Most people these days think cruises and immediately the gigantic ships from the major cruise lines come to mind. Cruises ships come in many different sizes these days. They can be as small as a few dozen passengers, or as large as the mega ships carrying thousands of passengers. Adventure or exploration cruises are a great alternative to the floating cities that have become so popular. Smaller ships offer a more intimate experience, a much smaller number of passengers, and can go places that the mega ships can’t enter. UnCruise Adventures, based in Seattle, has as its mission: “To provide our guests an enriching adventure travel experience and inspire an appreciation of local cultures and the natural world.” We chose to travel on one of their itineraries to the Panama Canal, a bucket list destination, and an incredible feat of construction and engineering. Beyond that, the country of Panama, and neighboring Costa Rica are beautiful, biodiverse, and wonderful places to visit.
The airplane approach to the Panama City airport offers a panoramic view of downtown before swinging back out over the Pacific Ocean for the final descent. It’s a fairly short ride to downtown, passing through tropical foliage that makes up a great deal of the country’s landscape. The most noticeable thing, beside the substantial amount of construction going on, is the number of high rise buildings everywhere. Both tall office and residential buildings are sprouting like weeds. Ironically, the tallest buildings aren’t office towers, but condos and apartment buildings. It looks much like Miami. However one incredibly cool looking building stands out among the others. the F&F Tower, completed in 2011, with its corkscrew design is a real stunner. Despite the eye-catching design, the building has a lot of empty space. Apparently, balconies don’t mix well with commercial office space.
We stayed at the Bristol, in the heart of the financial district. There is a lot of traffic, few stoplights, and fewer rules of the road. While it’s not a free for all, it requires a good deal of aggressive driving to maneuver around the area.
I must make mention of an outstanding dining experience we had in the old city – Laboratory Madrigal. True to its name, I was never more pleased to act as a food guinea pig. Besides a delicious rum cocktail, we had pumpkin soup in a cup, lamb tacos, potato balls with various toppings such as egg or tuna, and robalo, otherwise known as snook or Sergeant fish. It was prepared Veracruz style, with a sauce made of onions, garlic, tomato, jalapeños, olives and herbs. There was no room for desert, which could have been cheesecake, rice pudding, or creme brûlée, had we been so inclined.
Day Two: In Panama, Uber offers Uber English, which we selected on the assumption of a more knowledgeable driver. Ironically, it turns out we had the same driver as the evening before. This morning, he took us to the Panama Canal museum, which is a treasure trove, not just of the history of the canal project, but the country itself, with artifacts dating as far back as the Spanish colonial days. There was also an exhibit on the history of communication in the Panama, with old telephone and telegraph equipment.
Next, it was back to the hotel to gather our belongings and hop on the bus to our ship. Along the way, we stopped at Agua Clara Visitor Center to see the newest locks on the Canal. The Panama Canal expansion project was completed in 2016, allowing larger container ships to transit the canal. The $800,000 fee paid by the shipping companies is still a substantial savings over the additional twenty-two days needed to go around the tip of South America. They have a film, alternately showing in English and in Spanish, that documents the entire expansion project. We got to see a large container ship transit the locks on its way to the Caribbean. Then it was off to rendezvous with the Safari Voyager, our home for the next week.
That first evening the Voyager transited the Canal, a journey which took about seven hours, starting at seven in the evening, and finishing around four the next morning, as we passed under the Bridge of the Americas. Patrick, our tour guide gave a very informational play by play as we crept along. At both ends the Canal has a series of three locks, which are required to bring ships up to eighty-five feet above sea level, which without going into a detailed explanation, is the altitude necessary to traverse the inland waterway system between the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Beginning on day three, all our outings from the ship were on a large inflatable, motorized rubber rafts. I’ve heard them called zodiacs, but on the Voyager they were referred to as “skiffs.” A little morning coffee greased the path for an excursion to some nearby islands, where we did some beginners bird watching. That’s where I learned lesson number one, namely, sit at the back of the skiff. Within five minutes my whole left side was drenched by a wave crashing over the edge of the boat, as we bounced along in the choppy ocean. Nonetheless, we zipped around Bona, Estiba, and Otoque islands, three small outcroppings, a few miles from the mainland. Two were uninhabited, save for numerous birds, including frigate birds, pelicans, and brown and blue footed boobies. Cameras were snapping away as we circled around looking at the birds. The excursion lasted less than an hour, before we set off to our next destination. It was a journey that would take all day, save for a brief stop to swim in the ocean. The water had bathtub like temperatures, but a strong current rather quickly dragged me out to the edge of an area roped off by the crew. Thankfully, I was wearing flippers and worked my way back to the ship. The evening featured the first of several lectures by the onboard photographer, which I aimed to parlay into some better shots with our camera.
Day four began with a beautiful sunrise, followed by an early breakfast, and a skiff ride to Granita de Oro, which translates to “Grain of Gold.” Granita is a very, very small isle that is part of Coiba Island National Park. It reminded me of the lagoon on Gilligan’s Island, only smaller. It really is a rocky outcropping with a small amount of jungle foliage, where we snorkeled among the coral reefs and thousands of fish, and some eels, while others caught sight of sea turtles and a small tiger shark. Some people snorkeled all morning. I’d had my fill after a few hours and sat on the beach sipping a Panamanian lager.
The afternoon activity was kayaking into the mangroves of Coco island, another part of Coiba, which due to its relative isolation, once housed a penal colony. All we found were a few birds and a lot of dead ends. The strong current and whipping winds made our return journey to the ship a battle against the tide and the waves. So much so that our guide called for a skiff to take us the rest of the way back to the ship. Some of the more hearty souls paddled all the way back. I was not feeling like a hero, and gladly accepted the lift back. The evening saw a presentation on the island chain, and the wildlife we this day. (A complete list of all the wildlife we saw during our journey is at the end of this article.)
