Costa Rica-Panama Canal-Ecuador

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

From Havana, it was an overnight sail around the north-west tip of Cuba and south headed for the Panama Canal. We stopped off at Cayman Brac, the smallest of the three Cayman Islands, after a lazy day at sea. Brac apparently means ‘bluff’ to the Scots, i.e. the name of the island’s highest point, at a staggering 146’ above sea level.


One look at the landscape of scruffy palms and motley beaches was enough to choose to spend a relaxing day at anchor. The island’s great claim to fame is the Cayman Brac parrot (there are supposedly only 400 in existence). Originally the island was called Las Fortugas, after the turtles that the passing ships picked up because they could be kept alive on board until required for turtle soup/stew etc. By 1530 the islands were renamed after the Carib word for marine crocodiles.

That ubiquitous old terror, Francis Drake, popped in around 1586, collecting turtles to feed to his motley crew of pirates, and the islands were ceded to England via the treaty of Madrid in 1670, and treated as a dependency of Jamaica (not far to the east). The islands were a convenient servicing point for pirates throughout the C18th.


In 1794 ten ships were wrecked off the coast on a reef east of Grand Cayman. All were saved, including, anecdotally, a member of the royal family, so George III decreed that no Caymanian could be conscripted for war service, and the islands became tax free, a favour which today contributes to their lucrative industry of financial services and dodgy companies registry.

Most of the passengers tendered ashore for swimming and snorkelling and a barbeque lunch, but pronounced the beach fairly ordinary and rocky. Sightings of wildlife included one fruit bat although a few claimed to have spotted the highly touted parrot. I checked out its photo and ordered another gin and tonic.


However, I had to get some activity in during the days at sea (which I love) so I stopped by the morning lecture on the Costa Rica tropical rain forest, which receives 79” of rain/year, with each tree transpirating 200 gallons of water into the atmosphere (50% of rain in rain forests is produced by transpiration). An acre of rain forest can house 135 species of trees, with the canopy growing to 130’, the understorey 75’ and the scrubby layer at the bottom scrambling to 25’. Virtually no light ever hits the ground.


The trees host a cityscape of epiphytes, which weigh them down, but don’t affect their health. There are 83 species including orchids, bromeliads, mosses and lichens. Frogs drink out of the natural vases provided by the bromeliads, and their droppings feed the plant. 70% of the world’s orchid species are epiphytes growing in rain forests. Some epiphytes (e.g. the quaintly named Strangling Fig) throw down aerial roots to ground level.


The major predator in the Costa Rican rain forest is the Harpy Eagle (named after Mr Harpy, not his wife). This darling snatches monkeys and sloths from the trees, but only needs a couple of kills per week because that’s all the exercise it bothers with.


There are plenty of parrots, which apparently have excellent memories and remember which tree to come back to after a year or more.


The three-toed sloth climbs down to ground level once a week to defecate. This is about as much excitement as a sloth can cope with and it needs to be alert and aware during the process because it’s very vulnerable in its weekly crouching position. Its cousin, the two-toed sloth (I think the one-toed sloth must have been a victim of natural selection) hosts a unique ecosystem. A moth makes its home in the sloth’s fur, and when the sloth struggles down for its weekly visit to the forest floor, the moth flies out and lays its eggs in the comfy warm excrement. The grubs then feast on the stuff and then, when they’re ready, catch a lift back up to the canopy on their mobile gravy train. Sloths outnumber howler monkeys 10:1.


There’s a standard warning about howler monkeys. Last year our lecturer was in the forest when a US school group was told by its teacher “Don’t stand under the tree”. But of course, they promptly huddled around the trunk whereupon the monkeys promptly, and with great joy jumping around clapping and laughing, pee’d all over them! Go monkeys, I say.


There are also squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, five species of cat and a long-legged rat the size of a terrier in rain forest residence. Add to that iguana that can fall 50’ without injuring themselves, boa constrictors and vipers, a treewalker frog, newts (with eyes, presumably), salamander, peccaries, armadillos who’ve waddled up from South America and white-tailed deer that have scampered down from North America, leaf-eater ants and camouflage grasshoppers and it’s a rich and inhospitable fauna mix indeed.


