If you have the opportunity to take a Royal Caribbean cruise out of Central or South America ... take it.
My wife and I were on the January 10, 2009 Enchantment of the Seas cruise from Colon, Panama to Cartagena and Santa Marta, Colombia and the Netherlands Antilles. When booking the cruise we weren't told that the ship's language for everything would be Spanish, or that two thousand of the twenty-two hundred passengers were going to be Spanish speaking Latin Americans. A few weeks after booking, Royal Caribbean did offer us the chance to cancel without penalty, but having made our air reservations, the offer could not be taken. Not that we would have. As a former bilingual educator, (I am not Hispanic), I speak reasonable Spanish and my wife has some facility with it. So off we went.
I'm not Pollyanna. There were culture clashes and you have to be able to either tolerate or enjoy them. The talking, the obstructive milling around, the physical closeness and crew relations come to mind. Large numbers of people never stop talking. Loud and rapid, all at the same time and never seeming to stop: in the pool, on the pool deck, in the bars and the photo gallery, during dinner, on the elevators and during the shows. Why go to the theater if you're going to talk through the entertainment? At first you are angry. Then you get included. Just because you don't understand is no reason not to join in. No one's in a hurry. Six or seven members of a family may sit down in the stairway. Every thing is blocked, nobody moves, no one gets excited. Eventually you get to go on your way. The same at a buffet line where time must be taken to choose among ten different items. The line waits. At first my New York City blood boiled. But I learned to enjoy the expectation. After all, what could I do about it? Eat in the Dining Room, or breakfast at 8:00 am when only the 150 Americans are awake? Latin Americans don't have the same sense of personal space as English speakers. Conversations are held at close range, inches away. And ten people climbing into and out of (mostly into), a six person hot tub, does challenge our Anglo-Saxon sense of propriety.
We enjoyed our neighbors to the south. Bathing suits come to mind. The pool deck was paved with acres of cream-colored breasts, and when everyone is aboard, the full extent of the fabric shortage in Latin America becomes obvious. But why make bathing suits out of dental floss? Go figure?
The Colombians are the nicest people I have ever met. These are warm, friendly, intelligent people who naturally like Americans. The Colombians are confident, communicate easily and have great pride in the recent accomplishments of their nation. The Panamanians are somewhere up there with them. Two words will make friends with any Panamanian, "Mariano Rivera". They will include you in everything. On entering a Name That Tune contest we were teamed with two Colombians and a Panamanian. We would get the American music, and they the Latin. The whole crowd cheered us on. It was a great time that we could not have envisioned with any group of foreigners.
Royal Caribbean deserves a lot of credit. From the beginning, the ship's rules were enforced. This is something the crew had to do from day one, or lose control of their ship. Unlike a recent experience with Princess, a cruise through the Panama Canal, there were no small children running unsupervised at all hours. There were no diapered infants in the hot tubs. No children in the adult pools. No disruptions of dinners by guests throwing objects in the dining room ... and smoking restrictions were enforced. Our Princess cruise's passenger list was about ten percent Mexican. Most of these were actually Mexican born "upper class" Europeans, (very different than the Colombians and Panamanians, who are beautiful people of every conceivable racial blend). When complaints were made by American passengers to the Princess crew, our motives were questioned and we were reprimanded. That is something that we bear in mind when planning vacations.
Colombia was astonishing, not at all a nation of drug dealers and kidnappers. We found it safe, friendly and clean, (well, cleaner than other places) with beautiful mountains, beaches and coastlines. Cartagena's Gold Museum and Santa Marta's Ethnographic Museum, while not exactly the Met are worth the time. And you will hate yourself if you miss the Museum of the Inquisition in Cartagena.
Visiting Aruba, the world's most up scale t-shirt island means a day on the ship. An empty ship! Curacao is much more interesting. Spend time in town and get back to the ship early. Bonaire, the last of the Dutch islands, rated number one by our friends for snorkeling. We spent much of the day at the Donkey Refuge. Take our some bread and a herd of donkeys will instantly show up and make you feel like a kid in the middle of a litter of puppies. The locals say it is what Aruba was twenty years ago.
We chose to spend an extra day in Panama City. When there, get your self a good taxi driver and go through the Casco Viejo, the old city. It was worth every sweating foot step.
The Jr. Suite with large balcony was great, but the closet doors would open and close with a thud as the ship rolled in rough seas.