About the author:
Hello! I’m Steve, a 67 year old Travel Writer and Photographer who loves to explore the world!
I’m so looking forward to exploring the Caribbean the “Hurtigruten way”, and I’ll be posting a daily blog on here. 7 different countries and two UNESCO Sites in one expedition is going to be amazing!
I’ll be discovering the history of the mysterious Mayans by exploring fascinating ruins, hiking and snorkelling in crystal clear waters by small islands, atolls and reefs, kayaking along pristine coastlines, hiking into the jungle or cruising rivers to spot amazing wildlife.
This is my fourth cruise on the wonderful MS Fram after having previously explored Antarctica, Greenland and Spitsbergen.
I look forward to you sharing my travels on this blog.
Scroll further down to see Steve's blog posts.
About the cruise:
Day 1, Wednesday 03 April: Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
Well what an amazing day that was! We left the hotel for a drive that took us across the mountain spine of the country where the rainforest still covers the slopes with the mist hanging above the canopy. Eagles and buzzards soared above as we crossed numerous cascading rivers, some painted in vivid yellow betrayed their volcanic origin higher up the slopes.
Further down, pineapple and banana plantations became common as the terrain flattened out as we approached the Caribbean. Brightly coloured shrubs and bushes vied with palm trees for space, and as we stopped for lunch the first monkeys started calling.
An al fresco lunch of local cost Rican dishes was followed by a boat ride deep into the mangrove where at times the narrow channels gave us Iguanas sunbathing, toucans and other highly coloured birds flying all around whist crocodiles watched us passing slowly by and howler monkeys left us in doubt why they are so called!
A troop of Spider Monkeys played in the canopy nearby, but the best was saved to last as we encountered no less than three sloths on our way back to the mooring.
It may come as no surprise that we are all eager to see what tomorrow brings.
Day 2, Thursday 04 April: At sea
A day at sea today for us as we travel south to the San Blas Islands of Panama.
Some start the day with yoga on the bow whilst others join the expedition team to watch and photograph the Brown Boobies ( A Caribbean gannet) feeding off Flying Fish as they break the surface of the blue shimmering water.
By 10 o’clock the temperature is set at a pleasant 28 degrees with a gentle cooling breeze and many people take advantage to sun bathe or maybe relax and read under the cool shade of the awning at the stern. Later we gather in the lounge for a lecture about our voyage and our day tomorrow.
“Don’t stand or lie under palm tree” we are told. Sound advice too as it turns out more people are killed by falling coconuts than by shark attacks.
Hurtigruten do this very well with other lectures throughout the day on topics varying from wildlife to geology and the native peoples we will encounter. After lunch, we meet the captain and his officers at a reception and we start to get to know one another.
MS Fram is a small ship with only 270 people on board and it is so flattering that many of the crew remember me from my last visit and ask after Caroline. When you travel on Fram you really do become part of the family.
I take advantage of another lecture on improving your photography to quickly fill my water bottle in the 24-hour buffet lounge and I meet an old friend. Jigsaws on board are completed by all the Fram family and you feel obliged to help by looking for apiece to fill in - no matter day or night!
Day 3, Friday 05 April: Guna Yala/San Blas Islands
I love the Hurtigruten way of cruising. Unlike the huge modern day cruise ships with their thousands of passengers the Fram is small and can visit tiny islands and ports that are free from the hordes of passengers that disembark from those giant ships and can swamp a place in minutes.
With under two hundred of us on board we visited the tiny archipelago of The San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. Imagine the Seychelles with no people and no hotels or roads and you will get some idea of what awaited us.
We even had to wait for the crew to talk to the Chief so we knew exactly where we could land. The morning found us bouncing across the waves in the small tender boats and landing on the tiny island of Abuja, only two metres above sea level at its highest point. We watched the women of the Kuna people making the most vibrant of scarves and fabrics.
Whilst some of us swam and snorkelled, others chatted to the locals or sipped the local brew in the shade of palm leaf covered awnings. There are no fixed times for these trips. You could return to Fram at any point prior to her sailing to the island of Cayo Holandes in the afternoon.
This island was much larger that Aguja, allowing us to walk in the forests marvelling at emerald green Humming Birds flittering amongst the trees. The snorkelling here was even better and it became evident that group was beginning to gel as laughter filtered through the forest and the beaches on the other side of the island.
At dinner all of us were wondering what delights and adventures could await us tomorrow.