Being at sea, after a long and leisurely lunch it was time for the afternoon lecture, delivered by a dour ex-diplomat from Edinburgh. The subject was the (previously unknown to me) Darien Expedition/Project/Disaster – call it what you will! This was the Scots attempt at starting a commercial colony in the new world. An home-grown con-artist by the name of Patterson managed, after several years (we’re talking C17th) to convince the good folk of the north to front up with half the total wealth of Scotland to fund an expedition of ships and people to a peninsula in Panama, smack bang in the middle of the Spanish colonial behemoth in central America! No planning, no sovereignty over the destination, no surveys, no knowledge of terrain, climate, environment, eco-systems, no support! Never mind – this was an opportunity for the Scots to play on the world stage of colonization and mix it with the heavies, i.e. the English, Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Needless to say, the “expedition” was an unmitigated disaster with the luckless volunteers wiped out by disease, starvation and the Spaniards. The fallout was history-making, being the major impetus for the Scottish acquiescence to union with England.


Next morning I fronted up to Andrew’s lecture on the building of the Panama Canal -‘panama’ means ‘abundance of fish’. Señor Bilboa was the first cove in the region, during his cruise of 1501, but was a tad befuddled in the geography department, and believed he’d arrived in Asia (Bilboa eventually set eyes upon the Pacific before the traditional claimant, Cortez).


Panama City was founded in 1519, about the same time as (oh, no, not again) Frankie Drake gunned into town on the Caribbean coast, emptying the treasure houses of Colon. (He died two weeks later and was buried at sea a couple of kilometres offshore – treasure hunters still believe considerable booty shares Davy Jones locker with him).


Henry Morgan wasn’t far behind, intercepting 200 mules laden with gold and jewels from Meso-America and South America in 1685. The French and British pirates were so formidable, they formed a combined fleet to take on the might of the Spanish galleons in a cat-and-mouse game. The Spanish outfoxed the pirates, needless to say. But the high seas heists were troublesome enough for the Spanish to decide that the trip round Cape Horn was preferable to the overland and cross-Caribbean run. In 1821, Panama became an ‘independent’ province of Columbia, part of Simon Bolivar’s vision for a “Grande Columbia” nation.


As always in the region, the US were anything but an innocent bystanders. Seizing the opportunity, they funded, along with Columbia, a railroad across the isthmus in 1846. The timing was exquisite, with the railroad being ready just in time for the ’49 California gold rush, so most miners from Europe traveled across the Caribbean and Panama rather than a) around Cape Horn or b) (even worse) across the great plains of the North America with all their Indians in war paint and feathered headdresses.


The idea of a canal was not new. Charles V of Spain had ordered a feasibility study in the 1520’s.


Ferdinand de Lesseps, famed for his exploits in creating the Suez Canal, fronted up for the fray when the French won the concession to build a canal. He was more than up for the challenge, in his own mind. ”Does a general, having won one battle, refuse to win another?” He seems to have ignored several key issues – the climate, geomorphology and terrain were completely different from any conditions he’d previously mastered; disease was a major factor (Yellow Fever and Malaria, both, at this time, attributed to miasma, not the mosquito); the rusting ability of iron in the humid tropics; the surveys available to de Lesseps were of abominable quality; his sea level canal without locks was completely infeasible in a landscape prone to flooding, with massive washaways and landslides. Apart from that, it seemed like a good idea to Ferdie, who by this time was 75 years old.


22,000 men died in the process, to no good effect. The project management system meant the charlatans and shonks got their hands on 50% of the money raised by small investors in France before it reached its designated use, resulting in the term coined in France for a dodgy operator – “Il est un Panamiste”!


The scheme collapsed in 1888 and it’s legend that de Lesseps never smiled again. He died soon after. His mate, Gustav Eiffel, seems to have suffered no such handicap, going on to fame and fortune.


In 1898, the US Oregon, laying over in San Francisco, was called upon to participate in the aforementioned Spanish-American war over Cuba. By the time she sailed around Cape Horn and into the Caribbean ninety days later, the fray was over. So the US offered Columbia $10m to help build a canal, which was refused. The Panamanian separatists took the opportunity to mobilize, so the US supported them. A Frenchman, who was a US lackey, wrote a letter on behalf of the “Government”, ceding 8km either side of the supposed canal site to the US, claiming “I have saved France” (from what, one wonders).


There was another step in the process – an alternative proposal before the US Senate to build a canal in Nicaragua. One US senator, with interests in the Panama site, saw that Nicaragua had issued a postage stamp with a picture of a volcano bellowing forth, so he bought up sufficient stamps to affix to letters to every senator along with the statement “a country that prints a picture of a volcano on its postage stamps must not find fault with us if we conclude that there are seismic disturbances in that latitude.” A fine lesson in snake-oil salesmanship!


