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Expedition cruise: Panama, the Canal and Costa Rica

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Board your small, intimate vessel for an 11-day expedition-style cruise to discover the natural landscapes, wildlife and indigenous cultures of the  Pacific coasts of tropical  Costa Rica and Panama. Your US-owned cruise operator puts the accent on exploring sensitively some of the most exquisite and fragile environments of Central America, while making sure you have a diverse range of experiences and activities. You'll have plenty of fun and relaxation while learning so much about the carefully selected places on your itinerary. You’ll soon get to know your fellow travellers, representing a mix of ages and passions, and your well-informed crew are always on hand.

Having boarded your 62-guest cruise vessel, Safari Voyager, you will visit a number of sparsely populated archipelagos, where crystal clear waters stroke coral beaches fringed by rainforest. There are plenty of opportunities to go wildlife spotting, with hikes, snorkelling, kayaking and paddle-boarding all on offer and you will meet the indigenous inhabitants of Darien Province, the most remote region in the Americas, inaccessible by road. In the evenings you will be able to mix in a sociable environment with passengers and crew, watching the world go by through huge picture windows, a cocktail in your hand.The cruise ends after you sail through the Panama Canal, definitely one of the highlights of the trip, and disembark in Panama City, one of the most diverse metropolises in Latin America with a gorgeous historic core.

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Arrive at San José International airport, transfer to hotel.

Day 2

Guided tour to coffee finca, Poas Volcano and the La Paz Waterfall Park

Day 3

Transfer to the Pacific coast, embark Safari Voyager.

Day 4

Visit Curú National Wildlife Refuge.

Day 5

Explore the Osa Conservation area, Corcovado National Park.

Day 6

Explore Golfo Dulce.

Days 10,11

Granito de Oro, Coiba National Park.

Day 9

The Gulf of Panama.

Day 10

Explore the remote Darien Province.

Day 11

Sail through the Pearl islands, transit the Panama Canal.

Day 12

San Lorenzo Fort

Day 13

Arrive Panama City, transfer to hotel in the old quarter.

Day 2

Guided tour of Panama Viejo and Casco Viejo.

Day 15

Transfer to airport for international flight.

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What our experts say

Uncruise's informal expedition voyages along the coast of Costa Rica and Panama, as well as through Mexico's Sea of Cortez, offer an adventurous opportunity to observe exotic wildlife and explore little-trodden nature reserves whose only easy access is by sea. See my blog for further details of this wonderful opportunity!

Claire Milner

Claire Milner

Product and Marketing

Places visited on this holiday

Expedition cruise: Panama, the Canal and Costa Rica

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San Jose, central highlands and central valleys
Central San José
Costa Rica’s busy capital, San José, is a city on the move, where the choking traffic and crowds are mitigated by the eager friendliness of the people. There are some good museums and excellent restaurants but no colonial core: it’s a modern place, full of offices, North American style bars and malls - many US citizens visit or are resident in the country and their cultural influence is strong. The landscapes around however are delicious, both in the rolling coffee country of the highlands and in the fertile central valley, watched over by the smouldering Poás and Irazú volcanoes.
When's the best time to go to San Jose and central highlands?

If good weather is your priority, choose the dry season Dec - Apr when there is plenty of sun. The green (i.e. rainy) season is quieter in terms of number of visitors. San José, at 1,150m, has a pleasant climate with temperatures averaging 15-25°C.

What's the official language of San Jose and central highlands?

Spanish.

How do I get local currency in San Jose and central highlands?

Colón. Notes can be withdrawn from the many ATMs using a UK credit or debit card. You may have to authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited to amounts lower than in the UK. US dollars cash can be exchanged in banks too.

What's the time difference between San Jose and central highlands?

GMT -5 hours.

What places combine well with San Jose and central highlands?

A visit to the Caribbean or Pacific coasts for a beach wind down; Arenal, in the north, the most spectacular volcano; Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, for excellent bird watching. There are light aircraft flights from San José airport to many destinations. Costa Rica is a tiny country so road journeys, even winding ones through the highlands, are relatively short. Some roads are in good condition while others are poor and  require 4WD vehicles

How do I get to San Jose and central highlands?

There is a direct flight from London Gatwick to San José (11 hrs) as well as non-direct flights via US and European hubs.

What are the cultural events in San Jose and central highlands?
International Arts Festival: San José, Mar. Music, dance, film art exhibitions.
Independence Day: San José, 15 Sep. music and dancing in the streets starting the evening before.
El Tope: San José, 26 Dec. A horse parade through the city is followed by fairs, fireworks and bull-running south of the city.

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Nicoya Peninsula
Nicoya Peninsula
Across the Golfo de Nicoya from the dry, cattle-ranch lands of isolated Guancacaste province, the bulky Nicoya Peninsula hangs over the Pacific Ocean. Equally denuded of forest as the adjoining mainland, it is culturally and physically cut off from the rest of the country: inland, dotted with small, modest towns far removed from the beach resorts on the bay-pocked coastline. Here, the road network – mostly unpaved - is scanty at best and many visitors use the airstrips dotted along the coastline to arrive by plane. Tamarindo, where the beaches are attacked by crashing Pacific rollers, is the focal point for tourist infrastructure.
When's the best time to visit Nicoya Peninsula?

