By Lee Foster
A cruise itinerary in the western Caribbean can take you to some delightful mainland ports, especially in Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama. Here is what I found intriguing to recommend.
Belize’s Mayan Ruins at Altun Ha
The most prominent Mayan ruin on this itinerary is Altun Ha in Belize, making this cultural tour my favored shore excursion when the ship docked at Belize City. Snorkeling on the Belize coral reefs, with their abundant fish life, would be a good alternative choice.
Altun Ha is a prominent Mayan ruin for two reasons. Architecturally, the temple pyramid to the sun god, Kinich Ahau, is impressive, though not on the grand scale of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. Moreover, at Altun Ha, archaeologists found a large, carved jade head representing the sun god. This head is the largest jade carving yet discovered in the Mayan world.
The one-hour drive from Belize City harbor to Altun Ha was informative, as any overland trip in a new country can be. Belize City is a backwater place of modest prosperity and meager historical interest. The downtown is fairly run down and is subject to occasional hurricane devastation, though there are still some colonial wooden buildings of note from the British era. As with other British legacy areas, such as Barbados and Bermuda, the educational level and literacy rates are high. The drive out to Altun Ha passes through an upscale part of the city, with many handsome houses, known as King’s Park.
Belize has a subtropical climate, supporting a coastal vegetation where mangrove is the typical tree. Inland, there are savannas with pine forests. We passed small-scale slash-and-burn farms growing mango, cashew, pineapple, and banana on the road to Altun Ha, which is 7.5 miles from the sea.
At Altun Ha an excellent English-speaking guide walked our group through the two plazas of ruins. Altogether, there were thirteen structures in a roughly mile-square district. Altun Ha lay beneath its jungle camouflage little known until 1957. As excavations began, a jade necklace perked everyone’s enthusiasm in 1964. Archeologist David Pendergast of Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum is credited with discovery of a 9.5-pound jade head for which Altun Ha is widely acclaimed in archaeology circles. Altun Ha was a major stop on the Mayan trade routes, where jade was one of the most important trade items. Jade, so prized throughout the Mayan world for all kinds of adornment, from earrings to pendants, was mined in the highlands of Guatemala.
Costa Rica’s Rain Forest Canopy
The port stop at Limon, Costa Rica, allowed for an intriguing shore excursion through the canopy of a tropical rain forest. Costa Rica is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of its bio-diversity. Although a small county geographically, Costa Rica has about five percent of the catalogued world flora and fauna species. Costa Rica also boasts a large number of endemic plants, species that exist only here.
The tour, called the Rainforest Aerial Tram, takes participants through the very tops of the trees. I looked forward to this because most of the bio-mass in a tropical rain forest is up in the canopy, not on the ground. I wondered what forest plant life I would encounter.
The 80-mile drive to the Rainforest Aerial Tram winds through the lush Costa Rican countryside, rich in banana, coconut, corn, and pineapple agriculture, plus ornamental floriculture, such as crotons. The drive starts at sea level and then climbs gradually into the fertile uplands and beyond to the mountains, where the temperature cools and the rain increases.
Costa Rica is a relatively prosperous country with a well-educated population. Eco-tourism interest in Costa Rica now propels it into further economic development. Other clean industrial businesses, such as Intel manufacturing computer chips, insure that Costa Rica will weather the vicissitudes of economic cycles. Costa Rica is no longer a vulnerable one-crop or one-industry country.
When I arrived at the aerial tram, which is adjacent to the Braulio Carrillo National Park, it appeared that the arrangement is somewhat similar to a ski lift, though traveling horizontally above the ground. There were 22 open, six-person cars taking passengers on a silent, 90-minute ride, covering 2.6 kilometers of the rainforest canopy. Each car carried five passengers and a guide. My guide knew and loved his subject well. The entire operation has been nurtured by people as a way of introducing travelers to the rain forest.
I passed a magnificent mahogany tree standing alone on a hillside. Clusters of “broccoli” trees were so named because of their spreading crowns. My tram car traveled 10 to 200 feet off the ground as it traversed from ridge to ridge in the hilly environment, passing many large epiphyte plants, air plants that are water-and-leaf catchers, creating their own canopy-level soil environment filled with small frogs and insects. I touched web strands of the gold silk spider, which are so tough and resilient that the natives use them as fishing line. The guide showed us toucans, tanagers, and hummingbirds, a few of the country’s 870 bird species. Rustling sounds in the forest below might have been a passing tapir or jaguar, but the noise was the only clue.
Although the past three weeks had been steady rain, something to expect in a rain forest, the day of my trip happened to glow with delicious sun. After the tram tour, I understood better Costa Rica’s special position geographically as a land bridge between North and South America, where many species passed through in their migrations, and many stayed to evolve in the salubrious environment.
Panama is the least known of these countries for tourism and shows tremendous promise as an interesting destination. Many visitors have a limited view of Panama’s possibilities for travel, perhaps thinking back on the country as a banana republic associated earlier with unsavory generals (Manuel Noriega). Part of Panama was formerly a U.S. military base. The U.S. military turned over all management of the canal to the Panamanians on December 31, 1999.
The Panama Canal produces hundreds of millions of dollars per year in tolls from the roughly 15,000 ships that pass through. Most of that money is put back into canal operations and improvements. Panamanians hope that the half-billion dollars lost in annual revenue due to U.S. military base closings (since 1999) will be made up with tourism dollars and shipping tolls.
The ingenuity of the Panama Canal is a main subject for shore excursions offered by cruise ships. Participate in a shore excursion that will travel the length of the canal from Colon, where the ship docks, to Panama City on the Pacific coast. The trip will take an hour or so. You’ll see the locks themselves and the mammoth manmade lake, Gatun Lake, created from the canal construction.
At the Pacific end, near Panama City, a tour usually stops at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center and viewing platform, where you can see, up close, a ship passing through a lock. At Miraflores there is an informative, illustrated map of the Canal with an accompanying sound track that tells the story of the Canal’s construction.
A train was built across this narrow strip of land shortly after the California Gold Rush of 1848, opening in 1855. The train has hauled freight and passengers, off and on, since that period. The train was revived as a scenic tourist train in 2001. The dream of a canal had been alive since the period of the Conquistadors, but attempts to build it met with defeat. The French struggled for 20 years and failed. Finally, Americans finished the Panama Canal in 1914, after conquering the yellow fever scourge that plagued the workers during construction.
Beyond the Canal itself, the colonial center of Panama City, on the Pacific Coast, is a treat to explore. See the early churches, the Jesuit Church and Santo Domingo Church, from the 1700s. At the French Plaza you can see the ocean and a cluster of colonial buildings behind it. Cathedral Plaza and Plaza Bolivar are additional stops showing the colonial beauty of Panama City. Today the area is being transformed, due to incentives extended to citizens who devote themselves to restoring the historic buildings.
Panama presents to a traveler two concepts: the beauty of nature (the jungle, lakes, and rivers) and the power of man dominating nature (the canal). Panama is also one of the few places in the world where a visitor can go from one ocean to another in a single hour. The word Panama is believed by some to derive from a native word meaning “abundance of fish and butterflies.”
A cruise to the Western Caribbean can include delightful stops at three destinations that may be new to you–Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama.