Private Journeys

Expedition cruise: Panama, the Canal and Costa Rica

16 days from £7,654pp

Panama / Costa Rica

Itinerary

map marker Map

Day 1

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

This thriving cosmopolitan metropolis sits at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. The city dates back to 1519 when it was a settlement base for transporting Peruvian gold back to Imperial Spain. Its subsequent wealth made it a frequent target for pirate raids. These days, soaring skyscrapers, sparkling banks and smart modern offices overshadow forts, Spanish convents and sumptuous French-style mansions, reminders of its colonial heyday.

You are staying in the historic heart of the city, Casco Viejo, your hotel is on the main square, the centre of cultural activity - music and dance events are frequent – and dominated by the baroque façade of the huge white cathedral. You are within easy reach of a grid of narrow streets lined with traditional Spanish colonial houses and mansions converted into trendy restaurants and bars. From your hotel you can easily stroll to the Cinta Costera, a 4km palm-fringed promenade tracing the shores of the Gulf of Panama to the modern business sector, a popular haunt of Panamanians at sunset or on the weekend.

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Day 2

Guided tour of Panama Viejo and Casco Viejo.

This morning you will visit the ruins of Old Panama City (Panama Viejo), the first city founded by Europeans on the Pacific coast of the Americas and the starting point of the Spanish trails which crossed the isthmus to the Caribbean. The city was attacked and looted by English pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Visit the Old Panama Museum, climb up the cathedral tower, and stroll among the stone walls and the remnants of what was once considered the richest city in the Americas.

Take a leisurely guided walking tour of this, the historic core of the city and, like Panama Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is home to the Presidential palace, the metropolitan cathedral, the national theatre, the French plaza and other landmarks which are a testament to the city's rich history, culture and heritage. From the top of old city's wall enjoy views of the Pacific Ocean dotted with fishing boats and the massive ships lined up waiting to cross the Panama Canal, with a backdrop of the skyline of modern Panama City.

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Day 3-4

Return to airport for briefing; transfer to port, embark Safari Voyager.

You’ll be driven back to the cruise company’s hospitality suite at the airport, where you will meet your fellow passengers and be given a briefing about the 13 day cruise to come. After a brief stop at Agua Clara Locks you will be welcomed by the crew as you board the Safari Voyager. Over dinner you will start to cruise along the Caribbean coast, heading east towards the San Blas Islands. (Guna Yala)

The archipelago hosts the indigenous culture of the Guna Yala indians, who have enjoyed autonomy since the 1920s. The string of 400 islands includes tiny islets with a just few coconut palms to over forty which are inhabited.

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Day 5

Meet the indians of Guna Yala.

The Guna Indians maintain a deeply traditional, communal lifestyle based at their bamboo, palm-thatched residences, surviving from fishing and agriculture. These peaceful people welcome sensitive visitors to their gorgeous palm-dotted beaches and you will meet some of them today.

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Day 6

San Lorenzo Fort; transit the Panama Canal.

The Chagres river was used by the Spanish conquistadors to move their gold across the Isthmus of Panama en route from Peru to Spain, then by the gold prospectors who attempted a short cut from the east coast of the USA to the gold fields of California.  Explore Fort San Lorenzo, on a cliff at the mouth of the river on the Atlantic side. The fort here was built by the Spaniards in the 16th century to defend the gold trail.

In the 1880s a French company began the construction of a canal to link the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans for shipping but the project suffered engineering problems and tropical disease. In 1903 the United States took over, completing it in 1914. It took over 75,000 workers to build and it will take you about eight hours to transit the 78km.  The Canal was handed back to Panama at the turn of the 21st century and now the bio-diverse jungle fastness along its banks is being protected and developed for eco-tourism.

Today the Safari Voyager ship will pass through it. She will negotiate three massive sets of locks, (each 350m long, 33.5m wide and 34m deep) which raise ships to the level of the vast artificial Lake Gatún, 26m above sea level, and then lower them again to sea level on the other side. It’s an extraordinary experience, one you are unlikely to enjoy anywhere else in your life.

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Day 7

Explore the remote Darien Province.

As the ship cruises south along the Pacific coast you are heading into an untamed wilderness: scantily populated territory so inaccessible as to be rarely visited by outsiders.The shores of Darien Province are hemmed by impenetrable rainforest which has frustrated explorers over the centuries. The Pan-American Highway, which runs from Mexico south to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, is interrupted here: the forest is just too dense and untameable. Even nowadays fewer than 1,000 tourists visit per year. Nevertheless, or maybe as a result, the province shelters one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.

There’s a bit of everything wild and wonderful here:  steaming swamps, vine-tangled streams, waterfalls, ravines and sand-splashed hidden coves defined by dark cliffs. You may spot tropical birds of the spoonbill, osprey, macaw, ibis, egret and hummingbird families, as well as racoons and monkeys.

Explore this pristine area in a motorised canoe, navigating through mangroves up the tidal Mogue river. Eventually you will reach a settlement of Emberá indians who resist modern civilisation but who will offer a warm welcome, sharing with you their stories, songs and dance. The people are deeply spiritual, with a long-established mythology, and practice natural medicine using forest products they harvest themselves. The villagers are skilled in basket weaving and carving techniques and you have the opportunity to buy their handicrafts.

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Day 8

Sail through the Pearl islands.

Today, back in the Pacific Ocean you reach the sparkly aquamarine waters lapping the Pearl Islands. The 200 island-strong archipelago, mostly uninhabited, owes its name to the abundance of pearl oysters which supported a substantial fishery in the early 1900s. Nowadays the sun-baked archipelago is famed for its squeaky-clean soft-sand beaches and gently waving palm trees.

