PANAMA & COSTA RICA, 2004

Cruise West
"The 99.9% Humidity Trip"

This is my third trip with Cruise West - the first two were to Alaska. A fourth trip with them (Columbia and Snake River Cruise) is tentatively planned for 2005, and at least one more Alaska trip, probably in 2007. This tour was booked using their "Stowaway" plan - pick a 30-day period and take whatever cruise date is offered - for a 25% discount.

The "Pacific Explorer" is one of their two 'luxury' ships (the other, the "Spirit of Oceanus" does mostly their 'Cruise to the Bering Strait' trip is 'really' luxury and $$). It can carry up to 100 passengers (we had 55) and has 32 crew members, including, for example, 3 chefs and a physical therapist/masseuse. It also has 'large' air conditioned cabins, etc. They even do some laundry for us half way through the trip. There is also a library - print and video (tv/vcr combos in all the cabins).

Panama When stout Balboa beheld the far Pacific, lonely on a hill in Darién, he could not have foreseen the literal link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that would be created in Panama four centuries later. While a transit through the Panama Canal is a fascinating experience, Panama offers much more, with island national parks, colorful traditional cultures, and well-preserved tropical ecosystems teeming with rare wildlife. Nearly 1,000 bird species, native, migratory and endemic, have been spotted in Panama, including the great green macaw, the three-wattled bellbird, and the resplendent quetzal. Most of the regions we visit in Panama are best - or only - accessible by small ships, including the Islas Perlas, Darién Jungle, Isla de Coiba and the San Blas Islands.

Costa Rica The peaceful, pastoral nation of Costa Rica has set aside a quarter of its territory in nature preserves. Offering a breathtaking array of landscapes from cloud forests in the volcanic highlands to pristine jungle-clad coast, Costa Rica has become a magnet for environmentally aware travelers and lovers of tropical bliss alike. Costa Rica possesses a charm that captivates its visitors and entices them to return again and again.

Day 1, Saturday, February 21 Panama City
Pack for warm weather (sunscreen, etc.). It's another early start. Up at 3:15; leave home by 4:00 to get to the airport before 5 with no problems.

American Airlines AA 1735Houston - Miami6:30 AM - 9:41 AM2:110:59

2 hours of a screaming kids contest - who can scream the most!

American Airlines AA 2131Miami - Panama City10:40 - 1:29 PM2:495:59

2 hours with a drunk passenger across the aisle constantly pestering one of the flight attendants - they really earned their money on his ticket!) to Panama City. Have $5 cash for a Panamanian Tourist Card which I must purchase at the airport on arrival. Transfer from the airport first to a local hotel to wait on time to transfer to the ship (3 PM -- or 3:15 -- or 3:30 -- or whenever). Then drive across the Isthmus (part of the road (toll) is very good, but the rest ...) to Colón on the Caribbean coast to board the "Pacific Explorer" at 5PM - or so the schedule said - actually about 5:45. There is a welcome meeting and safety briefing, plus a vessel orientation. Cabin is #202, on a middle deck (lower of the two cabin decks), fartherest aft, port side, "AA" class (complimentary upgrade). Dinner is on board later. From here through breakfast on day 12, all meals are included. One of the first announcements after the safety briefing: due to extreme humidity, *don't* keep our cameras, etc. in the air conditioned cabins; instead hang them on the railings out in the corridor (with its limited a/c) or it will take 'forever' for them to stop fogging up. It's unusual to walk down the corridor and see all the cameras and binoculars hanging out there. Each evening the "Exploration Leader" gives a briefing on what to expect the following day. This is a 'rock-a-bye lullaby' night since we have a significant quartering sea running. Actually, I really enjoyed it though some people said they couldn't sleep. Unfortunately being in an aft cabin, there's a fair amount of engine noise, but even that had a rhythm and after a while was hardly noticeable.

Meals on board: (great meals!):

Early riser breakfast (6 AM): limited continental breakfast type on the Sundeck.

Regular breakfast (usually 7AM - 9AM): table service with hot breakfast to order as well as a breakfast buffet. All the usual items including a huge fresh fruit selection, plus a 'special of the day' such as fruit pancakes, Costa Rican tamales, made-to-order omelets, and other interesting specialties, etc.

Lunch: Informal affair of salads, soups, cold cuts, hot dishes (usually a choice of 2 or more entrees) and more. Served al fresco on the Sun Deck, in the dining room, or on the beach. We even get one BBQ picnic buffet ashore. There are also afternoon special snacks on the Sun Deck during the "social hour."

