This Travel Journal submitted by Kelleen Casey and photos by Michale Casey details their Treasures of Costa Rica Panama Canal cruise aboard the Variety Voyager.

I had wanted to go to Costa Rica for over a decade, but had a hard time convincing my husband to put it at the top of our travel destination wish list – until I stumbled across AdventureSmith Explorations’ small ship cruise Treasures of Costa Rica & The Panama Canal. As a mechanical engineer, the chance to see the canal in person finally tipped the scales for him. We also invited my mom to join us. This trip was the furthest south any of us have ever traveled.

Arrival in Costa Rica

We worked with Adventure Specialist Andrew Browning to not only book the cruise, but also to make all of the travel arrangements before and after the cruise. We flew into San Jose on Christmas Day, arriving about an hour later than scheduled. To our relief, once we finally emerged from customs in San Jose, our transport representative Clara met us with a bright smile and whisked us away to the lovely Hotel Bougainvillea.

We checked in just before midnight, and were a little taken aback that the sightseeing tour we had arranged for the following day departed at 5:45 am. We were also surprised to realize that the hotel did not have air conditioning. However, the cool breeze coming through the screen windows made sleeping quite comfortable, and the free muffins and coffee set out the next morning made the early hour seem more civilized.

Our day-long sightseeing tour included three stops. First on the list was the Doka Coffee Estate. There we were welcomed with a delicious breakfast buffet of local foods: beans and rice, scrambled eggs, corn tortillas, plantains, and a mild local cheese; as well as mango juice and unlimited coffee – all served on a terrace overlooking the gardens. Following this welcome feast, our guide Edgar gave us a tour of the working estate.

We learned that coffee is still picked by hand, since the berries on a bush ripen at different rates, and can only be picked when bright red. The coffee-picking season in Costa Rica runs from December through March.  90% of the coffee grown at the Doka Estate is shipped to England. However, two small bags of roasted beans came home to America with us!

multicolored coffee cherries on a branch in the costa rica rainforest with dark green leaves behind them
Coffee cherries

The next stop on our day-long tour was to the Poas Volcano. By the time we reached the entrance at about 8000 feet in altitude, we had entered into the clouds. The walk to the crater rim was cold and windy, with a light drizzle. Though the guides had told us to bring coats, we were still surprised to be chilled so close to the equator! Unfortunately, the view from the rim was completely socked in, but we did enjoy the information presented at the small visitor center.

Our final destination of the day was the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. In addition to the wonderful gardens, jungle and waterfalls, they also have an extensive rescued-wildlife preserve.

la paz costa rica waterfall spilling into a pool surrounded by green jungle foliage
La Paz Waterfall

Life at sea

The following day, we arrived at the port in Puntarenas at 2 pm, where Mauricio, our transport driver, ensured that our luggage was properly stowed and that we knew where to catch the tram for the boat before bidding us farewell. (Later on the boat we heard nightmare stories of others being taken to the wrong hotel or even to the wrong port city, so we were very grateful that all of Andrew’s arrangements had been so smooth!)

Soon we were able to catch the tram which took us out the long pier to the lovely Variety Voyager mega yacht. Stepping onboard, we were welcomed with ice-cold Mimosa cocktails and silver platters of appetizers.

 Though my husband and I joked that we were “steerage” passengers, having selected the least expensive cabin category, we were very pleased with our room. Though small, the space available was used to great effect, and included: a closet with a mini fridge, a small safe, two luxurious robes, and plenty of room for hanging clothes; a nightstand; a bedside table; a wall-mounted flat screen TV; wall hooks and excellent lighting. The bathroom was well-appointed, with a shower that was larger than the one I had on a much bigger ship. And there was a retractable clothesline – a great benefit for a trip involving frequent swimming and snorkeling opportunities.

We were not scheduled to leave the port until 8pm, so after the mandatory safety briefing we had time to explore the ship. We peeked in the library, the fitness room, the multiple lounges, the dining room, and even the bridge. The ship has an open-bridge policy, and the crew was eager to display and explain the various navigation aids a modern vessel uses. We returned on multiple occasions as questions about ship-board operations occurred to us.

A typical day on the cruise started with boarding the tenders with the ship-provided beach towels and chilled bottled water…This happy routine was for us the perfect combination of active excursions and pampered evenings.

During the crew introductions, we learned that many of them were from Greece. This became most apparent during our time onboard by the wonderful food selection – Greek salads, tzatziki, and pita; yummy spanakopita and pastitsio; and the most delicious deserts such as baklava. While we were enjoying our first gourmet multi-course dinner, the ship set sail for the first port of call – Curú National Wildlife Refuge and Hacienda. A typical day on the cruise started with boarding the tenders with the ship-provided beach towels and chilled bottled water.

When we returned to the ship after the various excursions, we were greeted with smiling faces, rolled wet washcloths, and cold drinks of fruit juice or ice tea. A welcome surprise the first time, we quickly learned to eagerly anticipate the greeting, especially after sweaty hikes or salty swims. After the day’s outing(s), we would have time to relax in the indoor or outdoor lounges, enjoying our “cocktail special of the day” and getting to know more of our fellow passengers. Then we would listen to the presentation about the next day’s activities by our onboard certified naturalist, Erica (a native Tica!), and our cruise director, Denise, followed by a wonderful dinner. This happy routine was for us the perfect combination of active excursions and pampered evenings.

