Buenos dias, y’all. Spanish spoken, but US dollars welcome, in our five ports-of-call in Mexico and Central America. Doug was five years younger in frantic Cabo San Lucas, and we saw our first hammerhead shark. In Huatulco, a calmer place, we enjoyed guacamole on the beach after a mountain bike ride. We learned about coffee cultivation in Guatemala and experienced a “steep moment” as we climbed a wind-swept Nicaraguan volcano. Costa Rica was not quite as colourful as we had expected.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
“Toss your inhibitions to the wind – everyone else does” is Lonely Planet’s advice for Cabo San Lucas. Cabo is a heavily-trafficked holiday destination, and the activities for fun-lovers are endless: ride horses or camels on the beach, swim with dolphins, scream from a parasailer or a jet ski, go sportfishing, learn about the history of tequilas. If you know us at all, you won’t be surprised that we opted for a self-propelled tour, Clear-Bottomed Kayak and Snorkel Expedition.
After subtracting five years from Doug’s age (69 is the maximum age for this tour), we launched into the Sea of Cortez. Dodging marine traffic and a huge manta ray, our fleet of twenty double kayaks paddled along Cabo’s busy beaches and shores.
El Arco, also known as Land’s End, was our destination and turn-around point. El Arco is a big rock with a wide arch cut through it by generations of tides and sea, creating a window from the Sea of Cortez to the Pacific Ocean.
An iconic symbol of Cabo San Lucas, the arch is a haven for noisy, smelly sea lions.
On the return trip we slid from the kayaks into the water for the snorkel portion of the tour. Hundreds of fish – all of them surgeons with tail-spines sharp as a scalpel – surrounded us. Whew, no hammerhead shark. From our veranda that morning we had watched a hammerhead circling our ship. National Geographic describes hammerheads as “consummate predators,” which does not sound friendly. After an hour of snorkeling, climbing back aboard the kayaks was accomplished, although not elegantly.
We weren’t the only ones with sweat-soaked tee shirts as a result of the Mountain Bike Excursion. The two uphill climbs weren’t that difficult, but on top of the heat and humidity, this ride was a moderate workout as well as a sightseeing tour.
Mountain Bike Excursion required a strongly-worded waiver, certifying that participants had no past or present medical conditions of any kind. Would anyone be eligible without fibbing? Actually, yes. Since Los Angeles our ship has been at full occupancy. The average age has plummeted; many of the new passengers don’t even have grey hair!
Our group consisted of fourteen cyclists, four guides, and the cutest escort vehicle we have ever had: a 1970-something yellow VW bug.
Huatulco is known for its nine beautiful bays surrounded by lowland jungle. Our cycling route allowed us to see three of these lovely bays, with photo stops at viewpoints and an opportunity to cool off in the ocean at Chahue Beach Club. We also cycled into La Crucecita, with free time to visit this authentic Mexican town, complete with cobblestone streets and a plaza lined with boutiques and handicraft stores.
Never heard of Huatulco? It was a coffee-growing area until the 1980s, when a government agency acquired land to develop a tourism centre, similar to that of Cancun. Although it’s been thirty years since resort development began, the Huatulco area has a new, clean, small-town, tourist-friendly feel to it.
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
Confession: we looked forward to the ninety-minute bus ride. When we docked it was hot enough to cook an egg on the street, and all we could see was an industrial port/construction zone surrounded by swamp that only a mosquito could love.
An air-conditioned bus tour to a coffee plantation in the mountains sounded cool, and it was, literally and figuratively.
“I want to work on a coffee plantation,” was Doug’s comment after our guided tour of the Finca El Barretal plantation and processing plant.
Studying old-but-clever, low-tech mechanical equipment is Doug’s idea of a great tour, and the manager’s son proudly described every step in the coffee process. Temperatures are cooler up here at the altitude where coffee grows (3,000-6,000 feet). The coffee tasted great, too.
On the ninety-minute drive we passed lowland pastures filled with sugar cane plantations, where poisonous snakes lurk, and anti-venom is in short supply. A dramatic thunderstorm forced our bus to make a brief stop in view of the Pacaya Volcano. Pacaya, which soars over 8,000 feet high, first erupted 23,000 years ago and then became active again in 1965, with ongoing eruptions since.
“There will be a steep moment, but we need to remain calm,” said Jorge, as he briefed us in preparation for our two-hour climb to the rim of the smoking Cerro Negro volcano. The trail up the black basalt slopes is rocky, dusty, and windy, we were warned, but even Jorge was not prepared for the hurricane-force winds we experienced – the strongest winds in his ten years of guiding.
We, along with two other couples, were the lead group. The three women, being lighter in weight, held onto their men tightly to avoid being blown away. As we started the final approach to the summit, Jorge insisted we turn back, because it was too windy and too unsafe. After crouching low for a while, another guided group headed up, so Jorge relented and let us go to the top, too.
Cerro Negro (Black Hill) is a baby volcano, the youngest volcano in Central America, and it’s only 760 metres high. How did it come to be a tourist destination? First, a crazy French guy rode his bicycle down, trying to break a speed record. Next, it became a sand-boarding destination. Today, even the cruise ship tour buses come for the adventure of a trek to the rim.
The access road is rough, ash-and-pumice, and single-lane – a challenge when we met horse carts, tractors, and pigs trying to go the other way.
Volcanic dust and tiny rocks came out of our ears, eyes, and shoes for the next two days, but we really enjoyed the hike, and we never felt unsafe. Finally, an Oceania cruise ship tour worthy of its “strenuous” rating!
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
We expected to be awed by Costa Rica’s spectacular rainforest canopy and the brilliantly-coloured birds, just a one to two-hour drive from the port. Unfortunately, our ship did not dock until 2 p.m.
Even the most aggressive tour operator acknowledged that it was too late to reach the national park before the trails closed for the day.
A walk along Puntarenas Beach was our back-up plan. The black-sand beach stretches three kilometres from the cruise ship pier to the tip of Puntarenas, where there is a lighthouse, a fishing pier, and a swimming pool. The walkway, Paseo de los Turistas, is lined with beachside cafes, craft stands, and public art. The whole area is showing wear, but the people were friendly.