Ft. Lauderdale to Santiago, Chile, December 2-20, 2011
The Panama Canal rules and South America is not a copy of Mexico.
Our trip started with a Southwest Air flight from Jacksonville to Ft. Lauderdale (FLL), since I had frequent flyer miles to use or lose. We arrived in FLL the evening of December 2, meeting our friends Charles and Nancy that travelled with us on the cruise and post-cruise. We stayed at the Renaissance Fort Lauderdale Cruise Port Hotel on 17th street, which was across the street from the FLL cruise port. The hotel was not a luxury hotel, but nice and convenient. Also, they offered a free shuttle to the cruise port. Prior to heading over to the port on the 3rd, we walked around the area, did some last minute shopping. We purchased two bottles of wine to carry on the ship, since Celebrity allows this on embarkation. I found some good wine without corks, so I wouldn't have to deal with a corkscrew. We enjoyed the wine sitting on our balcony during the Panama Canal transit.
We arrived at the cruise terminal for the Celebrity Infinity about 1:30PM and were told that due to minor refit delays that we could not board immediately. We were taken to the conference center at the port, where we processed in fairly quickly and enjoyed a complementary lunch. We boarded the Infinity about 4-4:30 and you could see workmen painting the ship and installing the imprint of the ship's name. Workmen continued to take care of business during the cruise, but it did not affect our enjoyment of the cruise in any way. We found the crew and staff to be extremely responsive and friendly as well as efficient. Our needs were always questioned by our waiters during meals and the worst thing that happened was that one of the few times that I ordered a beer instead of wine for dinner, it took 20 minutes for it to come.
We had cruised on Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) twice and had a favorable response. We found that Celebrity was in some ways about the same as NCL, but in others, superior. The main dining room food on Celebrity was super and better than the NCL MDR. In fact, the Celebrity MDR food was on par with the NCL specialty restaurants. We had the 6PM seating (Celebrity offers fixed seating at 6 and 8:30 as well as the option to eat when you want (called select dining). We sat at the same table (number 401) with Charles and Nancy as well as four other persons. Loretta and Mary were sisters travelling together as well as Val and Nellie. Loretta and Mary were widows that travel a lot and were continuing on the Infinity on the next cruise during Christmas, around Cape Horn to Buenos Aires. Val and Nellie are originally from Russia, emigrating in the late 70s. Val was a survivor of the siege of Leningrad and a former fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force, serving in the Korean War. It was very enjoyable to dine with them every night. Also, we had the same waiters that we got to know. Anthony was Peruvian and we had much to discuss about the country. Ben was from Tunisia. They were great. Many of the crew and staff have contracts for several months, such as 10 months with two days off. The Captains switch every three months.
The layout of the Infinity was very similar to the NCL Gem and Jade, which we had cruised on before. We enjoyed eating breakfast on the tenth deck (Oceanview cafÃ©) at the buffet on the open stern portion of the ship, just as we did on the Jade and Gem. The buffet on the Infinity was about the same as on NCL, however, they had a special server for eggs benedict in the morning as well as pizza later. I frequently enjoyed both. The fitness center on Infinity was smaller than on the NCL ships and seemed more crowded. Infinity did have a separate enclosed pool with hot tubs that we did not use. We didn't go to the pool at all. We did go out for sun a bit and enjoyed the crossing the equator ceremony where Neptune hazed the new crew members that crossed for the first time. All had to kiss the fish and were lathered up with some type of foamy substance, then thrown in the pool. Passengers were not so initiated, since that probably would have included most of the ship.
The Itinerary was very interesting:
Sat, Dec 03 Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Sun, Dec 04 At Sea
Mon, Dec 05 At Sea
Tue, Dec 06 Cartagena, Colombia
Wed, Dec 07 Colon, Panama
Thu, Dec 08 Panama Canal (Cruising) Cruising
Fri, Dec 09 At Sea
Sat, Dec 10 Manta, Ecuador
Sun, Dec 11 At Sea
Mon, Dec 12 At Sea
Tue, Dec 13 Lima,Peru
Wed, Dec 14 At Sea
Thu, Dec 15 Arica, Chile
Fri, Dec 16 At Sea
Sat, Dec 17 La Serena (Coquimbo), Chile
Sun, Dec 18 Valparaiso, Chile
Our post-cruise trip included one night in Vin del Mar and one night in Santiago.
Celebrity is more formal than NCL. Our 15 day cruise included three "formal" nights in which Tuxedos were recommended, although more than half of the men wore suits. It was nice, up to a point. I had to rent a tux, since I don't have one, which cost about $100 for the cruise. I didn't have to pack the tux, it was delivered to me by an attendant on the cruise and removed before disembarkation. The more formal attire seemed to go with the upscale cuisine. Every meal that we had on board was super. Problem number one was that it seemed like we were always eating, which can lead to a weight gain. Despite my regular workouts in the fitness center, I gained two lbs. on the trip. One thing, the Crepe Suzette was to die for on Celebrity.
