SAN JOSE, Costa Rica
— With a violent history
of earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides, volcanoes and civil wars, it’s a wonder that there’s much left for tourists to see in Central America
. But we found lovely beachside resorts, rivers and forests teeming with creatures, stuck-in-time colonial cities with ancient churches and shaded plazas, and residents grateful we were there.
While we were boarding a bus after a tour, a smiling man in a straw hat approached and said something in Spanish. Our guide translated: “He says, ‘Come back. Bring your friends.’”
Our Pacific Ocean
cruise started in Costa Rica
, the jewel of Central America
, and continued to the war-weary countries of Nicaragua
, El Salvador and Guatemala
before traveling north to relative prosperity in Mexico
. Bands greeted us in Nicaragua
and El Salvador as the tourist-starved ports
received their first cruise ship in recent memory.
We were onboard Minerva II, the lone ship operated by Swan Hellenic, a cruise line based in Great Britain. The line specializes in out-of-the-way itineraries around the globe, and the ship was full of older, well-traveled Brits, who turned out in force for the guest speakers and the daily shore excursions.
“We cater to people interested in learning
more about the places they visit,” said Matthew Elgie, the marketing
manager who was onboard for the cruise. “We like to be off the beaten path. We have a lot of repeat business, so we rarely offer the same itinerary. It’s a challenge to come up with new ones.”
The 600-passenger Minerva II was two years old when Swan Hellenic bought the ship in 2003 from the bankrupt Renaissance Cruise Line, which had ships that had been described as the Ritz-Carltons of the sea. The new owner removed the casino and the televisions in a sports bar, remodeled the spa, added a 4,000-title library and used paintings and furniture from the first Minerva to create a more sedate ambiance.
With Oriental-style carpeting, leather sofas and chairs, gilt mirrors and light fixtures and lots of brass, green marble and dark wood, the interior
now resembles a comfortable country club, or, as a Brit preferred, “a country house.”
There was a buffet cafe and three sit-down restaurants, where coat-and-tie was suggested for dinner. The menus were interesting, and the wine list loaded with excellent New World vintages from Chile, Argentina
for less than $20.
was good, in the English
manner. Steaks and chops were served thin, by American standards. The breakfast buffet included kippers — smoked herring, which, I was told, was an acquired taste. I didn’t even inquire about the blood pudding.
Unlike on the larger cruise ships popular with many Americans, there was no live stage production, no ice-skating rink, no rock-climbing wall, no disco and no children
. They’re permitted, but discouraged. The highlight of the nightly entertainment was a string quartet that played moving renditions of “Blue Moon” and “O Sole Mio” while we were off the coast of Nicaragua.
There was a pool on the top deck
, but passengers don’t laze around sipping umbrella drinks on a Swan Hellenic cruise. The ship is not the destination
, but a civilized means of getting there. Each day offered a choice of shore excursions, most of them included in the cost of the trip, which averages $4,500 per person, based on double occupancy, for a 15-day cruise.
You could look for wildlife on a river cruise in Costa Rica, hike up an extinct volcano in Nicaragua, swim at a beach resort in El Salvador or spend the day in the charming town of Antigua
A fellow travel writer had advised against the cruise, saying the English
were stuffy and considered Americans somewhat crude. “You’ll be dining alone,” he said. We found it quite the opposite. The Brits onboard were interested in everything, and game
for anything. Plus, they talked funny
, in a proper sort of way.
The land excursions usually involved rides of 90 minutes or more in comfy motor
coaches equipped with lavatories. The ride gave you time to absorb the Third World countryside of blooming trees and verdant sugar-cane fields, as well as scruffy dogs
playing in the dirt yards of impoverished homes. The townsfolk waved or stared in wonder at the strangers from the North. Young local guides, who spoke from the heart in understandable English, rode
along and narrated the history
, culture and politics of their countries.
“We are a nice, open, happy people — but not very disciplined, not very organized,” said Roberto, our guide in Nicaragua. “We say 7 a.m., and mean 7:30.”
Costa Rica has a lush landscape of mountains and rivers, a thriving economy that benefits from eco-tourism and a stable political structure that hasn’t needed, or paid for, an army since 1948. It also has the worst roads in Central America.
“We have three types of roads,” said Henry, our guide. “Nice roads, bad roads and massage roads.”
We were on a massage road as we headed by the coffee plantations to the Tarcoles River for a boat
ride through a mangrove forest. The coffee bushes were glowing red, meaning ripe beans.
“If you see the big black ball in the tree, it’s a termite nest,” Henry advised. “If you see the black ball in the tree with a tail, it’s a monkey.”
We didn’t see any monkeys, but five minutes into the boat
ride we already had seen great egrets, little blue herons, great blue herons and crocodiles, including a massive 11-footer. “They’ll eat anything that crosses the river — dogs
, people,” Henry said.
Both banks of the tea-colored river were alive with wildlife, keeping our heads spinning. Ibis and wood storks sunned just feet away from a croc that basked with its mouth open, baring impressive rows of teeth. Green iguanas lolled in the bushes, while their cousins, the black iguanas, hung out among the crevices of the mud banks. Black-necked stilts prowled the shallows on spindly legs, and a pair of roseate spoonbills were pink balls high up in the trees. Circling overhead were turkey
vultures and frigatebirds.
There are 850 species of birds in Costa Rica, and we saw our share.
