Holland America Veendam - Panama Canal Cruise Log

Holland America Line Veendam cruise ship in Panama Canal
Linda Garrison

What's not to love about a 17-day cruise on a cruise ship like the 1250-guest Holland America Veendam? Add a full transit through the Panama Canal, fascinating ports of call in the Caribbean, South American, Central America, and Mexico, plus six luscious days at sea, and you've got a terrific cruise vacation!

I sailed this Veendam itinerary with my mom in October/November 2013, and we really enjoyed the ship, ports of call, and pace of the cruise. I've been through the Panama Canal on tiny ships, large ships, and even a Turkish coal freighter, but I always enjoy the experience.

Now is a particularly fascinating time to visit Panama. The Canal was 100 years old in 2014, and it recently underwent an expansion project that added more locks and now allows much larger ships to transit. It was fun to learn more about this expansion and to see some of the construction.

Let's take a voyage from Ft. Lauderdale to San Diego on the Holland America Veendam cruise ship.

01 of 11

Key West

Ernest Hemingway's office in Key West
Key West (c) Linda Garrison

Arrived at our first "foreign" port of call--Key West--a little before 8 am the first morning on the Veendam. I had forgotten how tropical the Keys were. The small island is covered with tropical plants and trees--felt more like Panama than the USA. Cruise ships dock at famous Mallory Square, site of the nightly sunset celebrations. However, we were sailing at 4 pm, so would miss the festivities, even though we had an excellent front row seat.

Mom and I had a nice breakfast (she was thrilled that the Veendam had stickie buns) and then went ashore about 9:30 am. We didn't have a ship tour, but decided to take the "conch train", which covers the old section of Key West. It's a little pricey--$26/per person for seniors--but we both enjoyed it very much. The driver was funny and knowledgeable, and he said we had the coolest day since last February. It was partly sunny, breezy, and about 80--very nice on the open air "train". There was a chance of rain, so we carried along the rain jackets, but it never even sprinkled.

Would have been interesting to be in Key West for its biggest holiday celebration--Fantasy Fest, which evidently is a Halloween week on steroids. Over 40,000 were expected on the island for the big parades. The Veendam was just a few days too early for the party. Mom and I saw a few folks already in costume--women (or maybe some were transvestites) with mostly skin showing along with devil's horns or some other accessory. Our conch train driver said his company operates 364 days a year, but closes on the Saturday that starts the big Fantasy Fest week in the town. Evidently the traffic is horrendous and all the tour companies have to shut down. Would be an interesting event for those who aren't easily shocked.

Mom and I stayed on the train for over an hour before we got off (it only makes 4 stops) at the drop off point closest to the Hemingway house and the end of US 1 at the southernmost point in the continental USA. We toured the Hemingway house and oohed and aahed over the many 6-toed cats on the property and also at the old manual Royal typewriter in Hemingway's study where he wrote many of his most famous novels. According to our guide, he only wrote about 300-700 words a day, getting up very early to work before leaving his typewriter, which apparently made as many typos as today's computers do, and heading downtown to the bar and then fishing. The home was lovely, and it was interesting to see the cats and where Hemingway lived and worked.

Leaving Hemingway's, we walked the half dozen blocks or so down to the marker for the southernmost point and stood in a long line to get someone else in line take our photo. Walked back to the bus and continued the circuit, getting off where we started at Mallory Square. We walked the short distance over to the Truman Little White House. Like Hemingway's, it was very interesting, especially to mom since she was from Missouri and remembered when Truman was president. Truman loved getting away to Key West and visited the house 11 times for 170+ days, mostly on working vacations. They had an excellent 10-minute movie documenting his stays in Key West, and the excellent guide filled in some of the blanks like telling us about the poker table on the south porch, where Truman loved to play poker with his cabinet members and key staff.

Leaving the Truman house, we walked back to the ship, arriving about 3 pm. We had a late lunch of hamburgers/french fries before returning to the cabin to get cleaned up for formal night.

We got dressed up in our finery, and went for a drink at the Ocean Bar before going to dinner. We were glad we were dressed up since about 75 percent (or more) of those wandering around were also dressed in formal wear. We did see a few blue jeans/shorts, but we would have felt out of place.

The Pinnacle Grill was as nice as I remembered. I had the beefsteak tomato salad, surf & turf, and baked Alaska for dessert. Mom had the crab cake appetizer, lamb chops, asparagus, and skipped dessert. All were very good, and I can see why many people are willing to pay the extra surcharge fee to eat there.

After dinner, we went to the show, missing most of the "Captain's welcome" introductions, etc. The theater was full, but we found seats near the back on the bottom level. Good place to sit for the entertaining piano player, who performed a selection of songs from Hollywood movies. Excellent pianist, and many interesting arrangements. His brother, who plays the xylophone, is also a cruise ship performer, does many of the arrangements for both of them.

We were back in the cabin by 9 pm or so, read our books, and went to sleep after setting the clocks back an hour. The next day we would be a sea day, followed by our second port of call, Grand Cayman Island.