We spent day five at Isla Canal de Afuera, which was a very relaxing day with morning snorkeling and afternoon beach bumming. Others went on a skiff tour. I finally saw the bull shark that many others had spotted, taking a snooze under a huge mass of brain coral. Patrick, one our awesome guides gave a passionate and informative talk on the history of his beloved Panama. Patrick is quite a character. Although he was born in Argentina, Patricio (Patrick) Roca emigrated to Panama at a young age. Tall, jovial, humorous, with an infectious laugh, he joined the US Army at eighteen, has perfect English, and loves to talk about his adopted homeland. His army experience and time in the States gave him an appreciation of the value of customer service. He parlayed that, and his knowledge of the country, into training guides for tour operators.
[Listen to an interview with Patrick]
Leaving Panama, and entering Costa Rica for the first time on our journey, day six was a triple treat day, spent in and around Golfo Dulce, a tropical fjord. We started the day with a skiff tour in the morning of the coastal area surrounding the town of Golfito, a former banana plantation that now serves the country as a duty fee commercial zone. There, we spotted several white faced Capuchia monkeys navigating through the trees at waters edge. There were also Mongrove Black Hawks and a few Blue Herons in the vicinity. Next, the ship was moved a few kilometers away to Casa Orquideas, a lush botanic garden, populated with all kinds of plants, flowering trees, fruit trees, and even spice trees. A scrape of the bark of one tree yielded that familiar aroma of cinnamon. It was there we first spotted a beautiful pair of scarlet macaws, with their vibrant red plumage. Three dozen cameras got busy, happily snapping photos of these gorgeous birds.
The last stop of the day was at the Saladero Ecolodge, a private nature preserve owned by an American expat, and his British wife. That’s where we made our first hike of the trip up into the rainforest. From the smallest insects to the giant trees, the forest is teeming with life, much of which we can’t even see. That included some of the wildlife noisily watching us from a safe distance. What we did get to see were a very long trail of leaf cutter ants, hastily trudging along with plant material for their nests, and a lone howler monkey in the trees.
On day seven, after sailing all night, at times swaying from side to side, we navigated out of the gulf. Back into Pacific, and over to Campanario Biological Station on the Osa Peninsula we went. Campanario is a twenty-year old conservation project carved out of some of the most isolated parts of the country. It’s adjacent to Corcovado National Park, billed as of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
Groups were organized to take hikes of varying lengths around trails in the rainforest. Our trek was about a mile and a half, and took a good two hours to climb up and around the muddy slope of the rainforest. One of the interesting sights were the tiny, but very sharp thorns on the palm trees. One had to be very careful, and look closely before grabbing any tree trunks for support on the steep ascent and descent. The hike culminated in a beautiful waterfall, not far from the end of the trail.
After lunch, a number of passengers went to a nearby sand beach, where they walked to along the oceanfront. There were macaws in the trees, nice fauna to see, and a few horses that apparently escaped from a local hostel and found their way to the beach. Several vendors were selling coffee, jewelry, and other tchotchkes. Returning on the skiff was an adventure, due to the moderate chop. The evening activities included a lecture by the guest photographer, Peter West Carey, on with do’s and don’ts for making your trip’s slideshow. Peter has journeyed all over the world and his photographs are amazing. He was on the trip to help guests improve their photography skills. An example of Peter’s tips was to include pictures of other people taking photos.
The morning of day eight was spent at Vida Silvestre Curu National Refuge, where we went on a four mile hike in the rainforest. We saw a few birds, a coati (similar to a racoon), termites, and a king coral snake. Even the most innocuous walk can present some dangerous situations, as when one of the crew members got stung by some fruit bees. Lesson number two, if your hair is long, be sure to wear it tied back. The bees get confused, and can mistake your scalp for the way out. Much credit goes to the guides. They acted quickly, and deftly got the insects out of her hair.
The big payoff came near the very end, as we were walking along a car path when we caught sight of a spider monkey lounging in a tree. Moments later, someone in our entourage spotted, not one, but two male howler monkeys. It turns out they were leading their own group of females and infants on a trek through the preserve. The two males would carve a pathway from branch to branch, and tree to tree, followed by the rest of the pack. In addition, there were several white face monkeys hanging around the base camp, scavenging for food and other items they could get their paws on.
Peter put together a slideshow using photos from the ship’s passengers. There were some fabulous photos of the birds, plants, and animals we saw this week. People were paying attention to the on board lessons. The crew also delivered a colorful presentation with lots of candid shots from throughout the week.
In such an intimate setting, we met every single one of the passengers, and befriended many of the crew. They were dedicated, hardworking, and made a terrific effort to meet our needs. From the bartenders (very important) to the skiff crews, and the dining room attendants, they represented the UnCruise organization well. Even the ship’s captain was present on many occasions. I was impressed that no task was beneath him. He got just as wet or dirty as any of the crew doing their jobs. Our guides were knowledgeable, entertaining (especially Patrick), and very informative. I would not hesitate to undertake another adventure aboard one of the company’s vessels.
We saw numerous:
White Faced Capuchia Monkeys
Long nosed Coati
Blue footed booby
Mangrove Black Hawk
American Oyster Catcher
Turkey, Black, and King Vultures
Yellow Headed Cora Cora
Mangrove and Roufus Tailed Hummingbird
Clay Colored Thrush
Yellow Throated Toucan
Boat Billed Flycather