Travel Expressions Ltd.'s Blog

These 3 Latin American Cities Turn 500 This Year
In 14 hundred and 92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue (as the rhyme we learned in school goes), and unwittingly unleashed a tsunami of Europeans heading west to explore the Americas.

That was half a millennium ago, and now, some of the earliest European settlements in the Caribbean and Latin America are marking 500 years of European settlement.


In the years since the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first sailing, the world has gained greater awareness. This new round of anniversaries do more to acknowledge that European settlement and exploitation of the Americas left a negative legacy even as it established some beautiful colonial architecture, districts, culture and history that make these citiies such irresistible travel destinations today.


As a result, many cities reaching a 500-year milestone this year are marking the anniversary in ways like cultural festivals and historical exhibits and commemorations that acknowledge the good and the bad of history. Or make investments that leave a tangible legacy like infrastructure and civic improvements that benefit all the residents of these remarkable cities: 

Panama City, Panama


Panama City calls itself the 'cradle of the New World'. Established in August 1519 by the Spanish conquistador Davila, it is the oldest European city on the Pacific coast of the Americas.

 
Panama City became the launching pad for Spanish expeditions to the Inca Empire in South America, as well as a key landmark in trade routes. Most of the gold and silver plundered from the Americas transited through the town on its way to Europe.



Today, Panama City is the very modern capital city of Panama. It's also where you'll find the Pacific entrance/ exit of the Panama Canal, the nearly 50-mile long waterway that now connects the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Miraflores Visitor Centre allows travelers by land to learn about and watch ships pass through this engineering wonder of the world.


Panama's history is still there to see.  The original city – known as Panama la Vieja (Old Panama) – was attacked, looted, and burned by the British in the 17th century. You can still visit those ruins, only 5 miles from where the city was rebuilt, which is now called the 'Old Quarter' (Casco Viejo) of Panama City. 


Surrounded by a modern skyline of high-rises, Casco, as the Old Quarter is called (pictured, top), features architecture from the city's Spanish colonial times, to French and island buildings that date to the late 19th and early 20th century during the building of the Canal. Locals mingle with international visitors in the charming, walkable district, known for restaurants, cafes, clubs, boutiques, galleries, museums, street art and local color.  

Don't miss the chance to try Ceviche from the local seafood market at the terminus of the fantastic pedestrian beltway Cinta Costera.
 

Havana, Cuba


Spanish conquistadors struggled to establish a number of settlements on the island in the years leading up to 1519. The site of what's now Havana (originally San Cristobal de La Habana) won out with the bay that became the city's natural harbor. It was the third – and final – capital of the island. Believe it or not, the city was founded in November 1519 under a ceiba tree that's still growing. You'll find it near the El Templete church on Plaza de Armas.


Havana's modern history has been as tumultuous as its early years. With US government restrictions on its citizens to travel to the island off again and on again, it's not easy (but not impossible) for Americans to experience Havana in its 500th year.    


Canadians, Europeans and citizens of other countries can still easily travel to Havana, where reportedly thousands of renovations and civic improvements are underway to mark the city's 500th anniversary.


 
Classic Havana is still there, though, where you can walk the ocean boardwalk – now with some new architecture replacing some rundown buildings- enjoy the historic downtown, with its plazas, hidden street scenes, the stunning Kempinski hotel (the only luxury hotel) with the best view of the city from its rooftop bar with an authentic mojito or daiquiri in hand, re-live the city made famous by Hemingway, Castro and Guevera, and of course, test your memory of classic American car models in all their pastel glory.

 

Veracruz, Mexico


Veracruz is one of Mexico's oldest and largest ports. The legendary Cortes himself, sailing the Gulf of Mexico, landed here in the spring of 1519 to found the first Spanish city on the Mexican mainland.


The port played a vital role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, as well as colonial immigration and trade. Vast quantities of silver, natural (and rare) red dye, chocolate, vanilla, chili and also African slaves transited through Veracruz. 



