Golden Princess Part Two - Valparaiso to Acapulco
Having missed the Cruise Critic get together that I had arranged, due to the chaos at the embarkation, we settled in with our reduced table of 8 for the remainder of the cruises, moving from the Donatello down to the Bernini with our waiters Antonio and Placido. They were a real treat, and we were almost nightly provided with some special surprise not on the regular menu.
The next day was Coquimbo for La Serena. There was a shuttle from the pier to La Serena, which is a pretty, compact town with a very well done Archaeological Museum and a large open air market. There are a few buildings of the colonial era and a university. The university freshmen were undergoing some sort of initiation ritual which required them to paint their faces and clothing and ask for money from everyone in town which added a little spice to an otherwise unremarkable stop. We did view the museum which has one of several moai, or heads, from Easter Island. Each one (there was one in front of the archeology museum on the Valparaiso stop as well) purports to be the only head available to be seen off the island, but the one in La Serena looked to be authentic and there were photographs of the removal from Easter Island. My only issue with this very good set of ethnographic displays was the lack of any English translation materials. My high school Spanish wasn't really up to doing justice to the narrative, but I was able to at least puzzle out some of the information. The market was a bit of a mixed bag, with some very nice jewelry places and a lot of the usual 'made for tourists' stuff that we saw everywhere.
There were a couple of ships tours offered here, and we did explore the possibility of a private tour as well, but on the advice we read in the South America ports forum, we decided to just do the shuttle, and wander on our own. This turned out to be a fine decision, and we also hit the grocery story to stock up on some of the excellent and inexpensive Chilean wines. Ship's tours took you into the countryside to view the petroglyphs or to the Tololo Observatory, some included winery visits, or the Pisco distillery as well. Some folks also left from here to do - I believe privately arranged - tours of Machu Picchu.
I should take a moment here, too, to mention some of the on-board activities that I neglected to address in part one of this review. During the first two legs of this cruise - Buenos Aires to Valparaiso and Valparaiso to Acapulco, we were fortunate to have Port Lecturer Joe May - a truly wonderful and knowledgeable gentleman. He provided very interesting and entertaining port lectures, and, with his signature red shirt, was on hand during the day at the shore excursions desk to address questions, and on shore to assist with anything that came up. He didn't object to being approached even when he wasn't officially on duty, either.
Other 'Scholarship@Sea' lecturers were, in my opinion, not as gifted as Joe - we had Elvira Schwartz as the historical lecturer dealing with the history of the various areas we were visiting. I was a history major in college and was quite looking forward to these talks, but found them both difficult to follow and not particularly enlightening and only attended two. Another speaker was Dr. Zimmerman, a 'celebrity biographer' and others who were in our dinner group did attend some of his talks and enjoyed them. I'm not much on celebrity gossip so can't say personally. The remaining S.@S. programs were the usual complement of computers and digital photography, bridge, ceramics, etc. that are part of the program on pretty much every Princess cruise.
