Wildlife and Wonder on an UnCruise Adventure

Wildlife and Wonder on an UnCruise Adventure

Small-ship cruises connect travelers with nature, wildlife and extraordinary places in Costa Rica and Panama.

While Costa Rica and Panama are two of today’s hottest ecotourism destinations, few travelers are able to spend their entire vacations exploring these countries’ most unspoiled places. UnCruise Adventures takes guests on memorable voyages of discovery in these eco-rich lands, providing a safari-like experience on land and sea. The expedition-style cruises are perfect for groups interested in wildlife viewing, enrichment activities and outdoor adventures.

Itineraries are the star of the UnCruise experience. The main draw for these trips is what’s off the boat. Central America sailings take place on the Safari Voyager, a beautifully updated 62-person vessel specifically designed for adventure cruises. The ship’s small size allows guests to visit remote spots larger ships can’t reach. Many of these spectacular off-the-beaten-path locations are only accessible by boat.

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The 62-guest Safari Voyager in Panama. (All photos by Nancy Schretter)

UnCruise’s all-inclusive adventure vacations focus on exploration and learning, brilliantly connecting guests with a sense of place. Special themed cruises built around shared interests such as birding, photography and biology are offered on selected dates. Travelers on Central America sailings enjoy the biodiversity of the region and seeing its abundant wildlife including multiple species of monkeys, sloths, tapirs, coatis, agoutis, crocodiles, toucans, scarlet macaws, sea turtles, dolphins, whales and more. The Safari Voyager’s Costa Rica and Panama itineraries also include another bucket-list experience – a full transit of the 48-mile Panama Canal.

Unforgettable Experiences Abound

Our eight-night “Unveiled Wonders: Costa Rica & Panama Canal” itinerary included a pre-cruise overnight stay at The Bristol Panama, a luxury hotel in Panama City. We extended our stay to allow more time for exploration with Barefoot Panama, a local tour company. Our first excursion took us through Soberania National Park and out onto the Panama Canal by boat for wildlife watching along the banks of Lake Gatun. There we spotted black-and-white Geoffroy’s tamarins, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, iguanas, and dozens of species of birds. Next we journeyed up the Chagres River to a small Wounaan indigenous village, where we were warmly welcomed by the community and learned about their lives and culture.

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Geoffrey’s tamarin, a small species of monkey, can be spotted along the shores of Gatun Lake.

Touring the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Visitor Center was another highlight of our brief time in Panama City. We watched awestruck as huge ships passed through the Miraflores Locks and viewed a short film on the history of the Panama Canal, which opened for shipping traffic in 1914. After our brief taste of Panama City, it was on to the main event – our UnCruise Adventures journey on Safari Voyager.

As we set sail, there was a palpable level of excitement onboard as the Safari Voyager started its evening journey through the Panama Canal. While the vast majority of guests had sailed with UnCruise Adventures before, it was the first Panama Canal transit for most. This was just one of many experiences that demonstrated how much size matters on this cruise. On our little vessel, there were no mega-ship crowds to block views and guests moved easily while capturing photos and videos of the canal’s massive locks, electric locomotives and stunning bridges. Spellbound and exhilarated, we stayed awake until the wee hours of the morning watching our ship’s journey through the canal and listening to the staff’s expert commentary.

The next morning we awoke in the Gulf of Panama near Bona Island, a nesting site for marine birds. The Safari Voyager is fully outfitted with kayaks, paddle boards, snorkeling gear, inflatable motorized skiffs and an EZ dock launch platform, making it easy for guests to embark on included skiff and kayak excursions. We hopped into inflatable Zodiacs and circled Bona Island, observing a wide variety of winged wildlife including red-pouched magnificent frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, brown boobies and pelicans.