For a beach wind-down good weather is a priority, so most visits are in the dry season Dec - Apr when there is plenty of sun. It’s hot all year round (often over 30°C). The busy times for visitors are the dry season months, especially weekends and Easter week. The green (i.e. rainy) season is much quieter.

What's the official language of Nicoya Peninsula?

Spanish.

How do I get local currency in Nicoya Peninsula?

Colón. Notes can be withdrawn from ATMs in San José using a UK credit or debit card. You may have to authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited to amounts lower than in the UK. US dollars cash can be exchanged in banks too. There’s an ATM in Tamarindo, but stock up with your local currency needs before travelling to the Nicoya Peninsula.

What's the time difference between Nicoya Peninsula and UK?

GMT -5 hours.  

What places combine well with Nicoya Peninsula?
Anywhere in Costa Rica, since you depart from or return to San José by air. Arenal, in the north, the most spectacular volcano; Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, for excellent bird watching; Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast for wildlife turtle watching. Costa Rica is a tiny country so road journeys, even winding ones through the highlands, are relatively short. Some roads are in good condition while others require 4WD vehicles.
How do I get to Nicoya Peninsula?

By light aircraft from San José to the beach resorts at Tamarindo, Nosara, Sámara and Tambor. Flights take less than one hour. Road transfers between the beaches tends to be arduous and only possible by 4WD vehicles.

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Pacific coast
PAcif
The Pacific coast, unlike the sheltered volcanic beaches of the Caribbean, is lashed by foaming Pacific waves, much beloved by surfers.  The wide golden beaches are extremely beautiful, made more so by the shade of the tropical vegetation and coconut groves which tumble down to and fringe them.

Halfway down the coast is Manuel Antonio National Park, a tropical fairy-land of palms, creepers and mangrove swamps, where monkeys scamper down to the sweep of ochre beach at sunset. Hotels and other properties punctuate the hills beyond and sit along the shoreline that leads to the protected national park. There’s also a growing resort complex at Herradura.
When's the best time to visit Pacific coast of Costa Rica?

To enjoy the beaches, good weather is a priority so most visits are in the dry season Dec - Apr when there is plenty of sun. It’s hot all year round (average temperatures range from 22-25°C, rather higher in the dry season). The busy times for visitors are the dry season months, especially weekends and Easter week. The green (i.e. rainy) season is much quieter.

What's the official language of Pacific coast of Costa Rica?

Spanish.

How do I get local currency on Pacific coast of Costa Rica?

Colón. Notes can be withdrawn from ATMs in San José using a UK credit or debit card. You may have to authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited to amounts lower than in the UK. US dollars cash can be exchanged in banks too. There are ATMs in Quepos, but stock up with your local currency needs before travelling to Manuel Antonio.

What's the time difference between Pacific coast of Costa Rica?

GMT -5 hours

What places combine well with Pacific coast of Costa Rica?

By light aircraft from San José to Quepos, from where it is a 30mins road journey over the cliffs to Manuel Antonio. Flights take less than one hour. By road, the journey to Manuel Antonio from San José takes about 2.5 hours.

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Azuero Peninsula and Pacific coast
The Pacific coast of Panama is a relatively wild region as yet little visited by tourists but no doubt that will change as condos, hotels and second homes are encroaching on what were pristine shores. The beaches around Boca Chica promise excellent surfing. Just 50km offshore, the Pearl Islands compose an archipelago of over 100 tiny islands, mainly uninhabited. Traditionally popular with anglers in search of Pacific mackerel, red snapper and marlin these islands have grown in popularity due to the crystal clear water, stunning beaches, good diving and sailing.

Panamanians refer to the Azuero Peninsula as the ‘heartland’ of their country, with its mix of indigenous heritage, vibrant contemporary Spanish-inspired culture and cattle-raising. The region certainly sits slap bang in the centre of the country, on the Pacific side, and as such is often overlooked by those visiting the capital, canal or highlands of the west.

The Azuero has a rich history dating back to pre-Columbian indigenous groups, as testified by the many artifacts and ceremonial sites uncovered by archaeologists. Pottery discovered here is among the most intricate of all pre-Columbian craft, with brightly coloured bird and reptile designs. The indians did not survive the Spanish invasion though, and nowadays there is a distinctly Hispanic tradition, which is best observed in the region’s festivals and colonial architecture. The city of Chitre, the peninsula’s largest, hosts a number of important and popular fiestas, notably at Carnival. The historic villages of Parita and Las Minas are worth a visit, as is the Sarigua National Park, which has an important archaeological site but which is now almost a desert following the decimation of its forests.

The Pacific coast tends to be drier than other parts of the country, but its remote beaches are some of the best in Panama.

The Azuero Peninsula can be added to any Panama holiday or makes a great cultural addition when visiting neighboring countries. For an example itinerary see the Panama's Cultural Heartland - The Azuero Peninsula extension to our Signature Panama: Canal, Wildlife and Beach holiday.  

