Sitting quietly in our panga by the shoreline, our guide silently pointed toward a tree above us to where a three-toed sloth was resting in the branches. The sound of birds filled the humid air and I turned my head as a large caiman slipped into the water from the muddy bank about 20 feet away. The jungle before me was as lush and alive as any tropical forest scene I’d encountered anywhere in the world. Behind our tiny boat, not far away at all, a gigantic ocean-going cargo freighter motored slowly past. That ship, one of the largest on earth, would seem alarmingly out of place anywhere else, but not here: Gatun Lake, in the center of the Panama Canal. The giant lake, a man-made creation and colossal feat of engineering, allows the Canal to connect the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
Surrounding the Lake and the Canal, and filling much of Panama in general, is a fantastic jungle with world-class biodiversity and access. A visitor aboard a small ship can, in a week, be immersed in wildlife, native cultures, colonial history and the astounding project that is the Panama Canal.
Discovery Ship Review
I lived for a week aboard the luxury-class mega-catamaran Discovery. The maroon-hulled ship offers a highly comfortable floating home from which to explore Panama up-close. With a talented English-speaking naturalist guide and a supportive, friendly professional crew, the Discovery experience is thoughtfully designed to maximize opportunities for learning, off-boat activity and unique jungle perspectives for its guests.
The Discovery is small enough to maneuver into rivers and coves that a bigger ship could never consider.
The ship features two metal-hulled pangas (motorboats) and a fleet of sit-on-top kayaks for water-borne exploration. Kayaks are easily entered and exited via a mechanized metal platform on the aft deck: the platform is raised and lowered to allow stable, steady access to even a novice kayaker. Meanwhile, the Discovery itself is small enough to maneuver into rivers and coves that a bigger ship could never consider. There are several outside decks that allow for photography and relaxation (and in the Panama Canal, I could easily reach out and touch the walls of the locks). In fact, on the front of the ship guests can access all three levels on forward-facing decks. Throughout, the ship is designed in a sleek modern style.
Inside, all of the cabins are located on the Main Deck. All rooms are roughly the same size, fully above the water line, and feature large picture windows with a nice dark tint for the tropical sun. The air-conditioning system keeps the cabins and public spaces comfortable day and night. One deck higher, a lounge and dining area occupies the entire floor. With a maximum of only 24 guests, there is plenty of room to spread out on chairs and couches in the lounge. Large front-facing windows ensure that no one misses a thing even when reading a book or sipping a cocktail indoors. And, if one’s interest is piqued by something outside, two doors exit to the starboard and port decks. Superb food is offered for all meals and snacks and is served in an upscale but casual setting. In particular, I credit the chef for understanding that guests would not want large portions or heavy meals in the tropical climate. The food selection was light, fresh and not overly seasoned, much to the enjoyment of the guests who hailed from around the world.
Panama Adventure Cruise Review
Our itinerary began in Panama City on the Pacific (southern) side of the isthmus. We boarded the historic Panama Canal Railway to travel parallel the Canal to Colon on the Caribbean coast. With comfortable air-conditioned cars as well as open-sided cars for photography, the train ride was a great introduction to the Canal. The train passed through thick jungle and alongside large areas of water filled with “ghost forests” of trees flooded during the creation of Gatun Lake.
Walking through the humble town, a small market offered the colorful fabric Mola designs weaved by the local Kuna people.
In Colon we met a bus for a 1-hour ride along rural roads to the historic city of Portobelo. There, we visited the Spanish fort and learned about the rich naval and trade history of the town. The walls of the fort were made mostly of large blocks of brain coral; the surface area and air pockets inherent to the coral’s structure allowed the walls to absorb and withstand cannonball fire better than any other available materials. Walking through the humble town, a small market offered the colorful woven-fabric Mola designs produced by the local Kuna people. Beyond the market was the Church of the Black Christ, a famous landmark.
Driving back toward Colon, we made a detour to a viewpoint overlooking the new channel being dug for the Panama Canal. We saw, from above, a massive man-made concrete canyon that will soon play host to the gigantic “post-Panamax” size ships that are too large to fit into the existing Panama Canal. On the land above the artificial trench sat the new metal doors for the locks, each as tall as an office building. Looking closely into the cut of the Canal, we could see hundreds of people and trucks moving about like ants. Observing this sight felt surreal, like being on the set of an ambitious science fiction movie.
We boarded the ship in Colon. Settling in, we sailed out of the main port into the Caribbean for the short journey to the mouth of the Chagres River. The river, “discovered” in 1504 by Christopher Columbus, is guarded at the entrance by the well-preserved ruins of Fort San Lorenzo. Together with the town of Portobelo, the Fort constitutes a UNESCO World Heritage Site referred to as “Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama.” With our ship anchored for the night in the protected waters of the river under the Fort, I enjoyed a swim in the warm water and a lecture about the history of the Panama Canal from our guide.
The following day we explored the jungle edges of the river in kayaks and then took the pangas 3 miles up the river to the Gatun Dam. The jungle was filled with visible life: heron, sloths, blackhawks, caiman, vultures, howler monkeys, egrets, basilisk “Jesus Christ” lizards and motmot birds. Many hundreds of feet above us, beyond the top of the immense Dam, we could see giant cruise ships slowly moving across the Panama Canal.
We were directed into the Gatun Locks with a humongous container ship, so that we looked like a tiny pilot fish accompanying a great white shark.
