2019 PANAMA and the CANAL
Continent Divided / Oceans Connected
With its spectacular rain forests, legendary canal, and lively urban centers, Panama offers a unique blend of treasures both natural and cosmopolitan. Your 12-day journey through this unforgettable country will bring its fascinating contrasts, vibrant cultures, and historic significance to life. On our Panama Canal Small Ship Adventure, you’ll take three nights to complete a transit of this man-made marvel aboard our privately chartered, 24-passenger catamaran, the M/S Discovery. As you cruise the Panama Canal, the epic tale of its construction will unfold before you—and you’ll see how this massive, modern project has impacted everyday life and the surrounding landscape. While on land, you’ll visit local villages, where Panama's indigenous people will introduce you to their enchanting traditions; embark on a tour of Chitre and Panama City to discover the myriad excitements of the country’s metropolitan hubs; enjoy a visit to a sugarcane farm and butterfly garden; and more. From the bustling activity of the Canal Zone and the abundance of wildlife to the quiet beauty of the coasts, Panama beckons.
PRE-TRIP EXTENSION: CHIRIQUI HIGHLANDS
Immerse yourself in the natural splendor of Chiriqui Highlands, where Atlantic and Pacific winds mingle to create a year-round spring-like climate, mountains tower over volcanic soils, and bajareque mists embrace lush rain forests. From agricultural traditions to timeless native customs, experience the charms of this unspoiled paradise.
Airfare from Panama City to Chiriqui
Accommodations for 1 night in Panama City and 2 nights in Chiriqui
5 meals: Daily breakfasts, 1 lunch, and 1 dinner
Included tours: Boquete • Cerro Punta
Gratuities for local guides and motorcoach drivers
POST-TRIP EXTENSION: CARTAGENA
On a small Caribbean peninsula, discover Cartagena, Colombia, a city with a rich history and languorous charm. Find Spanish, Indian, and African influences in Cartagena’s colorful architecture and percussion-heavy music, and enjoy gentle tradewinds that waft salt air from the nearby beaches.
Airfare from Panama City to Cartagena
Accommodations for 3 nights
4 meals: All breakfasts and 1 dinner
Included tours: Cartagena • La Boquilla
Gratuities for local guides and motorcoach drivers
DAY 1, Wed, Oct 23 - Depart U.S. • Panama City, Panama
You depart the U.S. today for your Panama City. Your Trip Leader will meet you at the airport and assist with your transfer to your hotel. Dinner is on your own tonight.
Accommodations: Las Americas Golden Tower: Las Americas Golden Tower is ideally located in the center of Panama City, within walking distance of the capital's many restaurants and shopping centers. The hotel has on-site restaurants. Each of its 285 air-conditioned rooms features city views, cable TV, safe, telephone, private bath, and wireless Internet.
DAY 2, Thu, Oct 24 - Panama City • Fly to David • Boquete
(BL) Depart for the airport late this morning for your flight to David, the capital of the Chiriqui province.
Upon arrival, you'll savor lunch at a restaurant in David before traveling north to Boquete, a small mountain town boasting impossibly lush surroundings and a cool climate. This scenic appeal—as well as a range of cultural charms—will be on full display during a walking tour here.
Next, depart for a local honey bee farm. Take a tour of the gardens and farms while you learn about these industrious pollinators. Finish your visit with a taste of the sweet, golden results. After checking into your hotel late this afternoon, the evening is yours to relax or explore at leisure.
Accommodations: Hotel Ladera: Just a five-minute drive from the center of Boquete, the Hotel Ladera is a contemporary retreat in the heart of the Chiriqui Highlands. Features include a restaurant, garden, and complimentary wireless Internet. Rooms are equipped with cable TV, a phone, a balcony, and a private bathroom with shower.
DAY 3, Fri, Oct 25 - Chiriqui Highlands • Cerro Punta • Boquete
(BD) Delve into the heart of the Chiriqui Highlights this morning, as you depart for Cerro Punta, stopping en route to visit the local botanical garden, which is home to more than 2,200 species of orchid. After lunch on your own, continue on to Cerro Punta.
Located inside the crater of an extinct volcano, the town of Cerro Punta is literally cradled by the landscape—and its vast natural resources are key to its economy: The town provides more than 60% of all vegetables consumed in Panama. After savoring lunch on your own here, you'll learn firsthand about the region's agriculture during a visit with local farmers who grow a wide variety of produce.