“All this excitement — it’s too much, and it’s only 10 o’clock!” exclaimed a woman with binoculars.
On another excursion later that day, we wobbled on cable bridges suspended over the forest to search the canopy for butterflies, monkeys, macaws and toucans. We saw squat.
Decades of civil wars that ended in 1990, followed by Hurricane
Mitch in 1998, have left Nicaragua one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with its 6 million people earning an average of $700 a year. Cautious tourists are just starting to come back.
“In the 1980s, everybody knew about the conflict between the Contras and the Sandinistas,” said Roberto, our guide. “Now they expect to find guerrillas and tanks
in the streets. But it’s not the same place. We are a poor country, with a lot of potential. Costa Rica has the eco-tourism, but not the colonial cities.”
We were headed to Granada, which was founded in 1524 at the foot of Mombacho Volcano on the shores of huge Lake Nicaragua. A walking tour took us to the cathedral and San Francisco
Convent, which is now an impressive museum housing massive Easter Island-like stone sculptures found nearby and thought to be 1,200 years old.
Merchants around the Plaza de la Independencia sold ceramics made by local potters, and I bought a painted and incised vase for $8, signed by the artist, with a toucan and iguana surrounded by leaves and flowers.
The next day we traveled to the north side of Nicaragua to visit Leon, which also was founded in 1524 but moved to its present site in 1610 after a volcanic eruption. The enormous Cathedral de la Asuncion was begun in 1746 and is the largest in Central America.
We climbed a narrow staircase to the cathedral’s roof for a spectacular view of Leon, with the city’s churches rising amid red-tiled roofs and volcanoes looming in the background.
Eduardo, our guide in El Salvador, had an optimistic message about his tiny country: “Like the phoenix bird, from the ashes we grow.”
Volcanoes, some smoking, lined our route
as we rode
to the town of Santa Ana. A hiking excursion was canceled because one of the active volcanoes was sputtering. Indeed, the entire country lies between two volcanic mountain ranges that periodically wreak havoc on the people. Add in a bitter civil war during the 1980s that left 70,000 dead, and you can see why there are ashes in El Salvador.
“We have been at peace since 1992. Now you can travel anywhere in the country without any worries,” the guide added. “We were part of the bad news, now we want to be the good news.”
We had spent the morning at a luxurious golf and beach resort, where huge chunks of black lava rock littered the water
Santa Ana proved to be a modern city; the Miss Universe contest was held there in 1976, before the war began. We toured the historic Plaza Colon, the imposing Gothic cathedral and the National Theater, which was built in 1910 and is being restored to its gilded glory.
Eduardo said El Salvador has the natural beauty to rival Costa Rica for the eco-tourism buck. The civil war helped by curtailing hunting in the forests, allowing the wildlife to rebound.
“We have 6,000 species of butterflies — England
has 42,” he said. “We are nowhere near Costa Rica, but if any tourist comes to El Salvador, he will be treated as if he is the only tourist here.”
If any of the Central American countries can rival Costa Rica in beauty, it is Guatemala, a land of forested mountains, orchids, exotic birds and the spectacular Mayan ruins of Tikal and Copan.
The striking landscape stands in contrast to a violent past, which includes a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 and natural disasters with earthquakes and volcanoes destroying entire towns.
Swan Hellenic’s excursions to the Mayan ruins were “supplementary,” meaning there was an additional cost of several hundred dollars because the trips involved shorts flights on small planes. My partner didn’t like the idea of flying anyway, so we opted for the tour of Antigua
, which became the highlight of the trip.
Antigua is perhaps the finest colonial city in Central America, with cobblestone streets and 16th-century buildings that would be impressive even in the great destinations of Europe
. We had lunch at the Santo Domingo Hotel
, which is built around the ruins of an old monastery and surrounded by grounds filled with macaws, fountains and gardens.
We had to part ways with the cruise at the resort playground of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico
. We left for the airport
while the other passengers headed out on shore excursions that included whale watching, snorkeling and rides on a glass-bottom boat.
If you go
Swan Hellenic: The London-based cruise line specializes in “discovery travel,” taking passengers to exotic itineraries in “the most colorful and charismatic corners of the world.” The 2006 cruise guide has destinations that range from the jungles of South America to the fjords of Norway. Guided shore excursions and guest speakers explore each of the destinations. This year, the line offers its first extended itinerary, a 65-day South America cruise. Swan Hellenic is a brand of Carnival Corp. Call (877) 800-7926 or visit www.swanhellenic.com.
Minerva II: The line’s only ship has 11 decks and can carry up to 600 passengers. More than 90 percent of the rooms have either large picture windows or balconies. All rooms have air conditioning, a TV, telephone, safe and binoculars. On-board facilities include a sun deck, golf practice area, well-stocked library, Internet cafe, a gorgeous spa and beauty salon, pool and Jacuzzi, shops, three sit-down restaurants and a buffet for informal dining.
Staying in Central America: Costa Rica, of course, has a wealth of beach resorts and eco-lodges. We also found quality lodging in some of the other countries. In Nicaragua, there was the Intercontinental Hotel in Managua. Club Las Veraneras in the port city of Acajutla in El Salvador was a lovely private resort on the beach with a spacious swimming pool surrounded by cabanas hung with hammocks. Antigua, in Guatemala, has several fine hotels, including Hotel CasAzul, Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo and the incredible Santo Domingo Hotel.