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Sailing through the Panama Canal

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Remember our intrepid Spring Hill explorers, Joe and Joan Griffin?

We last found them on safari in Africa; this time, they’re sailing from Miami to Lima, Peru and passing through the iconic Panama Canal. “We are so very, very fortunate to be able to travel and we shall always appreciate it,” said Joan. “It’s a special treat taking a cruise. No need to deal with airport stress. You just board a big, beautiful cruise ship, and within hours, you are casting off and heading off to exotic destinations. In our case, it was sailing the western Caribbean and then traversing the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean and beyond,” she added.

The couple had chosen to sail on one of the smaller cruise ships, the Regent Seven Seas Splendor, with destinations due south of Florida in Mexico, Roatan, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru.

“Western Caribbean excursions are well organized and include visits to Mayan ruins, jungle adventures, scuba diving and exploration of underwater shipwrecks, fishing, kayaking and zip-lining adventures through the rainforests of Central America,” said Joan.

“The views from our on-board balcony were of white-sand beaches and pristine azure waters,” said Joan. “This region of the Caribbean has breathtaking barrier reefs and lots of cultural connections to learn about.”

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“We chose a few excursions, the first of which was to explore Mayan ruins,” said Joe. “These ancient Mayan ruins rise up from the rainforest to remind us all of this area’s deep cultural heritage.”

“We also chose to go on an eco-jungle tour as well as a relaxing beach day,” said Joe.

The couple particularly enjoyed the eco-jungle cruise riding in a pontoon boat surrounded by rainforest rich in flora and fauna. They described seeing beautiful wild orchids in the trees, water lilies blanketing the water’s surface and a variety of monkeys, sloths, iguanas and brightly colored birds like parrots and toucans.

“Before we knew it, the ship was heading towards the island of Roatan,” said Joe.

“Roatan sits atop an ancient coral reef system, surrounded by gorgeous crystal blue waters and a lush tropical environment,” said Joan. “It’s truly a Caribbean paradise.”

Next on the itinerary is the ship’s passage through the Panama Canal. Dubbed the “Crossroads of the World,” the Panama Canal is a 50-mile isthmus that connects North and South America.

Until the canal was built, the trans-isthmus trek involved a winding path through jungle rivers. Built by the US and opened in 1914, the canal was handed over to Panamanian control in 1999. Nowadays, the canal can now accommodate vessels that are longer, wider and heavier than before, thanks to a new expansion nine years in the making.

“From our arrival outside the east side of the Panama Canal, we were in awe throughout the entire crossing,” said Joe. “There were so many ships waiting their turn to enter the canal.

Approaching the first set of locks, Joe stated how precise the maneuver must be. “It was awesome to watch as the several-story-high steel gates slowly swing shut and the basin begins filling with millions of gallons of water,” he said. “Sailing through the canal was impressive, remarkable and unforgettable.”

“Our cruise ship was the perfect size for transiting the old locks in the Panama Canal as it had only a few feet separating each side of the boat from the land,” she said. “During the second set of locks, we were almost able to touch the ground off the side of the ship. It was incredible.”

After that, the ship sailed through a manmade lake to the final lock, where it was lowered down to Pacific sea level. The entire procedure takes from eight to ten hours.

“Our ship fit into the locks of the canal very snuggly,” said Joan. Joe added that although there are diesel trains on either side of the canal hooked up to the ship by large cables, they are not there to pull the ship along. The ships use their own power to make it through the canal, so the ship never varied in its movement and never touched the side of the canal.

“The Panama Canal is one of the world’s great engineering marvels, and a Panama Canal cruise should be on everyone’s bucket list,” Joe added.

The couple added that it was fascinating to learn the history of how the Panama Canal was constructed and to actually experience how it works.

Now in the Pacific Ocean, the ship continued on towards Panama City. “It was so modern,” said Joan. “The skyline was stunning, and our tender ride towards the dock was a great place to take a lot of exciting photos.”

Leaving Panama City behind, the ship headed for Manta and Guayaquil in Ecuador. Since the earthquake of 1942, much of Guayaquil has been rebuilt and is now a major South American Pacific port. It’s also now attracting tourism with a lot of sightseeing places, monuments, parks, rivers, beaches and good hotels.

The couple took a shore excursion to Montecristi, where workers specialize in crafting items with agave fiber. Montecristi is the very center of the Panama hat industry. These high-quality hats are hand-woven by expert artisans in Ecuador and not in Panama, as the name would imply.

“We were lucky to see the huge statue is of a young lady demonstrating the traditional way of making the ‘Panama’ hat,” said Joe. “It’s located right in the center of a very busy roundabout on the highway that runs from Manta to Montecristi.”