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02 of 11

Grand Cayman

Georgetown, Grand Cayman Island
Grand Cayman (c) Linda Garrison

The Veendam arrived at Grand Cayman early in the morning. Since I knew it was going to be a hot day, I went outside and walked about 7 am. My audiobook only had about an hour left, so I finished it and then quit for the day. Mom went to breakfast while I was gone, but I met her upstairs later. We got a tender ticket and sat in the library to wait until our number was called. It was a 45 minute wait, but we had a nice place to sit. Mom found a book to look at, and I worked on the daily Sudoku puzzles.

The Veendam had a real rarity in Grand Cayman. Our ship was the only one in port. I've seen as many as half a dozen ships at the island on other trips. Although we got to the island about 11 am, the downtown area seemed deserted. Guess a lot of people had gone to the beach. We walked around a while and mom bought a refrigerator magnet since this was her first trip to Grand Cayman.

Holland America had several good shore excursion options in Grand Cayman, but I had done most of them on previous visits. Mom and I decided to save our shore excursion budget for places I had not visited before. I love going to Stingray city on Grand Cayman, and anyone who hasn't been should plan a trip there. A boat trip to Stingray city can be combined with an island tour, a trip to the turtle farm, and a short stop at Hell. (Yes, there's a post office at Hell.)

We went back to the ship for lunch after only an hour or so in town. Had a nice lunch and then spent the afternoon napping and reading our books. We sure were lazy! About 5 pm, we got cleaned up and went up to the Ocean Bar about 6-ish for a drink and the evening snacks. A small combo was playing some jazz and dance music, but alas, no dancers.

About 7 pm, we went to anytime (open seating) dinner in the main dining room and joined 2 couples--one from Auckland, NZ and the other from Adelaide, Australia. Nice dinner. I had a yummy smoked salmon appetizer, barley and tomato soup, and blackened ahi tuna on spicy rice and creamed corn. The main course was especially good. Mom got the barley soup and had an Asian salad with grilled salmon. Hers was good too.

We decided to skip the clarinetist show and return to the cabin. Can't believe we could be tired after such a lazy day. The Veendam would have a sea day on the way to a new port for both of us--Cartagena, Columbia.

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03 of 11

Cartagena, Colombia

Castle of San Felipe in Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena (c) Linda Garrison

It was a hot and muggy day in Cartagena, but the city was a pleasant surprise to both mom and I -- much cleaner and "richer" than expected, at least in the old town and downtown areas we toured. Sailing into Cartagena, the city resembled Miami -- lots of brand new, white skyscrapers filled with condos, apartments, and offices. It really sparkled in the early morning sun. Colombia was a new country for me, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Our Veendam shore excursion/city tour met at 8:00 am, and we pulled away from the pier 10 minutes later. Our first stop was at the old fort San Felipe, which is the largest in the Americas. It's even bigger than the one in San Juan. Nice tour, but lots of uphill walking to the top. Mom made it okay, despite the 90 degree weather and almost 100 percent humidity.

Leaving the fortress, we stopped for about 20 minutes at Las Bovedas, a handicraft/souvenir shopping mall that was in an old dungeon that looked like an aqueduct. Typical souvenirs, plus women walking around in native costumes with baskets of fruit/bananas balanced on their heads. (Note: You had to pay to take their photo.)

The bus continued to the old town area, which is Cartagena's most expensive real estate. Typical old Spanish architecture, with lots of flowers cascading down the second floor balconies almost to the street. According to our guide, this old town community has an annual competition for the best makeover. Whoever wins, doesn't have to pay their property taxes that year. Nice idea to encourage restoration and renovation, isn't it? The area was certainly quaint, lovely, and well preserved. We walked through several old squares, including one huge one that was once used for slave auctions. One Spanish priest (Pedro Claver) arrived in Cartagena in the 1600's, took one look at the slave trade, and decided to move to the city and make helping the slaves his life's work. One of the city's cathedrals is named for him and he is buried there.

Some people on the ship took a carriage tour of Cartagena, and they must have engaged 10 or more horse carriages for the tour. We met one group while walking in the old town, and it was quite a parade.

Our last stop was at the Columbian emerald shop, and we had 40 minutes there. Mom and I had no interest in shopping for emeralds, so we found a nearby bar and sat in the shade and had a beer, free wifi, and a clean bathroom.

We got back to the ship a little after noon and had a good lunch at the buffet.

After lunch, we played duplicate bridge and then quickly got ready for dinner since we had 6 pm reservations at Canaletto, the Italian restaurant. It was very good, and the area cordoned off from the buffet looked very much like an Italian trattoria. We started off with a selection of antipasti. Then, Mom had the minestrone, linguine with mixed shell fish (shrimp, scallops, mussels, and clams), and one scoop of pistachio ice cream. I had a salad with peppers, mozzarella cheese, and red/yellow tomatoes; baked cod with an excellent sauce of olives, tomatoes, onions, and peppers; mashed potatoes, and a limoncello cream dessert.

We had been invited to a cocktail party for past cruisers in the Crow's Nest bar, so went to it for a few minutes before the 8 pm show. They had heavy hors d'oeuvres, so it was well attended. We skipped the food since we had just come from dinner, but I had a free glass of wine. (I'm not proud). Went to the 8 pm show, which featured a middle aged woman (aged 45-50) who was a singer/impressionist who had a nice voice, but could also mimic such recognizable singers as Cher, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, etc. Nice show.

