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By Jack M. Turner

    The Panama Canal has been known for a century as one of the world’s top man-made engineering marvels.  A cruise through the canal provided us the opportunity to ride the transcontinental Panama Canal Railway and take a short train ride in Costa Rica as well as an Amtrak trip across the United States.  It was a trip I highly recommend.
    We boarded “Island Princess” on Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at Port Everglades, between Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale.  As we returned our rental car to a nearby rental agency, a Brightline train could be seen making its way north on the adjacent Florida East Coast Railway tracks.  My story “Riding Brightline Over The Florida East Coast” details a ride on Brightline a few months earlier.  As we stepped onto the ship memories flooded back from our December 2006 round trip cruise from San Pedro outside Los Angeles to Hawaii also aboard “Island Princess”.  That cruise was bracketed by Amtrak trips between Florida and California as discussed in my story “Florida to Hawaii Aboard Amtrak and Princess”.
    This was our first cruise in a mini-suite and the added size and amenities of that accommodation set the standard for future cruises, especially lengthy cruises like this one.  The first night was highlighted by meeting our tablemates at dinner, couples from Arizona and Massachusetts.  As always, Princess Cruises delivered a fine dining experience followed by an outstanding show in the Princess Theater, a daily routine we enjoyed throughout the journey.  The next two days were coveted sea days that allowed us to enjoy the ship’s many features while taking the day at our own pace.  Passing the mountainous coast of Cuba and viewing the moonlit sea from our balcony were highlights of those days.


Our mini-suite featured two flat screen televisions, two beds, a sofa bed, bathtub, and a balcony

    Our first port of call was Cartagena, Colombia, a surprisingly cosmopolitan looking city.  As we sailed into the harbor the city skyline resembled Miami with dozens of high-rise buildings nuzzled right up to water’s edge.  The port area was interesting as a bird aviary featured flamingoes, colorful parrots, peacocks, and other exotic birds.  Adjacent shops provided a good place to browse area merchandise within close proximity to the ship.  Other passengers ventured farther from the ship to explore Cartagena’s Old Town district and other sights.  This day held special meaning to us as it was our first ever visit to South America. 


Welcome to Cartagena, Colombia


Island Princess docked in Cartagena


Flamingoes at the aviary near the Cartagena pier


Colorful parrots at the Cartagena aviary


Sailing out of Cartagena whose skyline resembles the Miami skyline

    The following day started early for us as the ship made a full transit of the 40 mile long Panama Canal and the passage consumed the entire daylight portion of the day.  We made sure to arrive at the Horizon Court buffet before 6:30am to snag seats beside forward-facing picture windows so we could observe the entrance to the Canal and the first set of locks from that vantage point.  Before long the entire viewing area was full and we were happy that we got there early.  This location also had the advantage of being close to the breakfast buffet lines as well as exits to outdoor viewing areas.
    A tall bridge under construction for several years stood near the entrance to the Panama Canal.  It was soon obvious that the Panama Canal is a busy place as countless oceangoing vessels were visible as we moved forward.  By 8:20am we reached the Gatun locks where our ship entered a series of three chambers whose heavy steel gates would close in front and behind “Island Princess” before the chamber was flooded.  The effect of this was that the ship was raised 27 to 30 feet in each chamber bringing it from the sea level elevation of the Atlantic Ocean to the 89 foot elevation of massive Gatun Lake.  Concrete piers ran along each side of each chamber and small locomotives, tied to the ship with steel cables, guided “Island Princess” through the chamber.  Two locomotives were alongside each side of the bow (forward end of the ship) with two more alongside the stern (rear of the ship).  A bell on each locomotive made a distinctive clanging sound much like an old trolley car.  The locomotives were vital to safe passage through the locks as “Island Princess” had only a two foot clearance between the side of the ship and the pier on each side.  Many of today’s mega ships use the nearby locks that opened in 2016 which are wider than the original locks that we traversed.  In fact, the only other Princess cruise ship that fits through the original locks is “Coral Princess”, sister ship to “Island”.