Following Coquimbo, we had a sea day, and then arrived in Arica, in the northernmost corner of Chile. Here we had arranged a tour with AndeanDuncan Tours, recommended highly on the Cruise Critic South America ports of call forum by Edinburgher. Contact information is as follows: Yungay 343 D-13, Arica, Chile. Fono 56.58-232716 Cel: 09-5258095 E-mail: email@example.com www.andeanduncantour.blogspot.com
The tour was led by Joanne Duncan and her daughter Carolina and was one of the highlights of our whole trip. Arica is an amazing place, with such stark contrasts between the very dry and desolate hills and the verdant valley and Joanne is a wonderful guide and charming personality who knows the area exceptionally well. Our itinerary included the town of Arica which was preparing for a visit from the President who was there to officially create a new district - the equivalent of statehood - for the Arica area. (we seemed to be on the trail of politicians - Bush in Montevideo, the President of Chile in Arica!) Our original itinerary was tweaked a bit to deal with the security concerns, but Joanne got us into every place we wanted to see. In Arica proper, we did a brief walking tour, saw the San Marcos Cathedral designed by Gustave Eiffel, the railroad museum, and the town square. We had to skip the Morro view point as the security folks had that roped off. We then piled into the van (which was a pretty tight fit with 9 of us, Joanne, Carolina, and Carolina's boyfriend who joined us at this point to help out with the tour - I would suggest no more than 8, and preferably 6 people for everyone's comfort) After a drive along the coast line and beaches, we headed inland to view the mysterious petroglyphs found on the hillside above the river valley throughout the region. These huge carvings of llamas, people, and geometric symbols are thought to have been the equivalent of road signs indicating areas where supplies were stored or where villages were found along the trading routes from the Andes to the sea. We visited one such storage area that had been partially excavated and made several stops to view and take pictures. Moving into the countryside along the riverbed, we stopped at the farm of a friend of Joanne's for a rest stop, a walk around the farm which featured ostriches and dairy goats and a variety of crops, and then had a wonderful surprise snack of cured olives, fruit, juices, goat cheese from the farm that was about the best I've ever tasted, and the ubiquitous Pisco Sour. Then we returned to the van for a drive up and over the ridges to the town of Ponconchile and its church with a small market in front. Following this stop was our lunch stop in a small local restaurant where we were offered the specialty of the region - Pastel de Choclo - a one dish meal, although there were also other items available on the menu. Most of us ordered one portion between two people to share, as we'd already filled up on our snacks at the farm stop, and it was more than enough. This was another unique element of this wonderful tour as it was clear that no tour bus had ever been to this small family run restaurant. It was very clean, and the food was quite tasty. We were each provided with a copy of the recipe for the Pastel de Choclo, as well.
One of our group had seen the write ups of the 'grass free' golf course, so we rearranged our tour itinerary to include this quite unique attraction as well as some additional nearby geoglyphs. We also visited the San Miguel de Azapa Archeological Museum with its ancient mummies. There really was not a ship's tour that included all the things we did, but the Arica City Tour and Geoglyphs at $51/person, plus the Arica, Atacama Desert, and Chinchorro Culture at $99/person each had elements of our tour which was priced at $50/person, with lunch extra.
Arica was followed by a sea day, with our next port being San Martin for Pisco. It was here that the ship's tours to Machu Picchu departed, to rejoin the ship on our second day in Callao/Lima. Also offered at this port were the overflights of the Nazca Lines. The terrain here is quite similar to Arica, and it is, in fact, an extension of the vast Atacama Desert which stretches up the coastline of South America through Chile and Peru. Again the desert dunes are split by fertile river valleys, and excursions were offered to Tambo Colorado and the Paracas Peninsula. The Princess tour provider for all the tours in Peru, including the Machu Picchu tour, and also for the shuttle in Ecuador, was Condor Travel, and they were universally excellent. Guides were easily identifiable, spoke excellent English, and were very knowledgeable.
We selected a ship's tour here - the Islas Ballestas Wildlife Cruise. While this cruise is offered from the piers of a resort in Pisco, it appeared that for the morning tours, all the available seats and boats had been booked by the ship. Passengers not on ship's tours appeared to have to wait for space available after all the ship's tour folks were accommodated. We selected a morning tour, based on the good advice of Joe May, as well as Edinburgher and others on the port of call forums, as the afternoons were reported to be often choppy, and indeed, seas were building as we returned.
The Islas Ballestas are called the mini-Galapagos, and have an abundance of wildlife that outstrips anything I have ever seen. Thousands of birds of various species, sea lions, penguins - all in a bewildering variety and with an unbelievable stench. These islands are also mined for guano - the accumulated manure of all these creatures that is used in making fertilizer. The small boats - each carries about 20 to 25 people - thread through the islands, under the sea arches, approaching quite close to the islands, as hundreds of birds wheel overhead. It is no wonder there is such a market for the safari type hats sold for $3 to $5 on the pier! Joe May recommended the purchase of these for all those heading out on this excursion. The profusion of birds, the coves and shores covered with baby sea lions and seals, the penguins clambering over the rocks above and the cacophony of bird calls, sea lion and seals barking - it is quite the sensory experience. On the way out to the Islas, the boat also pauses for a look at El Candelabro - another of the huge geoglyphs common in the region. We had calm seas and sunshine for the morning excursion, but noticed that the wind was picking up and the chop was increasing as we returned to the piers at the resort. The resort has a nice gift shop and lovely grounds as well as a restaurant and bar. This tour is probably easily done independently, by taxi from the ship's anchorage to the town, but if you are on a larger ship, be aware that all the available morning seats might be reserved by the ship's tours. Based on the write ups in the ports of call forum, passengers on smaller ships did not have this problem.