Then, return to your hotel for an afternoon of leisure before dinner this evening.
DAY 4/1, Sat, Oct 26 - Boquete • Optional Coffee plantation tour • David • Fly to Panama City
OPTIONAL TOUR – COFFEE PLANTATION – NO THANKS.
(B) Enjoy a morning at leisure to do as you please. Or, join us for an optional coffee plantation tour for a firsthand look at how Panama's coffee beans are cultivated—and how they make their way into your morning mug.
After checking out of your hotel, depart for David, where you'll enjoy lunch on your own before flying to Panama City to begin your Panama Canal Cruise & Panama: A Continent Divided, Oceans United Small Ship Adventure.
Your Trip Leader or a member of our local staff will meet your flight at the airport and help you transfer to your hotel. Dinner is on your own this evening. Your Trip Leader will be happy to suggest a restaurant. Accommodations: Las Americas Golden Tower (2 nights)
DAY 5/2, Sun, Oct 27 - Panama City
(BLD) After your morning briefing, discover Panama City via two of its cultural touchstones. First, stroll through Old Panama. Then continue on into the Old Quarter, where you'll visit historic sites such as the 18th-century Plaza Herrera and the San Jose Cathedral, known for its gold altar.
You’ll stop for an included lunch before returning back to your hotel, as the afternoon is yours to relax or explore more of Panama City. Later this afternoon, you’ll continue to discover sites like Cathedral Plaza—the Old Quarter’s largest plaza and the site of celebrations after the country won its independence from Colombia and Spain—and the Paseo Esteban Huertas promenade where you’ll take in sweeping views of the bay.
This evening, enjoy an included Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant, an opportunity to celebrate the discoveries to come.
Please note: Today's activities include 2 hours of walking on uneven surfaces and stairs in high temperatures.
DAY 6/3, Mon, Oct 28 - Chorrera • Chitre
(BLD) After breakfast, you'll depart Panama City for the Azuero region, stopping en route to explore the town of Chorrera. First, behold the monument to the martyrs of January ninth, commemorating the lives cut short during the riots over sovereignty of the Panama Canal Zone. After a brief visit to the monument, you'll then explore a local produce market in search of ripe fruits and vegetables, before taking part in a lesson where you’ll learn about plantains. Next you'll arrive at Feuillet Park, a vibrant urban oasis where you'll meet local entrepreneurs and mingle with people as they shop, work, and socialize. Then enjoy lunch at a local restaurant.
Later that afternoon, you'll depart to Chitre. One of Panama's oldest communities, Chitre is a charming modern city with vestiges of its colonial past—most vividly seen in its ornate, red-tiled Spanish houses. Chitre has also been called "the gateway to the Azuero Peninsula," a less-touristed area of Panama known for its colonial traditions, festivals, and handcrafts.
Upon arrival, you'll check in to your hotel and enjoy an orientation walk with your Program Director. This evening, enjoy an included dinner at your hotel. Accommodations: Hotel Cubita or similar 3 nights
DAY 7/4, Tue, Oct 29 - Sarigua National Park • Pollera workshop visit • Las Tablas
(BD) After breakfast, you’ll visit Sarigua National Park. Also known as the Sarigua Desert, the park is a dry, barren vista, in stark contrast to the rest of Panama’s green landscapes. The site was once forested until colonizers in the second half of the 20th century clear-cut all the vegetation.
You'll then have the balance of your morning for independent discoveries. Lunch will be on your own this afternoon. After lunch, you'll visit a pollera shop. While initially brought over by the Spanish, the lavish, embroidered pollera dress has been adapted and embraced as the national costume of Panama. Traditionally, polleras are white with a full, two-tier skirt, and are hand-embroidered with exquisite details that can increase the value of the garment from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Afterward, you’ll visit Las Tablas. Enjoy dinner in a local restaurant this evening.
DAY 8/5, Wed, Oct 30 - Iguana Island
(BL) After breakfast, you’ll depart for Iguana Island—a wildlife refuge famous for its white sand beach, crystal waters, mangrove forest, and coral reefs. Perhaps you will spot dolphins, frigate birds, iguanas, turtles, or humpback whales, depending on the time of year. You will explore a hiking trail and witness a variety of coral reefs while snorkeling or enjoy time swimming at the beach. After enjoying an included lunch, you will depart for the hotel. Dinner will on your own this evening.