So the vote went to Panama and Teddy Roosevelt (when he wasn’t fishing or big game shooting), authorized the purchase of the French equipment, and work started in May 1904, after he’d paid off Columbia in exchange for Panama’s independence. In return, Panama ceded control of the Canal Zone to the US. Curiously, the design of the canal was almost the same as that of one young French engineer’s suggestion of 1879, which de Lesseps dismissed without consideration.

This time the project management was exceptional. The doctor in charge of health and safety (one of the four priority areas of the project) managed to all but eradicate Yellow Fever and control malaria by eliminating all stagnant water at or near the canal site and, using quinine, reduced the death toll to a mere 6,000 lives during the ten-year construction period. The canal opened in 1914, with the passage of the cargo ship Ancon, ten days after WW1 started. By 1930, it was apparent that the natural water supply was inadequate to support the lock traffic (only fresh water is used in the locks) so a dam was built across the Chagres River to form Gatun Lake.


Around the same time, the lowest fee for passage ever recorded was paid by a fool called Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in ten days! The canal’s length is 48kms, and the locks raise and lower 14,000 ships per year the 26 metres from sea level to Gatun Lake.


After WWII, US control of the Canal Zone was contentious, but equally, the US needed security of passage for its shipping. Panama’s dictator, Noriega, caused a furore in the late 80’s, causing George Bush the elder to send in 26,000 troops. Noriega hid out in the Papal Nuncio’s shack but was smoked out after a few days and now languishes in a Florida jail, sentenced for 40 years. He’s apparently due to be let out for good behaviour, but this is not necessarily good news, as the French want him for money laundering.


By this stage we were approaching Costa Rica. Nick the Naturalist gave an incredibly tedious and pointless talk about birds painted by European artists or tatted by amateur needle-working ladies including some old queen. I slept through most of it.


Berthed at the port of Puerto Moin in Costa Rica, Saturday was early rising day as we were trekking into the mountains to check out the rain forest. Our guide for the day was Gustavo. It was a two-hour drive to the Telemanka mountain range, which is home to some of Costa Rica’s 109 volcanoes, five of which are currently active. The drive was very pleasant, in a spiffing, clean as a whistle coach, through banana and pineapple plantations.


Surprisingly, Costa Rica has a strong balance of payments, with its top five industries – high-tech manufacturing, tourism, textiles, bananas and pineapples all being export industries. Our ship was moored alongside the Del Monte cargo vessel, being loaded to the gunwales with bananas and pineapples. There were hundreds of containers at the port with either Del Monte or Dole livery emblazoned on their sides.


The population of Costa Rica is very much a mixed bag. Never party to the slave trade, there was no cheap source of labour, so when railroad construction got underway, labourers were recruited from the Lebanon, China, India and Jamaica. The workers intermarried and so did the music, food (spicier than that of its neighbours) and religions.


Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948, it having had no exercise for the previous hundred years. The expenditure that the army had cost was reallocated to education and the country now boasts the third highest literacy rate (more than 97%) in the latin American world, behind Chile and Cuba.

At some stage in the evolution of the continents, North and South America were separated by sea, but 70 million years ago the Cocos (Pacific) plate subducted the Caribbean plate, squeezing up the isthmus that is now Central America and creating a biological corridor. Critters from the North (including Indians from close to Alaska, who migrated as far south as Chile) moved into the void as did creatures and plants from the south, so Costa Rica, accounting for 0.03% of the world’s landmass, is home to 6% of all flora and fauna species. There are 900 species of birdies in this small patch of eath and 200 mammals. El Nino has caused problems here - moving the wet season so coffee ripens at the wrong time of the year.


The aerial tramway in the rainforest is one of Costa Rica’s major attractions. We’d been warned to take our rain protection, but we lucked in to a perfectly fine but cool day. The gentle ride through the canopy was gorgeous - superb vegetation - it looked for all the world like a botanical garden. Although we spotted a few birds and one lizard, the rest of the fauna gave us a wide berth. The local cafe put on a fine lunch - spicy chicken, rice, salads and tropical fruits. Pity about the truly awful soursop juice.



On the trip back to port we stopped off to visit the Earth University, which specialises in tropical agronomy and draws its scholarship students from the tropical zones around the globe, with some 17 nationalities making up the current intake. The university is set in huge, manicured gardens in which we encountered conga lines of tourists searching fro an elusive, insignificant native orchid. Some of the trees contain a natural tick repellent so they’re planted around cattle properties. The library was donated by Kelloggs.


