Panama Canal Upstaged

Cruise West passengers enchanted by jungle wildlife in Central America

By: Anne Z. Cooke

It’s not often that the Panama Canal gets second billing. But the Big Ditch is upstaged by monkeys and lizards on Cruise West’s seven- to 10-day cruises in Panama and Costa Rica.

The 100-passenger Pacific Explorer, a coastal steamer built to sail in Central America’s narrow inlets and along shallow reefs, used to be a ship-for-hire doing charter cruises for groups. Now, with Cruise West at the helm, the ship’s recharged shore excursions regularly outshine the canal transit.

When Stacy Hug, program coordinator on our recent 10-day cruise, asked for a show of hands, most passengers said they’d picked the cruise for the canal transit. But by the trip’s last day, they said it was the wildlife they loved, and the people, especially the ship’s crew, they’d remember.

Neither the canal nor Costa Rica is a new destination. But the Pacific Explorer goes to places that the current generation of large cruise ships can’t, into little coves and bays, to tiny islands, remote beaches and native villages.

On all excursions, the ship’s Zodiac rafts ferried us from the docking lip on the ship’s stern to the beach. There we could swim or sunbathe, or pick from a choice of nature walks and hikes, each led by one of the ship’s three naturalists.

Time to Explore, Relax

When the sea was calm, the more energetic passengers headed on in kayaks, paddling up nearby rivers or along the beach. On the islet of Granita d’Oro, we spent the day on a white sand beach, sunning and snorkeling. At Corcovado National Park, we anchored offshore and hiked through the rain forest.

Some excursions were “jungle cruises” in search of the howler monkeys, iguanas, lizards, snakes and birds that live along inland rivers. The national parks both in Costa Rica and Panama are a paradise for wildlife, including about 300 species of resident and migrating birds. The birders on our trip brought binoculars. But the ship provided loaner pairs for those of us without.

Costa Rican Friendships

Because the onboard naturalists are Costa Rican, they’ve been able to find and arrange unusual shore tours. The result has been some genuine friendships with local people, who extend the same courtesy to the passengers.

This was especially true during the day we spent on an isolated Embera village on Panama’s Pacific coast. The villagers, who see few outsiders, still follow the traditional ways, building thatched, open-sided houses on stilts and wearing few clothes.

Most of the women, their faces, arms, legs and breasts decorated with black skin paint, were bare-breasted. The men wore loin clothes or shorts. Yet they greeted us with quiet, uncomplicated smiles.

It was a different scene on the San Blas Islands, on Panama’s Atlantic coast, where travelers have been coming for 50 years. Here, the Kuna people, who stitch layered embroidery molas and wear traditional dress and jewelry, ask for one dollar per photograph you take.

The ship itself, formerly spartan, has been transformed. Now warm and inviting, it has new paint, new carpets throughout, new beds with blue-and-white fabrics, comfortable furniture and new light fixtures.

With only four decks, size limits most onboard activities. The lounge and dining room are on the bottom deck and the cabins on decks two and three. Deck four has a closed lounge and library at the bow, an open sundeck at the stern, and an open-air covered bar and lounge amidships.

Camaraderie Emerges

However, a sense of camaraderie emerged since everyone met on the sundeck for early coffee, before-dinner drinks and for stargazing.

The dining room was also cheerful, with buffet service at breakfast and lunch, and sit-down service at dinner. The seating is open, so we made friends quickly. Some passengers, especially the older ones, complained about the noise level.

Most people praised the food, especially the local rice-and-bean dishes served with every meal. Tasty and filling, they lent a sense of place.

Overall, the only complaints came from two 80-year-old couples that missed most shore excursions because they weren’t strong enough to swing their legs over into the Zodiacs, nor to get out on the beach. And without an elevator, they had to climb up and down steps for every trip to the sundeck or the dining room.

The real fault, however, lies with the cruise agent who failed to ask the right questions before booking the trip.

For most reasonably active cruise passengers, Cruise West’s Central American itineraries offer a brand new world.