Pacific Coast Explorer

Discovering nature in remote Central America aboard Cruise West

By: Fran Golden

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Zodiac landings are a daily routine for
passengers on the Pacific Explorer.
It was the banana the monkey was interested in, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the long fingers of her dark hands as she reached for her treat. I was holding the monkey at Canas Blancas animal sanctuary on the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf) of Costa Rica, and it felt an awful lot like I was holding a toddler. I even found myself rocking the animal on my hip. I had come here to get up close with nature and this was about as close as a person can get.

My exploration of the remote Pacific coasts of Costa Rica and Panama took place aboard Cruise West’s 100-passenger expedition ship, Pacific Explorer.

The ship took us mostly to places where we did not come across any other tourists. We also encountered few roads in these isolated parts. But there were howler monkeys, their cry deep and threatening, and white-faced capuchin monkeys swinging from trees. We saw tree sloths that looked like women’s wigs, their hairy bodies high in trees, bright red macaws and toucans with yellow beaks.

We kept our binoculars always at the ready.

Aboard the ship, our routine was quickly established. We cruised mostly at night because the seas were sometimes rough, and rocking in bed felt a lot better than trying to maintain our balance while standing.

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A monkey enjoys the Pacific Explorer’s kayaks.
During the day, we hiked. Most of the treks were of the easy variety. At each stop we used inflatable Zodiac rafts to get to shore clumsy to get in and out of at first, but by the end of the trip, throwing our legs over the side seemed routine.

Mud and wet was a factor in our exploration not surprising since we spent a lot of time in rainforests. The crew has developed a quirky system to deal with muddy, wet shoes: You leave them on deck where they are washed down with a hose and then taken to the engine room to dry.

We found that simplicity was the order of the day in a place with no Internet access, no CNN, no stores or even restaurants. The one exception was in Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park, which has a small tourist town nearby. Those of us who wanted to test our Spanish by ordering cervezas (beer) walked over there after our hike.

One day, we were the only humans on a tiny island in Panama’s Coiba National Park, home to the richest waters in Central America. Our naturalist guides led snorkeling tours with sightings that included sea turtles and reef sharks and tiny biting jellyfish.

After bringing down kayaks from the ship, a friend and I paddled around the island a couple of times before settling into one of the canvas chairs the crew had set up along the pretty, sandy beach. Later dolphins and a pair of whales were spotted off the ship, and the captain maneuvered the vessel to give everyone a view.

The most remote stop on our itinerary was in the Darien Jungle, the huge protected forest that runs from Panama to Columbia. Here we visited an Embera village where 100 people or so live a traditional rainforest lifestyle complete with huts on stilts and limited electricity. This wasn’t a tourist place where they turn on satellite TV when visitors leave, but the real thing. The Pacific Explorer is the only ship to visit and the villagers otherwise subsist mostly on fishing and hunting with bows and arrows.

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Embera children in Panama’s Darien Jungle
The villagers greeted us on a beach, the women clothed only in skirts and beads; the men in loincloths. All had tattoos. Machine-gun-armed Panamanian guards patrolled nearby, keeping an eye out for drug smugglers who are known to pass through the jungle.

The chief greeted us in Embera, which was translated by a tribe member into Spanish and then by a crew member into English.

“The community of Embera people are happy to see you arrive here,” he pronounced.

Dancing ensued to live music drums and wooden flutes the dancers more shy than exuberant as they moved their feet to the beat, inviting passengers to join in. An impromptu market followed, with the natives selling handmade baskets and carved wood creations for U.S. dollars (the money is used mostly to support education).

The next day it was time for something completely different. We found ourselves at the man-made wonder that is the Panama Canal. After visiting the excellent Miraflores Locks Visitor Center and watching a big Princess Cruises vessel slowly traverse the lock, we boarded a small boat, the Isla Morada, once owned by Al Capone (who used it to smuggle booze in the Great Lakes) for our own partial crossing.

In a 1,000-foot lock we were lowered to the next level, watching the gates open to allow a rush of water into the chamber at 3 million gallons per minute. I contemplated the fascinating engineering feat, but my mind kept wandering back to the monkeys and my time spent away from civilization.


The Pacific Explorer is the only ship in the Cruise West fleet not owned by Cruise West it is owned by Costa Rica-based Temptress Cruises. As expedition ships go, it’s a comfortable, casual ship with several public rooms decorated in nice, tropical colonial furnishings. Cabins are tight but have attractive dark-wood cabinets and twin- or queen-sized beds. The small bathrooms have corner showers. Deluxe cabins (there are four) offer more space and the addition of a sofa bed that can sleep a third passenger. All cabins boast picture windows you can open. The problem is most on our cruise were stuck. And there were other minor faults, including a shortage of hot water for showers.

Most meals were served in the open-seating dining room with Costa Rican dishes including rice and beans appearing on menus along with such international favorites as grilled fish and beef tenderloin. Dinner is a four-course affair. Highlights included the three deck-side buffets, featuring paella and gazpacho, grilled chicken and chorizo sausage, among other dishes. The Costa Rican and Panamanian crew was always friendly but not always prompt with service requests. The ship is most appropriate for those who want to see nature and can get beyond minor inconveniences. One passenger enthused that the experience was like “summer camp for grown-ups,” and that attitude seems about right.

Particularly impressive was the presence of four naturalist guides, each with his own specialty. Their enthusiasm was contagious as they recapped each day’s finds at a nightly cocktail party in the ship’s pleasant, open-air lounge.

The ship also has a resident massage therapist offering inexpensive massages and early morning yoga classes a rarity on this type of small vessel.


The Pacific Explorer offers nine-night itineraries, November through April, between Los Suenos, Costa Rica, and Colon, Panama (including a pre- or post-cruise overnight at the Courtyard by Marriott in San Jose, Costa Rica). The ship visits Manuel Antonio National Park, Caletas Beach and the Golfo Dulce in Costa Rica, and Coiba National Park, the Darien Jungle, the Panama Canal (partial crossing), Portobelo and the San Blas Islands in Panama. Cruise-only fares begin at $3,799. Fares include most excursions and soft drinks (alcohol is extra).

The March 26 and Dec. 8 cruises are designated Pentax Photography cruises featuring photo workshops and field trips led by a Pentax photographer.