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Tunisie

Along the western coast of the Americas

We will begin in the south, or more precisely in San Antonio, Chile, and follow the coast north, making many stops in different countries including Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica.

We will spend 17 days navigating from southern Chile to Miami, where we will at last disembark a ship that had enabled us to forget the grayness of February and to collect heat, sun and many discoveries: the Norwegian Sun.

Pros and cons

Cruises are gaining more and more followers. It's a rather relaxing way of traveling. Indeed, just empty your luggage and leave everything as is until the next port, where it will be your choice whether or not to disembark. We must admit that most of the time the food offered is great on these ships, as is the range of activities.

The stopovers, however, are never very long. More often than not passengers arrive at the harbor early in the morning and leave at the end of the day. This certainly leaves little time to discover a city or a part of a country. However, if you carefully choose your excursions, they may be the start of a love affair that you will want to revisit and deepen later on. In short, you could always return for a longer stay.

In Chile 

After San Antonio, where we embark, we will make two stops in Chile.

The first is in Coquimbo, a port between the Atacama Desert and the Central Valley. Leaving the port, we follow a boulevard whose two sides welcome a typical bustling market leading us to La Serena, which is north of Coquimbo. It is one of the oldest cities in the country.

We arrive there along the Avenida del Mar, which as the name suggests, borders a huge beach. At the end of the beach is a pretty and colorful fort. A walk to the center of the city enables us to discover the Plaza de Armas, which is a beautiful cathedral, as well as a small, interesting museum and finally, a very lively and traditional market, La Recova.

Of course, we cannot avoid visiting Valparaiso and Santiago, even though they are short stops.

Let us begin with Valparaiso, with its historic quarter and small, steep streets whose walls are covered with colors. Indeed, street art reigns here.The colorful murals in many themes accompany us everywhere: at the corner of the streets, on the walls along the many stairs, on the facades of shops and businesses... They create such a vibrant and ever-changing atmosphere that we easily walk more than ten kilometers without really noticing! We even ask for more!

Santiago, on the other hand, is the country’s capital in all of its glory. We start on Constitution Square - surrounded by several remarkable public buildings in the center of the city - which faces La Moneda, the presidential house.

We mingle with the crowd on Plaza de Armas where we stop for a small snack of a Chilean specialty, the completo or the italiano: a hot dog stuffed with tomato and cabbage with mayonnaise and avocado. Delicious! For $2 a drink is included.

A fifteen-minute walk later, we discover the elegant stone stairs that lead to the top of Santa Lucia Hill (Cerro Santa Lucia). It is said that this was the place where Santiago was founded in 1541. It is a magnificent public park with fountains, colorful flowerbeds, monuments and statues honoring famous Chileans and small squares offering beautiful views of Santiago from 69 meters high. At the very top, we stop to rest and admire the Hidalgo Castle, a fortification that is nowadays used as a reception and congress hall.

Going downhill, you should not miss the Centro Artesanal de Santa Lucia across the street. It is a very nice market that offers an impressive range of handmade items: shoes, clothes, musical instruments and more. All at very reasonable prices... once negotiation is complete!

Our second stop is in Arica. This is a harbor city in northern Chile, located in the Atacama Desert. The city is dominated by a huge, 139-meter steep hill called El Morro. It was the last bastion of the Peruvian troops that guarded the city during the Pacific War.

On the horizon, hills of blond sand attract our attention. In fact, we discover that these hills are covered with geoglyphs, impressive frescoes made of sand and stone. Almost nothing is known about their authors, who would have lived around the year 1000, but it is said that it was probably a means of communication. These geoglyphs are of snakes, lizards, lamas and birds with a set of several llamas with a guide all oriented in the same direction. It could be a representation of the caravans that used this valley to connect the mountains and the coast. Nearby, if one relies on the ruins that remain, a village existed in the year 800.

At the Archaeological Museum of San Miguel de Azapa, we can get a closer view of geoglyphs. We also discover the fascinating funerary rites and the process of mummification of the Chinchorro, a pre-Columbian people.

One should not miss taking a look at San Marcos Cathedral. A gothic style, the church is based exclusively on a metal structure designed by Gustav Eiffel, the famous French engineer, designer of the tower that bears his name in Paris. He also designed the customs building in a neoclassical style, but still with a very clear metal structure.

In Peru

We dock in Callao, the main port city in Peru, 15 km from Lima, where we can admire the fortress of King Philip, a military building built in the eighteenth century to defend the port against the attacks of corsairs.

Without wasting time, we head to Lima where we arrive directly on the Plaza Major, in the center of which stands a bronze fountain of the seventeenth century. The jewel of the city, listed as World Heritage site by UNESCO, the square is lined with superb buildings, including the cathedral, the government palace, the palace of the archdiocese and the town hall.

The impressive cathedral, rebuilt according to plans from the sixteenth century after the earthquake of 1746, is a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical styles! It houses historical jewels, such as the choir stalls of Noguera. The remains of Francisco Pizarro, the man who conquered Peru, are kept in one of his chapels.

The neo-colonial-style town hall, with its arcades and large balconies, respects the style of the houses of the first Spanish settlers. 

