Manta, Ecuador: From the Rainforest to Panamá Hats … and More

Our cruise through the Panama Canal and around South America is long over.
It’s time to tell the story of this portion of our winter travels.

Thursday, 11 December 2014
At Sea — Pacific Ocean
Temps: Hi 86F (30C) / Lo 73F (23C)
Distance to Salaverry, Perú: 531 NM (611 miles / 983km)

A day of sailing the Pacific Ocean following our transit of the Panamá Canal (post here) brought us from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere.  But that was yesterday, and since it was spent chilling on the veranda, I’m not going to write about it.  Moving onto today.

We crossed the equator around 2:20a this morning … and we will remain south of it until we fly back home on 25 March.  There was no bump as we crossed over the imaginary line that splits the world into two halves.  Nor was I up to confirm the crossing.  The approximate time was announced yesterday by Captain Michael based on the ship’s speed as we made our way down the coast of South America.  We’ve crossed the equator a number of times before — by ship, by car, and by airplane.  Being shellbacks already, we skipped the “special ceremony” that was held yesterday to initiate the pollywogs and ask King Neptune for a smooth voyage.  Hope it doesn’ come back to bite us!

Hot and humid would be a good description for our day in Manta, Ecuador — the “Tuna Capital of the World.”  Where we had the breeze — along the coast … it was much appreciated.  Where we didn’t have the breeze — inland and in the rainforest … it was much needed.

French Onion Soup last night at the Trellis Restaurant … mmm, mmm good!

I had originally booked a private tour with Narwell Ecotours for just the two of us.  Then in November they reached out to me to see if I would be agreeable to adding a few more people from the ship who had an interest in the same tour.  After Narwell agreed that there would be no more than six people in a 12-passenger van, giving everyone a window seat, I gave my consent.  As it turns out, any more than six would have been a tight squeeze.

Our tour takes us to the rainforest, to the beach, to a hat weaver, and to a mausoleum.

I had been in touch with one of the two other couples — Brenda and Barry — so we met up at the bottom of the gangway at 8:30a to take the shuttle through the industrial port to the main gate.  Once there, we joined up with our tour guide and driver, and the other couple that was booked on the tour — Karine and Simon, from Montréal, Canada.

Our guide, Mamina, took us first to the Pacoche Rainforest.  A smart decision — it was warming up fast, with the humidity increasing right alongside the temperature.  On the walk, we were accompanied by a local guide, who stopped frequently to identify the various species of trees and plants … and the few birds that showed themselves.  Although he spoke very little English, Mamina was there to interpret, so it worked out OK.  We’d been warned that it could be muddy on the trail, but except for some patches, most of the mile-long path was dry and fairly easy to navigate.  The walk was estimated at 2 hours, but we did it in about 1½, including a short detour to see some fruit bats that hang around culverts that pass under the highway.

We cross short and long bridges; go down stairs, and walk on flat paths.

Top Left: Banana
Bottom Right: Mate
Center: White-Tailed Trogon
Right: Heliconia Impudica

Our guide describes how toquilla palm fronds are used to weave Panamá hats.

The group provides perspective for the size of a ficus tree.

The highlight of our walk was the howler monkeys.  At first we only heard their distant calls, but at one point on the path we came across the males howling out their domination.  They raised quite a ruckus that helped us to pinpoint several members of the troupe that was roaming about the canopy.

Mantled Howler monkeys, amongst the largest of the New World monkeys,
are native to South and Central American forests.

Primarily black, mantled howlers get their name from the fringe of golden hairs on their flanks.

By the time we were on the road again, it was nearing noon.  A brief stop at an overlook along the way to check out the ocean views near the fishing village of San Lorenzo, and then we were off to have a typical almuerzo [lunch].

Looking towards Cabo San Lorenzo in the distance … no time to walk there today.

The meal was at Cabaña Maritza Lourdes, one of the roadside shacks overlooking the beach.  I’m not kidding when I say the place was a shack — no running water; and if there was electricity, I didn’t see any switches.  Nonetheless, the food was good.  We all opted for the set menu, which included soup — chicken or crab; and fresh fish — corvina.  Although the latter was supposed to be fried, the proprietor agreed to grill ours.  The food was accompanied with a glass of fresh-squeezed juice — the drink of choice in Ecuador.  We were served tree tomato, for which we acquired a taste when we visited Ecuador in 2012.

Our group at Cabaña Maritza Lourdes — our driver; Simon & Karine; Mamina; Mui; Brenda & Barry.

A lovely stretch of beach fronts the cabaña.

Crab soup and grilled corvina for lunch.

Before leaving the area, we back-tracked a short distance to where we had seen hundreds of magnificent frigatebirds flying about.  No surprise they were congregated in the area, as this was where the fishermen returned with their daily catch.  The day’s haul had already been brought ashore and sent off to be sold, but when one of the men threw out some discards, the frigatebirds gave us a quite a show.

