Canal To Cuba With Zegrahm Expeditions

Canal to Cuba with Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia, April 2018

Ingrid Nixon|May 31, 2018|Field Report

Thursday, April 5, 2018
Panama City, Panama


Early in the evening we gathered outside on the top floor of the Le Meridian Hotel in downtown Panama City to meet and mingle with our fellow travelers over cocktails and dinner. We had flown in from places all over the world for this Canal to Cuba adventure. A warm tropical breeze blew steadily. From our rooftop vantage point we could see ships in the bay queuing up for their transit of the Panama Canal. We would be among them in just a few short days.


Friday, April 6
Panama City / Embark Hebridean Sky


The ultra-modern, glass buildings of downtown contrasted dramatically with the old stone ruins of Panama Viejo, the original town site. This is THE oldest city on the west coast of the Americas, established in 1519. Sacked and burned by pirates in 1668, Panama City has survived these 499 years to become a center of banking and commerce. After lunch in Casco Viejo, we boarded the Hebridean Sky, our home for the next two weeks.


Saturday, April 7
Isla Coiba


Many took to the water just after breakfast for snorkeling and diving in the clear waters around the islets collectively known as Granita de Oro (grains of gold). Some chose to hike through the jungle looking for birds and monkeys. We repositioned mid-day to the Coiba prison site active from 1919 until 2004—a location haunted by its history if not by ghosts. At sunset in the ruins of the prison chapel, Captain Ulf-Peter Lindstrom welcomed us aboard and introduced his officers. We returned to the ship for a barbecue dinner on deck under the stars.


Sunday, April 8
At Sea / San Telmo Island, Pearl Islands


It is not unusual in expedition travel that a “day at sea” turns into something more. In the afternoon we made an expedition stop in the Pearl Island group. On the beach of San Telmo we viewed a derelict 1860s-era submarine—once used by the pearl industry, it is now rusting away. Brown pelicans nested in the trees, including the fragrant plumeria. After time ashore we Zodaic cruised around the shores and islets before returning to the ship.


Monday, April 9
Mogue River and Playa del Muerto, Darien


When tattooed men clad only in beads and red loincloths arrived on the ship first thing in the morning, we knew we were in for something special. We spent the morning ashore with the Emberá, indigenous people of the remote Darien Province. The chief welcomed us, ladies and children danced, then they broke out their exquisite baskets, carvings, and jagua-juice tattoo ink. We returned to the ship with woven and beaded treasures, and our bodies much decorated with temporary tattoos. As an expedition stop in the afternoon we cruised around the tiny Pachecho and Pachequilla islands to take in the bird spectacle: magnificent frigatebirds and brown pelicans, and brown and blue-footed boobies swooping, gliding, diving, displaying, roosting, and nesting.


Tuesday, April 10
Balboa to Cristobal, Panama Canal


Today, traveling Southeast to Northwest, we transited the original locks of the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic. To canal officials we relinquished our vessel name of Hebridean Sky to be known as "N25XZ," which translated to: (N) we were northbound; (25) the 25th ship of the day (northbound get odd numbers, southbound get even); (X) we would be sharing the locks with another ship (the Jo Spirit from Bergen); and (Z) we were a passenger ship. The entire transit took about nine hours, beginning in sunshine and ending in epic rain. En route we passed through three sets of locks in flawless operation since 1913, the year the United States finally completed the canal begun by the French decades before.


Wednesday, April 11
Charcon River, Acuatupu, Holandes Caye


Bright birds, colorful fishes, men, women, and mythical creatures—the multitude of molas at Acuatupu captured the world seen and unseen in the San Blas. Renowned for their fabric art, the traditionally dressed ladies, men, and children were ready for sales when we stopped mid-morning to stroll the "mola mall." This intense shopping experience came between an early morning cruise up the Rio Charcon and a refreshing afternoon of swimming and snorkeling at Holandes Caye. 


Thursday, April 12


The town was just waking up when we arrived for our walking tour of Portobelo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It took some effort to imagine the bustling harbor, once the place where riches from South America were loaded on galleons bound for Spain. We walked through the ruins of three of the four forts built through the centuries to protect the harbor. Portobelo is also renowned for the statue of the "Black Christ," which legend claims just floated into the harbor; it is now celebrated in the town’s cathedral.


Friday, April 13
Tortuguero Canals, Puerto Limon, Costa Rica


Before we even got on the boats we had mantled howler monkeys swinging through the canopy—what a way to begin our exploration of Costa Rica's Tortuguero Canals! Our sightings came in rapid succession: basilisk lizards, crocodiles, languid iguanas, and long-nosed bats. We had bird sightings a-plenty, including magnificent Montezuma oropendolas visiting their pendulous woven nests. Two- and three-toed sloths moved through the branches slowly, slowly, slowly. After the cruise we celebrated with perfectly ripe pineapple and bananas before returning to the ship and sailing north.


Saturday, April 14
Isla de Providencia, Colombia


Sitting regally on benches in the beds of pickup trucks, we took the ring road around the island, stopping to visit schools, churches, and fabulous white-sand beaches; waving to many a smiling face along the route. Puritans originally settled this dot in the middle of the Caribbean, but eventually it morphed into a hangout for slavers and pirates. Today the island’s underwater world is the treasure, both for diving and seafood.


Sunday, April 15
At Sea


Our one full day at sea proved to be sunny with gentle seas. It was a chance to read, relax, nap, and go to lectures. Freighters and other boats silently slipped by bound for destinations unknown. Mid-day we sailed over the Cayman Trench where the depth under the keel measured 25,200 feet.


Monday, April 16
Cienfuegos, Cuba


The bee hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world, yet it is because it is so tiny and endemic that seeing one brings birders and nature lovers much joy—and it was for those who headed out of Cienfuegos today to explore Zapata National Park and the underwater world near the Bay of Pigs. Those who toured the city unleashed their "Inner Cuban" during a lesson in mojito-making and dance class, "Salsa 101.” At this, our first stop in Cuba, we were joined by guides, David and Abel, as well as our Cuban agent, Nadia, who would smooth our way and provide insights into the Cuban way of life in the days to come.


Tuesday, April 17
Isla de la Juventud


Cuban rhythms greeted our Zodiacs and continued unabated throughout our stay at Punta Frances National Park on the “Island of Youth.” This second-largest Cuban island was once the center of operations for pirates, who used it as a base to prey on ports on the main island. Snorkeling, diving, and beach walking, as well as sipping cool drinks in the shade, were the order of the day.


Wednesday, April 18
Maria la Gorda


The waters of Maria la Gorda tested our vocabularies when it came to describing shades of blue. The very clear water made for outstanding diving and snorkeling, even snorkeling right from the beach where one could enjoy myriad fishes around the small pier. Some journeyed a mile or two down the road to explore the cenote and trails of Guanacahabibes National Park, which is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Back on board for lunch, we spent the afternoon packing before joining the captain for farewell toasts and dinner. 


Thursday, April 19 & 20
Havana / Disembark


We had the magnificent old stone fort of Morro Castle to port as we sailed into Havana Harbor this morning. Once docked, we departed the Hebridean Sky to stroll the streets of Old Havana, stopping for supplies of rum, coffee, and cigars to take home. We cruised through more modern parts of the city in vintage convertibles, spectacularly restored and brilliantly painted.

A few of us would return to the ship to continue explorations of Cuba, but most of us overnighted at a hotel near Old Havana. Rather than goodbye, let’s say hasta luego (see you later) to all. We look forward to meeting again on another Zegrahm adventure.

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