DAY 9/6, Thu, Oct 31 - Chitre • Mask-making demonstration • Clayton
(BLD) Depart Chitre this morning. En route, stop to visit a local artisan for an exclusive Discovery Series event and witness a demonstration of indigenous Panamanian mask-making.
After your visit, you'll have lunch in a local restaurant before heading to your hotel in Clayton. Enjoy time to relax or explore more of the area. Afterward, you’ll savor an included dinner with your fellow travelers. Accommodations: Holiday Inn at the Panama Canal or similar (2 nights)
DAY 10/7, Fri, Nov 1 - Gamboa • Embera Indian village visit • School Visit • Home-Hosted Lunch
(BLD) After breakfast, you'll enjoy a couple hours at leisure before heading off for a visit to the Omar Torrijos Herrera General Basic Education Center, supported in part by the Grand Circle Foundation. A brand new educational partnership, the school—which educates over 700 students from ages 4 to 11—is receiving funding for water fountains, synthetic grass for sports fields, and other infrastructural improvements. When we interact with the students, we will learn about their backgrounds and what they are learning, and better understand the challenges they face receiving an education.
Later on, you'll transfer to the pier and then sail to a village of the Embera people, one of Panama's seven indigenous tribes.
When you arrive, you’ll enjoy a traditional meal during a Home-Hosted Lunch. Fish is an important protein among the Embera, and even youngsters are experts with the harpoon, spear, and hand line. The local diet also relies heavily on jungle plants, plantains, bananas, rice, beans, hearts of palm, and yucca root. You'll savor many of these flavors today.
Then, set off on a walking tour of the community where you’ll be introduced to local traditions and customs, like body painting. To facilitate their movement through the jungle, the Embera once wore minimal clothing, and would cover the top parts of their bodies with black dye from the jagua, an inedible jungle fruit. This custom is still used today during ceremonies and celebrations; solid blocks of ink are placed against contrasting patches of bare skin, or intricate patterns are etched on the skin with a bamboo stick. The indelible blue-black dye remains on the skin for up to two weeks, until it is naturally exfoliated.
Also skilled craftspeople, the villagers will explain the technique used to make their canastas, baskets so tightly woven that they can even hold water. You'll learn about the natural fibers and vegetable dyes of the rain forest used in their creation. During your visit, you’ll also experience Embera dances and the music of flutes, drums, and turtle shells.
After the conclusion of your village visit, head out on a tour of historical Gamboa. Dinner tonight is at the hotel.
You may choose to join (probably skip) an optional tour this evening. On the Chagres River Nocturnal Safari, your guide—with the help of reflectors and flashlights—will point out the places where crocodiles and caimans typically stalk their prey. If you are lucky, you may be able to catch a glimpse of their eyes as they shine in the light and follow them as they swim downstream.
Please note: Today's activities will include boarding and deboarding fiberglass boats on floating docks.
Chagres River Nocturnal Safari - $40/ person
Indulge in the serenity of the tropical rain forest at night as you navigate the calm waters of the Chagres River in search of birds and nocturnal animals. Your guide—with the help of reflectors and flashlights—will point out the places where crocodiles and caimans typically stalk their prey. If you are lucky, you may be able to catch a glimpse of their eyes as they shine in the light and follow them as they swim downstream.
DAY 11/8, Sat, Nov 2 - Gamboa • Embark ship • Taboga Island
(BD) After breakfast and morning at leisure, you'll depart for Panama City. Your Trip Leader can offer you suggestions of where to explore. You'll enjoy lunch on your own in the marina before boarding the M/S Discovery, the 24-passenger catamaran that will be your private home throughout your three-night Panama Canal cruise. After a short onboard orientation, your ship sets sail later this afternoon.
Your first port of call is Taboga Island, known as the “Island of Flowers,” a befitting title given the abundance of birds of paradise, orchids, and other tropical species that blanket the island. It's a colorful island with an equally colorful history. The birthplace of Santa Rosa de Lima, the Southern Hemisphere's first saint and a role model to Mother Teresa, the island also beckoned artist Paul Gauguin, who began incorporating bright colors into his work more often after his stay here. The island also played an important role in the construction of the canal, serving for more than three decades as a retreat for canal builders, first French and then American. Here you'll have time to either kayak in the bay or disembark to explore the island, a mostly pedestrian haven, with your Trip Leader.