Next was a visit to a factory where carvings and jewelry are made from the tagua nut – a cream-colored nut with a fine marbled grain structure that looks and feels like ivory. In fact, it’s often called vegetable ivory. The nut grows in a palm tree and is original to Ecuador. Tagua was used a lot in button production but now is carved into dice, knife handles, chess pieces, billiard balls and, of course, beautiful jewelry.

“Between the many idyllic islands, the laid-back Caribbean vibe and the beauty of the turquoise seas everywhere we sailed, we experienced some of the best panoramic views in the world and, of course, the superb service we received on our ship,” said Joe.

When the ship reached Lima, the Griffins said goodbye to their floating home for the past three weeks.
It wasn’t the end of the cruise for the Seven Seas Splendour, though. The ship would continue on down the west coast of S. America, around Cape Horn and then visit Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil before heading back to Miami. The complete cruise is 67 nights long.

“We have two marvelous souvenirs to remind us of this cruise,” said Joan. “Plaques commemorating our traversing the Panama Canal and another that we crossed the equator.”

“We hope that telling everyone about our travels will inspire others to explore,” the couple said. “The most exciting part is that we still have so much more to explore, health willing. We want to do this for as long as we possibly can.”

Next on their travel list are Belgium and Holland. Look for their next adventure in the The Hernando Sun.

Sue Quigley writes regularly for the Hernando Sun. She can be reached at 727.247.6308 or at [email protected].

All photos by Joe Griffin.

Joan and Joe Griffin at the foot of some majestic Mayan ruins.
Joan and Joe Griffin at the foot of some majestic Mayan ruins.
Joan and Joe Griffin at the foot of some majestic Mayan ruins.
Joan and Joe Griffin at the foot of some majestic Mayan ruins.
The skyline of Panama City by day.
The skyline of Panama City by day.
The skyline of Panama City by night.
The skyline of Panama City by night.
The couple thought the canal looks so narrow as they viewed the approach from the bow of their ship.
The couple thought the canal looks so narrow as they viewed the approach from the bow of their ship.
Neo-Gothic-style Metropolitan Cathedral of Guayaquil
It boasts several magnificent ceilings and one hundred twenty-six-stained-glass windows.
Neo-Gothic-style Metropolitan Cathedral of Guayaquil
It boasts several magnificent ceilings and one hundred twenty-six-stained-glass windows.
She’s big at 15m high. She’s a statue weaving a panama hat but located in the middle of a busy roundabout.
She’s big at 15m high. She’s a statue weaving a panama hat but located in the middle of a busy roundabout.
Lots of wildlife spotted during an Eco-Jungle Cruise — a blue heron, an iguana sporting his Christmas hat and a handsome sloth perched high in the treetops.
Lots of wildlife spotted during an Eco-Jungle Cruise — a blue heron, an iguana sporting his Christmas hat and a handsome sloth perched high in the treetops.
Lots of wildlife spotted during an Eco-Jungle Cruise — a blue heron, an iguana sporting his Christmas hat and a handsome sloth perched high in the treetops.
Lots of wildlife spotted during an Eco-Jungle Cruise — a blue heron, an iguana sporting his Christmas hat and a handsome sloth perched high in the treetops.
Lots of wildlife spotted during an Eco-Jungle Cruise — a blue heron, an iguana sporting his Christmas hat and a handsome sloth perched high in the treetops.
Lots of wildlife spotted during an Eco-Jungle Cruise — a blue heron, an iguana sporting his Christmas hat and a handsome sloth perched high in the treetops.
Despite the name, Panama hats have never been made in Panama. They originate in Ecuador, the only place in the world thathas had such a long-lasting weaving tradition.
Despite the name, Panama hats have never been made in Panama. They originate in Ecuador, the only place in the world thathas had such a long-lasting weaving tradition.
Official plaque awarded to the Griffins at a ceremony on board the ship after passing through the Canal and official plaque awarded to the Griffins at a ceremony on board the ship after crossing the Equator.
Official plaque awarded to the Griffins at a ceremony on board the ship after passing through the Canal and official plaque awarded to the Griffins at a ceremony on board the ship after crossing the Equator.
Official plaque awarded to the Griffins at a ceremony on board the ship after passing through the Canal and official plaque awarded to the Griffins at a ceremony on board the ship after crossing the Equator.
Official plaque awarded to the Griffins at a ceremony on board the ship after passing through the Canal and official plaque awarded to the Griffins at a ceremony on board the ship after crossing the Equator.
Statue of Simon Bolivar and José de San Martin, leaders of the Independence movement.
Statue of Simon Bolivar and José de San Martin, leaders of the Independence movement.
A Roatan Island restaurant menu.
A Roatan Island restaurant menu.

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