Following a cargo ship into Gatun Locks in the Panama Canal.  Note that vehicles can cross in front of the steel chamber gates.


The cargo ship has been raised as the chamber is flooded


Helper locomotives used to guide ships through the locks along with a railroad crane and turntable


The helper engines climb a steep incline at the end of the chamber
    A few feet away on the opposite side of the pier off our port (left) side were the chambers for ships headed from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  It was interesting to watch the process of lowering another ship headed the opposite direction while we were in the locks.  Total time in Gatun Locks was just short of two hours.  After leaving the third chamber of Gatun locks we entered Gatun Lake, the world’s largest man-made lake at the time it was created.  Today only Lake Mead, east of Las Vegas, is larger.  The Panama Canal opened in 1914, an unimaginable feat for that era.  Passage through Gatun Lake took over five hours and allowed us to enjoy views of tropical rainforests, mountains, and the village of Gamboa.  At times the Panama Canal Railway could be seen on the port side with the best view coming at the railway’s crossing of the Chagres River on a cantilevered bridge.  Though our cruise was westbound, we sailed a southeasterly course from the Atlantic to the Pacific.


Gatun Lake is the world’s second largest man-made lake


Panama Canal Railway crosses the Chagres River as seen from Island Princess

    In mid-afternoon “Island Princess” passed beneath the Centennial Bridge then through the Pedro Miguel lock.  This operation was viewed from our balcony where we could watch the locomotives guide us through the narrow chambers.  Soon we entered the Miraflores lock where the process of lowering the ship back to sea level was viewed from our dining table at dinner.  It was amazing to witness how far below the top of the pier we reached and the effect was much like riding in a slow-moving elevator.  Almost 12 hours after entering the Panama Canal, “Island Princess” exited into the Pacific Ocean after sailing below the Bridge of the Americas.


Centennial Bridge is one of three highway bridges spanning the Panama Canal


Exiting Miraflores Locks en route to the Pacific Ocean


A tanker sailing toward the Atlantic


Passing beneath the Bridge of the Americas in late evening near Panama City, Panama

    Day 6, Sunday, April 14, found us anchored off Puerto Amador, Panama on the outskirts of Panama City.  After tendering to shore we stepped onto a tour bus which took us to Corosol to board a Panama Canal Railway train that paralleled the Canal to Colon.  The railway began service in 1855 to haul freight between the two oceans and has continued this service even after the opening of the Canal over 100 years ago.  A brief cessation of service occurred late last century but the railway resumed operation in 2001 and today is busy hauling passengers and freight. 
    Our 44 mile transcontinental train trip departed at 11:27am with a former Amtrak F40 engine on both ends of the train.  The entire train was painted in a catchy yellow, red, and black color scheme inspired by the Kansas City Southern Railway.  Coach # 104 “Rio Pequeni” was comfortably outfitted with booth-style seating and large picture windows.  The train car was pleasantly cool, a welcome change from the toasty outdoor temperatures brought on by being just 9 degrees north of the Equator.  Our tour guide for the day and a pleasant female conductor made the trip enjoyable by pointing out passing sights and serving boxed lunches and soft drinks.


F40 # 1861, a former Amtrak engine, brings up the rear of our excursion train


Our tour guide and conductor preparing to depart for Colon

    Six minutes into the train ride we passed Miraflores locks followed by Miraflores Lake.  In between views of the canal, the railway passed through lush forests dominated by palms, banana trees, and other tropical vegetation.  Shortly the Pedro Miguel locks appeared on our left side and a few minutes later we crossed the Gamboa Bridge over the 120 mile long Chagres River.  Beyond the river the rails passed through Gamboa, a small village that exists to service the Panama Canal.  Our tour guide Jorge provided information about the rain forest through which the railroad passes including the fact that this area is home to monkeys, anteaters, eagles, manatees, and other exotic animals.


