Our small expedition cruise ship has just slipped into Gatun Locks, and chef Joe Pienody is grilling shrimp for the passengers gathered on the sun deck of Safari Voyager.
It's always hot and humid in Panama in August, but the sun is beginning to drop along with the temperature, and we have perfect conditions to enjoy dinner while observing the choreographed activities in the lock chambers. Our vessel is being raised three levels to manmade Gatun Lake to continue its 48-mile journey from the Caribbean Sea across the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean.
Passengers munch their meals and sip beers and sangrias while wandering the 174-foot-long ship. Chatting excitedly, they watch ropes tossed and affixed to the mechanical "mules" that run on tracks flanking the locks. They'll keep the ship centered in the chamber. Safari Voyager is positioned behind a massive cargo ship as we move through.
Expedition guides mingle with passengers on Safari Voyager, answering questions as the last golden rays of the sun slip away. With UnCruise Adventures, the itinerary is always the main attraction, and we enjoy a full schedule that keeps us on the go in Panama and Costa Rica.
Before reaching the canal, we visit the village of the indigenous Embera Quera people and take a hike in the rainforest at UNESCO World Heritage site Fort San Lorenzo.
Now sailing, we sleep while moving through Gatun Lake. The next morning, we immerse ourselves in the wilderness.
Our group includes mostly those aged 50 and older, but a pair of teens are onboard, too. The 36 passengers -- the ship can accommodate 62 -- and 30 crew members quickly bond. I'm traveling with my wife, Colleen, and our stateroom is small. It's comfortable but built for function -- a place to store our stuff and get a restful night's sleep after days filled with action.
We spend our time playing in the waters or hiking in the jungles. At the secluded Granito de Oro, our group is alone to snorkel around the tiny island. We take skiff rides ashore and are greeted by thousands of hermit crabs that continuously crawl the sands. (They also nibble at our toes when we plop into loungers for a snack or beer break.)
I tug on a snorkel mask and fins and slip beneath the surface, entering a colorful underwater world. Hawksbill and green turtles lazily eat seagrass 35 feet below. We swim amid schools of fish before finishing our exhilarating lap around the island. Some head over to give the standup paddleboards a try. Others keep snorkeling. I make a beeline to the stocked cooler, bringing back an armful of beers and passing them around. A group of us enjoy the beverages while soaking just off shore. Everyone's convinced this is paradise.
Liddy and Gregg Hora wanted to cruise in Panama to see the canal as well as enjoy the outdoor activities. Liddy says seeing turtles, fish and coral reefs is a thrill for the Fort Dodge, Iowa, couple because it's an experience they don't get at home.
Sightings of dolphins and breeching humpback whales are a daily occurrence while we sail in bays and inlets. Crew and passengers keep eyes trained on the waters and call out when creatures are spotted. The expedition guides are native Costa Ricans and have been to each of our stops many times, but their enthusiasm for nature and conservation is genuine. They expertly lead us ashore and point out the sloths, howler monkeys and other creatures and plants that call the rainforest home.
On Safari Voyager, your cruise fare includes one 30-minute massage for each passenger, as well as drinks and a fantastic menu that features a creative mix of familiar cuisine and regional specialties like ropa vieja and fresh fish. The crowd gathers each afternoon for a drink of the day and fresh-made cookies.
Colleen and I rise the final day onboard to see storm clouds overhead. We ditch the daily morning yoga session on the sun deck, grab breakfast and get ready for our last hike. The heavy rains make trails muddy in the Osa Conservation Area, and streams of water rush past as expedition guide Erika leads our group. Animals hide from the storm, and the only sound is the slosh of our shoes and steady rhythm of the rain hitting the lush forest canopy.
"I never thought I'd have so much fun hiking in a rainstorm," Colleen says.
The rains pass, and we make our way along the final stretch toward a rushing waterfall to snap a group photo. A tribe of capuchin monkeys scrambles overhead, and we all pause to check them out. We never know what the days will bring during this adventure; we just know that we're not likely to be disappointed.
Life Off the Grid with the Embera Quera People of Panama
Modernity quickly fades as we venture up narrow Gatun River -- with a quick stop to watch a spider monkey put on a thrilling show swinging from tree branches that hang just feet from our boat (our first monkey of the trip!).
UnCruise Adventures is bringing is to the Embera Quera village, and the indigenous people of Panama warmly welcome us ashore. Women, men and children wear colorful beads, flowers and skirts. Their faces and bodies display lovely tribal tattoos. The Embera people sell crafts and host visitors to support their community of about 50. They consider themselves a large family, and they treat visitors as the same. We are all overjoyed to learn about their simple lifestyle.
Children scamper about with dogs on neatly swept dirt floors. A feisty toucan roams the main building, where we take seats to hear a young lady talk about the community. Afterward, we are asked to join in singing and dancing with our hosts and are offered a snack of fish served on a large banana leaf. We shop for hand-crafted items, and I pick a carving of two sloths. Too quickly, it's time to go, and I envy the serenity these people seem to have found off the grid.
-- John Roberts
Ship: UnCruise Adventures Safari Voyager (62 passengers max capacity)
Itinerary: Unveiled Wonders: Costa Rica and Panama Canal, 8 nights
Journey: Panama City, Panama to San Jose, Costa Rica (or reverse)
Price: From $4,395 per person (based on double occupancy)
A Look Back and What's Ahead for Panama and Costa Rica
What was the feedback from guests on how they enjoyed your "Pure Panama" and "Unveiled Wonders" cruises after your first full season? The response from guests who've taken the trip has been great. As expected, the Panama Canal gets a lot of play prior to the trip but is rarely mentioned as the highlight after the trip. Most people find that Panama is so wild and free outside of the canal zone that they are often a little surprised. The two native groups we work with in Panama create a lot of positive vibes with the guests. The Darien and Guna Yala/San Blas areas are big memory-makers and are top items for our guests along with amazement at the early Spanish and pirate history nearby or underfoot.
Did it go as you had expected? The route and experiences have been over the top and second only to Alaska in my mind, but so different they are hard to compare. Pure Panama was an instant hit from a guest satisfaction level and has far exceeded our expectations . . . that goes for the crew too. The main takeaway is culture and clear warm water. So yes, it did go as expected. However, we are realizing two things: One, guests want more time in the area, and two, they prefer Costa Rica and Panama together on a longer trip. We are working on developing 10- and 12-night Costa Rica and Panama combination trips.