Dinner (usually between 7 PM - 8:30 PM): dining room (followed by the Exploration Leader's evening presentation). Dinner offers a variety of salads and side dishes with soup and appetizers preceding the main course which usually consists of 3 or 4 entrée selections with enough variety to keep everyone happy.

Snacks: (almost all day) fruit juices, soft drinks, water, snacks various places aboard. There are also pre-dinner 'appetizers' on the Sundeck/Bar area.

Day 2, Sunday, February 22 San Blas Islands
The beautiful Archipiélago de San Blas is home to the self-governing Kuna Indians, who live in communities of bamboo-sided, thatch-roofed houses on only 40 of the keys. The remainder of the 400 islands, fit to adorn the covers of travel magazines, are left to coconut trees, sea turtles and iguanas. Though the islands barely rise above the blue-green waters of the Caribbean, protective reefs to the north and east soften the force of the wind and waves. The Kuna have preserved many of their traditional ways. For island-to-island travel, the Kuna use the cayuco, a dugout made from a burnt and hollowed-out tree trunk (now usually with outboard motors). The women dress as their ancestors did, with brilliantly colored mola shawls, long strands of beads wrapping their legs, and a gold ring through their nose. Step ashore (one of 2 'dry landings') by Zodiac at a Kuna Indian village on Whichab-Whallah Island, which nearly overflows the tiny island. All along the single main street, the women display a huge variety of colorful molas, intricately stitched appliqué textiles that are true works of art. We also get to see 3 dances; the first two are almost identical, but the third is about drinking - and the men get progressively more and more 'drunk' … all to the amusement of all, including the children of the island. The Kuna are very money minded - it is 'required' that we pay them $1 per person per picture (of individuals - no charge for general / scenic pictures). Many of them are sitting in pre-arranged poses, and the children say 'picture' over and over. It's an interesting stop - for me, I liked seeing the towns and the people more than the beaches, etc. As we were re-boarding, a large 2000 passenger cruise boat was beginning to send their boats ashore. I can easily imagine the Kuna: "Now that those tightwads are out of the way, here comes the real money!"

Later, after a 90 minute cruise to another small uninhabited island (Hollandaise Cays) nearby, crystal-clear aqua blue waters tempt us for snorkeling, sea-kayaking (I did it), and other 'fun' (except for the humidity). On our zodiac "wet" landings, the crew gets us as far up onto the beach as possible, but we still have to wade a bit - wear wet-wear shoes then change on beach. Towels etc. are provided. We have to wear life-vests (personal flotation devices = PFDs) Boarding and exiting is the 'sit and swivel' method. There is a platform on the aft of the ship (down some steps from the first deck) which is about 8-12" below the water line and the zodiacs run up on/against this to help in positioning for boarding / exiting. Normally the zodiacs carry 10-12 passengers, but in some cases of heavy surf, it's reduced to 5 or 6. Over 120 species of colorful fish may be spotted here by those who do the snorkeling. After up-anchor, we cruise until about 11:45 PM to anchor off Portobelo. No rock-n-roll this time since we are cruising with the currents - somehow I miss it and don't get to sleep as quickly.

Day 3, Monday, February 23 Portobelo
Sleepy Portobelo on Panama's Caribbean coast was once one of the richest ports of the Spanish Main, until sacked by Henry Morgan in 1671. Tons of gold and silver treasure flowed through the tiny port en route to the Spanish king. The harbor was protected by huge stone forts (ineffectively built of coral), but that did not stop pirate Henry Morgan. In 1671 the pirates swarmed in from the landward side, to loot and level the town. This morning we have a presentation on board about the history of Portobelo. Today, Portobelo slumbers to the sound of boom-boxes blaring out their favorite "music" (slumbers?) in the sun. Once the richest town in Central America, it's now the poorest. (Almost a shanty-town dump type place, but at least it's our second - and last - dry landing.) The only real attraction (and destination for pilgrimages) is the Church of the Black Christ. Here explore the ruins of Fort Gerónimo, Fort Santiago, and Fort San Fernando, to seek echoes of the clash of cutlasses, and the boom of old cannon. There are more dances, but they all sound and look the same. The hand-made trinkets are very inexpensive here. In the afternoon, there is time for kayak and Zodiac tours up the Duarte River (a mangrove river) where we see bats, birds, both kinds of sloths, etc., but not too much is seen - all the wildlife comes out at dawn or dusk, not the middle of the day - smart of them. Evening presentation: "Native Peoples of Panama."