Ships plying the Panama Canal can be seen from the train


Our boxed lunches were contained in a map covered box showing our route


Crossing the Gamboa Bridge over the Chagres River which we saw the prior day from our ship

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The rear of the train crosses the Gamboa Bridge


Inside our assigned car “Rio Peguini”
    Maintaining a steady 45 mph speed, the train passed below the under-construction highway bridge near the Atlantic end of the Canal just 75 minutes into its journey and pulled into Colon at 12:50pm.  The sea to sea train ride had been much faster than the prior day’s passage aboard the ship!  The tour bus picked us up at the end of the ride and drove us to Gatun locks where we visited the visitor center overlooking the new, larger Gatun locks.  There we watched huge oceangoing freighters being raised or lowered as “Island Princess” had been the prior day.  This visit plus the previous day’s passage allowed us to observe the locks from multiple vantage points, something that will remain in my memory a long time.  Our excursion ended back at Puerto Amador where we again boarded the ship to continue our journey toward Los Angeles.


F40 # 1858 “Ciudad de Gatun” at Colon


“Rio Pequeni” after arrival in Colon


This full dome car was operated by Southern Pacific (SP 3603) and served Amtrak (AMT 9372) briefly then was converted to an ice cream parlor in St. Petersburg, FL.

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A Panama Canal Railway stack train seen from our motor coach during the return to the ship


A ship passes through the wider Gatun Locks as seen from the visitors center
    Monday was another relaxing day at sea and we had a chance to enjoy many of the ship’s amenities.  One of the upper decks housed a challenging putt-putt golf course that produced some excellent matches between Christine and myself.  We also enjoyed one of the swimming pools and the adjacent hot tubs.  “Island Princess” contained some interesting shops that invited browsing as well as numerous venues where a variety of live music was played throughout the day.  The Internet cafe provided ample opportunity to keep in touch with family back home as well as track the progress of our favorite college baseball team.  The only down side to the day’s activities was the need to wash laundry but even that was relatively simple thanks to the existence of a laundromat on each deck including one right down the hall from our mini-suite.


The challenging putt-putt course is one of many fun activities aboard Island Princess


The Lotus Pool and adjacent hot tubs offered great places to relax


The atrium is a great place to hang out or visit a variety of shops
    The eighth day of the cruise took us into Puntarenas, Costa Rica.  Known as a favorite destination of many travelers to Central America, Costa Rica did not disappoint.  A variety of small villages dotting the landscape were seen from our tour bus as we made our way to a stretch of narrow gauge railroad near Caldera.  During the bus ride we spotted numerous disconnected sets of rails running down the grassy median of a city street.  The bus stopped at a small pavilion where local students performed several native dances.  Following the performance, about 125 passengers boarded an old train consisting of a small industrial locomotive, two open window coaches, and a caboose.
    We departed Caldera at 8:45am and rolled along very slowly through a village then skirted mangrove swamps before coming upon another small village.  School was out on this particular week so numerous young children waved from trackside behind their small houses.  Apparently, they knew the routine as tourists aboard the train had been handed a bottle of soda and a bag of plantains at the beginning of the journey.  Many tossed their unopened plantain bags to the kids as the train slowly loped along.  Mountains soon appeared in the distance and a large hill stood in the foreground on the left side of the train.  About a half hour into the ride the train backed down a wye track and stopped beside the tour busses that would transport us to a river cruise about an hour away. 


Sunrise along the coast of Costa Rica as viewed from our Island Princess balcony


Inside our coach on the Costa Rica Railway


A common sight during the Costa Rica train ride was kids waving as we passed


Children wait for passengers to toss bags of plantains


Curving through a village during the short train ride


The short train at the end of the line


Two coaches accommodated tour passengers


A caboose brought up the rear of our train

    During the motor coach ride we passed banana plantations, oak trees populated by wild monkeys, and a black sand beach.  The tour boats that plied the river were similar to those that used to travel the waters at Florida’s Silver Springs (minus the glass bottom).  Many forms of wildlife were spotted in the groves along the river and in the water itself.  Most notably we viewed parrots, eagles, crocodiles, bats, and other wildlife.  After about an hour on the river we loaded back onto the motor coaches for the hour-long drive back to Puntarenas to board the ship again.  The train ride had been short and far from luxurious yet it had provided an excellent glimpse into life in this country while the bus and boat rides had given us a look at some scenic remote areas.