After two days at sea, on December 6, we arrived in Cartagena, Colombia. I had arranged on cruise critic (website for cruisers) for a private tour with 8 persons, using Dora "the explorer" De Zubiria tours. The private tour was cheaper than Celebrity's and we only had 8 persons on the tour. Our tour started with a trip to the Monastery of Saint Augustine on La Popa, the highest ground in the city. Our small vehicle had no problem getting up the steep hill, but due to some water damage, large busses like those Celebrity used could not make the trip. We had a great view of the city and the Monastery was interesting. Our tour took us to see the outside of San Felipe de Barajas Fort, which was the primary defense fort for protecting Spain's vital port where is gold and silver galleons set off for the old world.
Our guide gave us the local version of Sir Francis Drake's visit to Cartagena. Drake was considered a pirate by the Spanish, despite his private commission from Queen Elizabeth. Drake did much damage to the city, especially when he captured the city and read official Spanish documents that referred to him as a pirate. Interesting, how Drake was a hero in English history, but a villain in Spanish history. Our tour took us to the old walled city; the Dungeons, with all its handcraft shops. This was the first of many shopping opportunities on this cruise, which frankly, left we totally saturated with shopping for crafts. Fortunately, such crafts were generally inexpensive on the entire trip. The tour was $65 per person, which I highly recommend to those who visit Cartagena.
Cartagena was on the Caribbean, and had something of a Caribbean flavor, as did Colon, Panama, our next port. The population of Columbia varies per the region of the country, with the Caribbean cost including more black or mixed black persons (as did Colon), while the Pacific coast ports that we visited had few black persons. Columbia's cites inland tend to be more Spanish with native populations dominating in some remote areas. Panama City, we were told was predominately Spanish or Spanish/native mix. Each country we visited was different, and each had a different culture, while still primarily based on Spanish culture. Panama had much more of an influence from the USA and English was widely known there.
Colon, Panama was our next port, which included a Celebrity tour to the Gatun Locks and a nature tour with a boat ride on Gatun lake. Our booked tour to the Gatun Locks and former Canal Zone was cancelled and we only discovered this when we arrived for the tour. Fortunately, a similar tour was still available. This was one small negative that Celebrity received on this cruise. They should have notified us earlier. The tour was good. It was great to see the locks (Gatun locks are the ones on the Caribbean site of the canal), which are the largest of the three locks. Gatun had three locks for ships to go through, gradually raising ships up to the level of Gatun lake (created by Gatun dam). There was viewing stand raised up one story overlooking the locks for us to see ships transiting the locks. The guide explained how the "mules" or motorized vehicles, like small railroad locomotives guide ships through the locks. We saw the same locks the next day on Infinity, but we appreciated seeing the locks from land the day before. Our boat ride on the lake was fun, but we saw little wildlife. Howler monkeys stayed away, but we saw four sloths. Our guide tried to scare them with sounds imitating a large bird that attacks the sloths. The sloths don't move fast at all. They feast on leaves that give them a high, reminding me of dope heads on MJ. Colon was not an attractive city (unlike Panama City, which we could see from our ship, looked like Miami). In fact, there is virtually no drainage in the city, so the streets flood constantly. We had a bit of rain that day and on our way back to the ship, some of the streets already had several inches of water.
The Panama Canal transit was probably the highlight on the trip. On December 8 our transit started before 6:30am and did not finish until around 5pm. We enjoyed much of the transit on our balcony, which was on the port side (best side for transit from Caribbean to Pacific), but did use the forward observation room on Deck 11, as well as the Oceanview cafÃ©'s open deck aft as well. It was great having breakfast and lunch there. After transiting Gatun locks and some hours on Gatun lake, we slowed a bit as the channel narrowed. In particular, at Gamboa, the headquarters for the Canal operation (about halfway through the canal) the channel narrowed as we started to go through seriously excavated areas. We saw the train several times on the railroad, which runs parallel to the canal after leaving the lake. We had a ship ahead of us that had to slow down, as did Infinity, since we could not pass the ship. One of the highlights was going through the Culebra cut (also known as the Gaillard cut). The cut is at the continental divide and where much of the excavation for the canal took place. There were several slides during and one after completion of the canal that frustrated canal builders. Once we passed Culebra, we transited the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks. Miguel had one step with Miraflores having two steps to Gatun's three steps. There was a huge viewing stand, multi-story at Miraflores (if you take a lock tour, take Gatun, there were fewer people there), overfilled with people viewing our transit. We waved as we passed. We started to see the skyscrapers of Panama City at some point and later saw the panorama of the city upon our exit from the canal, which was impressive. Once in the Pacific we were headed for our next port of Manta, Ecuador.