In bed by 10 pm since we had to get up early the next day to pass through the Panama Canal.

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04 of 11

Panama Canal - Full Transit from Caribbean to Pacific

Pedro Miguel Locks at the Panama Canal
Panama Canal (c) Linda Garrison

Almost everyone was up early (before 6 am) to watch the Veendam as she entered the Panama Canal. The outdoor decks were lined with people watching as our ship entered the Canal. It was the first southbound ship of the day, and we were in the Gatun locks right about 6 am. As usual, the passage was fun, and the early morning weather was cooperative--overcast and not too hot. However, by noon the sun was out and it was hot, so I dashed in and out of the Crow's Nest to make photos. I also walked the deck for my 10,000 steps (about 5 miles) while we were in Lake Gatun.

We met the Westerdam, another Holland America ship, while in the passageway between Lake Gatun and the Culebra (Gaillard) Cut. Fun to wave at the other cruise ship guests while both ships tried to out-do each other with their horns. (Think I might have lost a little hearing since I was out on the deck.)

I was astonished by the changes since I audited the Panama Canal Commission in the last century and traveled to the country numerous times over a six-year span. Even I was amazed at the new Centennial Bridge at the Culebra Cut, the canal widening project (and new locks), and the major container-unloading shipyard at Balboa. The huge cranes block the marvelous view of the Canal those working in the Canal Administration building used to have. It took us about 10 hours to go through the entire Canal, so we were at the big Bridge of the Americas about 4 pm.

Mom and I skipped playing bridge since I wanted her to get a good look at Balboa, Panama City, Amador, and the Bridge of the Americas. The downtown area of Panama City is now filled with skyscrapers, and there's even a brightly colored, Frank Gehry-designed Biodiversity Museum on the Amador Causeway.

Since mom and I had good seats in the Crow's Nest (forward on deck 12), we enjoyed a drink and snacks while chatting with some folks during happy hour. This is a good deal--from 4 to 5 pm, you buy 1 drink and get the second for 1 dollar. I had raced outside multiple times during the day to snap photos, so we decided to not dress for dinner and just eat at the buffet.

Getting very lazy, we also decided to skip the show, which was two of the entertainers we had seen earlier in the cruise. In bed early with our books--ready for a sea day on the way to Costa Rica.

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05 of 11

Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

Costa Rica
Costa Rica (c) Linda Garrison

Puerto Caldera is on the Pacific Ocean in the Gulf of Nicoya, near where I did a riverboat cruise on a nice Costa Rica tour a few years ago, where we saw many crocodiles and birds. This part of Costa Rica (the southwestern coast) is very hot and humid.

Mom and I had scheduled an early morning tour from Puerto Caldera, so I skipped my early morning walk around the Veendam promenade. This tour was "Train Ride & Mangrove River Cruise", one of 14 tours offered by Holland America in Puerto Caldera. The 5.5 hour tour started with a bus ride across the lush Costa Rica countryside for about an hour, driving south along the coast. Our guide, Mario, was excellent, talking almost non-stop while we were on the bus or in the boat. Much of the ride was on a narrow dirt road where the bus had to pull over to let oncoming or following traffic pass. We stopped at a very well kept building, which was where we were to take the hour-long boat ride into the mangrove forest. Before the boat ride, we had about 20 minutes for a potty break and snacks of Imperial beer, ice tea, or ice water. Plus, there was a small area set up for handicraft shopping.

We saw a couple of monkeys high in the trees even before we got on the boat. While on the ride, we also saw a few small crocodiles and many different species of birds. Some folks saw an iguana, but mom and I both missed it. After the boat ride, we reboarded the buses for the ride to the coffee train. The three busloads on the tour boarded the historic Pacific Railroad cars, which were open air (windows open), but paneled in nice wood. Very authentic old train. The train ride was also an hour, but we didn't see much difference in the landscape from our earlier bus ride. Mom and I both enjoy trains, so it was fun. We did pass through a long (1 minute 10 sec) tunnel, which was very eerie since it was pitch dark in our car. The tunnel was well over a hundred years old (like the railroad) and had been hand dug. The countryside was rolling hills with many fields of Brahman cattle.

We got back to the ship at 2:30. The ship wasn't sailing until 5 pm, but neither of us wanted to walk back along the pier to the tiny town of Puntarenas. So, we ate a late lunch of tacos at the pool grill, and then I did a load of laundry. Couldn't believe it, but the laundry room was empty. While my laundry was going, I walked out on the deck in the late afternoon breeze. It really wasn't too hot with the wind, and the sun was setting at 5:08 pm.

After the walk and laundry, I took a quick shower and mom and I went up to the Ocean Bar for happy hour before dining in the buffet. It was Halloween night, and we estimated about 100 people in costumes. People watching was terrific! We didn't bring costumes, but wore Halloween t-shirts brought from home The buffet was all decorated in Indonesian and Philippine decor, and the servers dressed in traditional costumes. Mom and I both had some chicken and beef skewers, along with some type of peanut sauce. Very tasty.