Day 4, Tuesday, February 24 Panama Canal
Before we leave, there's time for a zodiac (wet landing - all landings from here on are 'wet') visit to Fort San Fernando across the bay. Not much there, either, but it's better situated than the forts around Portobelo itself, and there are some nice views. Then time to head for the canal. We are supposed to get to the staging area by noon. While we wait for our time through the canal, there's a video presentation on the "lobby" then a lecture on the Sundeck. The USA's construction of the Panama Canal was one of the great sagas of the 20th century. The 50-mile cut rather surprisingly travels (north) west to (south) east from Colón on the Caribbean side to Panama City on the Pacific, and conveys over 12,000 ocean-going vessels per year across the isthmus. Many large ships are specifically built to fit into the canal locks (PanaMax freighters). Watching a huge ship squeeze through the locks with only feet to spare on each side is an impressive sight. Transiting the Panama Canal is an unforgettable experience, especially aboard a small ship. The pilot is supposed to come aboard at 3:30 (which would mean we would get to see part of the canal in daylight) but doesn't show up until about 5:30. (It could have been due to inspectors finding problems with one of the anchor winches.) We finally up-anchor at 6:30. It's not far to the first locks, but by then it's getting dark. Cargo vessels get priority going through the canal. That's whey we get a late in the day time. For canal efficiency, we go through each lock with a refrigerator ship. It's an 8 hour transit, so it is well after midnight before we get through. The cost for 'us' is $11K; the large passenger liners may have to pay up to $280K for a transit.

Day 5, Wednesday, February 25 Darién Jungle
When we wake up, we are passing by the 90 or so islands of Archipiélago de las Perlas - Pearl Archipelago - just passing, no stops. It's a 'lazy' morning, so we have "Brunch" rather than two meals. Just after noon, we get to our stop in the Darien Park area. Over one million acres of the southern Darién in easternmost Panama are protected in the Parque Nacional Darién, the crown jewel of Panama's parks. Like a landscape from an "Indiana Jones" adventure, the area offers sandy beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, palm forest swamps and four mountain ranges covered with triple-canopy jungle. Rare wildlife abounds, and the only "roads" are rivers. Even the traditional culture of the region's native Emberá remains much as it has since time immemorial. Today Zodiacs take us to very wet landing (lots of very large waves / swells) at a small, traditional Emberá village on the coast of the incredibly eco-diverse Darién Jungle. The villagers are very open and friendly, and perform traditional dances and music. Also lots of souvenirs are available for sale - all hand made by the villagers. It's a fantastic place - my favorite stop. The people are extremely friendly. There's even a soccer game between the villagers and the crew of the ship (the villagers won, as they usually do, 2-1). The Embera are NOT 'money hungry' like the Kuna. After a very bouncy, wet ride on the zodiacs back to the ship (the sea is really rough now and the zodiacs take only 5-6 people at a time instead of the usual 10-12) we arrive, wet but safe, back aboard. Those zodiac drivers are really great! The crew donate supplies and services to the village, and we are encouraged to make donations (which many of us do) to help support the effort. Up anchor about 6. It will take until after noon tomorrow for our next stop. Time zone change tonight/tomorrow, though I think it's actually a day early.

Day 6, Thursday, February 26 Isla de Coiba
There's a 2 hour delay overnight - problems with the filter system on one of the engines so we are running at a reduced speed. Pristine waters, abundant sea life and over 15 species of coral surround the islets of Isla de Coiba National Park. This one-time presidio or prison island became a Panamanian national park in 1991, though penal colonies without walls persist. Most of Panama's largest island is covered with heavy virgin forest. It's just a 'beach stop' here for a lazy afternoon ashore (or having water sports fun). Along the shore, rocky headlands separate sandy beaches and mangrove estuaries. Over 15 species of coral brighten the reefs of Coiba and its tiny neighbor islets, making Coiba a favored destination for snorkelers and divers, who search for reef sharks, groupers and sea turtles. Humpback whales (yes, we see one), bottle-nose dolphins, orcas and other whales are also present in park waters. As we cruise, we see sea snakes, sea turtles, dolphins, tuna, etc. At one of the islands, our expert staff provides lessons and helps discover the stunning diversity of sea life here. Zodiacs take us to the tiny island of Granito De Oro (only about twice the size of the ship) where we enjoy bird watching, kayaking, snorkeling and swimming. It's cut a bit short by light showers (our first). It's also the laundry day for half the passengers - put it out this AM and back tomorrow AM. We are limited to 6 items per person.