During the next several days, we enjoyed private guided tours to many natural areas, including the Curú National Wildlife Refuge, Tortuga Island, Manuel Antonio National Park, Osa Peninsula, and the gardens of Casa Orquideas. We saw an amazing amount of wildlife, including monkeys, sloths, lizards, bats, frogs, birds, and flowers.

collage of various monkeys, bats and a lizard in the costa rica jungle

Clockwise from left: Ctenosaur lizard, 3-Toed sloth, Mantled howler monkey, White-faced capuchin monkeys, and Long-nosed bats
collage of different types of brightly colored birds in the costa rica rainforest

Clockwise from left: Chestnut mandible toucan, Yellow crown euphonia, female Cherrie’s tanager, male Cherrie’s tanager, and Red-capped manakin
brightly colored macaw parrots perched in a large palm tree on a sunny day in costa rica

Scarlet macaws
collage of different vibrant costa rica jungle flowers

Just a handful of the amazing flowers we saw

On two occasions, the crew setup an elaborate beach barbeque, with more selection and delicious food than I thought possible – one with the highlight of freshly-caught grilled Octopus. My husband and I also enjoyed trying the provided kayaks, stand-up-paddle board, and snorkeling equipment.

Panama

On our first day in Panama, we had the chance to snorkel off of Granito De Oro, which means “little grain of gold”. We were told it was a small island without any facilities, but that did not prepare me for how truly tiny it was.

However, once I was in the water, I felt like I was snorkeling in the middle of an aquarium!

There were fish everywhere – completely unconcerned about our presence. I saw so many more kinds than I could remember or identify. But the highlights including seeing Wrasse, Pufferfish, Boxfish, a pair of Spotted eagle rays, and spying a Spotted moray eel.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve onboard the ship was a special treat. Festivities included an open bar and a themed dinner with a souvenir menu. Then at around 11pm, the real party started! To our delight, the crew joined the passengers at the outside Ocean’s Bar. There were cocktails, champagne, appetizers, and music. There were also two large cakes – one for the crew and one for the passengers. Each one had a hidden coin inside. The crew member who found the coin won $100; the passenger who found the coin won a bottle of champagne. The boat was rocking, the breeze was blowing, and the dance floor was full. It was a wonderful evening!

On the first day of the new year, we docked off the beach of a native Embera Village. The villagers met our boat and welcomed us to their village, where a light feast was prepared. With the help of demonstrations and a local interpreter, they introduced us to some of their culture and customs. The Embera, both men and women, paint their skin with a blue dye called Jagua. We were told it had both sunscreen and insect repellant properties. The patterns reflect the nature around them, and also reflect their social status within the tribe.

It was a treat to watch the women show off their crafts and see the children dance.

indigenous girls wearing bright garb in the costa rica jungle

Embera Village girls preparing to dance

While the tribes are no longer isolated from modern amenities, it was good to witness how much effort and pride they took in maintaining their traditions, and to hope that our visit was helping them maintain a presence despite the outside pressures.

The next day was finally our crossing day.  Unfortunately, the large commercial vessels have the priority for day-time crossings, so we had to wait until this evening to start. In the meantime, we were taken ashore for a tour of Panama City. This city is MUCH bigger than I expected, with an impressive (and mostly new) skyline. The outing also gave us a chance to purchase lovely, hand-made hats!

three adventure travelers wearing hats stand in the harbor in panama city on a partly cloudy day

Our new hats, with Panama City in the background

We started our tour at the Miraflores Locks – the first set of locks when starting from the Pacific side of the canal. They have an interesting museum with exhibits about the history of the canal, a short movie, and the big draw – a large balcony from which one can see the locks in action.

It takes just 8 minutes to fill or empty one of the chambers. And the container ships are huge! There are only inches to spare on all sides. They are called Panamax ships, as they are the largest ships that will fit in the locks and under the Bridge of the Americas, and are required to travel in daylight. Because the largest ships traveling in opposite directions cannot pass safely within the Culebra Cut (on the Caribbean side of Lake Gatún), the canal operates an alternating one-way system during the day. Every ship has a Panamanian pilot take control when transiting the canal. They are all certified, and the training takes up to 8 years to complete.

We were able to enter the first lock shortly after dinner, joined by another small ship, the Lady Korcula. The sun had set, but the locks themselves were brightly lit. The top photo below shows the locks in the daytime. The bottom photo shows us as we were heading into the lock. The “mules” used to pull the ships are in a line on the right. The two men in the rowboat transfer the line from the ship to the waiting mules.

illuminated panama canal at night from the bow of a costa rica small ship

Miraflores Locks

The morning after the crossing was the final day of our trip. Once again, the transport arranged for us by Andrew was waiting for us as soon as we docked. Although sad to be leaving the ship and its crew, it was good to be heading home.

It was an amazing adventure, and one of my favorite trips of all time. We made a lot of new friends and created a lot of wonderful memories.

costa rica shoreline filled with lush foliage and palm trees seen on a small ship cruise

Beach in Costa Rica