-200 yards. The day we were there, two cruise ships docked either side of the jetty at about the same time. Disembarkation was delayed for both ships while they got both ships tied up and all the equipment in place. Buses for the excursions backed up along the jetty. The Infinity handles most of their excursions out of the Theater, and the system is generally smooth and effective. Since all the earlier excursions were delayed, there was a mass of people waiting, and for some unaccountable reason Housekeeping chose that time to close the restrooms for cleaning.
We took the Rainforest Skywalk, Pura Vida Gardens, and Lunch tour. After about an hour's drive, we arrived at the Santa Lucia Hotel for a short bathroom break, and then were driven a few minutes up the road to the beginning of the trail. It took about 1 1/4 hours to complete the walk. It was mainly downhill, fairly strenuous (most of the group were seniors). There are three suspension bridges that you cross, that are probably 50 -100 yards long each. They are quite bouncy and swing a little as everyone goes over them. Nobody in our group had any problems and crossing them was fun. The guides will tell you that there is a 50/50 chance of seeing animals. As the day went on, it became more clear that there is little chance of seeing animals at that time of day, especially in the dry season, The noise of the road and people scare them, also by the time the tours get there it has become too hot. Apparently in the wet season, the noise from the water helps to mask the other noises. However, we had been forewarned by friends so were not overly disappointed. Our guide was excellent at talking about the trees, plants, and vegetation. After the walk, we returned to the hotel where we served with fresh fruit and a drink. Very refreshing and welcome! We then drove to the Pura Vida Restaurant and botanical gardens for a very nice lunch. We spent some time looking around the gardens before being driven back to the ship. The gardens were pleasant, and the view of the bay below was great (although somewhat misty on our visit). Do not expect an organized botanical garden, but rather a small country estate.
This tour gave us a good introduction to Costa Rica. We saw some of the countryside, and our guides were very good at explaining about life in their country. The tour was a pleasant day out. It was not the sort of tour that you come back saying that was amazing, but if you don't set your expectations too high and want something that is not overly strenuous, it can be an interesting one to take. Don't expect excitement.