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
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
A monkey enjoys the Pacific Explorer’s
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.
Embera children in Panama’s Darien
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
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
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.