Combines with

Panama City and the canal region (6hrs’ drive), a few days at a rural retreat in Boquete ( 5-6 hrs scenic drive) with a visit to a coffee farm; Boca Chica – 3hrs’ drive  to the west along a scenic road on the Pacific coast - the gateway to the Gulf of Chiriquí Marine National Park with its many luxuriant green islands, palm-tree-fringed white beaches and a variety of wildlife.

Getting local currency

The national currency, the balboa, is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There’s an ATM in Chitre where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the UK, and amounts may be limited. You are best advised to acquire dollar bills before travelling to the province. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations.

Getting there

At the moment (2015) there are no domestic flights by light aircraft from Panama City to Chitre although there is a usable airstrip there;  by road it’s a journey of about 3hrs.

Key events

Chitre: Carnival (Mardi Gras) with dancing and water flights; Fiesta de San Juan Batista, patron saint of Chitre, 24 June with bullfights (no killing); city foundation 19 October, with parades and costumes.
Parita: Corpus Christi, with masked dancers;
Ocu: Festival de Manito, August, a 3 day festival dedicated to the maintaining the region’s traditional cultures, with folklore groups; Festival of saint Sebastian, Ocu’s patron saint, January 20-23 approx, with folklore programmes and an agricultural fair.  

Language

Spanish, English and native tongues.

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs. 

When to go

Situated within the tropics, the peninsula has a balmy climate with high temperatures (over 30°C) all year round. Although there is plenty of sun the drier months  tend to be Feb-Mar and Sep-Oct. The region lies outside the main hurricane belt. 

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Panama Canal and Soberania National Park
Panama Canal

Panama is a fascinating country but the main draw for visitors is undoubtedly the 77 km Panama Canal linking the Pacific with the Caribbean. This colossal project was completed in 1914 and since then has transformed shipping routes world-wide. In addition to being crucial to international trade it is now a worthwhile tourist attraction. Soberanía National Park fringes the eastern banks of the immense artificial Lake Gatún alongside the canal and is blanketed with a dripping rainforest which explodes with vivacious wildlife, especially tropical birds. The Canal Zone also hosts hiking trails and a railway – the trails were built to transport looted gold - between Panama City and Colón on the Caribbean on mules; the railway was built to aid construction of the canal.

When to go

Panama’s Canal Zone and the rainforest have a typical tropical climate with high temperatures (over 30°C) all year round. May-Nov is rainy season and the flowering months are Apr-May. The region lies outside the main hurricane belt.

Language

Spanish

Getting local currency

Balboa. The national currency is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There are a few ATMs in Panama City where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the UK, amounts may be limited, and vary from bank to bank. Notes can be obtained from exchange houses and also from banks which will supply advances on a debit or credit card. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations.

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs.

Combines with

A few days in multi-cultured Panama City, with its history of plundered gold, pirates, and international trade;  Portobelo, east of the Canal at the Caribbean end, a town built on a beautiful bay which much impressed Christopher Columbus who landed there. Its history of pirates and pillage is manifested in its ruined forts and the sunken galleons in the bay, a popular spot for divers.

Getting there

The southern, Pacific end of the Panama Canal is 15 km (20 mins by road) west of Panama City. Soberanía National Park is 28 km from the capital, a drive of 30 mins.

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Panama City
Panama City

Panama City is more cosmopolitan than Latin, and enjoys a strategic position which has led to an eventful history, with immigrants arriving from all over the world. On the Pacific coast Panama la Vieja, the first Spanish colonial site of the city and a conduit for plundered gold and oriental silks and spices was sacked by pirates and abandoned. The city moved to what is now known as Casco Viejo where vestiges of colonial streets and buildings have been restored, cocktail bars and trendy restaurants have opened and a lively cultural hub has been established. The sky-scraper filled modern city, hub of commerce and international trade linked to the Panama Canal is an energetic quarter buzzing with shopping malls, sophisticated restaurants and entertainment. Away from the bustle along the Pacific coast, you’ll find relaxed resort hotels with a multitude of activities.

When to go

Situated well within the tropics, Panama City has a typical tropical climate with high temperatures (over 30°C) all year round. May-Nov is rainy season. The city lies outside the main hurricane belt.

Language

Spanish

Getting local currency

Balboa. The national currency is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There are a few ATMs in the city where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the UK, amounts may be limited, and vary from bank to bank. Notes can be obtained from exchange houses and also from banks which will supply advances on a debit or credit card. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations. 

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs.

Combines with

 A couple of days staying in Soberanía National Park, where residents include a large variety of mammals, amphibians and reptiles, as well as a profusion of bird species.

Getting there

There are flights via US and European hubs, the journey from London takes around taking around 13 hours.

Key events
Carnival, Feb-Mar. is celebrated with much gusto in Panama City: costumed revelry, music and dancing culminate in a big Shrove Tuesday parade.
Semana Santa, Easter. Celebrated with religious processions. 
Independence Day, 4 Nov. A huge parade through the old city. 

Speak to an expert Travel Consultant or send us your enquiry today.

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