Costa Rica & the Panama Canal (Panama City to San Jose)
8 days with Natural Habitat Adventures Rating:
Day 1: Panama City / Colon—Embark Ship / Canal Transit
Our Panama and Costa Rica cruise begins in Panama's capital city. From here, we drive across the Isthmus of Panama to Colon where we board ship and set sail on the first section of our Panama Canal transit, anchoring in Gatun Lake for the night. In 1904, the United States began building a canal that would link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans like never before, making trade and travel both faster and safer. When it was completed in 1914, ships no longer needed to go all the way around the tip of South America; they could cut through the canal saving 8,000 miles and several months of transit time. Today, roughly 14,000 ships pass through the Panama Canal each year—and one of those transits will be ours.
Day 2: Panama Canal Transit—Barro Colorado Nature Monument
Board expedition landing craft this morning for an excursion into Barro Colorado Nature Monument in Gatun Lake. This large island in Gatun Lake encompasses nearly 14,000 acres of wild jungle terrain, and is inaccessible to most travelers. By special arrangement, guides from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute accompany us through the dense tropical forest that so challenged the builders of the canal. We then re-board the ship to continue our transit through this engineering marvel that embodies both the history and future of global shipping. We'll see the gargantuan Panamax and Neopanamax vessels—the biggest ships on Earth—as well as all the landmarks: the Amador Causeway, Bridge of the Americas, and the Centennial Bridge that frames the Gaillard Cut, which we pass through to enter the Miraflores Locks. A daylight journey through the canal cannot be guaranteed, since cargo ships have priority over passenger ships, but the canal is dramatically lit at night.
Day 3: Gulf of Panama Islets
Our ship is equipped with expedition landing craft and kayaks, enabling us to explore the sea and wild shores at eye level. Today, we utilize both to access a cluster of small islands in the Gulf of Panama for a delightful introduction to the region’s prolific and varied birdlife. Observe large numbers of roosting and nesting seabirds including brown pelicans, magnificent frigatebirds and whimsical blue-footed boobies of Galapagos Islands fame.
Day 4: Coiba National Park
Coiba, established as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, is one of Panama’s most remote national parks. The collection of 200 islands comprises part of the Marine Life Corridor protected area created in 2016 by the presidents of three nations—Costa Rica, Ecuador and Colombia—to safeguard sea turtles, sharks and a host of other offshore species. Only the Great Barrier Reef and Galapagos National Park are larger marine sanctuaries. Because Isla Coiba, the main island in the group, was formerly a penal colony, public access to the area was very restricted, and most of the islands' natural resources have flourished untouched due to limited human contact.
We'll have options for easy hikes on a network of trails through the lush tropical forest that blankets Isla Coiba, as well as numerous water activities: go kayaking, paddleboarding, swimming or snorkeling among schools of colorful tropical fish. The ship's staff will assist both novice and experienced snorkelers alike. If you'd prefer to remain on the white sand beach, the ship's naturalist diver will take underwater footage, which is shared during our evening gathering in the lounge.
Day 5: Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica
Today we make our first landfall in Costa Rica. At Casa Orquideas, a privately owned botanical garden accessible only by boat and special invitation, we'll see a profusion of orchids while looking for butterflies, tanagers, parrots and toucans. The beautifully landscaped garden also shows off hundreds of species of ornamental and edible tropical plants that have been collected and cared for since the garden's establishment in this remote area in the 1970s. Later, we explore the forested bay of Golfo Dulce—"Sweet Gulf"—an ideal spot for kayaking, paddleboarding, Zodiac cruises and swimming. Golfo Dulce is one of Costa Rica's most scenic places, a site of serene natural beauty unmarred by any development, thanks to strong local efforts to promote conservation. Verdant rain forest, mangrove estuaries and golden beaches edge the shores of the large bay, which is home to dolphins and humpback whales. During our visit, we learn about plate tectonics under the gulf, the deep-seated forces responsible for Costa Rica's many volcanoes and geothermal hot springs.
Day 6: Golfo Dulce / Osa Peninsula
We go ashore at Playa Blanca, a pristine sand and coral beach on the eastern shore of the Osa Peninsula. This promontory of land flanked by the Pacific Ocean on one side and Golfo Dulce on the other is one of Costa Rica's most remote destinations, a primitive paradise of primary rain forest, empty beaches and tiny settlements. We travel inland to meet some of the inspiring local residents who live in this far-flung corner of Costa Rica, sustaining a life on the land through cultivating cocoa, heart of palm and sugar cane—though their farms are small patches amid the dominant rain forest that blankets the peninsula in a thick green cloak. We'll share a meal with some local families during our visit, then have time to hike in the mature rain forest or kayak in the peaceful waters of Golfo Dulce, the only tropical fjord on the continent. In the evening, enjoy sunset drinks and a beach barbecue ashore.
Day 7: Osa Peninsula—Corcovado National Park
We anchor off the Osa Peninsula today, with access to Corcovado National Park. This remote region on Costa Rica's southern Pacific coast lies off the standard tourist itinerary, and we'll enjoy an immersion in untouched tropical wilderness. National Geographic called Corcovado "the most biologically intense place on Earth," and we gain a sense of that after spending a full day exploring this coastal rain forest heavily populated with wildlife. We find all four of Costa Rica's monkey species here, five wild cat species, including Central America's largest jaguar population (all are very elusive, however, and rarely seen), two crocodile species, both two- and three-toed sloth, white-nosed coati, giant anteater and spectacular tropical birdlife, with the endangered scarlet macaw a special prize. Our exact landing spot for the day will depend on sea conditions. There will be opportunities to swim in waterfall pools, ride horseback, kayak through the transparent aqua water and/or trek through the rain forest in search of wildlife.
Please note: The March 15, 22 & 29, 2019 departures include a special green sea turtle nesting season experience at Osa Conservation as part of our Osa Peninsula activities.
Day 8: Puerto Caldera—Disembark Ship / San Jose / Depart
Our ship makes its way north to Puerto Caldera on Costa Rica's Pacific coast where we disembark this morning. A transfer is provide to the airport in San Jose for flights home, or on to other adventures.
All This Included
There are few places in the world where nature is as exuberant, colorful and diverse as in the tropics of Costa Rica, home to a vibrant array of flora and fauna. From white-faced capuchins to scarlet macaws and blue morpho butterflies, Costa Rica's wildlife will wow you. But this adventure cruise takes our Central American nature immersion a step beyond, to the neighboring land of Panama as well. To many, the country of Panama is synonymous with its famous canal, one of the most celebrated human achievements on the planet. What many people don’t know, however, is that Panama offers natural beauty and biological diversity that’s equal to Costa Rica’s. That means you'll get double the rewards on this special itinerary that includes both of these spectacular nature destinations!
Cruising: Cabin onboard National Geographic Quest
Pre and Post Add-ons
Panama Canal & City Extension
2 Days / From $450
Witness history in the making at the recently expanded Panama Canal, see its works in detail, and capture close-up photos as enormous ships transit this engineering marvel.
Terms and Conditions
For Natural Habitat Adventures terms and conditions, please click here.
* The prices shown are U.S. dollars per person, based on double occupancy, and subject to availability. Prices quoted for land/cruise arrangements are subject to increase without notice. Once we have received your deposit, land/cruise prices are guaranteed. Air prices quoted via phone or email are subject to increase and are guaranteed only from the time that full payment is received. Also, air prices or air promotions mentioned on this site or on the phone do not include baggage fees imposed by airlines.