Ecuador is a small country between Peru and Columbia. It was the poorest country, from appearance, that we visited. However, the people were very friendly. Most of the people appeared to be of native ancestry. Our Celebrity tour took us a few miles inland to the small towns of Montecristi and La Pila, were we saw many handicraft shops and an Tagua Factory where workers take ivory-looking nuts of the tagua palm and craft them into buttons and small decorative carvings. Nothing is wasted; much of the refuse is turned into filler for concrete. We purchased some of the carvings, which were very inexpensive and attractive. Before returning to the ship, we stopped at a small but very nice museum with pre-Columbian artifacts. In Ecuador, we learned some of the history of Pizarro's conquest of the Incan empire. Apparently, the Inca commander Ruminahui never divulged to the Spanish the location of over 700 tons of gold known as the Treasure of the Llanganatis Mountains. Ecuador's landscape close to the coast was very dry, which we found to be the case all the way down the West coast of South America.
After two days at sea, we arrived at Lima, Peru, which was right up there with the canal for high points of the trip. I had booked us on another tour that I found on cruise critic. Our tour was with Monicatours (monicatoursperu.com). We had eight persons on our tour, with two persons cancelling at the last minute (that was a bummer), however, we found two more persons to go with us. The tour was $60 per person and quite good. The tour included:
Pachacamac Temple Ruins--The largest Incan and Pre-Incan ceremonial site on the Peruvian coast. The site has palaces, temples and squares and a museum that keeps the wooden statues of the creative God, Pachacamac. Also, the Indian Market, a massive local handicraft market. Further, a City Tour of Colonial and Modern Lima: such things as the old colonial center with the plaza Major, Government Palace (House of Pizarro), the Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, other churches with crypts and cloisters. The tour continued through the city and the neighborhooh of San Isidro and Miraflores.
The Pachacamac ruins was great, like going to Carnac in Luxor. Our small tour bus was able to negotiate the site, as opposed to the Celebrity tour's large tour busses, which required people to walk the site. We saw an excavated Incan road, which were extensive and covered the Incan Empire, as well as other sites, the most notable being the Temple of the Sun. After the ruins, we stopped to see the bridge of size near an old adobe church that was closed due to water damage. We had lunch at a Peruvian restaurant that was cheap and the food was great. We then drove through the upscale area of Miraflores to the Indian Market, which was huge. Then we visited the city center where we saw the Plaza de Armas with the Cathedral, Government Palace (Pizarro's) and other historical buildings. We went into the San Francisco Monastery/catacombs, which contained thousands of bones. The tour was great and cost $75, but we had to pay admission to the ruins and cathedral (nominal amounts).
Lima was a fascinating city, we felt that we wanted to return to spend more time there and see more of the country, perhaps Cuzco and Machu Picchu.
Our next country was our last one, Chile. Arica was formerly a part of Peru (the Peruvians let us know that Chile took the Arica area from them). The Chileans defeated the Peruvians and Bolivians in the War of the Pacific, which took place 1879 through 1883. Apparently, Chilean mining interests were being nationalized by the Peruvians, etc. We were told that a related dispute is still pending at the Hague (probably at the International Court of Justice). We took a Celebrity tour of Arica (Arica city tour and Geoglyphs) that included a trip to the top of the promontory overlooking the port that included an old fort that the Chilean Army had captured from the Peruvians. We visited the town which had a metal building designed by Eifel and a metal church; then going to an artisans village. We stopped to view some huge geoglyphs on the side of the mountain that were 800 years old. Geoglyphs are spread all over the area, as well as across the border in Peru. Our tour ended in a museum with more pre-coumbian artifacts. We learned that the native population had not lived long lives due to the arsenic in the water. Most people lived only until about 30 years of age. Now the water was filtered. Arica was an extremely arid region, with virtually no rain.
Our next port was Coquimbo (La Serena), Chile. We took a Celebrity walking tour that took us through Coquimbo. The tour was OK, but we could have done this one on our own. The guide did take us to a fish market where we saw some seals (or sea lions) in the water. The city was not remarkable, but we did enjoy the city, just watching the locals with their Christmas shopping. Loretta and Mary wanted to go to Mass on Sunday and discover the Mass was a funeral ceremony. They did not receive communion.