They only had one show in the Showroom at Sea--at 9 pm. It was a Halloween Monster Mash Bash with the great combo the HALCats playing live music. Many people were dancing and many were showing off their costumes. We stayed until about 10 pm and then went to bed. Yes, you can call us party poopers.

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06 of 11

Corinto, Nicaragua

Equestrian Show at the Cortijo El Rosario Estate near Corinto, Nicaragua
Corinto, Nicaragua (c) Linda Garrison

The Veendam arrived in Corinto (renamed after Corinth in Greece by a mayor who had visited Corinth and loved the town) about 10 am, and all the tours left soon afterward. Nicaragua is not a place high on many people's bucket list, but the tourism leaders are working to improve outside impressions of the travel options in Nicaragua.

I had gotten up early and walked about three miles on the promenade deck to get my day off to a good start (and so I wouldn't feel too badly if I ate too much). Corinto is Nicaragua's largest Pacific Ocean port, but looked very poor. Our guide was another excellent one, and he gave us a lot of information about Nicaraguan politics and economy. He told us that the average monthly salary in Nicaragua is less than $200, the lowest in Central America. Some of the "wealthier" countries like Panama and Costa Rica have averages about $500/month. One good thing about Nicaragua is that the crime rate is the lowest in the Americas. I can't help but wonder if the country is under-reporting. Policemen make very low wages, so they may not follow up on crimes much, leading to people not reporting crimes. Just a hunch. While on this trip I finished reading the latest excellent Jo Nesbo book, "Police", and at one point a major character commented that people often either make up statistics or they are compiled inaccurately.

Our tour was a brand new one for Corinto--"Cortijo El Rosario Estate & Equestrian Show". This was one of the best cruise ship shore excursions I've ever been on. Since this was the first time it had run, we had three guides on the bus--I guess so they could learn the ropes and see how the tour ran.

It was an exceptional tour, and I'd recommend it to anyone visiting the area. Since it was the first tour, I was astonished that everything ran so smoothly. The guides were excellent--two spoke perfect English. Guide Byron had lived in Nicaragua all his life and learned to speak English in school (must have a good ear), and Guide Juan's family had fled Nicaragua during the revolution, so he grew up in Florida. His family, like many of the other thousands who took refuge in the USA (or elsewhere), but returned to Nicaragua when things calmed down.

Byron did most of the talking on the bus, and he was very frank about the country's problems. He acknowledged the poverty/poor wages issue, and told us that a teacher or nurse makes about $300 per month and a doctor about $500 per month. However, a politician salary ranges from $7000 to $15000 per month. I asked Byron whether everyone wants to go into politics, and he said that when he was in school, everyone he knew was majoring in law since that was the most popular major for those entering politics. By the time he graduated from college, Nicaragua had more lawyers than lawsuits/cases! They even shut down the law school for several years. After that, those interested in politics found other majors.

Nicaragua citizens are embracing travelers from other countries, and are working hard to improve their "face" to the outside. Our guide commented on the new contract the government has signed with China to study putting a canal through Nicaragua that would connect the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean, much like the Panama Canal does. It does look much easier than Panama since Lake Nicaragua, Central/South America's second largest lake (after Lake Titicaca), would be used for well over half the distance, and since the canal would not have to cross mountains, it could be a flat water canal without locks. The rough estimated cost is somewhere over $40 billion, even though they hadn't completed the study at the time of our cruise. The guide said that environmentalists are very concerned about turning Lake Nicaragua into a saltwater lake, since that would be what would happen if the canal is built using the existing rivers and lake. (only 11 miles would have to be dug as a "ditch", compared to the 48 miles in Panama). Nicaragua would also charge less than Panama since the canal wouldn't require locks. They hired the same Chinese engineering company who is studying the route to do the environmental impact study. Not much conflict of interest there.

We arrived at the El Rosario Estate about 40 minutes after leaving the pier. This 3500-acre plantation primarily raises sugar cane and bananas, but the Coen family (one of Nicaragua's wealthiest) also breed and train show horses (Spanish, Portuguese, and Percherons). This plantation was gorgeous, and they have built a facility for horse shows and an open air pavilion for an outdoor lunch and musical/folklore show. The Coen family are donating all profits from the tours to their non-profit foundation (the Coen Foundation). Sounds like the family is doing their part to help the high unemployment rate in Nicaragua, despite being forced to flee to another country during the revolution. All their land was seized, but they have slowly bought it back. They employ over 200 at their farm and also have a scholarship training program for deserving young people, teaching them to be horse trainers, riders, or other skilled jobs on the farm. The family also has their fingers in other businesses like Western Union.

The hosts greeted us with a delicious drink called Macuá. It's the national drink of Nicaragua, and is a frozen drink consisting of passion fruit juice, orange juice, guava juice, lemon juice, and other available fruits. Of course, there's a little rum in there also. I'm not a rum drinker, but the Flor de Cana Nicaraguan rum is one of the top 5 in the world, according to our guide, who swore he was quoting one of the "Wine & Spirits" magazines. Our guide in Costa Rica (no friend of Nicaragua) told us that the Flor de Cana was his favorite, and that the prices were much less than in the USA. We had 5-year old rum in the fruit drink, but also got to sip the 12- and 18-year old premium stuff straight. Even I could tell the difference from the cheap rum we used to drink back in college. A bottle of the 12-year old rum was about $28, but I decided to pass.