Today, Veracruz isn't the beach destination other coastal Mexican cities may be. But it's a lower key destination for visitors interested in exploring nearby ruins, and in the city, taking trolleys through the historic center of Veracruz, absorbing the atmosphere of the vibrant main square, exploring the colonial fortress and museum on an island overlooking the harbor, and indulging in Veracruz's signature cuisine, including its most famous dish, tamales: corn dough enclosing a savory filling, wrapped in banana leaves, steamed and served with piquant sauces.


2019 may be the 500th anniversaries of these 3 unique Latin American cities, but they're memorable anytime you visit.

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8 Facts About the Panama Canal

Panama is one of the fastest-growing destinations in Central America, and the Panama Canal is the country's star attraction. Although it's on everyone's list of things to experience, the canal is more important as a global shipping transit than tourist experience. 

Whether you sail the canal on your next cruise or watch in action from land, here are 8 things you need to know about this wonder of the modern world.

1. It's a short cut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The Panama Canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama in a narrow land bridge between North and South America. Prior, ships had to sail around the tip of South America. It takes about 8 hours to cross the Canal's 50 miles (77km). That saves days. If a ship had to navigate down and around Cape Horn at the tip of South America and back up the other side, it would have to travel nearly 12,500 miles (20,000 km).

2. It's over 100 years old.

2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal.  Columbia, France, then later, the United States controlled the land surrounding the canal. In 1881, the French started building the canal, but progress halted due to engineering problems and high worker mortality. The US took it over in 1904 and completed the project with newly available technology ten years later at a cost of $400 million USD. In 1999, control passed back to Panama.

3. Construction cost over 25,000 lives.

At times, more than 43,000 people were working on the Panama Canal at once. Workers had to deal with heat, jungles, swamps - and all the creatures in them, including rats that carried bubonic plague. Plus mosquito-borne diseases like yellow fever and malaria. Over 20,000 workers died during French building efforts.

After the scientific links between the insects and disease had been discovered, Americans undertook intensive and successful anti-mosquito initiatives. Even so, another more than 5000 workers perished during the American building phase.

4. It's considered one of the Man-Made Wonders of the World

The American Society of Civil Engineers has also dubbed the Panama Canal one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World. It's one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.
 
A system of locks at each end of the Canal lifts ships up 85 feet (26 meters) above sea level to an artificial lake. Ships traverse the artificial lake, as well as a series of improved and artificial channels, and then are lowered again in more locks to sea level at the other side.  
 
The locks are 110 feet (33 meters) feet wide and 1000 feet (300 meters) long. About 30-MILLION pounds (1,400,000 kilos) of explosives were used to help clear the land for the canal.

 (That's a view! The Norwegian Bliss is the largest passenger cruise ship to have ever transited the Panama Canal)

5. Over 1 Million Vessels have transited the canal since it opened.

In 1914, the year it opened, about 1000 ships used the canal. Today, nearly 15,000 ships pass through the Isthmus of Panama via the Canal annually. The 1 Millionth ship crossed the canal in 2010, 96 years after it opened.
In 1934 it was estimated that the maximum traffic of the canal would be around 80 million tons of shipping a year, but by 2015, canal traffic exceeded 340 million tons of shipping – over 4 times the original maximum estimate.
 

6. $2 Billion in Tolls are Collected Annually

Every ship that passes through the canal pays a toll based on its size, type and volume of cargo. Tolls are set by the Panama Canal Authority. Tolls for the largest cargo ships can run about $450,000. Cruise ships pay by berths (number of passengers in beds). The per-berth fee set in 2016 was $138; a large cruise ship can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to sail through the Canal. 

The smallest toll recorded was paid by American Richard Halliburton in 1928, who paid 36 cents to swim the Canal.

