I never thought I would take a cruise. I suffer from claustrophobia and am very active; two things that I didn’t think would gel with a cruise. Then I heard about Swan Hellenic, a British cruise company that markets itself as “the discovery cruise line.” They offered a trip to Central America, a place I have been fascinated with since childhood and lots of “active” types of things to do. Plus, it caters to an “older crowd,” a population that I clearly do not fit into but wouldn’t mind sailing with!
Kathleen and her friend Melissa on Luis's bike.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of a cruise is that you visit five countries in nine days and just unpack once. Our cabin was very spacious with a balcony – no claustrophobia here – and extremely comfortable. We also had the advantage of having guided -- thus safe -- tours.
With Swan, guests can choose supplemental trips that include tours of historic cities, volcano walks, visits to marketplaces and swimming excursions. There are also side trips that cost extra including trips to Mayan ruins, a coffee plantation and a tequila distillery.
The first stop was Costa Rica and a welcome sight to winter weary eyes. The lush green, blooming flowers and colorful birds were heaven compared to the gray skies of Pittsburgh, where I live. We went on a sky walk – suspended bridges over the forest and marshlands – to discover bird life, butterflies and fauna.
My favorite activity was a boat ride through the Guacalillo Estuary. It was an amazing experience – spotting American crocodiles a mere few feet away (we were safe in boats) and a wealth of exotic birds. The afternoon was one of my favorite segments of our entire trip.
A croc too close for comfort.
The next day, we found ourselves in Nicaragua. (Another cool aspect of this trip is that you go to sleep, then wake up having done the traveling overnight.) Nicaragua is an undiscovered gem in Central America. The poorest of the countries, it is fighting to recover from years of civil unrest, natural disasters including Hurricane Mitch and dictatorship. This makes prices very reasonable, the people incredibly friendly despite language barriers and the public able to visit their beautiful buildings.
El Salvador, the little country with a big heart is the motto for the smallest Central American country. Struggling to recover from civil war and natural disasters, the people love tourists. El Salvador, like the other Central American countries, has a wonderful climate and wildlife population. The volcanoes are amazing and frightening all at the same time. The official currency is the U.S. dollar, a testament to their efforts to attract visitors and do business with our country.
A volcano in El Salvador.
Coffee is one of the mainstays of the economy in El Salvador and we were fortunate to be the first group the Alfaro family allowed to tour their El Carmen estate. After viewing the coffee mill and learning about the coffee making process, we enjoyed the family gardens and vacation home while drinking freshly ground coffee.
Guatemala is also home to beautiful landscapes and wildlife. The country is almost two-thirds mountains – and many of those are volcanoes. Along with the natural beauty, the crafts by the local people are amazing – perhaps they draw upon the beautiful colors around them to create weavings and beaded jewelry that take your breath away and are remarkably affordable.
Mexico is the most visited and most well known Central American country to most of us in the U.S. We stopped in Mazatlan, a beautiful, sea side town. Shrimp capital of the world, the many seafood restaurants offer the freshest offerings at bargain prices.
The Swan Hellenic cruise was really the perfect way to “get our feet wet” in Central America. As far as the “older passengers,” they were interesting travel companions, sharing past trips and adventures. They also had exquisite taste in wine and I must also admit it was nice being child free for a few days. Another plus was the older crowd didn’t keep us awake at night with wild partying. The choice of activities also appealed to both the more adventurous as well as the more sedate in the group. Although I have no other cruises to compare it to, for my first cruise adventure, it was definitely a success!
For more information on Swan Hellenic Cruises visit www.swanhellenic.com or call 1-877-800-7926.
By Kathleen Ganster
Boom This! Travel Editor