The word frigatebird is derived from La Frégate, a French word that means fast warship.
The British referred to frigatebirds as Man-of-war birds.

Photobombed by a magnificent frigatebird.

Frigatebird frenzy! … and the cats get in on the action.

Back in the car, our next stop was the small town of Pile.  Here we were supposed to visit the home of a Panamá hat weaver — billed as the last man in Ecuador still weaving “extra fine” hats.  We were told that it took him seven months to weave a single hat at a cost of several thousand dollars.  There was some confusion when we arrived at his home, however, so the group decided to press on.

The church in Pile is probably the biggest structure in town.

But don’t think we didn’t get to see the fine art of weaving Panamá hats.  At Escuela Taller Pile [Pile Workshop School — a trade school of sorts], where we stopped first on arriving in Pile, we were given a demonstration of the art of weaving these traditional hats, which got their name because they were first exported to and sold in Panamá.  The goal of the workshop is to ensure that the weaving technique is passed down through the generations.

The weaving of a Panamá hat starts with a knot.

Woven out of toquilla palm straw, Panamá hats are lightweight and breathable.

Once the edging is woven, the strands of straw are trimmed off.

The art of weaving the traditional Ecuadorian toquilla hat was added
to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2012.

Seeing what goes into the process of making hand-woven Panamá hats, I now have a lot more appreciation for why they are considered so special.  Watch the short video below and see if you don’t agree with me.

It’s no easy feat to weave a Panamá hat — especially a fine one.

To get to our final stop, the driver took us over a rutted, bouncy, dirt road that was a shortcut to Montecristi, famed as the center of hat weaving.  But we didn’t explore the town proper, nor did we stop at the market later when Mamina asked if we wanted to do so.  Rather, we were taken to the top of Cerro de Montecristi [Montecristi Hill], which has a commanding view of the area.

Montecristi from the top of the hill by the same name.

The hilltop is home to Ciudad Alfaro [Alfaro City], dedicated to the martyred president of Ecuador — José Eloy Alfaro Delgado, described as the “emblematic figure of the country.”  We walked through the museum (all the signage is in Spanish, though English-speaking tours are available); visited the mausoleum where Alfaro’s ashes are interred; stopped to check out the Ecuadorian crafts exhibit; and wandered around the shops.  Mui had picked up a Panama hat on our last visit to Ecuador; this time it was my turn to do so.

Museum exhibits at Ciudad Alfaro.

“Nothing for us; all for the country.”
in 2008, this room was the site of the temporary National Assembly that drafted the
country’s new constitution.  It is now used mostly as a conference center.

The mausoleum where Eloy Alfaro’s ashes were reinterred.

The foundation wall of the mausoleum is decorated with a three-dimensional mural.

The copper sculpture of Alfaro is circled by traditional Manteño chairs.
the wall is decorated with a gold leaf panel displaying scenes from
the revolution, and masques of Alfaro’s fellow revolutionaries.

On our way back to the ship, Mamina took us to a small café so we could use the internet.  With all six of us online at the same time, the speed of the connection dropped drastically, so we didn’t dally long.  Soon, we were bidding our guide and driver adios and boarding the shuttle to the ship.  By 5:00p, we were back aboard Infinity, with a few hours to relax before dinner.

Looking across the bay to Manta.

I think everyone in the group would agree that we had a great day ashore.  Tomorrow is another day at sea.  I’m liking this alternating schedule of action-packed days on land followed by some R&R at sea.

Video: Panamá Canal Transit in Time Lapse

Our cruise through the Panama Canal and around South America is long over.
It’s time to tell the story of this portion of our winter travels.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014 (Part II)
At Sea — Pacific Ocean

Having entered the Panamá Canal from the Atlantic in the early hours of the morning, Infinity crossed under the Bridge of the Americas on the Pacific side at 4:40p.

By my watch, the transit took us 8½ hours.  But you can do it in 7½ minutes if you care to follow in our wake.  You don’t even have to pack a bag ;-)  Just make yourself comfortable and click the play button in the center of the image below to get started.  Enjoy your crossing!

Approximately 12,000 time-lapse photos went into the creation of this
fast-paced retrospective of our Panama Canal transit.

Panamá Canal: Transiting from the Atlantic to the Pacific

Our cruise through the Panama Canal and around South America is long over.
It’s time to tell the story of this portion of our winter travels.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014
At Sea — Pacific Ocean
Temps: Hi 84F (29C) / Lo 74F (23C)
Distance to Manta, Ecuador: 587 NM (675 miles / 1,087 km)

Remind me, if you will.  Did I really say that I would be taking it easy on this transit — our third one   — through the Panamá Canal?