While sipping our rum punch drinks (mom and I both had seconds), we enjoyed a marvelous horse show from the open air balcony (had fans spinning rapidly to help cool us) overlooking the show ring. Some of our group sat downstairs, but we thought the view was better upstairs. The trainers demonstrated some of the techniques used to teach the horses and some of the "dances" the horses could do. Reminded mom and I of the Lipizzaner horse show we saw in Jerez, Spain, where those famous Austrian horses are trained. They also had some of the Percherons (slightly smaller than the Clydesdales) pulling wagons around the courtyard, and some gorgeous horses pulling elegant carriages. It was an excellent show--entertaining, and just the right length and variety of horses/performances.

After the show, we watched a horse shoeing demonstration and then boarded either one of the carriages, wagons, or an open-air trailer pulled by a very old truck that carried about 25 people. These vehicles transported the 40 of us to the air-conditioned boutique shop, which overlooked the polo field that doubles as a heliport. The shop had all sorts of Nicaraguan products, including jewelry, pottery, beer, rum, cigars, souvenirs, etc. The shop was lined with photos of the Coens taken with such notables as Queen Elizabeth, Miss Universe, and many other dignitaries. (The elder Coen was Nicaraguan ambassador to many foreign countries.) The walls of the room also displayed many of the ribbons and trophies won by the horses raised at the farm.

They had some artisans working in a separate room, demonstrating how they made the cigars, hand made hammocks, and pottery. The pottery was quite lovely, and many of the pieces were only about $10. The hammocks were much more, but many of the men on our tour were buying the cigars. One guy from Florida told us that the exact same box he bought for $27 in Nicaragua was over $100 in Florida. No import issues like we have with Cuban cigars either.

Lunch was in the large open air pavilion building next door to the shop/polo field viewing area. It was delicious. We had "make your own" soft corn tortillas with beef, pork, or chicken and all the toppings. The whole meal was typical Nicaraguan, and we all enjoyed it. While eating, we were entertained by a band and some dancers. Both mom and I got dragged out onto the dance floor to join in the fun (along with others from our tour). The Coens (or whoever designed the facilities) understood about women and toilets. They had some of the nicest bathrooms I've seen anywhere, and every building had toilet facilities.

Before heading back to the ship, we could either take a ride around the farm in an ATV-type vehicle or horse-drawn wagon for $5 per person, have our photos taken with the horses for $5, or just stroll around the grounds with one of the guides. Mom and I took option number 3. We loved seeing the old train cars that have been restored and are used for visitors (Morgan Freeman stayed in one a few months ago.) We also were awed by the five "play houses" on the grounds that were built for the Coen grandchildren. One was like a market, the second like a Western Union office, the third like a fire station, and the other two like residences. There was also a lovely merry go round/carousel imported from Venice, Italy for the children to ride on.

Soon it was time to head back to the Veendam. We arrived about 3 pm. I worked on the computer and read my book, and mom read her book too. We decided to just eat buffet in the Lido Restaurant, so we went to the 6 pm happy hour at the Ocean Bar and then ate upstairs. They have most of the same foods as the dining room, so the selection is good and we could be assured of being done in time for the early 8 pm show.

The show was four people (two women and two men) who were "ABBA-Fab", i.e. they performed most of the ABBA songs in the 45 minute concert. Very good, but we were both ready to hit the comfortable beds in our cabin.

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07 of 11

Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala

Cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua (c) Linda Garrison

We started our last week on the Veendam in Guatemala. Mom and I had visited Puerto Quetzal a few years ago on a cruise. They've done a nice job of making a well-laid-out handicraft shopping area since we were there before. You had to walk through it (of course) on the way to meet the tour buses, but the vendors weren't extra pushy or persistent.

Mom and I had tried to book an "Antigua on Your Own" tour, but it was full, so we decided to do the "Panoramic Antigua" shore excursion, which involved more bus riding and no free time. We had visited Antigua before, but there really isn't much else to do in the area except tour  archaeological sites. However, none are really close to Puerto Quetzal, so we opted for a return to Antigua.

Guatemala has over 4000 ancient sites (mostly Mayan). Tikal is by far the largest, but the excursion there included a plane ride and cost over $600--way out of our price range. I know others who have been to Tikal and were very impressed. Guess that's for another day.

Anyway, of the 4000 archaeological sites in Guatemala, 40 are in the Escuintla state (near Puerto Quetzal), but only two are open to visitors. Guatemala has many more citizens of Mayan ancestry than Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or Panama. In fact, the country has 24 different languages, of which 21 are Mayan, 1 is Spanish, and the other 2 are only spoken in small, isolated areas like an island.

Antigua is an ancient colonial city (dating back to 1543) and one of the most popular tourist sites in Guatemala. It's about a 1.5-hour to 2 hour ride from Puerto Quetzal, depending on the traffic. Our tour left at 10:15 am, so I had time to walk the promenade deck before we left. This tour was on a small bus, and mom and I got unlucky and had a seat on the back row behind the rear axle. This seat was particularly bad because the ride to Antigua was on a poorly maintained highway, and the streets of Antigua were cobblestone. It was a very bumpy trip for the four of us on the last seat.