Day 7, Friday, February 27 Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica
Drop anchor at Golfita for Costa Rica's Customs checking - they come aboard during breakfast. Here in the "Sweet Gulf" we explore a mangrove forest by Zodiac (2 Toucans, 2 blue herons, Willets, frigate birds, dead turtle, and miscellaneous other wildlife.) Later after a short cruise we arrive at Casa Orquideas or 'Orchid House' and stroll through the breathtakingly beautiful botanical gardens. A guided walk takes us through lush tropical plantings which include the namesake orchids and fruit trees, all attended by brilliantly-colored butterflies and hummingbirds. Extremely beautiful gardens, but again, it's that humidity. Tonight it's a "Latin Fiesta" on the Sundeck which is lots of fun for all.

Day 8, Saturday, February 28 Corcovado
Early this morning the ship drops anchor in Drake Bay off Corcovado National Park, 134,768 acres of pristine rain on the remote Osa Peninsula on the southeastern coast. Year-round access to this area is possible only by sea. The forests of Corcovado represent one of the most complex ecological systems on the planet, with many endemic species found only here. Enormous buttressed tree trunks, draped with lianas and epiphytes, rise 150 to 250 feet from the forest floor. Rumors of hidden treasure have haunted this area for centuries. Sir Francis Drake visited today's Drake's Bay in 1574, and pirates are known to have infested these waters. We get a (real) "Rio Aquijitas" river tour by zodiac. Watch for Jesus lizards, monkeys, scarlet macaws and other colorful birds. Today the Zodiacs take us ashore for a nature hike to seek wildlife and colorful birds. The Scarlet Macaws are the most spectacular as they loudly announce their arrival with high-pitched squawks. A favorite sight is a Toucan hopping through the trees, with its outlandish yellow bill. The crew serve a lavish picnic lunch on the beach (what a hassle for the crew getting everything ashore by zodiac and getting it set up - then they have to get it all back aboard later). There's a fair amount of surf here also. The trips (walks) were a bit disappointing - not that much wildlife. Evening presentation: "Mammals of the Neo-Tropics."

Optional tours: Canopy Tour: Ride through the treetops wearing a harness and a helmet. I had planned for, and signed up for, this option, but it was cancelled because a tree had recently fallen across the lines. Fortunately there turns out to be another (limited tour) at the Arenal hotel grounds - not as good for scenery but at least I get the experience.

Day 9, Sunday, February 29 Manuel Antonio National Park
At 1 AM there is a long grinding noise; I thought we had run over a sand bar, but it's just a long, loud process of raising anchor (that winch again?) after anchoring for a while. It's "Leap Year" so we have an extra day in February. Early this morning we drop anchor off Manuel Antonio National Park. It's the most beautiful spot we've seen so far. No wonder that this park is the most popular in Costa Rica. With it's breathtaking setting of white sand beaches sloping gently from lush rainforests and bluffs to the sea, this is one of Costa Rica's most popular national parks and its beaches are VERY crowded. Boasting beautiful coral-sand beaches, the cove at Escondido Harbor features flue-green waters surrounded by underwater caves, with the outer cliffs pounded by the surf. Dolphins are regularly sighed in the waters, and also occasional migrating whales. Naturalists lead walks this morning to outstanding wildlife viewing. Watch for white-faced capuchin and howler monkeys, iguanas, agoutis and three-toed sloths.

Optional tours: Rainmaker Canopy Walk: (Do the other Canopy walk so I can do the Quepos tour.) Oops, so much for early planning.

Quepos City Tour: During this bus tour of the "charming" seaside town of Quepos, our guide explains the historical facts of the area, such as the ancient dwellers and their heritage, and the history of the United Fruit Company. Unexpected attraction: we get a chance to watch some of the local dancers in a fund-raising event. On the way back we enjoy fruit punch at a lookout point (the Mariposa Hotel) with a magnificent ocean view. It's a 3 hour trip and well worth it.

At dinner, all the crew is in uniform and they circulate through the dining room saying farewell to the passengers. After a very short cruise, we make our final arrival at Los Suenos Marina and tie up for the night.