From San Martin, and with a smaller compliment of passengers, we made our way to Callao for Lima, which was an overnight stop, to accommodate the Machu Picchu tours. We arrived bright and early in Callao, the port for Lima. Here our tour provider was Peru Gateway Travel. Contact information follows: Marcos Cuya mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com Sales Department Peru Gateway Travel - Orquidea Tours Av. Pardo 601 Dpto 701 - 702 Lima 18 - PERU Phone : +51 1 - 4443027- 4443031 - 4443032 Fax : +51 1- 2421273 www.peruexplorer.com www.orquidea.net
Our referral for this tour was BCHappyGirl and it was another highlight. We had an excellent guide, of mixed European and Indian heritage, who made a point throughout the day of sharing with us the conflicted feeling she had about various aspects of her country's history. We began, thankfully early and in the relative cool, with the Pachacamac Ruins - a huge complex of ruins of a religious site on the outskirts of Lima. We climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, saw the reconstructed House of the Women - the home of the priestesses, and were on our way into Lima for our tour of the city before the first of the big buses arrived. Lima has the most amazing and wildest traffic of any place we have ever visited, including Rome. There seem to be traffic suggestions rather than rules as people seem to drive pretty much wherever and however they want to. I was filled with awe and admiration of our van driver as he made his way through this madness, and always managed to find a parking place and get us all in and out of the various attractions in one piece! We visited the Cathedral with the tomb of Pizarro, the San Francisco Monastery where we were able, as a small group, to go to some areas not generally open to the public such as the second floor library. We then toured the catacombs - a rather claustrophobic experience - and then were off to lunch at a lovely restaurant called Mangos in a very upscale shopping center that overlooks the bay. The shuttle from the ship dropped and picked up across the street at the Marriott. Following lunch, we headed back into town for a stop at the Indian Market - there are several of these, and our guide selected the one she felt was the best. It stretched for several blocks and had everything imaginable from the usual weavings and llama skin rugs to CDs of the ubiquitous Peruvian flute music (our guide helped me find a wonderful one and negotiate a price) to lovely jewelry and decorative pieces such as trays and coasters made with a beautiful black and red seed from a tree in the Peruvian rain forest. After a brief orgy of shopping, we headed back to the van and off to the Gold Museum. This famous attraction houses the collections of one man - a doctor, with a passion for collecting. The main museum houses a remarkable collection of pre-Colombian gold and other artifacts and an absolutely amazing hodgepodge of military weapons, uniforms, and gear - bridles and tack for cavalry horses, swords, pistols, and uniforms from all over the world, some of which purportedly belonged to various famous and infamous historical figures. It would have been easy to spend a full day in this amazing place. Surrounding the main museum there are a number of upscale shops and jewelry stores. In fact, the ship offers a half day tour, just to the Gold Museum. The nearest equivalent ship's tour to ours would be the Grand Lima City, Gold Museum and Indian Market at $129/person, but this did not include the Pachacamac ruins. Only one tour was offered to these, in combination with a hacienda and horse show at $139. Our tour was $83/person, prepaid by credit card, including lunch.
The ship remains in Callao overnight, affording the option to do evening tours and/or dinner in Lima, but after a full day of touring, we opted to stay on board for the evening, nor did we venture beyond the pier during the morning stay. In the evening, a quite good local folkloric show was presented in the Princess Theater. The costumes were gorgeous and the dancing and music was very good. The folkloric shows were a very nice addition to the evening entertainment, which was otherwise pretty forgettable.