We first stopped at the Jade Museum and store. I never knew so much jade came from Mexico and Central America. I also didn't know that there were two types of jade, and the stone comes in many colors. Much of the softer jade found in China actually is imported from British Columbia. This softer stone is used for statues and some jewelry. The harder jade found in Central America is more expensive and used for jewelry.

The shop personnel gave an interesting presentation, and the jewelry was gorgeous. Mom didn't buy any, but I did buy a dark jade pendant for $17 that matches my Mayan birth sign of the Woodpecker. (Mom's birth sign is the jaguar--a much preferable animal!). The Mayan birth signs are month-day-year specific, so even though mom and I have birthdays only three days apart, we have different "animals". The museum had many interesting pieces, several of which were very old.

Following our time at the jade museum/shop, we did a driving tour of Antigua. Didn't really see much more than when we visited years before, plus the bus was so bouncy, it wasn't very interesting.

We saw a couple of churches, plazas, shops, etc. The city consists of many one-story buildings, probably because the area is very earthquake prone. Some of the 30+ volcanoes of Guatemala surround the city, and three of the volcanoes are active. The last big eruption near Antigua was in 2012. The residents of nearby La Vieja (Guatemala's oldest town) first settled Antigua. They had to move when their town was destroyed by a flood brought on by an earthquake.

The ride back to the ship seemed less rough than the ride to Antigua. We decided either our butts were just plain numb or we had such a rough ride on the cobblestones of Antigua that the road seemed smooth.

All the cemeteries were particularly interesting on that day. November 1 is the "Day of the Dead" in many Latin American countries. On this day, families go en masse to the cemetery, take flowers, and have lunch on the grave of a loved one. The lunch is supposed to be the dead person's favorite food. All the cemeteries were filled with flowers and other decorations.  The food was spread out on many of the markers and monuments, and many kids were flying kites since that's also a way to honor the dead. (It's something about the soul flying over the cemetery.) I really thought this was a nice way to remember those you love, especially for young children who might not have known their grandparents very well.

We got back to the ship about 3:30 and had a quick taco lunch upstairs. I then worked on my notes while mom read her book.

At happy hour, we enjoying socializing with three Australians traveling together that we have come across several other times. (It's a married couple and a guy friend they met on a Holland America cruise a few years ago). Fun to talk to them. Had barbecue dinner outdoors on the deck after the happy hour. Skipped the comedy show. Bed before 10 pm.

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08 of 11

Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Mayan ruins at Izapa, Mexico near Puerto Chiapas
Izapa, near Puerto Chiapas (c) Linda Garrison

We were in Mexico the next day--really checked off Latin American countries on this trip. Mom and I had been to the Mexican Riviera on the Pacific coast, but never to Puerto Chiapas, which is the main port for the Chiapas state of Mexico. It borders Guatemala, and at one point we were only 5 miles from the border. No wonder we sailed so slowly during the night!

Mom and I had a 4.5-hour tour at 8:45--"Izapa Ruins & Chocolate Discovery". It was a very nice tour and a good value--an excellent mixture of Mayan culture and life in this part of Mexico today. We rode inland on the bus--this was a regular coach--skirting the edge of the 300,000-resident city of Tapachula, which even had both a Walmart and a Sam's Club!

We saw many used cars sitting at some homes. According to our guide, these are called "chocolate cars" since the owners use the money they make from selling chocolate to buy a car. Dealers go to the USA and buy old cars, bring them to Mexico, drive them the short distance to Guatemala to be repaired, and then sell them in Mexico.

Our first stop was at the small town of Tuxtla Chico, where we had a lesson on making chocolate. Residents of this small town make chocolate by hand every day and sell it. The area is also filled with mango plantations, so the summer (May until September) is busy picking those tasty fruits.

Making Chocolate from Cacao Beans

Making chocolate from scratch is done year round, and it's a multi-step process. First, they pick the large pods (about the size of an avocado) from the cacao tree. Cutting the pod open, there are many beans covered with a sweet gelatinous fruit. We tasted this fruit--kind of reminded me of a lychee--not much fruit, mostly hard bean/seed. The locals strip this bean/seed covering off and use it to flavor water--quite tasty.

The next step is to thoroughly wash the beans in water and then dry them for three days. The beans are not edible when raw--very bitter. After drying, they are roasted in a pan over an open fire. The chef must stir the beans continuously for 20 minutes or more to roast them. You can smell the chocolate when the beans are roasting. We tasted the beans after they had been cooked and they were okay, not great. The roasted cacao beans are then ground with a rock rolling pin on a metate, which is also a very hard rock. Sugar and cinnamon (or can be other additives like coffee, vanilla, etc) are also ground along with the cacao beans.

The chef takes the ground mixture and makes it into a ball, kneading as she goes. There's enough oil in the ground beans to make them stick together. Finally, this ball is shaped like a long roll, and sliced. These slices of the chocolate can be eaten or used to make hot chocolate. They were quite tasty, but not as strong of a chocolate taste as I thought it would be. They used granulated sugar, so the pieces were kind of gritty and very sweet. Fun to watch the process.