Wild monkeys seen from the motor coach


One of two tour boats pushes back from its dock for the river tour


Mangroves lined parts of the river in the heart of Costa Rica


A black sand beach along the coast of Costa Rica

    On Wednesday we docked at San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua and enjoyed an all-day tour that took us to the Masaya Volcano, located a few miles south of Managua, the capital city.  An overlook allowed us to look down into the crater which constantly emits sulfur dioxide gas.  The tour also took us to an interesting large outdoor market where Nicaraguan crafts and clothing were sold.   Along the way we viewed a large lake, sugar cane fields, and many other unique features of life in Nicaragua.  A stop at a museum housed in a former church rounded out the interesting tour.


Sunrise off the coast of Nicaragua


Approaching San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua


Masaya Volcano

    Another sea day allowed us to relax and enjoy more of the amenities found aboard “Island Princess”.  Throughout the cruise we enjoyed breakfasts and lunches in either the Horizon Court buffet or in one of the formal dining rooms.  Dinner was always in the elegant Provence Dining Room where the food and service were outstanding.  On this night, however, we had a change of pace and dined in Sabatini’s, a specialty restaurant on board “Island Princess”.  The Princess Theater provided nightly entertainment in the form of singers, dancers, and comedians.  Later I enjoyed watching the movie “Apollo 11” poolside as part of the “Movie Under the Stars” presentations.  It was interesting to lie on a chaise lounge under the stars on a balmy tropical night and look overhead at the moon while watching a movie about mankind’s first moon landing.


A nightly highlight was viewing Pacific sunsets from the Promenade Deck


A variety of pastries were offered at breakfast along with our entrees


Enjoying dinner on a formal night in the Provence Dining Room


Delicious entrees made dinner in the Provence Dining Room special

    There was no shortage of food on this cruise as in addition to the dining rooms, specialty restaurants, and the buffet, multiple other options existed.  Adjacent to the swimming pools one could visit take-out places offering pizza, hotdogs. hamburgers, and ice cream.  Additionally, 24 hour room service was available by simply calling a dedicated phone line.
    Port calls in Huatulco and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico were sandwiched between more sea days during which we enjoyed viewing the mountainous Mexican coast as we sailed northward.  Each evening we enjoyed watching the sun set into the Pacific from the railing of the Promenade Deck and later gazed at the moon casting its silvery beams across the Pacific waters from our balcony.   The sea days again provided a chance to relax and enjoy the ship at our own pace.  On the 16th day of the cruise we docked in San Pedro, CA and rented a minivan so we could sightsee all day then catch Amtrak’s Sunset Limited that night.

Arriving in Huatulco, Mexico


Welcome to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico


Emerald Princess (left) and Island Princess at Puerto Vallarta


Sunrise as seen from our balcony as we travel northward


Princess helped me celebrate my birthday by decorating the door to our mini-suite


Sunset on the final full day of the cruise
    Cruising is a great way to see the world while being pampered.  In addition to a wide variety of excellent dining options, there are countless activities to suit any taste as well as many places to simply relax.  Several Princess cruises offer tours that involve riding tourist trains.  Alaska and St. Kitts come to mind in addition to Costa Rica and the Panama Canal.  The Panama Canal Railway ride was a great offering during this cruise and the train ride in Costa Rica was interesting though short.  Our departure port for this cruise (Port Everglades) can be reached by taking Amtrak’s Silver Star or Silver Meteor to Fort Lauderdale and now is also accessed by Brightline (recently rechristened Virgin Trains USA) which presently links West Palm Beach and Miami.  In the future service will extend to the Orlando airport.  The San Pedro cruise terminal is directly linked to Los Angeles Union Station via an Amtrak Thruway bus and Amtrak trains connect to many points across the United States. 

To complete this Panama Adventure, we took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans:

By Jack M. Turner


Princess Cruises
Riding Brightline Over the Florida East Coast
Florida to Hawaii Aboard Amtrak and Princess

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