The vendors set up very elaborate mini-shops right at the pier, and in addition to the ship's shuttle (for a fee) there is also a free shuttle that goes to Stern's Jewelry Store in Miraflores. The vendors remained at dockside until the gangways were pulled in, so you can get your shopping fix quite easily, and there were some lovely things being offered.
We collected up our returning passengers from Machu Picchu, and cast off in the early afternoon, to head to Ecuador, where our stop was in Manta. A day trip to Quito was on offer for $695. We took the free shuttle from the ship to the shopping area set up for passengers. Other tours took in the Ivory Nut carving factory in the nearby town of Montecristi, which is famous for the cottage industry production of Panama hats. Both crafts were displayed at the marketplace, as well. Manta is clearly a very poor place and security was very tight around the market area. We didn't really feel comfortable wandering away from the compound, but did enjoy the market, and there were a lot of Panama hats in evidence for the rest of the cruise. Good buys here also included beautiful hand embroidery work on table linens and clothing items.
Another sea day, during which we rather weirdly had the crossing the equator ceremony (since we'd crossed the equator in the middle of the previous night...) and the usual silliness prevailed. I'm not really fond of the crossing of the equator ceremonies as too often they seem unnecessarily humiliating, but lots of folks attended and from the ship souvenir video a good time was had by all - or at least by most... Early the next morning, we arrived at Panama, where we tendered into Fuerte Amador. We had arranged for a private tour here, with Easy Travel Panama, and our tour guide was the owner, Judith Tovar. Judith is a Panamanian of European descent who has recently started a tour business. Contact information follows: Judy Tovar Easy Travel Panama Cellular (507) 6-617-4122 www.easytravelpanama.net
We visited the fort, the older parts of Panama City, the new developing waterfront area, including the site where Donald Trump is putting up a large and predictably expensive condo and retail complex, the old U.S. bases - on which Judy lives having bought one of the homes when the bases were turned over to the Panamanian government and the housing was auctioned off - up to the look out point which formerly housed fortifications and guns that protected the Canal. Judy took us by Noriega's home, now derelict, but in a lovely neighborhood, and finally to a local grocery - also on a former base - so we could stock up on wine. We had done the full transit of the canal so we passed on the visit to the locks, but we were able to get a bird's eye view of the canal from the top of the hill on the base. This was quite a nice tour and we enjoyed Judith enormously. She is quite personable, speaks exceptionally good English, and has a deep love of her country and enjoys sharing its history and sights with her guests. Cost per person was $50 for a half day tour.
Another sea day and we arrived in Puntarenas Costa Rica. This was listed as a tender port but we docked. We had originally booked the Zipline tour here, but chickened out and cancelled, and ended up just walking around the port area, which housed a few blocks of stands, and enjoying a day on board. There are an abundance of tours offered here, but everything is an hour or more away from the port, and we were, by this time, just plain tired, and didn't feel like we wanted to do the long bus rides.
One more sea day - the Captain's Farewell Cocktail Party and our 3rd formal night of THIS segment - fifth of the cruise, and then arrival in Huatulco. Huatulco is another of the Mexican government's made for tourism towns, in a picturesque setting, with lovely resorts and lots of upscale shops. We opted for the river rafting tour - another ship's tour. This was a not very good idea as it had been very dry and the river was very very low. We have never worked so hard on an excursion! There was very little current, a lot of paddling, almost no rapids, and over all, not a great excursion. This is probably fun if there has been rain and the river actually has some water in it. Otherwise, not great.
And then this section of the cruise was over, with our arrival in Acapulco. The disembarkation and embarkation (and transiting passenger) process was better here than anywhere else on the whole trip. The cruise terminal seems well organized and the process was smooth start to finish as far as we could tell. Transiting passengers were handled efficiently and with minimal fuss and bother. We had cancelled our tour here because we feared it would be a repeat of the mess in Valparaiso and didn't want to take a chance. We walked across the street from the ship and toured the fort, which was very interesting, and then returned to the ship for the rest of the day and evening, but taking a more extensive tour here would be fine, as they seem to have the process quite well managed. Read Less