This evening, enjoy dinner onboard the ship and after-dinner activities on the Top Deck. Our overnight stay here allows us to be in prime position for tomorrow, when the Discovery commences its transit of the Panama Canal, the vital link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
DAY 12/9, Sun, Nov 3 - Panama Canal • Panama Canal history discussion
(BLD) You'll wake up this morning to find yourself at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, where you'll begin your northbound canal passage. You'll witness a new chapter in the canal's 103-year-old history: a new set of locks, completed in 2016, that now allow the world's largest cargo ships to pass through.
The notion of building a path between the seas here is as old as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, but it wasn't until 1879 that Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, made the first attempt. The scope of the effort proved too great, and the project languished until 1902, when Teddy Roosevelt brought the dream to life.
In 1913—a full year ahead of schedule and nearly $23 million under budget—the Panama Canal was completed. It officially opened on August 15, 1914, and a dream became a reality. A journalist who witnessed its opening wrote, “This canal is both a first and a last … man will never again build with such scope, such imagination.” Now, more than 40 ships a day, or more than 14,000 annually, traverse its 50-mile length—eliminating a 9,000-mile trip around the tip of Cape Horn.
Begin your own transit by cruising beneath the soaring Bridge of the Americas, which connects the two land masses that were separated by the canal's construction, to join today's convoy of ships from around the world for your northbound canal passage. As you cruise, you'll take in the full spectrum of everyday life on the canal's banks, from the bustling activity at the commercial port of Balboa to crocodiles lounging in the sun.
You'll pass through the Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Locks, experiencing for yourself the thrill of these engineering marvels. Then, your ship will navigate the Gaillard Cut; the narrowest section of the canal that bisects the Continental Divide, it is named for the American who oversaw its construction and then died just before it opened. You'll see up close the dramatic landscape 6,000 canal laborers toiled to cut. At the peak of construction, up to 600 holes daily were drilled and then blasted with as much as 50,000 pounds of dynamite. Steam shovels dug out the rubble, which was loaded onto 160 trains a day for the twelve-mile trip to the dumps. Your Trip Leader will describe how, nearly a century later, this section of the canal requires continuous maintenance due to its susceptibility to landslides.
After a leisurely lunch onboard, experience the highlight of the day's cruise when the Discovery is raised 85 feet above sea level to Gatun Lake. This man-made lake was created during the construction of the canal by damming the Chagres River, which supplies the Gatun Locks with more than 52 million gallons of fresh water per ship that passes through. You may explore the lake by kayak today, if you wish.
The Discovery will anchor for the night in Gatun Lake, where you'll enjoy dinner together followed by an exclusive Discovery Series discussion that will prepare you for the rest of your cruise: the expansion of the Panama Canal and history of the Chagres River. Because ours is the only ship small enough to moor at the lake overnight, you'll drift off to sleep onboard, listening to the lullaby of the rain forest around you.
Please note: Today's activities include boarding and deboarding fiber glass boats.
DAY 13/10, Mon, Nov 4 - Agua Clara Visitor Center • Gatun Locks • Captain's Farewell Dinner
(BLD) This morning, you'll visit the Agua Clara Visitor Center to get a unique panoramic glimpse of the Panama Canal. This observatory not only provides great views of the canal, but also history of its construction.
Later, you'll return to our ship for lunch onboard and some time for a short rest, or siesta. Your ship will continue your transit of the canal, as you pass through the Gatun Locks—the largest of the Panama Canal locks. The ship will begin its descent back to sea level here, a process that takes about two hours. You'll enjoy a Captain's Farewell Dinner onboard.
Please note: Today's activities include boarding and deboarding fiber glass boats.
DAY 14/11, Tue, Nov 5 - San Lorenzo National Park • Disembark ship • Panama City
(BD) Disembark the Discovery this morning and set off for San Lorenzo National Park. You’ll take a nature walk to view its diverse flora and fauna, picturesque coastline, and enjoy opportunities to spot several hundred bird species. Later this morning, your discoveries continue with a visit to the Panama Canal Administration Building, inaugurated exactly one month before the canal itself.
After lunch on your own, your afternoon is free to enjoy at leisure. This evening, check into your hotel before gathering with your fellow travelers to reminisce in a local restaurant over dinner. Accommodations: Las Americas Golden Tower or similar
DAY 15/12/1, Wed, Nov 6 - Panama City • Fly to Cartagena
(B) After breakfast, transfer to the airport for your post-trip extension in Colonial Cartagena, Colombia: The Emerald of the Caribbean
Fly from Panama City to Cartagena and transfer to your hotel. Discover this charming city on an orientation walk with your Trip Leader before exploring further at your leisure. Enjoy dinner on your own tonight at one of Cartagena's many quaint restaurants.
