Travelers may disagree on which sites deserve to be considered modern wonders of the world, but the Panama Canal would surely make most short lists. The shipping channel—which took 33 years to...
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Its official name is Cartagena de Indias—or "Cartagena of the Indies"—but call it Cartagena for short. The formal name hints at this Colombian city's colonial relationship with Spain; it was founded in 1533 and named after the mother country's Cartagena. Colombia declared independence in 1810, but there's plenty about its fifth-largest city that evokes old Spain, including the impressive fort of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, and the wall that encloses the old town, one of the few intact structures of its kind in the Americas. Both were considered important enough to inscribe on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1984.
Fuerte Amador, Panama
Located west of Panama City at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, Fuerte Amador is a gateway to exploring the many faces of this unique Central American country. The impressive engineering of the canal itself is a wonder to behold; a quick trip to the Miraflores Locks' visitor center with its panoramic observation decks offers the chance to watch behemoth barges thread their way through the legendary manmade waterway. Just minutes from the cruise port, the recently opened Biomuseo is a Frank Gehry–designed natural-history museum dedicated to Panama's ecological marvels. And Fuerte Amador sits within easy taxi distance of Panama City.
Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
If you've ever dreamed of having your own private island, Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas offers the opportunity to fulfill that fantasy. Also known as Little San Salvador Island, Half Moon Cay is located southeast of Nassau. In 1996, Holland America Line purchased the island and set aside most of it as a wildlife sanctuary. At 10 square kilometers (four square miles), the island is small enough that you can see it all in a day, yet large enough to offer an array of activities: horseback riding, snorkeling with stingrays, a range of water sports and, of course, simply lounging on the beach.
Puerto Caldera (Puntarenas), Costa Rica
One of the stops along the Panama Canal route, Puerto Caldera isn't your ordinary port of call, positioned as it is within easy day-trip distance of the country's multiple national parks. The town itself is small, but makes for an ideal base from which travelers can venture out to explore a variety of outdoor attractions and activities. These include visiting gushing waterfalls and active volcanoes, bird-watching in nature reserves and horseback riding on Pacific beaches. Visitors to the region also enjoy shopping for handicrafts, as well as sampling traditional Tico cuisine, especially gallo pinto—a combination of rice and beans.
Puerto Chiapas, Mexico
The southernmost port on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Puerto Chiapas is named for the state in which it is located. It is relatively new, built in 1975, and is the primary hub from which the region’s agricultural goods, including coffee, are sent abroad. For travelers arriving by cruise ship, the town of Puerto Chiapas is a jumping-off point to explore surrounding areas, including Tapachula, the second-largest city in the state of Chiapas. In addition to visiting the coffee estates and banana and cacao plantations of the area, day trips include excursions to Maya sites such as Izapa.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Unlike some of Mexico’s beach resorts, Puerto Vallarta, on the Pacific Ocean, retains its colonial-era charm. Its town square, Plaza de Armas, and the gorgeous parish church topped with an ornate crown serve as the loveliest representations of bygone ages. Alongside them are an ambitious public art project along the seaside walkway (the malecón) and trendy restaurants. Round these out with outdoor activities on Banderas Bay (whale-watching! snorkeling! jet-skiing!) and a side trip to one of Mexico's pueblos mágicos (magical towns, a designation recognizing smaller towns that possess historical and cultural value), and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more pleasant port.