 

7. The Panama Canal was expanded for bigger ships in 2016

The original canal locks are 110 feet (33 meters) wide and ten times as long. For a century, they accommodated shipping, and the term 'Panamax' ships was used to describe ships built to fit through the canal. But ships kept getting bigger, and in 2007, work began on a multi-billion dollar expansion of the Canal. In 2016, a third, wider lane of locks opened for commercial shipping, capable of handling 'Post-Panamax' ships that can carry 14,000 20-foot shipping containers (nearly 3 times Panamax ship capacity).

In spite of that giant leap forward in 2016, the world's largest container ships - that can carry 18,000 shipping containers – can't pass through the Panama Canal.

(A Celebrity Cruise ship transiting the Panama Canal)

8. How you can visit the Panama Canal. 

Many ocean cruise lines offer increasingly popular Panama Canal itineraries that sail through the canal in the approximately 8 hour passage to their next destination in the opposite ocean. 

But you don't have to sail through the canal. If you're visiting Panama City, or taking a resort / beach vacation in Panama, you can take a land trip to see the canal in action.
 
The Miraflores Visitor Center is on the east side of the Miraflores Locks, which are close to the Pacific end of the Canal and Panama City. Like the canal, the Visitor Center is open daily. The Visitor Center has large balconies designed for you to get a great view as the lock gates are opened and closed for ships to start or complete their journey through the Panama Canal. 

Engineering buffs and even children will be thrilled at the up-close-to-the-action perspective on this man-made Wonder of the World. 
 

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Picture This: The Largest Cruise Ship Ever to Transit the Panama Canal

As you can see, it was a tight fit when the newest mega-ship at sea arrived at one of the man-made wonders of the world in an iconic photo-op for the modern age of cruise travel.

On her inaugural sailing from the shipyard where she was built in Germany, towards her homeport of Seattle, the Norwegian Bliss became the largest passenger ship ever to transit the Panama Canal.

The nearly 50 mile-long and 12-hour series of locks, canals, and man-made bodies of water is considered an engineering marvel of the world. Opened in 1914, it allows shipping traffic to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans without having to sail around the southern tip of South America.  And the Norwegian Bliss' historic transit in 2018 was only possible as a result of the Panama Canal's 2016 expansion that now allows it to accommodate among the largest classes of cargo and cruise ships.

The newest – and largest – Norwegian Cruise Line ship, the Norwegian Bliss certainly qualifies. 20 decks and 168,000 gross tons, with berths for more than 4000 guests and 1700 crew.

In addition to the historic Panama Canal passage and crossing a Panama canal transit cruise off their travel bucket list, guests on the Norwegian Bliss enjoyed these highlights of the 16th ship in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet, including many firsts at sea and for North-American-based ships:

Excitement:

The Largest Race Track: 2 levels and 1,000-feet of open-air race track thrills in electric go-karts. Alex Vega, Miami-based celebrity car guru from Discovery Channel’s reality television show, “The Auto Firm with Alex Vega”, delivered two fully customized electric go-karts to the Norwegian Bliss to add to the spectacle. 

The First Open-Air Laser Tag Experience:  Day or night, guests can immerse themselves in a fantasy environment of an abandoned space station, going into stealth mode and competing against family and new-found friends.

Eye-Popping Aqua Park: Not 1 but 2 waterslides! The high-speed Ocean Loop, a double waterslide that gets your blood pumping as you slide out over the side of the moving ship. Plus the tandem inner tube Aqua Racer.  Challenge friends and family members to race side by side to see who finishes first! 

Or let the ambitious members of the family tackle the water slides while you relax in one of 2 swimming pools or, on the deck above, find tranquility in one of 6 infinity hot tubs blur the line between the ship and the sea.  Younger kids have their own areas too, of splash pads, water cannons, tipping buckets and scaled-back water slides.

Fitness and Wellness: 

You'll feel no guilt allowing yourself to indulge in the Norwegian Bliss' culinary experiences with state-of-the-art equipment in the fitness center, as well as TRX, Fight Club, Ryde Cycle, and an aerobics room.  The Mandara Spa has 24 treatment rooms and a thermal suite that provides deep relaxation as well as full ocean views, hydro-therapy, steam room and dry sauna, samarium, salt room and even a Snow Room.