Soon, it was our turn to experience the Canal by ship. The Discovery returned to Limon Bay in Colon and picked up a Canal pilot who would captain the ship through the locks. We were fortunate to enter the Canal in daylight hours so that we could see and understand the complex logistics and mechanisms that allow a steady flow of ships through the 100-year-old passage. We were directed into the Gatun Locks with a humongous container ship, so that we looked like a tiny pilot fish accompanying a great white shark. Many guests aboard Discovery sat out on deck watching the choreography of the numerous people, cars, ropes, rowboats and miniature trains required to make the locks work smoothly and safely. I was fascinated to learn that the doors and machinery controlling each lock were almost all original equipment, now 100 years old. Passing through the locks to enter the Canal, our ship went up 3 stages to get to Gatun Lake. With the Lake at the “top” and the ocean at the “bottom” of each end of the Canal, it is only the locks keeping the water “in” the Canal and Gatun Lake. The sheer scale and audacity of this design can be tangibly felt when inside the lock stages.
Exiting the locks into Gatun Lake, we were immediately surrounded by rich jungle and wide watery views. If not for the parade of container ships moving across the lake, I would easily forget that I was in the Panama Canal. Exploring in a panga with our guide, I saw hummingbirds, snail falcons, sloths, vultures, caiman, crocodiles, heron, turtles and lizards. Mango and passionfruit trees were visible in places. In the afternoon, we stopped for a visit to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on the island of Barro Colorado. Claudio, a staff member there, provided a comprehensive lecture and a guided walk on the connecting forest trails. On the walk, aside from sweating through my shirt, I was able to see howler monkeys, snakes, motmot, coati, huge moths, woodpeckers, army ants and two poison dart frogs. We spent a relaxing evening on the boat; it was Election Day in Panama and the ship’s crew were abuzz about the results.
The following morning we waited for a Canal pilot to join our ship for the navigation through the Gaillard Cut and the locks to the Pacific Ocean. It was dramatic to pass the Continental Divide and sail under the Bridge of the Americas. We entered the San Pedro Locks with a massive car carrying freighter ship and began to descend. Meanwhile on the other side of the lock next to us, a container ship was ascending and was soon looming high above us. Even the locks contain wildlife: heron, egrets, crocodiles and pelicans feasted on the fish that became cornered by the lock doors. Soon we were sailing out of the Panama Canal to the Flamenco Marina southeast of Panama City.
The next morning we sailed into the Gulf of Panama for several hours to our destination, the Pearl Islands. These sun-splashed offshore islands are now primarily resort islands with excellent beaches, and we took advantage of the setting to have a relaxing afternoon of swimming and laying on the beach. Later, we used the Discovery to visit a few different islands, including one beach where the rusting remains of the Civil War–era submarine Explorer sits on display at low tide.
In the evening we sailed south toward a seldom-visited chunk of Panama called the Darien. This region is famous for impassible jungle swamps and, unfortunately, for criminal activity relating to drug trafficking. Indeed, the Pan-American Highway, which stretches 19,000 miles from Alaska to the southern tip of South America, is interrupted only at “the Darien Gap.” We sailed up the Rio Sambu to the Embera village of La Chunga. Greeted by a swarm of extremely cute local children, we were shepherded up a dirt path to the village. There, we were greeted warmly by the adults and treated to a tour and stories. I found the atmosphere to be relaxed and not awkward (which I had feared, I admit), as very few ships or other visitors come to this village. Even Discovery doesn’t come very often at all, and our guide brought big bags full of supplies and gifts for the community.
The residents of this Embera village cover their skin in a black pigment from the Jagua fruit: an important cultural and family tradition but also a natural mosquito repellent.
The town feels carved out of the jungle, with the residents living in simple wood huts that are typically built on stilts to raise them off the ground. Chickens and dogs run around. A few teenagers wear t-shirts and shorts but virtually everyone else wears only a simple loincloth. Their skin is heavily covered in black pigment from the Jagua fruit. This style of temporary tattoo is important for cultural and family tradition, but also has the effect of warding off mosquitoes. I met a Peace Corps volunteer named Charles who introduced me to a group of village women who were starting a small tourism effort: they built a stilted platform meant to host visitors for a few days. During the visit, guests would participate in foraging, food preparation and other daily tasks.
We said goodbye to the villagers (the kids gave us a very energetic send-off at the river’s edge) and went back up the river to meet Discovery. Sailing north to the Pearl Islands, we were treated to a nice sunset as dolphins and brown boobies crossed the ship’s path. Late in the evening, we arrived at Panama City.
To watch the sun set after visiting a humble Embera jungle village and watch it rise the next morning on the glittering glass skyscrapers of Panama City felt jarring but not surprising considering how small and wild Panama is. Panama City, just like tiny La Chunga, is merely a human settlement carved out of the jungle. Everywhere, constantly, the jungle creeps in and humans must push it back if they are to maintain their tenuous place in it. In that context, it is staggering to consider the mammoth efforts required of thousands of laborers and the audacious planners to build the Panama Canal through the unforgiving jungle. On this voyage, I was able to appreciate and learn about this unique interplay of humanity and nature in an intimate and deeply enriching way.
For more photos from Aaron’s Panama cruise, view his Panama Adventure Cruise Facebook album.
This Panama small ship cruise review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Read all AdventureSmith Expert Reviews for more trip reports, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about these small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.