Wishful thinking on my part I guess ;-)  Forget the pedometer, my aching feet are proof that I didn’t just loll around — aching not from the 12,000+ steps I walked today, but from all the standing around I did at the veranda railing!

Infinity was scheduled to pick up the canal pilot at 5:45a and continue through Limon Bay, the first staging area, to the Gatún Locks to begin the first phase of the canal transit around 7:15a.  By 6:30a, Mui was at his post on deck 12 forward, his GoPro affixed to one of the antennas; it was already crowded up there.  Since he was shooting from up high, I headed down to take my place on the helipad on deck 5 forward — despite the sudden, but quickly passing rain shower.  There weren’t many of us at first, but once the passengers on the other decks saw us standing on the helipad, that changed quickly.

Mui’s all set on deck 12 forward; and so are a bunch of other passengers.
[Thanks for sharing the photograph, Brenda.]

I get a little wet at the bow, but the rain is moving off …

… and I have the rainbow to prove it!

I didn’t stay long on the helipad.  For one thing, a rope kept passengers several feet away from the railing at the very front of the bow — that wasn’t the case in 2002.  Mui and I were able to stand at the tippy tip of the bow on that transit … and we have the picture the ship’s photographer took from the top of the lock gate to prove it ;-)  Another reason: I was ready to leave … I had the photos I had come to take from the bow; I was ready for a different vantage point.

Gatún Locks strait ahead; the arrow directs us to the starboard lane.

I didn’t have to go far.  At the bottom of the stairs from the helipad there was an opening in the hull that afforded me the vantage point I was looking for.  Lying down on the hard, wet deck, I made myself comfortable — not really ;-) — and went to work as Infinity entered the first chamber of the Gatún Locks.

That’s it; that’s my unique perspective … and my first shot captures one of
the mules responsible for keeping Infinity centered within the locks.

These locomotives, by the way, are called mules because at the time the canal was being constructed, the few lock-canals in the world used real mules to steady boats.

canal workers cheerfully greet me on their way to their mules.
The cog rail system keeps the mules steady against the weight of the ship
and the force of high winds so they don’t get pulled off the track.

The water in the lock equalizes with the water in the approach lane and Infinity slowly enters
the lock and moves as far forward as it can until it is stopped by the gates to the second lock.

The miter gates, based on a Michelangelo design, average 750 tons in weight, but can float
since they are hollow inside.  The gates recess into the lock walls when fully open.

Next stop … checking on Mui to give him a bathroom break (LOL) at his GoPro station.  Then I did a loop around deck 11 before heading to our aft-facing veranda for pretty much the rest of the day.

The Gatún Locks and Gatún Lake from Mui’s vantage point on deck 12 forward.

As I slid open the veranda door, the heavens opened up in a big downpour, soaking the chairs I had set up to comfortably watch the crossing.  Short-lived, it was the last of the rain we saw today.

As soon as the rain stops, I’ll make myself comfortable on the veranda.

Watching the canal operations from the aft provided another unique perspective for me since we’d had port and starboard verandas on previous crossings, and had not spent much time jockeying for the limited space on the public decks overlooking the stern of the ship.  The bonus today … once the rain lifted and the skies turned blue, the light was much better for photographing the transit from this direction.

Passenger ships pay a premium over the usual toll to have priority over cargo ships.
Now that we’re in the Gatún Locks, cargo ships start taking up position for their transit.

What a difference blue skies and sunshine make!

Looking back at the Gatún Locks as Infinity leaves the third chamber.

Like an elevator, the Gatún Locks raise ships to the level of Gatún Lake in three stages.

From where a ship enters the locks to where it exits into the lake, 26 million
gallons (98,000 cubic meters) of fresh water is used to lift it.  The water is fed
by gravity and goes out culverts with no agitation, and no rocking of the ship.

Out of the Gatún Locks and on our way through the lake to transit what was the most
challenging part of the building of the Panamá Canal — the Culebra Cut (aka Gaillard Cut).

At this stage, We have been lifted 85 feet (26m) above the Atlantic.

Once we were lifted through the final lock chamber and reached Gatún Lake, Mui joined me in the cabin to set up his GoPro and shoot the remainder of the transit from this perspective.  I think he would have preferred to stay on deck 12, but the sun was brutal, as was the humidity.  At least on the veranda he had shade, and he could go about other business without having to watch over the GoPro.

Ship traffic is scheduled so that vessels coming from either direction
pass in designated areas of the Panamá Canal — most at Gatún Lake.

Dredging of the navigational channel is a never-ending project.

Gamboa is at the point where the Chagres River feeds Gatún Lake.  The present-day city was built
in 1911 and was populated by the “silver roll” [non-white] canal workers and their families.
[Silver roll is in reference to the silver dollars with which these men were paid.]