Survival shows have been filmed here, adding a colourful contemporary page to the story of pirate refuge. Today, armed with your binoculars, you are offered a skiff tour of Bartolome Island’s bird sanctuary where you may spot, frigate birds, pelicans and yellow warblers. Later you can explore on your won – take out a kayak, paddle board or snorkel and discover the islands’ magic.

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Day 9

The Gulf of Panama.

A day for wildlife spotting: Safari Voyager will cruise through these diverse isles and atolls sprinkled across the Gulf of Panama, which is bursting with avian and marine mammal species. From mid-summer to early autumn the islands are visited by dolphins and humpback whales, so keep your eyes peeled for acrobatic spinning and tell-tale blow spouts.  Keep a look-out too for a silvery glint streaking across the water – it could be mobule rays taking flight.

Local guides will identify the creatures and enlighten you about their lifestyle and antics in special presentations, while the captain determines the best locations to maximise your chances of witnessing the dramas of this natural theatre.

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Days 10-11

Granito de Oro, Coiba National Park.

Travel further west tracing the Pacific coast to Coiba National Park, which comprises around fifty islands and islets. Also protected by park status is a large expanse of ocean brimming with marine life and including the second largest coral reef in the eastern Pacific. From June-Sept the park is on the migration route for four different whale species, including orcas (killer whales), and an amazing 33 species of shark.

Within the park the largest island is cultural interest: Isla de Coiba served as a penal colony for 85 years, housing some of the country’s most dangerous criminals – comparable with Alcatraz. Nowadays, the island is a UNESCO World Heritage site and mostly remains in an unspoiled natural state. White-faced monkeys swing through the trees while whales and hammerhead sharks lurk in the glassy waters lapping the shores. Inland the island is tightly forested, with over 2,000 plant species of which only half have been classified. You have the option of stretching your legs on one of the forest trails, maybe glimpsing howler monkeys, eagles, scarlet macaws or turtles.

Granito de Oro is a smaller island offshore with a beach and coral reef, one of the world’s top 10 diving sites. Here you can snorkel or take out a kayak.

Continue cruising, crossing into Costa Rican waters and heading towards Golfo Dulce.

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Day 12

Explore Golfo Dulce.

Golfo Dulce - ‘sweet gulf’ - separates the Osa peninsula, carpeted in lush tropical foliage, from the Costa Rican mainland. It is one of only four tropical fjords on the planet.  The gulf, and the shores which define it are famed for their prolific wildlife, and you will have the chance to witness plenty of it. Head into a botanical reserve exploding with colour: bromeliads, ginger plants and heliconias are visited by toucans, hummingbirds, monkeys and butterflies.  In addition to your walk, you will be able to discover the flora and fauna from a kayak or skiff, possibly accompanied by dolphins leaping through the waves.

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Day 13

Explore the Osa Conservation area, Corcovado National Park.

Sail into Bahia Drake, a crescent-shaped bay on the northern end of the Osa peninsula, itself is a conserved wilderness of abundant rainforest and wildlife. Reserves have been established throughout the lush region, notably Corcovado National Park. You’ll visit the park which shelters a whopping 2.5% of the entire planet’s biodiversity, exploring from a guided jungle hike. It is home to many species of mammals and reptiles, including all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species, tree frogs, ocelots, anteaters and tapirs. Caimans and crocodiles lurk watchful in the dark lagoons and the park is not short of exotic birds: look out for cackling macaws and 16 species of hummingbird while a rare harpy eagle may circle overhead.

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Day 14

Visit Curú National Wildlife Refuge.

The Safari Voyager heads northwest to the southeastern tip of the sparsely populated Nicoya Peninsula, a much drier and more open land mass than its southern counterpart. Curú is one of the smallest wildlife refuges in the country but no less impressive for its array of diverse wildlife. The reserve rises from three beaches perfect for swimming and embraces five different life-zones, including red mangrove swamps.  If you tread softly on your walk along the trails you may spot anything from deer to crocodiles, racoons to howler, spider and capuchin monkeys, leaf-cutter ants to snake-eating frogs.

An afternoon beach party offers up your final chance to swim and stroll along the shore. Back on board, there’s a farewell dinner followed ty a slide-show highlighting your adventures.

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Day 15

Disembark and transfer to San José International airport.

Connect with your international flight or consider an extension further to explore Costa Rica’s diverse landscapes or add on some beach time.  

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Real Latin America Experts

  • Hannah Waterhouse
    Hannah Waterhouse - Travel Consultant

    Hannah had an early introduction to Latin America when her family moved to Ecuador and she returned to study in Buenos Aires for a year before backpacking across the continent.

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    Paul Winrow-Giffin - Travel Consultant

    After graduating in Computer Science, Paul spent seven months travelling from Colombia to Argentina and came home hooked on Latin America.

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    Sophie lived in Chile before joining us and has travelled extensively across Latin America, from Mexico to the furthest tip of Patagonia.

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    Kathryn backpacked across Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru before joining us. She has a degree in Philosophy and French and is a keen netball player.

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    Having spent part of her childhood in Colombia and worked in Brazil and Costa Rica, Hannah's ties to Latin America run deep. Hannah is an invaluable part of our Group Tours team.

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    Lina Fuller - Travel Consultant

    Lina's passion for the continent where she was born really took off when she moved to Córdoba to study, spending the holidays travelling between Argentina and her native Colombia.

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