Next morning our new guide, Jorge (as in “Haw-Hay”) greeted us with the compelling news that Costa Rica has more species of butterflies than Mexico/USA/Canada combined, and there are 45,000 turtles on the Tortugas Islands.


We were bussed to the canal area a few minutes away and loaded onto flat-bottomed people carriers with open sides for a tour of the wetlands. The safety drill was explicit “In case of emergency, jump out the window. Don’t wear the orange life vest - it attracts the crocodiles.” Thanks for that. After a few kilometres of mangroves we hit fresh water and landscape opened up to tropical wetlands. Our first spotting was a three-toed sloth, which is a leaf-eater with a one mile long intestine. After its weekly defercation, it moves to a new tree - they feast on thirty-plus species. If there’s no sun for a week, the sloth dies as sun is needed to activate the bacteria in its stomach to digest all that cellulose. Sloths carry their babies on their backs and if the kid falls off the mother just leaves it to the predators in the forest below. And how to sloths mate? “Very slowly”. Thanks, Haw-Hay.


The lumber companies dredged additional canals to bring their timber to port, but the major canals are natural. During our floating nature tour we spotted all manner of native critters - yellow-breasted fly-catchers, Montezuma’s oropendola, common black hawk, little blue heron, white heron, great blue heron, northern jicama, cormorants, stilt birdies plus a Jesus Christ lizard (so called because it runs across the water), howler monkeys, two-toed sloth, one baby crocodile and a slider turtle - all this in a stunning garden of water hyacinth and wild lettuce in a tropical forest.


Following all this natural excitement, we stopped at a pleasant open-air centre with a calypso band, very cold beer and beautiful fruit then, on the drive back to the ship Haw-Hay educated us on cocoa, pineapples and bananas. The local name for cocoa means “food of God”. Blue plastic bags are used to cover the bananas because birds a colour blind so can neither see nor smell them. Peel back the petals on a female flower and under each petal is a ‘hand’ (10) of bananas. The male blossom, having served its purpose, merely drops into oblivion. The blue bags also provide a greenhouse effect, accelerating ripening and also keeping insects at bay.

By this stage of the cruise we’d enjoyed a few ‘sea-days’, during which we’d become marginally proficient at deck quoits, especially in the cheating and sabotage skills. Duncan from Devon was especially skilled, and continued to win our team G&T challenges, which made for excellent evening aperitif-ing.


The big day dawned, and we were all on deck to witness our little ship’s approach to the eastern locks of the Panama Canal. The Gatum locks are a triple - raising the ship 26 metres. There was a convoy of ships - all shapes and sizes and various states of repair - awaiting their locking orders. One of the canny Scots kicked off proceedings with a Buck’s Fizz at 6am. Alison and I were seriously temperate - holding out until 7:30am. We entered the first lock at 8am - about an hour behind plan, with a Panamax monster, the Israeli “ZIM Shakou” hogging the other channel, carrying about 4000 containers, bound for China.



On the port side of the canal is a mule farm. Originally mule trains were used to position/hold ships in the correct position for the passage through the locks. These were later replaced with trojan engines - squat little heavy vehicles (still called ‘mules’) that run on rails the length of the locks. Because our ship is on the small side, we required extra help in the form of a rowboat with two lads aboard, in order to attache the guide cables from the mules to the ship. We only required one mule for each side; the big beasties require up to four on each side, plus massive tugs to guide them into the mouth of the lock.


As we entered the first lock, Martin, our resident entertainer belted out “Highland Cathedral” on the bagpipes whilst striding around the decks fully kilted out. The effect on the canal staff and the adjacent ship was mighty - with everyone falling about laughing, wide-eyed with astonishment, reaching for cell phones and wildly cheering. And news travels fast - by the time we reached the third lock, the observation deck at the visitor centre was packed and the workers were prepared with real cameras. Our co-transit crew on the ZIM Shakou were rapidly becoming our new best friends.



So we charged our glasses with champagne and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of mango sorbet, as we anchored in Gatum Lake for an hour, waiting for the traffic jam at Pedro Miguel lock to clear before heading into the Gaillard Cut, along with giant car carriers and container ships blocking out the sun on the port side. The canal is going through 5.3B widening-straightening-deepening upgrade upgrade with new locks to enable the passage of even larger ships (Panamax vessels measure 294.3m length/32.31m beam/12.04m draught), In the Gatum Lake section, there is a tropical nature reserve operated by the University of Washington.