Titan, one of the largest floating cranes in the world, was built on the orders of Hitler.
Seized by the US during WWII, it was brought to Long Beach, California where it was known as
“Herman the German.”  Sold to the PCA, it is now used to move lock gates for maintenance.

I am loving all this blue sky and the fantastic clouds that add character to the scenery.

The Culebra Cut, once known as the Gaillard Cut for the US Army officer who
led the excavation,  is where the canal cuts through the Continental Divide.
The construction of the cut is one of the greatest engineering feats of all time.

The tug has been following us very closely since we entered the navigational channel.
it’s job must be to serve as a buffer between our ship and any other vessel
that we might meet up with accidentally in this very narrow stretch of the Canal.

My photography instructor would name this photo with the
purposefully-blurred background “Mui at Culebra Cut” …

… and this photo of me would be titled by him as “Erin and the Centennial Bridge.”

The Centennial Bridge, spanning Culebra Cut, is the second major road crossing over the canal.
It was built to relieve the traffic crowding on the Bridge of the Americas and replace it as
the carrier of the Pan-American Highway, which runs from Alaska to the tip of South America.

As we approach the Pedro Miguel Locks, we catch glimpses of the construction work
being done for the Canal Expansion Project, which is slated to be completed by 2016.

Panorama looking back from the single-chamber Pedro Miguel Lock.

While those on the bow watch the gates to the Pedro Miguel Lock open, we watch them close.

With no vessel traffic heading from the Pacific to the Atlantic, both lanes of the
Pedro Miguel Lock are being used for the cargo vessels that are following us.

We are now 31 feet (9m) below where we were before we chambered through this lock.

Left: Heading into the final set of locks — Miraflores.

Right: a magnificent frigatebird, free to fly at will, while we’re locked
in at Miraflores, and waiting to be lowered one more step.

A pelican flies by to see if it can find prey in the water that is being agitated …

… by Infinity’s propellers as we leave the last chamber at the Miraflores Locks behind.

Having been lowered another 54 feet (16 m), We are now back at sea level —
but this time at the Pacific Ocean side of the Canal.

What a great transit we had.  So much fun … even on this third time around.  Funny thing, though, not everyone was of the same opinion.  During my periodic wanderings throughout the ship, I heard some passengers grumbling that going through the canal was like watching paint dry.  I beg to disagree.

Magnificent Frigatebirds — male (left) and female.

I think what makes a difference in one’s level of enjoyment and appreciation of the transit is one’s level of understanding of what went into the building of the Panamá Canal — from the French years to the eventual completion by the US.  All the while thinking of the toll paid — not just financially, but more importantly, in lives lost — to construct this “short cut.”  Yes, the canal is a means to get from one ocean to another without having to travel the thousands of additional miles required to go around Cape Horn.  But it is also more — it is an amazing engineering feat completed with much blood, sweat, and tears.

Magnificent Frigatebirds (female)

Something new on this canal transit was the glimpse we got of the ongoing expansion project to build bigger locks that will change the definition of what being Panamax means.  In the distance — through a veil of dust and the glare of the sun — we saw bits and pieces of the construction project … thousands of people, hundreds of pieces of machinery hard at work as we quietly sailed by.

Panamá Canal Authority expansion project brochure.

A magnificent frigatebird inspects the locks being built on the Pacific side of the current canal.

When completed, the expansion project is intended to double the capacity of the
Panamá Canal.  We don’t much care for mega cruise ships, but we might
have to bite the bullet once just to experience the new locks.

The last bit of the transit took us by the industrial docks where giant cranes were busy moving cargo containers on and off vessels.  Then came the Bridge of the Americas … the bridge that, from 1962 until the Centennial Bridge was built in 2004, was the only road crossing over the Panamá Canal.

A wall of cargo containers doesn’t detract from the Panamá City skyline view.

Busy as bees, the cranes are at work on- and off-loading containers.

Will Infinity clear the deck of the Bridge of the Americas?  That is the question!

Yes it does!  The Pacific awaits us.

Eight and a half hours and 48 miles (77 km) after entering the Panamá Canal, we were in Panamá Bay with the Pacific Ocean beyond.

The colorful buildings of the Biomuseo (Museum of Biodiversity)
and the Panamá City skyline bid us adios.

Once the Panamá City skyline was nothing more than tiny dots on the horizon, we headed to the Constellation Lounge for a glass or two of wine to toast our transit through the canal.  And then it was dinner and a show for Mui; and dinner and veranda time for me … sure felt good to put my feet up after standing around so much today.

Mui playing with the iPhone camera to take a picture of our reflection
in the mirrored-ceiling of the Constellation Lounge.

Tomorrow is a day at sea — after three days of being on the go almost non-stop, some R&R is in order.