Cruising Latin America, European style

(Third of three parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3)

More ports of call

Puerto Limón (Costa Rica)

Limón boasts a population of some 85,000 people, most of whom are of Afro-Caribbean heritage. The town has increased in size steadily since the 1970s and has proven to be a good place for Costa Ricans to settle down. The climate is warm and tropical, the surroundings are beautiful, and a recent influx of tour operators has brought a new focus to the town.

Limón was founded in 1870 as a port for exporting bananas and grains. Today it continues this tradition, although the business of exporting is now complemented by the arrival of cruise ships that stop off for a few hours.

This visit in January ’06 was my first to Costa Rica’s little slice of the Caribbean. More than 30 years ago I had been to Punta Arenas on the Pacific coast. As the brochure from MSC Cruises (6750 North Andrews Ave., Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33309; 800/666-9333 or www.msccruises.com) mentioned the option of traveling inland to the capital, San José, I was surprised when this excursion was not a part of the sightseeing options. My husband was looking forward to checking out Costa Rica’s largest city.

If you would like to tour San José on your own, plan to be one of the first off the ship after its 7 a.m. arrival. At the port, for $200 you can hire a taxi for the 100-mile drive; up to four passengers can fit comfortably. Van service was $50 per person. Calculate eight hours for both the round-trip drive and city tour. All passengers must be back on board at 5:30 p.m., so this gives you some breathing room.

For those who choose to arrange an independent tour of the Tortuguero Canal on their own, it costs $25 less per person than the MSC shore tour price.

Especially for an excursion to San José, I recommend that you make arrangements prior to arrival so as not to waste valuable time. Contact Union de Transportistas del Caribe (phone/fax 011-506-798-32-80 or phone 011-506-369-81-18 or e-mail unitracasa@yahoo.com or crocodileadventures@yahoo.com).

We explored Puerto Limón on foot. Although it was not a particularly attractive town, it was an interesting day.

Many Chinese have settled in and purchased businesses in Limón. We had an interesting chat with the owner’s son at Superfarmacia Cariari about his recent first visit to China. The cost of pharmaceuticals in Costa Rica was the lowest of those at ports visited on the cruise and certainly less than at home.

We wandered into the Edificio Pasaje Cristal, one of the oldest buildings in town and a short distance from the pier. After close to a $1,000,000 investment, the arcade now shows its original charm. Located in the passageway is La Galería de Yves, where the paintings of local artists are exhibited. The paintings were very colorful and quite unique. If I had any empty walls at home, I certainly would have made a purchase.

Historic buildings in Limón can be described as Victorian architecture with a Caribbean influence. I strolled around to have a look at some of the many historic edifices: Pensión Costa Rica (1905), the Post Office (1911), the gazebo at Parque Vargas (1911) and the Capitania de Puertos (1926), where there is a nice view of the ocean from the second-floor veranda.

Roatán (Honduras)

The Bay Islands of Honduras offer a very different world from that of mainland Honduras. The islands’ history includes many disputes between the Spaniards and the British during colonial times. That the British actually controlled the islands most of the time has given the islands a unique heritage. English is so widely spoken in the islands that some people don’t even speak Spanish, despite the fact that this is the official language of Honduras!

Made up of Roatán, Utila, Guanaja and over 60 islets and keys, the Bay Islands (Islas de Bahía) are situated on the world’s second-largest barrier reef, a virtual haven for divers.

Roatán is the largest, most developed and most frequented of the Bay Islands. Essentially a long, forested ridge rising from the Caribbean, it retains much of the original landscape that the buccaneers viewed in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1975, when I first visited, there wasn’t a paved road to be seen.

MSC Cruises’ excursion “Best of Roatán and West End Village” cost $62 per person. We hired a taxi at the Coxen Hole pier for $35 for the two of us.

Our driver remembered the Pirate’s Den, where I stayed 30 years ago, and insisted that we stop there briefly. The inn, now known as the Tri-R Resort, has expanded, and gone is the owner who made the most delicious French toast imaginable from homemade coconut bread. After three excellent meals a day, I would exercise by walking to nearby Anthony’s Key Resort.

Tranquility may be something of the past as well. Roatán real estate investment in time-shares and private home construction are booming. When property is purchased, signage goes up at the site noting the name of the buyer. We noticed a lot of European and American names.

While visiting the colorful West End, we came across the Italian restaurant Tre Fratelli. I enjoyed their food immensely in Guatemala, and this location has a wonderful view of the sea.

Before returning to the ship, we browsed the duty-free shops at Coxen Hole, the largest town and the capital of the Bay Islands, a department of Honduras.

Fort Lauderdale

If your flight home departs after 4 p.m., you might want to consider MSC Cruises’ Fort Lauderdale excursion. The excursion ends at the airports in Fort Lauderdale ($58 per person) or Miami ($69).

Deanna Palic and her husband paid a discounted media rate for their cabin aboard MSC “Lirica.”

(Start back at part one)

—Latin America is written by Deanna Palic.