Walking Tour of Tuxtla Chico

Next we walked to the church and our guide Graciella told us of the two holidays celebrated in Tuxtla Chico that are not celebrated elsewhere in Mexico. The first is in February when a two-week holiday celebrates the patron saint of the town. The holiday climaxes when a statue of the saint is paraded around the town. Each year she is on a different type of transportation--boat, train, taxi, car, etc.

The second holiday is on October 28. This one is a little macabre. The first priest to visit Tuxtla Chico recognized that many in the area were open to Christianity, but also wanted to keep their pagan beliefs. As I'll explain more in a little bit, the Mayans were really into sacrifices. People believed that if they were ill, their problems could be transferred to an animal (or another human) and if the animal was sacrificed to the gods, it would heal them. Since it's better to sacrifice animals than humans, the priest went along with this tradition, and it has continued to this day. Each year on October 28, the feet of many baby ducks are tied together and they are strung by their feet on a wire down the middle of the main street of town. A horseman with a sharp knife rides quickly down the street decapitating the birds as he passes. I can't imagine how gruesome this must look with baby duck heads (and blood) flying everywhere, releasing the illnesses of the townspeople who have transferred their woes to these small ducks! Quite a story, isn't it? We were in Tuxtla Chico just a few days after the festival, but I think I'm glad it's one I missed.

A Visit to the Mayan Ruins at Izapa

Re-boarding the bus, we rode onto Izapa, a group of Mayan ruins just a few miles away. Izapa is actually three archaeological sites, and we visited Izapa "A", which is a series of pyramidal and rectangular rock buildings. "A" was also the site of an ancient ball game similar to soccer, except the players didn't use their feet--only their torso (mostly hips and shoulders) to move the ball. No one knows exactly what the ball was made of--some speculate it was rubber, others say skulls covered in some type of goo. The goal was to get the ball to hit a large rock pillar at the end of the field. (Later in the Mayan culture, this rock was replaced by a large ring.) Each of the two teams had 5-7 of the strongest, most virile young men. According to our guide, the winners got the glory, and the losers were all sacrificed to the gods. (Interestingly, someone on another tour got the opposite story from their guide--the winners were sacrificed since they were the "best" and the gods deserved the best.) Whatever---young men were sacrificed. I asked how often this game was played. It was only played when the gods needed appeasement. Most often this occurred when the nearby volcano started smoking. Weird tale, isn't it?

We left Izapa and headed back to the ship, arriving about 1:30. Like Puerto Quetzal, Puerto Chiapas had a nice port area--very well kept, with lovely grounds and shopping. It didn't have a large open air, thatched roof bar and swimming pool like Puerto Quetzal, but is still very nice.

Mom and I had lunch and then spent the afternoon reading before getting cleaned up for the evening. We were invited to 7:30 cocktails followed by dinner with the Hotel Director, but mother decided to pass and eat earlier. So, I went with her for a drink at the Ocean Bar and then upstairs to watch her eat at the buffet. She took her book and was happy to miss a big dinner. I met our group at the Martini Bar--two couples from Canada, a mother/daughter from Seattle, the hotel director from the Netherlands, and me. Congenial, well-traveled group. They had all boarded in either Quebec City or Boston. We had a round of drinks and then a "special" menu dinner in the main dining room--shrimp cocktail or escargot; Caesar salad or tomato basil soup; and surf (lobster tail) and turf (filet). Dessert was some type of chocolate surprise. Very nice, and I was sorry that mom skipped the meal.

While I was off partying, mom went to the show (a pianist playing Billy Joel and Elton John), so was still awake when I came in. Read some and then time for bed. The next day we didn't have a shore excursion, but would be in Huatulco, Mexico.

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Huatulco, Mexico

Huatulco, Mexico
Huatulco (c) Linda Garrison

The next day was a hot one in Mexico. The Veendam arrived in the lovely port town of Huatulco about 8 am. I was walking my 10K steps around the promenade deck when we arrived, and it was fun to see the ship maneuvering into the dock. It was in a narrow harbor, and the Captain backed the ship up to the dock. Quite a feat--his backing skills are better than mine.

Huatulco was the only true beach town on this cruise itinerary. The area was first recognized as a tourist destination back in the 1980's. It's in the state of Oaxaca, and I've heard of all-inclusive resorts in the area. Many on the ship headed off to one of the numerous beaches or for tours of gardens, quaint villages, or archaeological sites. We heard that the water was warm and great for swimming.

For the first time in five days, we didn't have a tour, so it was nice to just walk into town and do a little exploring on our own. Mom went back to the ship, and I found an outdoor Internet cafe. I sat in the shade and had a wonderful breeze off the ocean. Perfect weather--hot but dry, so the shady seat was nice. I had a diet coke, did a little maintenance on my web site, and checked facebook for the first time in almost two weeks. Amazing that I didn't have more Internet withdrawal. I sipped the diet coke and followed it up with a Corona beer, which was the same price. Got back to the ship about 1:30 in time to meet mom for lunch.

Napped and read in the afternoon before getting cleaned up for formal night. Mom and I went to the bar for a glass of wine and ate dinner in the main dining room. Nice relaxing day, and we would be at sea the next day on the way to our last Mexican port of call--Puerto Vallarta.

