Not Your Average Panama Canal Cruise
A Panama Canal cruise is on many people’s bucket lists. Sailing through the world-famous canal is a dream come true for a lot of travelers and we are no exception.
We couldn’t wait to spend time traveling through one of the seven wonders of the modern world. We had been to Panama before and watched the ships go through the Panama Canal, but now, we were the ones on board being watched by spectators.
UnCruise Panama to Costa Rica
Taking an UnCruise is not your normal everyday cruise. It is a small ship expedition to private islands, untouched beaches, and off the beaten path destinations.
We had 10 days of adventure in search of wildlife, immersing in the culture, and enjoying extraordinary scenery.
With only 40 passengers on our itinerary, we made new friends and shared travel stories with like-minded people who enjoy seeking something different when booking a vacation.
Our fellow passengers are what make the trips so much fun, and we have left both our UnCruise expeditions with fond memories of the people we met and will never forget.
An UnCruise might have a higher price-point than an average cruise, but when you factor in that everything (including excursions and alcohol) is included, it ends up being a great deal.
The moment we board the ship, we don’t have to worry about a thing. All we have to do is choose which activity we want to do each day when expedition leader Meagan asks us at dinner.
Every day we have a choice to go out exploring on skiff boats (zodiacs), kayaking, or hiking.
There’s even paddle boarding, snorkeling, presentations, and stretch classes on the menu each day as well.
All About The UnCruise Panama to Costa Rica Experience
The Panama to Costa Rica UnCruise takes us from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean and is broken down into two parts.
- Panama – begins at the Canal and then we travel to the Pacific Coast where we spend time in and on the water. As our guides said, “Panama is all about being on and in the water and enjoying beach life.”
- Costa Rica – is more land focused with visits to private gardens and houses and where we hike in search of wildlife.
Our journey begins in Panama City, a modern metropolis that will completely surprise and delight.
Panama City is a fun place to explore for a day or two and UnCruise offers pre-cruise tours if you want to make the most of your trip.
We joined the pre-trip excursion at it was a great way to see the highlights of the city with a local guide.
Read More About our Uncruise Adventures
If you decide to take a Panama cruise, be sure to spend some time in Panama City, it is a fascinating blend of old and new!
We met up with the rest of the passengers at the Bristol Hotel where we board our bus to begin our adventure.
Before getting on the ship, we pop in at Aguas Clara.
Aguas Clara is an expansion of the Panama Canal to allow larger ships to sail through. It sits on Gatun Lake which is an excellent spot for wildlife watching in Panama.
As a matter of fact, there is a walking trail in Aguas Clara that goes through the rainforest so visitors can search for sloths, toucans, and monkeys.
It is exciting to watch the ships go through knowing that we’ll be on the Canal in another 24 hours.
We spend the night on the ship and the following morning we take an excursion to Fort San Lorenzo while we wait for our time slot on the canal.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site was built by the Spaniards in the 1500s as a military fort.
It’s a beautiful setting overlooking the Chagres River and the Pacific Ocean.
It is an interesting stop, but what I find even more interesting is where our ship was parked. We take our zodiacs from our ship, The Safari Voyager through what looks like a “boat graveyard.”
Many abandoned ships are scattered throughout the bay forever waiting their turn to go through the Panama Canal.
We are told that the shipping companies ran out of money or broke down before going through the locks, so they are stuck sitting in the sea awaiting a slow death.
Today, ships must have insurance to be able to cover the salvage costs.
The time has finally come and by 2 pm, we are heading to the Panama Canal.
It is fascinating to see how much work goes into entering the locks. A tug boat guides us in, but not before at least a dozen men hop off of it onto our ship.
They are there to throw and secure the lines that attached to little trains (known as mules) that drive on either side of the canal guiding the ship from the shore.
When going through the Panama Canal, the captain’s duties are taken over by the Panama Canal Authority pilot who communicates with the mules and men guiding the lines.
It takes hours to go through the Canal, Lake Gatun and then the final locks. We are sailing on the Pacific Ocean 8 hours later and are fast asleep in our beds before we even leave the Panama Canal.
But we are grateful that we had an afternoon passage and could see all of the inner workings of the canal before turning in for the night.
Panama Pacific Coast
We awoke bright and early for morning stretch class on deck with our expedition leader Megan. What a great way to start the day!
Dave and I enjoy cappuccinos in the lounge at early bird breakfast and then join everyone in the dining room for a hearty buffet.
