Thomson Cruise – Mayan Treasures and Pride of Panama

This cruise, taking in Jamaica, Honduras, Belize, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia was taken with Thomson Cruises in 2015 and combined their Mayan Treasures and Pride of Panama cruises. We flew with Thomson airlines to Montego Bay, Jamaica where we boarded our ship, the Thomson Dream. We arrived at about 4pm and had plenty of time to explore the ship before the mandatory lifeboat practice. After leaving Jamaica we had a day at sea before reaching our first port of call.

Roatan, Honduras

Honduras is a small country of around 112,000 km² in Central America. We docked just outside Roatan and were tendered to the mainland.

Roatan Honduras
We had opted to take the excursion to Maya Key Island Private Resort which was a short boat ride away from Roatan. The island boasts an array of rescued animals and birds including parrots, ocelots, monkeys and crocodiles and this was where we chose to begin our exploration of the island.

Parrots in Honduras

We then continued to walk around the island enjoying the tranquil atmosphere and joy of wandering through coconut trees and sand. The beautiful turquoise sea was very inviting so we took a swim in the sea before eating a typical lunch of rice, beans, chicken and fish.

After lunch we walked to the top of the island to look at the remains of a Mayan temple before taking the ferry back to the mainland and returning to the boat.

Mayan Ruins Honduras

 

Belize City, Belize

Our next stop was Belize and the ship docked at Belize City port. We had opted to take the River Cruise and Lamanai Temples excursion. Our guide, Gus was very informative and during the hour coach ride to the river told us about the history and culture of Belize.

When we reached the river we boarded boats that held around twenty people. We had expected a gentle river cruise but were very pleasantly surprised to find that the boats were actually large speed boats and it was an exhilarating journey holding on to our hats. The boats slowed at various points to enable us to spot local wildlife such as the Jesus bird, howler monkeys and termite nests.

Lamanai River Belize

After an hour long river trip we reached the site of the Lamanai Temples. We had to walk a distance through the jungle to reach the three temples but our guide walked at a reasonable pace and was happy to wait for those who were walking at a slower pace to catch up. As we walked along the paths we could hear Howler monkeys calling through the trees.

Path to Lamanai Temples

The first temple we visited was the Mask Temple so called because of the face carved into the side.

Mask Temple

The second temple we visited was the High Temple so called because it is around 30 metres (100 feet high). It is possible to climb to the top of this temple either by using the original steep steps or by using a slightly easier, though still taxing, route erected for tourists. I was very happy that I made it to the top of the temple and back down again, very hot and breathless but still in one piece.

High Temple

The third temple is called the Jaguar Temple because of images of Jaguar’s heads at either side. We were also taken to see a small ball court before returning to the boats.

We were treated to a lunch of local cuisine – rice, beans, chicken and fish before returning to our coach and then our ship. This was a very enjoyable trip and one of the highlights of the holiday.

 

Cozumel, Mexico

Our next port of call was Cozumel, a small island just off the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Due to high winds the ship managed to dock on its third attempt which was a relief because the excursion to Chichen Itza was one of the main reasons for choosing this cruise. We had a 45 minute ferry ride over rough seas to reach the mainland port of Playa del Carmen. From here we boarded a coach for the 3 hour journey to Chichen Itza. Although it was a long journey it was interesting to look out at the small settlements that were dotted along the route and we noted that each settlement, however poor, had a fine looking church.

Mexico Settlement

 

Church in Mexico

Eventually we reached our destination and after a lunch of local and/or international food we were finally able to visit Chichen Itza. We were somewhat disappointed to learn that after travelling for so long we would only have two hours at the site and only 40 minutes free time so we decided to lose our group and guide and explore the site independently.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and is dominated by El Castillo (the castle) a 24 metre (78 feet)high Mayan step pyramid also known as the Temple of Kukulcan because it was used to worship the god Kukulcan.  The interior of the pyramid is not open members of the public but contains several chambers including a sacrifice chamber.

Temple of Warriors Chitchen Itza

The Chichen Itza site also features the remains of the Temple of the Warriors, a step pyramid fronted by rows of columns and a Mayan ball park measuring 168 by 70 metres (551 by 230 feet).

Mayan Ball Park Chichen Itza

All around the park were an array of locals selling a wide range of pottery, metal and fabric crafted items. Bartering is a must as we were, on average, able to reduce the original asking prices by 50 – 60%.

All in all an excellent trip and a must see for any visitor to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. It definitely lived up to expectations and was the main highlight of the cruise.

 

Montego Bay, Jamaica

We ended the first week of our cruise back in Montego Bay, Jamaica and decided to take a river safari along the Black River. It was a 2 hour drive from Montego Bay over the mountains to the Black River where we boarded our boat.

River boat Jamaica

We had a leisurely hour or so on the river where our guide pointed out crocodiles, mangroves, birds, vegetation and other wildlife. We were amazed by how our guide managed to spot crocodiles from such a distance but it was amazing to see them in their natural habitat.

Wild Crocodiles Jamaica

After the tour we returned to the boat dock and we were taken to see some of the crocodiles that were recuperating having been found injured or having turned up in local gardens.

We were then taken for a lunch before driving back over the mountains to our ship.