Accommodations: Hotel Bantu 3 nights: Situated within the walled historic section of Cartagena, the Hotel Bantu is in a renovated 19th-century building with decor that reflects the city's Afro-Caribbean culture. Facilities include three inner courtyards with lush greenery, and an on-site restaurant. The 27 air-conditioned rooms feature cable TV, direct-dial telephone, minibar, and private bath with hair dryer; there is wireless Internet access throughout the hotel.
DAY 16/2, Thu, Nov 7 - Cartagena
(BL) Early in its colonial history, Cartagena was the most important—and beautiful—Spanish port in the New World, protecting the seas for the shipment of gold and silver from Peru. In fact, the city's official name remains Cartagena de Indias, a holdover from the days when Spanish explorers landed here seeking a spice trade route to India.
Today, this booming city is enjoying a renaissance. Travelers can find warm breezes, sandy beaches, a vibrant history, and colonial charm touched with Caribbean flair. You'll set out to discover it for yourself after breakfast, when you embark on an included tour of Old Town. Admire the grand architecture and elaborate courtyards in locations such as San Diego Plaza, Heredia Theater, and Bolivar Plaza.
Afterward, discover the Castillo Grande neighborhood during a panoramic tour, then cap your morning off with a stop at a local shop where you'll discover a magnificent emerald collection and learn about Colombia's famous green gem.
Enjoy an included lunch in a local restaurant before an afternoon at leisure and dinner on your own.
DAY 17/3, Fri, Nov 8 - La Boquilla
(BD) After breakfast at the hotel, depart for San Felipe Castle, a commanding fortress built by the Spaniards to protect the city from pirates in the 17th-century.
Next, you'll visit La Boquilla, a charming fishing village outside of Cartagena. As you go, you might see locals fishing in the shallow waters with their circular nets. After a lunch on your own, you’ll head back to your hotel for an afternoon siesta. Join your fellow travelers for a Farewell Dinner this evening.
DAY 18/4, Sat, Nov 9 - Cartagena • Fly U.S.
(B) After breakfast, you'll transfer to the Cartagena airport for your flight home.
The M/V Discovery is a 110-foot purpose-built catamaran perfect for small ship cruising in Panama. She accommodates 24 guests in 8 queen and 4 twin cabins, ensuring everyone can enjoy serenity and privacy together with the excitement and closeness of a true exploration cruise in Panama.
Panama Discovery Review
Originally built in Tasmania, Australia, the Discovery has found the perfect home in Panama. With only 24 guests on board she is able to offer a more intimate and active program than other small ships in Panama. She is bright and airy with large windows and bright colors that match the colorful personality of Panama itself. The lounge/dining room/bar area offer fantastic views with comfortable accommodations in a relaxed atmosphere. The cabin deck has wide halls accessing small but well-appointed cabins with either twin or double beds. The cabins are small but bright with large view windows and plenty of storage space. The Observation deck is the perfect place for a BBQ lunch with jungle views or to relax and enjoy the breeze between excursions. The crew aboard Discovery is top notch. Knowledgeable, professional guides lead excursions while the chef and crew serves amazing quality food from an unbelievably small galley. Most unique aboard the discovery is the aft deck platform which lowers into the water making loading and launching the kayaks a breeze. Choose the Panama Discovery if you are seeking a small active ship with a focus on Panama's nature and the Panama Canal up close with great guides and crew.
Common Areas aboard Discovery
The dining area, bar and lounge are located on the upper deck which is fitted with floor to ceiling "glass walls" providing a spectacular dining experience and plenty of space to unwind. Enjoy Panamanian haute gastronomy as we delight you with exquisite indigenous dishes prepared by our talented chef. A BBQ and sun deck are located on the topmost observation deck. The Discovery is equipped with a unique platform that lowers kayakers gently into the water and also retrieves them in perfect safety and comfort.
Cabins & Deck Plan aboard Discovery
All cabins have individual climate control, bathrooms and huge windows that extend along the length of the cabin allowing you to enjoy the scenery in complete privacy. Category 1 cabins are 116 square feet. 7 cabins have queen beds, and 4 offer twin bed accommodation. Category 2 cabins are 133 square feet.