January 9-13, 2015 – Latin America


Mola from San Blas Islands

January 9: Santa Marta, Colombia.

Our excursion today was to Tayrona National Natural Park, which is about an hour’s drive from our port of Santa Marta. Leaving the port, we drove through a fairly depressed area. There were ramshackle hou

Panama Canal

Panama Canal

ses made of mismatched boards, corrugated metal, and occasional walls of concrete bricks, with lots of litter (or garbage) and some graffiti both near the houses and alongside the road. On the other hand, some houses were painted in bright colors. Some had attempted decorative touches, like metal fences or potted plants. But almost every house and business had some kind of outside space for s

colorful fishing boats

Colorful Boats at Fishing Village in Ecuador

itting and socializing. In addition to cars and trucks, methods of transportation were by foot, by motorcycle (frequently with multiple riders), or by horse- or mule-drawn cart. Street vendors were plentiful, often in what seemed to me to be unsafe locations (like right next to the highway).

We drove east toward the park on a busy two-lane highway through rugged mountains. Near the coast, the plants were more sparse and desert-like, but as we got closer to the park, there were many flo

jungle path

Jungle Path in Ecuador

wering trees and lots of tropical vegetation, such as palm trees, croton, and bougainvillea. The undergrowth was mostly vines and small palm trees.

Once inside the park, our guide related for us some of the creation myths of the indigenous people, who, by the way, were wiped out by the diseases brought by the European invaders. We then took a walk

cooking demo

Site of Cooking Demonstration and Tasting in Ecuador

Panama hats

Making Panama Hats in Ecuador

along a shady forest path while the guide stopped occasionally to explain the features of some of the plants and insects that we encountered. Eventually, we reached the ocean, where we could see pristine, uncrowded beaches in both directions.

We were a couple of busloads of interested tourists, but the park is evidently very popular with Colombians as well, especially young people with their camping gear, bikes, and food supplies.

January 10: San Blas Islands, Panama.

Our main reason for getting to these islands is to see the needlework of the Kuna Indians, who live here. I’ve known about molas (see picture) forever, but never thought I’d see where they come from. When we got to the island, the “architecture” reminded me of the medieval village life exhibit we went to in York, England, at the Jorvik Viking Museum: flimsy structures made of found materials, dirt floors and narrow pathways (they could hardly be called streets), litter and garbage everywhere. But there are also many signs of technology, i.e., cell phones, iPads, satellite dishes. A few men were around, and women were sitting in front of their needlework displayed on the walls of the buildings, but the majority of people present (aside from the tourists) were children. Many, many children. Lots of babies, too. People were friendly and willing to converse with the tourists, but the deep poverty was difficult for us to see. I bought molas from two different women, one for $20, one for $10. I picked the ones I did because I gave up trying to find the perfect one. There were so many to choose from, and the workmanship of the better ones was generally comparable. I’m amazed that so much work could be sold for so little money. I bought another one from vendors on the ship, so now we have three authentic molas and will have to figure out how to display them once we get home.

January 11: Panama Canal.

We got up before sunrise this morning to watch the ship enter the first locks of the canal. Once inside the lock, the ship was guided by cables attached to rail cars on each side. These cars didn’t pull the ship; they just kept it steady. There were about two feet of space on each side of the ship as we traversed the locks. In my ignorance, I thought the Panama Canal was a canal. But it’s really a 50-mile series of locks and lakes which bring ships up and over the Continental Divide which runs through the Isthmus of Panama. Building it was a monumental feat of engineering which cost thousands of lives but which has profoundly affected world commerce and communication. Its 100-year anniversary was in 2014, and construction for expanded capacity is expected to be completed in 2016. Our ship took 8 hours to go from Atlantic to Pacific, much of the time being spent in the aforementioned lakes, where what looked like impenetrable jungle came right down to the water. I didn’t see any wildlife, except for birds, but I’m sure the jungle is full of critters I don’t want to know about.

Later, we sat on the deck for a while to see what happens at the Pacific end of the canal. Aside from the locks like the ones on the Atlantic side, we were struck by the view of what seemed to be a huge modern city off to the left side of the canal. There were many, many tall skyscrapers and buildings of interesting and varied shapes. It was a surreal vision – these impressive white buildings seeming to arise out of the Panamanian jungle. We never did confirm the name of the city, although Denise thinks it was Balboa. As we left the canal and entered the ocean, we noticed that the water was considerably calmer than the Atlantic had been.

January 12: At Sea Day – Crossing the Equator.

The ocean today remained calm, as the name “Pacific” implies, but the air was hot and sticky. It even rained for a short time, which actually reduced the temperature to a more comfortable level. During days at sea, the ship usually offers interesting and timely lectures about points on our itinerary. This morning, we attended a talk about how the islands of the Pacific were populated. Evidently, Polynesians moved between islands with the advice of an individual called a Wayfarer, who knew where to go and how to get there based upon criteria developed over time: the positions of the stars, presence or characteristics of clouds, flight patterns of land birds, and ocean swell patterns. This knowledge of navigation was almost lost to the Polynesian people during the modern era, but efforts have been made to revive and practice these skills. The afternoon talk was about Spaniards who first explored the Amazon, killing as many natives along the way as possible. So disgusting.

The captain told us we would be crossing the equator early the next morning, so we didn’t feel the need to be up to witness that.

January 13: Manta, Ecuador.

The excursion today introduced us to several different aspects of Ecuadorian culture. We visited a fishing village, participated in a cooking demonstration and tasting, watched craftspeople make Panama hats, and observed the operation of a company which uses the nut of a native palm to make buttons, jewelry, and souvenirs. Each experience was informative and interesting, but in addition to what we learned about our various destinations, we experienced aspects of life in Ecuador which might not make the tourist brochures. First of all, we were struck by how friendly the people were. Where have we ever been where people always waved at a passing tourist bus? That was delightful, and we all waved back. We spent a lot of time driving between the different locations and got a good look at living conditions: homes and business buildings seem to be poorly constructed, there are unfinished construction projects everywhere, many large lots have been scraped off to the bare dirt and are sitting vacant, litter and garbage are everywhere. I think what bothered us most is that there seems to be no eye for design, no attempt to make the public spaces, such as roundabouts or road shoulders or front yards, pleasing to inhabit or even drive by. We never drove through areas with middle-class homes or business parks or shopping malls. Maybe they do exist, but we missed them.