This was a very enjoyable trip that enabled us to see crocodiles in their natural habitat as well as learning a bit more about the people of Jamaica and the natural history of the Black River.

Mangrove Swamp

 

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica

Our day in Costa Rica dawned cloudy and wet, suitable weather for our visit to the Rainforest and trip on the Aerial Tram in the Braulio Carrillo National Park. We had expected rain but were surprised that, despite being in the tropics, the temperature had dropped to around 15C. It was about a 90 minute drive from the port to the rainforest where we found it was raining very hard and we were soon dripping wet.

On arrival at the rainforest we transferred into minibuses which would take us to the aerial tram, however, we had only gone a short distance when we were told that the river had burst its banks and that it would be impossible to continue by road. We got out of the minibus and proceeded on foot.

Flooded Road, Costa Rica

By the time we reached the aerial tram we were all very wet even though we all had rain ponchos and/or umbrellas. The aerial tram had a roof but it leaked continuously so we got even wetter. However, as our guide told us, a visit to the rainforest is not really complete unless it rains and you get wet so we didn’t complain.

Rainforest Floor

The aerial tram is rather like a ski lift that holds metal caged cars that can hold eight people. The tram takes visitors through all three levels of the rainforest – the floor, the middle and the canopy. Although the wildlife was hiding from the rain the views of the plants and trees were fantastic.

Rainforest Middle

After our tram journey we were taken for a very nice lunch of rice flavoured and coloured yellow with annatto, beans, chicken, fish, pineapple and watermelon washed down with Costa Rican coffee. This was another very memorable day and not to be missed.

Rainforest Canopy

 

Colon, Panama

Colon Panama

Our next stop was the port of Colon in Panama. This industrialised city is close to the Panama Canal and a large number of passengers opted to take excursions to the Canal which was completed in 1914 and links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans providing a faster route than going around the Cape Horn at the foot of South America.

We had chosen an alternative excursion to visit an Embera Indian Village. We drove for about 90 minutes before reaching the river canoes which would take us to the village. We had been told by our guide that the area where the Indigenous Embera people live had been made into a National Park by the government. National Park status meant that the Embera were no longer allowed to use the land for farming or hunting. Faced with a survival crisis the tribes had agreed to welcome tourists to their villages in order to generate an income.

Embera Indian tribe

We were greeted by the natives playing traditional instruments and taken to a large thatched central meeting hut. Here we were given a talk on the life of the Embera people and information about how they dye fibres to produce traditional craft items. We also ate a lunch of fried fish and fried plantain ‘chips’.

Hut in the Embera village

We were then given free time to wander freely through the village and also to visit the craft hut where a large number of craft items were on display. Although some of the items were very beautiful they were very pricey and many similar items could be purchased at half the price back at the port of Puerto Limon.

After this we returned to the main central hut where we were given a demonstration of traditional music and traditional dancing.

While we found the trip interesting and informative, we felt that it could have been made less intrusive and less of a show for the tourists. We would have preferred to have been able to see a section of the village, leaving the rest in privacy for the native peoples. We would also have preferred to see the people going about their daily business making the crafts that they were selling, sadly we did not see this.

Embera people

Nevertheless, it was a good trip and having made the decision to accept tourism the villages do need tourists to visit in order to maintain their survival and I would recommend anyone considering taking this trip to go and then form your own opinion.

 

Cartagena, Colombia

Our final port of call was Cartagena in Colombia. This city was one of the first to be colonised by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. The early Spanish invaders built a fortress in 1536. It was later expanded and renamed Castillo San Felipe in honour of King Philip IV of Spain.

Castilo San Felipe

Unfortunately we only had a short period of time at this location and were unable to climb up to the top of the castle but we were told by other tourists that it was well worth the climb.

After this we were taken by coach to a parade of boutique-like shops selling a range of clothing and craft items.
Our next stop was a street in Cartegena where we viewed the local architecture before walking to the museum of the Spanish Inquisition. Along the way we were greeted by an array of street sellers who were open to bartering and we managed to get some very reasonably priced souvenirs to take home.

The museum of the Inquisition offers a comprehensive look at the instruments of torture and death used in the sixteenth century including a weighing seat to determine the weight of a person accused of witchcraft. If the accused weighed more than 75kg then she was said to be heavy because she had the devil inside her and was therefore guilty of witchcraft. If the accused weighed less than 75kg then she was light enough to fly and must surely be a witch.

witch seat
This museum also features a rack, used to stretch a body and extract a confession.

Rack

After leaving the museum we walked to a square which boasted interesting and colourful architecture and more street sellers. We visited the church and sanctuary that line a part of the square before being taken to the naval museum and a hall where we were treated to a display of traditional Colombian dancing.

Cartagena Square

We had just a short time left to soak up the atmosphere, colour and sounds of Cartagena before returning to our coach for the journey back to our ship.

Cartagena is an amazing place and I would highly recommend it, the atmosphere and feel of the place together with the heat of the tropical sunshine and the friendliness of the local people made this a very enjoyable excursion and another highlight of the holiday.

As the sun set on Cartagena we began the final leg of our cruise back to Jamaica for our flight back to England.

Sunset Cartagena

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