Granito de Oro, a remote tropical islet in Panama’s Coiba National Park

Thus began a mind-boggling series of adventures that stretched throughout our cruise. Each morning and afternoon, we set out on skiffs, via kayaks and on foot to explore remote islands, mangrove-lined estuaries, tropical beaches and national parks. We trekked through lush rainforest jungle preserves, snorkeled in crystal clear waters and perfected our paddle boarding skills. Every day brought new discoveries, memorable experiences and hidden treasures.

Kayaks are available for independent exploration.

Snorkeling around Panama’s spectacular Granito de Oro, a postcard-perfect crescent of white sand beach, was one of the high points of our voyage. The waters around this isolated islet in Coiba National Park were named one of the top 10 diving destinations in the world. On our snorkeling excursion circumnavigating the island, we marveled at the kaleidoscope of colorful marine life including brilliant blue parrot fish, pointed needlefish, black-barred sergeant majors, striped Moorish idols, hawksbill and green sea turtles, and even a white-tipped reef shark. That afternoon, we ventured by skiff into the heart of one of Coiba National Park’s rivers, spotting colorful birds, massive iguanas and a large crocodile sunning at the water’s edge.

Our journey took us north to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, named “the most biologically intense place on Earth” by National Geographic. This area is a paradise for birders, photographers and nature lovers. Our guides led us on skiff tours in Golfo Dulce – a tropical fjord edged by dense mangrove forest, multi-hour wilderness treks in Piedras Blancas National Park and the Campanario Biological Station, coastal hikes and a visit to enchanting Casa Orquideas. Located on stunning Playa San Josecito, this privately-owned botanical garden attracts mammals, multihued butterflies, and over a hundred varieties of birds including brightly colored toucans and boisterous scarlet macaws.

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Scarlet macaws can be seen at Costa Rica’s Casa Orquideas Botanical Garden.

It was our wildlife encounter in Costa Rica’s Curu National Wildlife Refuge that left me speechless, however. At the close of our jungle hike, our group was surrounded at close range by a band of over 15 white-faced capuchin monkeys. These entertaining creatures were soon joined by a large deer and two curious raccoons. Transfixed, we watched in awe until we ran out of time. As we headed back to the ship by skiff, the broad smiles on our group’s faces said it all. Unparalleled encounters like these are priceless.

Creating Memorable Moments

Coming home to the Safari Voyager after our morning and afternoon adventures was always a treat. The ship provides a welcoming oasis in Central America’s heat and humidity, offering a luxurious place to relax, recharge, and share the day’s activities with fellow guests. There’s a special sense of community and camaraderie that develops onboard. Our group enjoyed gathering in the lounge for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres during happy hour and staff enrichment presentations each evening. On this UnCruise adventure, guests board the ship as likeminded travelers and leave as friends.

Safari Voyager guests and their naturalist guide search for wildlife on skiff excursions.

Personalization and attentive service are key hallmarks of the Safari Voyager journeys as well. With a 2:1 guest-to-crew ratio and so few guests, the cruise becomes a more intimate experience. The ship quickly transforms into a place where everyone knows your name, preferences and vacation interests. Like caring family members, Safari Voyager’s outstanding guides and staff forge close bonds with guests and enable them to get the most out of their travel experience. Luis Vega, one of our exceptional naturalists, was remarkably adept at helping photographers spot toucans, howler monkeys, fast-moving coatis and other wildlife.

Service is just one of many areas in which the Safari Voyager exceeds expectations. The ship’s fully included locally-sourced cuisine, wine selection and cocktails are another. Safari Voyager’s dining room serves three mouthwatering meals daily and guests look forward to the pastry’s chef’s ever-changing selection of fresh breads, scrumptious pastries and delectable cookies. Special dietary needs are readily accommodated.

The cruise visits picture-postcard beaches in Panama and Costa Rica.

At the end of our journey, it was clear new connections had been formed. Some guests with shared interests were already discussing cruising together in the future, planning to heed the call of the wild again. UnCruise’s brand of adventure is truly addictive.

Nancy Schretter

Contributor: Nancy Schretter

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