Dining is communal and you can choose to sit with a group or on your own. We love how quickly everyone bonds on an UnCruise and soon we were all enjoying our meals like one big happy family.
It is then out on the skiffs to explore the coast and the Pearl Islands. This is a highlight of our trip.
It feels like a mini Galapagos excursion as we spy on Blue Footed Boobies, Cormorants, frigate birds and enormous flocks of pelicans.
The rocky coast is perfect for bird watching and we get our fill as our skilled skiff pilot Minor navigates through rocky outcrops while our guide Carlos informs us of the wildlife.
We take many skiff excursions along the Panama coast in search of wildlife, but something we didn’t anticipate was all the beach time.
Beaches and Watersports
We board skiffs and are dropped off at secluded beaches nearly every day where we are free to snorkel, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or simply enjoy the refreshments brought along by the staff.
Beer, water, and juice await us onshore.
Dave and I take advantage of kayaking and paddle boarding before popping a cold one as we lounged in the chairs.
Snorkeling in Panama
It takes a few days before we have our first guided snorkeling tour. If you aren’t comfortable in the water, skiffs carry floating noodles and PFD’s (personal floatation devices) to help you out in the water.
Nobody judges anyone’s skills as we are all there to have a good time. And a good time we have indeed!
Our favorite snorkeling spot is at the picturesque island of Granito de Oro in Coiba National Park.
This little piece of land in the middle of the sea is straight out of Gilligan’s Island. We set up here for the day with the usual toys of kayaks, paddleboards, and refreshments on hand.
We then joined a guide to take us around the island exploring the reef.
It is so exciting to spot a sea turtle feeding. There are a couple of sea turtles hanging out offshore, but it is the turtle shoving food into his mouth with his fins that captured our attention.
As we swim on, we see a white-tipped reef shark came out just long enough to show off its swimming skills as it loops around a reef.
The next thing we know, an ell pokes its head out to say hello as schools of colorful fish look like a rainbow before our eyes.
I’m glad we got in the water on this island because it was the best snorkeling of the trip!
One of the best things about travel is experiencing other cultures.
A highlight of this trip is going deep into the Darien Jungle to visit the Embera Tribe of Panama.
This joyful tribe welcomes us with smiles and dancing. They pick us up from our ship in traditional dugout canoes taking us through a river filled with birdlife to the village.
We learn of their customs, dance with the villagers and buy some of their prized handmade crafts.
Dave and I just bought a house and can’t wait to hang the masks on our wall.
At times I worry about this type of cultural tourism, but it was clear that the Embera people welcome our arrival and earn a living off of our presence.
Something I loved was how each handcraft was labeled with a price and there was no negotiation. They know their value and charge accordingly.
As we sail the open waters to Costa Rica, bottlenose dolphins welcome us to their home.
It is the first time we have the entire ship out on deck as we all “ooh and ah” over the railings watching the dolphins play in our wake.
We are ready for serious wildlife spotting, and if the dolphins are any sign of what is to come, we are going to get it!
Costa Rica is known for its birds and all Dave and I really wanted to see was a toucan.
Lucky for us our first river excursion in Costa Rica presents a couple of toucans in plain sight.
We could have spent a lot longer on the skiffs searching for wildlife. It seems that we are just getting started and have to go back.
We are dropped off at a couple of different private gardens on the Costa Rica coast and get to spend a couple of hours strolling the grounds.
But Dave and I instead, find a hammock and enjoy out with a fresh cold one.
What we really want to do is search for sloths, macaws, and monkeys, but it is too hot even for them at this time of day, so we do as the wildlife does, chill out in the shade.
Our final day truly gives us the best wildlife experience of the trip. We awake early to join the bird watching tour at the Curu National Wildlife Refuge.
Dave and I had yet to see a sloth or monkey and were feeling quite jealous of the day hikers that spotted a sloth just 10 minutes into their hike. If only the would have called us on the radio to join them.
While we never did see our sloth, we did get our fill of howler and spider monkeys, iguanas and white-nosed coatimundis.
We could have spent the entire day at the refuge spending quiet moments on the trail searching for more wildlife, but alas, we only had the morning and are back on board to the next location.
All good things must come to an end.
As we sip wine in the lounge reminiscing about the cruise with our fellow passengers felt privileged to be on board with such great people.
It was a memorable trip filled with memorable people.
UnCruisers are adventure seekers who love to have a good time. We all laughed and bonded together creating memories that will last a lifetime.
We can’t wait for our next adventure.
Check out our video of UnCruise from Panama to Costa Rica to see what it’s like!
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