20 Restaurants, 13 Bars, and 2 Observation Lounges and 3 Shows:

Highlights include the ever-popular partnership with Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, The Cellars Mondavi Wine Bar, Ocean Blue, and elegant seafood restaurant, and a restaurant with nearly every international or classic cuisine imaginable, from the elegant evenings to pool-side casual.  You'll want to time dining and drinks around shows including the Tony-award-winning musical Jersey Boys.

The Haven:

In addition to many classes of staterooms and suites for extended families to solo travelers, the Norwegian Bliss has a 'ship within a ship', the Haven, a private, luxurious area more like a luxury small ship with highly personalized service, the Haven Courtyard with a retractable roof, private pool and lounge, spa and treatment rooms and restaurant, allowing guests to enjoy top-shelf luxury when they wish and to enjoy other restaurants, thrills, and entertainment of the rest of the ship when they wish.  The best of both worlds!

Where Can You Sail on the Norwegian Bliss?

  • From June, 2018, Norwegian Bliss will make 7-day cruises to Alaska from Seattle with calls in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, British Columbia; 
  • Then she will make select voyages to the Mexican Riviera from Los Angeles;
  • In Fall 2018 and Winter 2019, the Norwegian Bliss sails from Miami to the Eastern Caribbean;
  • In 2019 she returns to New York City to sail 7-day voyages to the Bahamas and Florida, and the Southern and Western Caribbean.

Ask us about specific itineraries for the Norwegian Bliss or how you too can cruise the Panama Canal.

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This is a cruise line private island experience we haven't seen before.  Our Caribbean cruise on Regent Seven Seas Cruises included a day at Harvest Caye, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable days of our cruise. And when you watch the video you'll see why.

Harvest Caye is an island a mile offshore mainland Belize.  Like other cruise line private islands, Harvest Caye was developed as a beach port of call in the Caribbean for its guests by parent company Norwegian for its Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Oceania guests.

It's a spectacular, resort-style experience. There's a 7-acre pristine beach. You can relax in clamshell tents or even better, in one of the luxury beach villas with porches over the water, hammocks, dining and beverage options and dedicated concierge service.

Or head to the pool.  This extravagant 15,000 square foot oasis has a swim-up bar and tables in the water, elegant lounges and canopy pool cabanas with beverage service.

A 130 foot tall 'Flighthouse' looks a lot like a lighthouse, but gets its name as the island's point of departure for adventure:  an over water zipline or ropes course. There are also eco/ water sports like kayaking, paddle boarding, and canoeing in the lagoon alongside the wildlife.

Authentic and Sustainable

The Shopping Village, with its outdoor art festival, local musicians and dancers, high-quality local retailers of locally made chocolates, spirits and artwork including local woodwork, features street-style Belizean cuisine for that truly authentic local flavor.

The development preserves and improves the local eco system, uses indigenous, responsible hardwoods in the buildings, and is creating 500 direct and 1500 indirect jobs for the local economy.

All those things you might expect from a well-planned cruise line private island that also wants to support and authentically reflect its host community, Belize.

But Harvest Caye takes that responsible approach one step further with a Wildlife and Conservation program.

Wildlife and Conservation:

The development of Harvest Caye has boosted local environmental conservation. More than 15,000 new mangroves have been planted to increase the natural estuary habitat for birds, fish and other marine species.

Conservation programs and education efforts have been developed by award winning author and wildlife expert Tony Garel, Harvest Caye's Chief Naturalist, who supervised a wildlife interaction program so you can actually meet and learn about local wildlife.  Tony is on the island daily to lead tours of the wildlife experience. 

Tony's love for and commitment to Belize's plant and animal life were the highlight of our visit, and meeting Tony will be the highlight of your visit to Harvest Caye, too.  (And his friends, Belize's National bird, the toucans.) 

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