Day 4, Saturday 06 April: Fort San Lorenzo
When you’re walking in a rainforest in the rainy season you shouldn’t really be surprised if it starts raining. However, when the rain feels warm and your guide is connected to the local indigenous people you should be positively overjoyed.
Walking through the San Lorenzo reserve was an amazing experience with at one point a pack of some twenty Howler Monkeys surrounding us in the trees above. They get their name because their call is so loud, and at one point when they all started calling together it was quite deafening.
Pablo our guide pointed out so much to us. Like Leafcutter ants scurrying along the low branches, the plant that Panama Hats are made from, and the heart shaped seed pod of the Panama Tree that we were told under no circumstances to touch the inside with our fingers!
The rainforest is a place of wonder, and with some plants we were encouraged to touch a tiny fern like Mimosa retracting their leaves for protection. Other larger pink flowered Mimosa plaid hosts to tin, vivid Emerald green hummingbirds darting and hovering amongst the petals.
Hurtigruten are renowned for their excursions and it soon became obvious why. From the forest we burst out on to the cliffs overlooking the Caribbean and found ourselves in the 17th century Fort Lorenzo. Built by the Spanish to protect their gold and silver shipments from pirates, the earlier fort was destroyed by Sir Henry Morgan who rather unsportingly attacked it from the forest and not the sea.
Back on ship the evening briefing tells us about our visit to Bocas del Toro. If it’s anything today it should be amazing!
Day 5, Sunday 07 April: Bocas del Toro
The sea was flat calm this morning as we sped across the bay from the Fram’s anchorage to the Bocas del Toro Islands off the coast of Panama. Meaning “mouth of the bull”, they are a pristine region and home to Panama’s first national marine park Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Consisting of nine main islands and hundreds of smaller ones, the islands are now a UNESCO World Site.
We landed at Bocas Town with its colourful Caribbean style clapboard house and a laid-back vibe and atmosphere due to the mixture of people who live here that you are unlikely to find anywhere else. Bars, souvenir shops and restaurants line the main street running along the shore line, and it wasn’t long after we visited the bank and its ATM that we sat down and sampled the local “Bilbao” beer and tapas.
Many of the houses and bars were decorated with plants and local carvings whilst those that lined the sea stood on stilts that had gardens consisting of colourful dustbins and oil drums. These houses and bars also have jetties from which you can take water taxi boat trips to the surrounding islands.
This is the joy of Bocas Town as you can visit many islands or beaches very cheaply. We hurtled across the bay and explored one of the islands that is home to a lovely beach hotel and bar with pool. Others chose to be dropped off at secluded sandy beaches. Some people chose to swim with the starfish whilst others took a trip to Sloth Island.
Tomorrow we are off to Nicaragua to meet the Creole people on Great Corn Island. See you there!
Day 6, Monday 08 April: Corn Islands
Hiring a taxi on Corn Island can be quite an experience. Halfway around a tour of the island Freddy, my driver, got a call from a friend to go and pick him up so he could get some milk. “Do you mind?” said Freddy. “No extra charge!”
This is typical of the ambience of this beautiful island lying some 50 miles off the coast of Nicaragua. An oasis of tranquillity away from the bustle of the mainland there is no crime here as everyone knows everyone else and they are all so very friendly.
The palm tree lined beaches and the snorkelling are simply stunning, but there is not much to the town. Don’t let that put you off as the island is famous for its sea food, lobsters in particular. Some of the restaurants here are top notch, if you decide to take lunch away from the ship, as many of us did.
Hurtigruten had thoughtfully provided us with a map, and with the lecture from the night before it proved invaluable. I walked from the landing site to the town and its harbour along the golden beaches, sandals in hand with the blue waves lapping around my feet.
Hiring a taxi to the northern beaches and exploring the island is a must. Many of the roads are just sandy tracks but the man coastal route is tarmac and lined by some fascinating pieces of public art, from lobsters to manta rays and even a giant sparkling mosaic octopus.
“It’s all about relaxing here,” said Freddy as we dropped his friend off at the supermarket. How right he was.
Day 7, Tuesday 09 April: Isla de Providencia
Here we are after 7 days sailing and we still haven’t yet seen another cruise ship! This is typical of Hurtigruten as the company goes to such small out-of-the-way destinations untouched by the larger cruise ships who simply cannot dock there.
Today we visited the Columbian island of Providencia under a blue sky with a warm southerly wind gently caressing our faces as we sped across the bay. The seas around the island are shallow and coral reefs surround it. As a result, MS Fram had anchored someway out so the tender transfer took about ten minutes to the harbour. No one minded as we marvelled at the Frigate Birds keeping us company along the way.