From there, we go to Plaza San Martín. Along with the Plaza Mayor, it is one of the most important squares in Lima, also because of the architectural quality of the buildings that border it.

The San Francisco Church and Convent dating to 1674 survived the 1746 earthquake and is one of the most beautiful representatives of the early colonial style. The facade of the temple was carved in stone and is characterized by its Corinthian columns. This building is also famous for its catacombs, where nearly 70,000 were buried.

We will also make a short stop on Bolivar Square, also known as Congress Square or Inquisition Square. It is one of the oldest squares in Lima since it was created during the first years of the founding of the city. Bordered on the east by the Legislative Palace and on the south by the Museum of the Inquisition, we notice in the center there is an equestrian statue of Simón Bolívar, hero of the independence of Hispanic America.

We end this visit with a delicious meal at a nice restaurant that occupies a dock that reaches into the sea with a menu of ceviche and a pisco sour. What could be better?

In Ecuador 

Our only stopover in Ecuador will be in Manta, the gateway to the Pacific Ocean, known as one of the largest tuna fishing ports in the world.

Once we land, we travel along the sea to get to a very typical fish market, where we are surprised by the small size of tuna. Given the reputation of the place, we expected larger specimens. Merchants, mostly fishermen, are proud to present their fish of all types and sizes. Small kiosks and small restaurants also serve them in many forms.

We then aim for the rainforest at Pacoche Lodge. Surprised by the luxury surrounding us, we are told that it is because we are at the point where two waters meet and where the air collides, creating clouds that produce a lot of rain. In fact it rains here around 90% of the year. But there is no rain on the horizon today!

Toquilla palms, used to weave the famous Panama hats, surround us. Oranges, lemons and coconuts grow all around, as well as the famous cocoa beans of which chocolate is made, an important local industry. We will discover the process of making chocolate from the bean to the chocolate bar... which we will enjoy, of course.

Then, we return to the district of Montecristi, cradle of the famous straw hats, where we cannot miss a huge, 15-meter tall monument at the entrance of a woman weaving the straw toquilla between her fingers to give shape to the centenary hat. Here, traditionally the women make hundreds of these accessories, which can be purchased for prices ranging from $10 (for a hat that may be worn once and is not washable and can be made in a few days) up to a few thousand dollars for a true Panama that may be washed and folded without losing its shape, and takes almost a year to make by hand.

What is the link between these hats and the Panama Canal? We ask a craftswoman at work. She explains that making this hat is a long tradition of the Montecristi, but it became famous after a U.S. president wore one during a visit to the Panama Canal.

From the main square dominated by a beautiful white church, there are many stalls offering both these hats and anything else a traveler may desire.

Before leaving Manta and Ecuador, we pay a visit to the "head of the Ecuadorian Nation", Alfaro Delgado, who is worshiped in Montecristi, where he was born. At the height of the city, a museum and an impressive mausoleum were erected on the place where he is buried. It is a great opportunity to learn a little more about the political history of Ecuador before leaving the country.

In Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, it is in Puntarenas, the most important fishing port of the country, where we stop only to quickly move towards Alajuela, the second largest city in Costa Rica.

Since our destination is in the center of the country, this allows us to admire the paradisiacal landscapes of Costa Rica while skirting national parks and forest reserves.

In fact, the reserve is where we are headed, which includes several hectares of forest where a real refuge was built to enable an almost complete collection of the flora and fauna of the country. In almost their natural habitat, monkeys, macaws, butterflies, toucans, jaguars, leopards, hummingbirds and even the very colorful mini frogs, including the famous red-eyed frog, may be observed.

In short, a few hours of real beauty in lush vegetation where thousands of flowers compete with the colors of animals.

To end the day, under a dazzling sunset we leave Puntarenas en route to the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal 

We finally make it to this famous 77 km-long maritime canal that allows us to go from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. We are therefore a part of the 14,000 vessels that use this route every year, which took 34 years to complete.

The view is not very beautiful, between the huge cranes installed along the canal, the dozens of small tugboats and the ships of all kinds entering or exiting the canal while navigating through this series of locks and lakes.

At last, we are on the other side of the Americas.

In Colombia

In Cartagena, at a bay in the Caribbean Sea with its very complete series of fortifications in South America, we pause.

I fell in love with this city and devoted a complete article to it.To read it.

This will be our last stop before arriving in Miami, where our cruise ends. Not only has it enabled us to escape the gray of February, but it also allowed us to fully enjoy the colors and flavors of the six countries we visited.

Our ship

We sailed aboard the Norwegian Sun in a standard cabin, which was comfortable, remarkably large and with plenty of storage space and very attentive staff.

As I mentioned before, the food was not only varied, but also excellent. Fortunately, our stopovers were as much an opportunity to burn some calories that we have, unlike our precious memories, happily left behind us!

Christiane Théberge


 

Fort at La Serena

Street art in Valparaiso

Plaza de Armas, Santiago

Cerro Santa Lucia, Santiago

El Morro, Arica

Geoglyphs, Arica

Cathedral, Plaza Mayor, Lima

San Francisco Church and Convent, Lima

Plaza Bolivar, Lima

Fish market in Manta 

Monument in Montecristi

Woman weaving a panama hat

In Costa Rica

At the Panama Canal

 

   

 

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