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