Some of our group had decided to take the island tour, whilst others hired four by four golf carts to explore the island’s beaches and villages. Others, including yours truly, opted for the hike to The Peak - the highest point on the island.
At just under a 1000’ climb with some very steep sections and temperatures rising to 28 degrees it was not for the faint hearted. We all drank copious amounts of water, but the rewards were immense with staggering views of the island and out to sea.
Mercifully much of the walk was in the shade of the forest and our local guides were superb in showings us fruits and trees and how they used them for medicine and in their everyday lives.
Iguanas sunbathed on trees and electric blue lizards darted across the path. Had we arrived two weeks earlier the paths would have been covered with thousands of Black Crabs as they made their way down to the sea to lay their eggs.
But the most memorable thing was the deafening noise. In Costa Rica it had been Howler Monkeys but here it was frogs and toads calling with a cacophony of noise.
We’re having a sunset barbeque on the stern tonight. I am so looking forward to it.
Day 8, Wednesday 10 April: At sea
We spent the day at sea today as we travelled north to Cayos Cochinos in Honduras - and we were visited by dolphins twice! Both times we spotted them from some distance away breaching in and out of the water until they settled on riding the bow wave.
The day started off wet, forcing the yoga class under cover on deck 7. We of the daily wildlife watching group on the bow are made of sterner stuff and were rewarded with Masked Boobys and Magnificent Frigate Birds flying around the ship.
A day at sea is never boring, as Hurtigruten lay on many lectures and activities. I attended a fascinating lecture on the Maya as we will be going to some of their ruined cities. Later on in the afternoon I attended one on coral reefs.
Another group learned how to use the sextant as a navigational aid and we were also privileged to meet the Chef Kristen from Sweden who was extremely informative about the galley. The jigsaws were out in force and many couples played cards or used the vast collection of board games to help pass the afternoon.
Once again the evening lecture before the superb buffet dinner was about tomorrows visit and afterwards a fascinating tour of “Hidden Fram” the places the guests don’t get to see!
Tomorrow we arrive at Cayos Cochinos, the world’s 2nd largest coral reef system. See you there!
Day 9, Thursday 11 April: Cayo Cochinos
Still no other cruise ships spotted, just us and the ocean! Today we anchored at The Cayo Conchinos off the coast of Honduras.
Consisting of two small islands and 13 more small coral cays the reef here is part of the world’s second largest coral reef system and is heavily protected so it is a snorkelling paradise as many of us found out. Some went kayaking or stand up paddling and afterwards we took a cool hike in the forest.
Arriving at Cayo Menor we attended a legal briefing by video showing us some of the wonders of the islands and what animals and fish not to touch. Leave only your footprints is sound advice.
The island of Cayo Major is only some two metres above sea level at its highest point and you have to wonder how the rising sea levels will effect the small population who live here. It was fascinating to see the children preparing fish and throwing the remains into the sea where Brown Pelicans, Frigate Birds and the stunning Royal Terns waited to pounce.
Life goes on here in so many ways as it always has with visitors few and far between. What I took to be the bright yellow sail of a surf board turned out to be local man bring his family’s water supply over along with other essential supplies.
We were treated to a colourful, local traditional dance display accompanied by a variety of home made percussion instruments such as fishing floats and old tin cans! This was followed by sampling home made cake and coconut flavoured drinks in the grateful shade of the houses where sunlight filtered through the palm frond roof.
The islands have no roads, cars or bikes just beautiful beaches and friendly people. As I seem to be discovering more and more this is so typical of Hurtirguten. To get under the skin of a place and giving something back to the locals whilst respecting their lives and environment just seems to come naturally.
Day 10, Friday 12 April: Belize City
Today found us landing at Belize City and what day it turned out to be. Fram was moored about a mile off shore so the usual tender boat transfer was a bit different. This time we went ashore on a huge catamaran that carried 100 people called “Big Momma”!
Colourful colonial houses, bars and warehouses lined the water front of Belize City and in fact most of the city lies below sea level with only large stone walls to protect it.
There were several excursions on offer from zip wire trips to city walking ours but we chose a Belize River cruise then up to the amazing Mayan ruins of Lamanai (The Submerged Crocodile).
In fact this turned out be a 25 mile trip in a power speed boat that had a canopy to protect us from the sun. Again we saw a lot of wildlife and the wide river gradually became narrower with sharper bends where could see deeper into the vegetation that lined the banks. The water lilies either side were amazing as were the birds that walked across then as it they were a green and yellow carpet across the water.