From the Pedro Miguel locks it’s a short sail to the final two - the Miraflores locks. Our passage had preceded us and everyone on shore seemed to be out waiting for this silly little ship with the mad piper and champagne-swilling guests - it was so much fun, but I wish the powers that be at Hebridean had warned us in advance that our transit was being web-cam’d so we could have bored our friends with our adventure. By the way, the cost to the ship of our Panama transit was about $900 per passenger.



We exited to a calm Pacific Ocean late in the afternoon, passing by the booming Panama City with its impressive palm-fringed skyscape. While we were re-fuelling at sunset, a flock of pelicans were feeding on a shoal of fish - diving from a great height into the sea.

Wednesday morning and we crossed the equator at 8:30am. - back in the real world!

Marjorie, the ship’s tour manager, had taken me aside a couple of days ago, to ask if I’d participate, as a “crossing the equator by sea ‘virgin’”, would participate in the Nepturne ceremony. Aware that this was no honourable undertaking, and involving considerable discomfort, I agreed in the interests of good fun. At 10:50 the captain announced that all passengers and crew were require on deck because of t boarding party by local Royalty. Neptune (aka Martin, the ship’s entertainer) boarded along with his entourage dripping with war paint, mock seaweed and tridents, started by preaching the glories and rituals of the deep, then called upon ‘first crossers’ to be scarified. Andrew McKenzie from New Zealand obligingly strolled to the edge of the pool where he was splashed with green and yellow goo and propelled into the water. Then came Svetlana, a stewardess - likewise, followed by a young engineer. Then Martin held forth with a speech about the final sacrifice - me - ranting about the depletion of the ship’s champagne supply, along with Alison, to the mock horror of “teetotaller” Ken, whom Martin had roped in on the performance. Not so fast, Neptune. I put up a valiant fight, accusing Nepture of being a fraud, before being prostrated on the side of the pool and having two buckets of grunge hurled upon my person before I plunged into the pool. All good fun, sort of. At least I got a hug from the captain for being a good sport, and a glass of bubbles to boot!



Our next stop, after a day at sea, was Manta on the coast of Ecuador, where we moored at the industrial terminal. Manta is a tuna fishing port and there were a dozen os fo large tuna boats, all tidily painter in navy and white. To-day’s excursion was to a ‘resort’ 40 minutes drive away, which proved there are standard building regulations in Ecuador, i.e. none. All manner of crazy structures appeared, none of which looked safe. The occasional front yard sported a saddleback pig or a chicken or two, perhaps a goat for a lame dog of indeterminate ancestry. Our guide was verbose, but to no effect, given the fact that the bus’ microphone was kaput.


Finally we arrived at our 4* destination, off a dirt road, El Faro es Scandinavo - a huddle of newly built concrete huts with a breezy main building an pool, leading onto an oily beach with a treacherous surf. Lying in wait for us was a troop of Toquillo makers (i.e. panama hat weavers). This looked to be a profession to avoid - the weavers stand, hunched over a dome of wood, working from the crown outwards with pliable strands of fibre from some native plant the name of which escapes me.



And, quelle surprise, there was a stand of hats for sale - any quality supplied - rating from US$25-400. One test of quality is, when held to the sun, the weave is so tight there a no specks of daylight; another is the fineness and consistency of the weave and the fibre joins being imperceptible. So we all checked out the goodies, having been starved of retail therapy opportunities for many days. I pocketed a couple of mid-range items, avoided the shoddy-droppers selling palm ivory carvings and beads, and went in search of somewhere to melt, given the heat, humidity and even a whiff of a zephyr. A few of our party, who should be advised to never shed their outer layers in public, opted for the pool. But at least there was chilled Moet et Chandon on tap, so we struggled through the afternoon.


Being final gala dinner night, we enjoyed a tipple on the mizzen deck, just as the ship next to us started loading its cargo of frozen tuna into the waiting group of refrigerated containers. It was a fabulous sight, the enormous tuna were strung like bunches of bananas, the still cords secured through the gutting holes punched through below the heads. And the ice steam coming off them as they exited the hold at the end of a huge crane was really eerie against the setting sun.

After our final sea day, we dined early on deck with Martin before his final performance of Auld Land Syne. The last minute packing was done some time after midnight, then a quick nap before disembarking at Guayaquil - another adventure done!



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