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Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta (c) Linda Garrison

After a sea day, the Veendam arrived in our last port of call, Puerto Vallarta. Mom and I had visited Puerto Vallarta several years ago and enjoyed it again this time. The day was warm, but I got my daily walk completed before we took the shuttle from the pier to the downtown area (about 10 minutes via van--too far to walk). The shuttle, sponsored by one of the jewelry stores, carried us between their two shops--one at the pier and the other at one end of the Malecon, the beachfront pedestrian-only area. The shuttle was free into town and cost $3 per person back to the pier. Still cheaper than a taxi, although we did have to avoid the jewelery salesmen who practically attacked the van on both trips.

I think all Mexican towns call their beachfront roads the Malecon, and Puerto Vallarta is no different. When mom and I visited before, I drug her up a hill to see the house Richard Burton built for Elizabeth Taylor. This couple put the town on the tourism map. Today, the downtown area is filled with shops, bars, and restaurants, and the coast is lined with tall hotels and modern condos. From the ship, we could see big jets flying in and out of the airport.

The Puerto Vallarta downtown beach area is lovely, and looked very clean. I even used a public toilet, and it was spotless, but did cost 5 pesos or about 75 cents. One interesting event I had never seen elsewhere was a group of a half dozen men dressed in native costumes who performed on the beach. Five of them climbed a very tall telephone pole, using spikes driven into the pole. At the top, there was a large ring where they all sat. Then one played a flute while the others attached their feet to long ropes. Then they went backwards off the ring and spun around (the ring must have been motorized), letting the ropes get longer and longer until they reached the ground a few minutes later. The sixth guy circulated amongst the crowd, collecting money. Interesting demonstration/entertainment. After about 10 minutes or so on the ground, they repeated the process.

We took the shuttle (and paid the $3 each) back to the pier. I stopped in at an Internet center near the port while mom walked back to the ship. It wasn't air conditioned and was filled with crew members. I paid for an hour and did a little work before heading back for lunch. If I had known the shop didn't have air conditioning, I would have found WiFi in the downtown area.

After lunch, we rested a little and then mom decided to take a nap, so I headed back to the sauna/WiFi shop for another hour of sweating (they did have fans to stir up the heat) before returning to the ship for a cold drink and to shower and get ready for our 6 pm Le Cirque dinner at the Pinnacle Restaurant. Before dinner, we had a drink in the bar at non-happy hour prices--big spenders! The dinner was as good as I remembered. My friend Claire will be happy to know that they still had the butternut squash soup on the menu that she loved so much. I had the signature lobster salad, the chilled yogurt/melon soup, rack of lamb, and a chocolate souffle. Mom ate the lobster salad, 3-cheese ravioli, and creme brulee. All the dishes were excellent, and the rack of lamb was some of the best I've ever tasted.

We sat in the atrium and listened to the music from the nearby Ocean Bar for a while and did some people watching. Soon it was time for a return to our books in the cabin.

The last two days on the ship were at sea before docking in San Diego early on Saturday morning.

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Sea Days on the Holland America Veendam

Enjoying a great dinner at the Veendam Pinnale Grill
Veendam (c) Linda Garrison

Whenever I take a cruise with several sea days, people often ask, "What is there to do on a ship?" I usually answer, "More than I can handle!" This is so true. Ships like the Holland America Veendam understand that cruise travelers share a love of travel, but also have many diverse interests. Some cruisers don't care for organized activities, so they spend their time at sea sitting on the deck or in one of the lounges with a good book. They can gaze at the sea, people watch, listen to music, or enjoy a drink with their book. Others like to gamble in the casino, have a spa treatment, exercise in the gym, watch a movie in the theater or in their cabin, or browse in the shops.

The cruise ships also offer many onboard activities. The nice thing is that you can do as many as you wish or as few.

Many of the onboard activities are educational. For example, the Veendam has a Culinary Arts Center program with cooking demonstrations, party planning, handicraft-making, and other fun activities. These programs are well-attended and fun. The Veendam also had lectures on the ports of call, mixology, flower arranging, and the geology and history of the region. My mom and I love to play bridge, so we appreciated the bridge classes and the opportunity to play duplicate bridge on sea day afternoons. Holland America has free computer classes in the computer center, and many of our fellow passengers raved about all they learned in these classes. Since they were free, some people repeated the classes that weren't full, since they were able to learn some new tools or tricks. The ship also had classes on using a digital camera, which was perfect for this traveling audience.

Not all the onboard organized activities are educational. Holland America's"Dancing with the Stars: At Sea", is great fun to watch or participate in. Games like putting, water volleyball, bingo, and trivia are always fun.

Many shipboard activities revolve around food and drink, and the Veendam is no different. Guests don't have to cook, so they can relax over a wide variety of dishes at three square meals a day (or more). The Veendam has afternoon tea time on sea days, with delicate sandwiches and sweets. It's all so civilized!

As you can see, days and nights at sea can be as busy or as relaxing as you want. After all, it's YOUR vacation, and the Veendam staff and crew want to make it fun and memorable. It's easy with a well-run ship, good food, good activities, and good ports of call.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.

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