Suddenly the river opened out in a lake and we pulled up at a jetty to disembark. I had expected another bus ride to the Mayan ruins but they were literally a two minute walk from the river as our guide explained the Maya had used the river for transportation.
These 3,000 year old ruins were simply breath-taking with pyramids, ball courts and administrative centres still surviving. The city originally covered 10 square miles and many of us climbed the tallest pyramid to get the stunning views on offer.
Hurtigruten do the excursion side of their operation very well and they certainly came up trumps with this one. Let’s see what tomorrow brings!
Day 11, Saturday 13 April: The Great Blue Hole
Today was one of those days that you never forget. Fram lay in the water some 30 miles east of Belize and at 8:30 a local tender boat hauled up alongside to take us snorkelling to The Great Blue Hole.
As the name implies this a giant marine sinkhole, is formerly a cave where the roof had collapsed thousands of years around is some 124 m (407 ft) deep.
I must confess I did feel very nervous about going here as it is completely submerged, and you can’t see it until you are actually inside the hole itself. I have always wondered about the word abyss and it’s not until you are floating above one that you fully understand its meaning.
Everyone splashed in to the water and swam over to the coral walls that extend some thirty feet wide before the walls of the hole suddenly drop down, so you do get to see a tremendous amount of fish and the most stunning types of coral from fans to tubes.
As beginners to snorkelling myself and six others went in last. I have to say the safety aspect was tremendous and we had canoeists above the water and instructors and guides to help and guide swimming with us. We all were issued with life jackets and there were ropes to lifebuoys if we felt we needed them. I took this option and it made the swim so more enjoyable.
The colours of the fish were simply staggering from bid blues of the small wrasse to the incredible yellows and blacks of the Angel Fish. Sea Cucumbers and anemones waved and danced in the water and after a short time all trepidation evaporated, and we simply enjoyed this wonderful place.
Back in the boat our guides produced, spicy salsa and bread with pineapple and water melon slices followed by an ice-cold beer.
I wish to announce I now have the snorkelling bug.
Day 12, Sunday 14 April: Cozemel
Well after 12 days sailing it’s finally happened; we’ve seen another cruise ship! We arrived at Cozemel this morning an island some two miles of the coast of Mexico and it’s no wonder these big ships can’t reach the isolated places Fram is able to.
There were three excursions on offer today from a Cozumel walk around to a dune buggy and snorkel trip. Some and I of the others decided to take the trip to see the Mayan ruins at Tulum dating some 1000 years later than those we had seen earlier in the week at Belize.
A short distance from the ship we boarded one of the super-fast catamaran ferries that take you to the mainland and siting on the top desk in the sunlight we son fell into discussions with the locals who wanted to improve their English.
Fascinatingly enough many of them had the nose and sloping forehead one sees in the Mayan Codex that have survived. “Yes” one of them said” we’re still here!”
Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya; it was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico. It is a huge site and some of the temples are amazing, one even has Frescoes still surviving to this day.
It is national important site to the Mexican people and thus it is very touristy not at all what you normally expect on a Hurtigruten excursion but none the less we are all so pleased to have visited and indeed felt privileged to have done so.
It was hot, so we found a small bar on the site that sold cold beer and when it came to lunch, we had chicken tapas that when it arrived was served with chocolate sauce!!! A word of warning here, don’t be fooled into thinking Central American Salsa is the same strength as the variety we have in UK. It’s not and I was forced to drink copious amounts of cold beer and water to put out the fire under my tongue!
Another fabulous excursion from Hurtigruten. See you tomorrow!
Day 13, Monday 15 April: The last day
Well the last day of this fabulous cruise is here. Off Cuba we had birds of so many species landing on the ship all taking a rest from their migration. I was hard pushed running up and down in between decks to try and photograph them all!
Some of us went to yoga and others to learn how to use a sextant and others to the sauna which I have found myself visiting on a daily basis and really enjoying it.
Suddenly the cry went out that Miami was looming over the horizon. Still some two hours away it was incredibly impressive and as we got nearer and nearer more and more of us crowded on to the bow to take in this amazing site.
People from cars on the Freeway shouted “Welcome to Miami” to us and we all waved back. The only fly in the ointment to the whole cruise was a delay at Immigration, but I have to say the customs people came in on a day they should have had off and were helpful and polite at all times.
So would I recommend this cruise. An emphatic yes. I look forward to hearing about Hutrtigruten’s new ships and new voyages.
Hope to see you there!