The cruise ended in Valparaiso, Chile on December 18. We disembarked and were picked up by our Southexcursions tour (included our next two days in Chile at Valparaiso, Vin del Mar and Santiago). Rogerio was our guide and did an excellent job. He was a University student in History with one more year until graduation. Our tours as described by the tour company:
Valparaiso and Vina del mar city tour (4 1/2 hrs)
Pick up 08:30 at Valparaiso cruise terminal for city Valparaiso and Vina del Mar city tour,
here you will discover the exceptional beauty of Valparaiso, a centuries old port city recently declared a World Heritage by UNESCO. Prior to the construction of the Panama Canal (1914), the Port of Valparaiso was the most important in the South Pacific as ships from around the world called here once they crossed Cape Horn or the Strait of Magellan. Explore a labyrinth of streets that stretch over the many tiered hillsides facing the bay and see an antique funicular (wooden cable car elevator) used to transport the resident "Porte'os" up and down. Enjoy the imaginative architecture and bright colors of the centenarian homes built by the first Europeans to settle here. Breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean await you at the "21 de Mayo" promenade and panoramic lookout point. Other city highlights include the La Matriz church, "Plaza Sotomayor" with its impressive Naval Heroes Monument, Ex-Governor's Palace and the Justice Tribunal building. Contrasting the aged elegance of Valparaiso is the "Garden City" of Vi'a del Mar. Vi'a is renowned for its beautiful avenues lined with immense old trees, well-kept parks, popular resorts, long sandy beaches and holiday fun. Enroute to Vi'a, you'll pass the Plaza Victoria, National Congress Building, and Santa Maria University. Upon arrival you'll see the Vi'a "Flower Clock", impressive Presidential Palace, Brunet and Wulff Castles, and the posh Vi'a del Mar Casino and luxury hotel. Drop off at your Valparaiso Hotel
Santiago city tour (6 Hrs)
Heading towards Santiago, you'll travel through the picturesque Chilean countryside including the famous wine-producing valley of Casablanca, here you can have the opportunity to try one of their most famous wines. In Santiago, you will travel to the historical center to see the Presidential Palace "La Moneda" and Constitution Square. You will also see the Ex-National Congress building and the Justice Tribunal buildings en route to the impressive Plaza de Armas (Main Square). Here, we find the Municipal Cathedral, Ex-Governor's Palace, Main Post Office and National Historic Museum.
This tour finish at your Santiago Hotel.
*Santiago is located 120 km from Valparaiso
We travelled as a group of four and enjoyed Chile. Valparaiso was an attractive port city with steep hills, old homes (some still with earthquake damage) and interesting architecture. Vin del Mar was a newer city around the bay from Valparaiso and more upscale. Vin was also a beach resort area for the locals. We stayed at the Hotel San Martin, one block from the ocean. We had a great meal at the Terra del Fuego restaurant nearby (overlooking the sea). In fact, every meal we had in South America was great. We had a super meal in Santiago at the Galleon restaurant. The Sea Bass was super.
After a night in Vin and a short stop at another pre-Columbian museum there, we proceeded on toward Santiago, stopping at a winery to sample Chilean wines, which were great. The winery was Vina Casas Del Bosque. We purchased some wine, which we drank in Santiago and received the phone number of distributers in the USA.
After a tour of Santiago, we ran into a problem with our hotel booking, which was promptly corrected. It was unfortunate, but more of a problem for the guys that had unloaded all our baggage, which they had to reload. Our tour of Santiago included all the sites listed earlier. We enjoyed going to the top of a hill in the city center that was a park. It was called Santa LucÃa. On our final day there (flight left at 10:25pm) we rode the Santiago Metro, subway, which was busy.
While in Chile, we saw bookstores with several books that demonstrated a Marxist slant. Of course the same bookstore had Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." Rogerio explained that Chile was a country of emigrants from many European countries, including England, Italy, Germany and Spain. In the 20th Century many leftist emigrants left Fascist Italy and Fascist Spain to emigrate to Chile. Chile is now has a free market economy and seems to be closer to European levels more than any other country we visited, however there are still those Marxist strains in the country.
Our flight home on LAN airlines (owned by several South American countries) was pretty good. The food on board was good and we enjoyed free movies. One notable plus was that we could check two bags free. We had booked the trip back to Miami through Celebrity.
We enjoyed Celebrity and booked another cruise to the Southern Caribbean on March 10. If you book on board, you get up to $300 on board credit as well as a three level upgrade, saving many dollars. NCL doesn't have this benefit, only the lower deposit with $100 OBC on the current cruise. The Infinity had gone through refit and we had a minor inconvenience in embarking, but the cruise was great and we would go on Infinity again. The entertainment was about as good as NCL (NCL general excels there). Mario was the highlight of the shows, but there was a gaucho show that wasn't so great. Chris Riggins did two great shows, as well as a couple doing aerobatics.
The fitness room on Infinity is too small and they need some newer machines that seemed to show more breakdowns. Great crew and staff on Infinity. Great Ship, would do it again.