Day 10, Monday, March 1 Transfer to Arenal
The Los Suenos Marina is one of those for the very wealthy. There are a huge number of very nice yachts and lots of fancy, modern condos. We have bags out at 6:30 then breakfast. The crew line up the bags out on the dock by destination groups. Unfortunately, the bus to the airport, while backing around, runs over two of the bags (not mine). The crew scrambles around to find large cardboard boxes to pack up whatever survived the mess. I don't know whether Cruise West or the bus company is liable for the damage / replacement cost. Disembark about 8 AM and (8 of the original 55 passengers) transfer from the ship to the Arenal Volcano area (4 1/2 hour trip over not-so-great roads). We have a short stretch on the Pan-American highway with its non-stop row of 18-wheelers; also a stretch along a ridge which is part of the Continental Divide) Seeing the interior of the country is very interesting and gives a different perspective of the country and its people. We go through lots of little towns. They all have a Church, soccer field, school, police station and bar(s). The schools are relatively modern looking and the students are well dressed in their school 'uniforms.' A while back, Costa Rica abolished its military and spends all that money on schools and hospitals. Hooray for them.

We eventually arrive at the Arenal Paraiso Hotel - nice (from the outside) individual cabins, but there are "short-comings" inside. In this region, the classically conical shape of Arenal Volcano dominates (on the rare occasions that it's visible in the clouds) the rolling plains of San Carlos, emitting occasional puffs of smoke as it bursts into thunderous eruption. Arenal has become a magnet for volcano-watchers from all over the world. Dormant for centuries, 5,358-foot Arenal surprised everyone in July 1968 by erupting with explosive force, completely destroying the nearby village of Tabacón. Arenal remains Costa Rica's most active volcano. Frequent outbursts send cascades of glowing lava boulders tumbling down the western slope. We don't see anything, but there are occasional rumblings as boulders are tossed out to roll down the slope. There's time for a cable/canopy tour this afternoon which is interesting, but hardly makes up for the one I missed. Otherwise, try to get the cabin cooled off with the *very* noisy air conditioner. B (ship) L D (hotel - open menu lunch and dinners are very good; breakfasts here are only fair.)

Day 11, Tuesday, March 2 Arenal
After an included (so-so) breakfast, the morning is at leisure - there is time for a 3-hour horseback ride - not bad except for the downhill parts which give my legs and knees some problems. In the late afternoon, we tour the lush surrounding scenery and Arenal (start in the rain, but at least that stops). During the daytime, the lava high on the mountain steams and rumbles - up there somewhere in the clouds. However, the volcano puts on its most compelling performance at night - or so the brochures say. If the weather is clear , we have a chance to see Arenal's impressive eruptions in the dark, when the lava streams (it's not liquid; it's basalt rocks) and incandescent rock explosions resemble an unforgettable fireworks display. Also visit the local hot springs of Tabacón at the foot of the volcano for a swim and (nice) dinner! Return to the hotel for overnight. Packed and ready to go by 9:30.

Day 12, Wednesday, March 3 Transfer and flight home
After breakfast at the hotel, there is only an hour free (the Volcano is totally invisible in the clouds) before the first 2 of us transfer (3 hour trip) to the airport in San Jose ($26 departure tax - bring cash) for the flight home. The other 6 transfer at 12.

3Continental Airlines CO 1103San Jose - Houston1:55 PM - 5:47 PM3:52--

I have to be sure to keep enough saved back ($72 - taxis and shuttle would have been about $75) to get the car 'out of hock' at the parking lot. I'm home by 7:45 in a light rain.

I'm very glad I took the trip, but it's one I won't repeat. Highlights were the villages and the local people, particularly the Kuna and Embera. Humidity was *the* major problem. As expected, the crew was fantastic; courtesy, consideration, and service was great.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge




AIRLINES:
1American Airlines AA 1735Houston - Miami6:30 AM - 9:40 AM2:101:00
2American Airlines AA 2131Miami - Panama City10:40 - 1:30 PM2:506:00
3Continental Airlines CO 1103San Jose - Houston1:55 PM - 5:47 PM3:52--

INCLUDED: Airfare, transfers, all meals, entry to the national parks, weekly laundry service and daily shoe cleaning (after trips ashore), towels (beach & onboard), kayaking, fruit juices, soft drinks, drinking water, munchies at the 'bar', two nights at the hotel at Arenal and meals there.

NOT INCLUDED: Arrival Panama tourist card ($5), Costa Rica Departure tax ($26), Airport parking ($72) = $103 total. Quepos Optional tour ($41) and options at Arenal hotel - cable ride and horseback riding ($90).