AdventureSmith’s Jennifer Yordy travels to Panama aboard the 24-guest Panama Discovery catamaran. Her itinerary sailed an alternative route of the Panama Adventure Cruise; read on for her review of small ship cruising in Panama.

Ruins in old town Panama with the modern city skyline behind.

Guides, Crew & Small Ships Matter

I had the pleasure of having some of the best guides and crew during my time in Panama aboard the 24-guest Panama Discovery.

Before I talk about the highlights of my cruise, I want to talk about traveling aboard a small ship with guides and crew members. One of my favorite things about taking trips with AdventureSmith Explorations is traveling with our partners in their countries on such small, intimate adventure vessels. There’s something to be said about having a knowledgeable guide and crew when exploring these destinations. Their passion for what they do spills out of them and you just absorb all of it because it excites you and you become eager to learn and explore as much as you can. It also makes the trip that much more memorable.

Guide kneeling in the Gamboa rainforest pointing things out to guests on tour in Panama.

I had the pleasure of having some of the best guides and crew during my time in Panama aboard the 24-guest Panama Discovery. Ian and Fabio were hands down the most knowledgeable, fun, passionate and professional naturalist guides I have met to date. They made asking questions so easy and were so excited to share their knowledge. The crew aboard the Panama Discovery were also excited and passionate about what they do. When not working on the ship, they took turns going out on the land excursions to help the guides and guests. Everyone always had a smile on their face, a hand to lend and cocktails and snacks at the ready.

Happy guests on a skiff excursion off their small ship cruise in Panama.

The ship itself is Panamanian owned and operated, a bonus to not only support the local economy but also for insider knowledge of the Panama Canal and areas we explored. I loved the views from the Discovery. Large windows line the main deck and each cabin has two to three large windows, so you always have a beautiful view. The multiple outdoor areas make it easy to get some fresh air and enjoy the breeze as you cruise along.

Cruising through the Panama Canal

We began our journey through the canal by embarking on the Discovery in the Culebra Cut, the smallest part of the canal. Our transit time was pushed back due to fog in the canal earlier that morning. As we traveled south towards Pedro Miguel Lock, we passed several excavation ships docked on the sides of the canal where workers and machines were diligently trying to stay ahead of any potential landslides from the rain coming down that day.

People waving from the bow of a small ship cruise going through the locks in the Panama Canal.

It took a good hour and a half for us to reach the entrance of the lock. As we approached, our pilot ship hung back to wait for the large container ship that had been following us and would accompany us in our transit. We were first to enter, and as we bellied up as far forward as we could, the crew began to tie us off to the right side of the lock. Once tied off, another smaller catamaran entered the lock and tied off to our ship just as the container ship began to make its way slowly into the lock.

When the lock water was level with Miraflores Lake on the other side, the alarm sounded, and the gates began to open.

Once all ships were secured in the lock, the back gates closed, and it began to drain. As we slowly lowered down, our crew let out the connecting line. When the lock water was level with Miraflores Lake on the other side, the alarm sounded, and the gates began to open. With the gates fully opened, our crew untied the catamaran that was secured to us, so they could exit the lock first. It was our turn next, and as our line was released from the top of the lock we slowly made our way out. We traveled straight through Miraflores Lake and right into Miraflores Lock where we had front-row seats for our transit through the final lock. Want to see this in action? View my Panama Canal timelapse video.

The Pearl Islands

My time in the Pearl Islands was short but beautiful. The boat sailed in the early morning that day so when we woke up we were positioned just off the shore of Isla Cana. I opened the shades on my window to see a beautiful stretch of white-sand beach and lots of mangroves. I got dressed and hurried upstairs to take in the full view of where we were anchored; it was just us surrounded by sea with the island shore just a short kayak paddle away. 

Kayaks resting on the beach at the pearl islands with a small ship in the background.

Those who did not want to kayak to shore loaded up into the panga and made their way to land while the rest of us geared up and paddled our way to the beach. Once on shore, we set our things down in the chairs the crew had brought over early that morning and began to explore the area. The sand was white, with slits of black, the mangroves hung over the waterline and you could see their thick roots protruding out, creating a home for lots of hermit crabs. I wandered the beach for a while and then jumped into the warm ocean water.

After a couple of hours, the tide started to rise so we gathered our things and headed back to the boat. Those who wanted to kayak back loaded onto their kayaks, and Ian, our guide, took us a for a paddle along the shoreline of Isla Cana. He narrated our journey, detailing the different mangroves, birds and rock formations. Then we paddled back to the boat for lunch.

It was on Isla Contadora that the Spaniards counted the pearls that were harvested throughout the archipelago, which is why the name means “the one that counts.”

Right as we got back to the boat, a downpour began. The captain repositioned us farther north, just off Isla Contadora. It was on this island that the Spaniards counted the pearls that were harvested throughout the archipelago, which is why the name means “the one that counts.” Here we ate lunch aboard the boat, napped and then had the option to snorkel or just hang at the beach once the rain cleared out. I went snorkeling and even though the water wasn’t very clear, we still saw lots of parrotfish, butterflyfish and angelfish. Rain or shine, these islands and the surrounding waters are absolutely beautiful!

The Darien Jungle

The Darien is a thick, impassable, swampland jungle that borders Panama and Colombia; it’s 66 miles long and mostly untouched by the modern world. It is here that the Embera Indians call home.  

In order for us to get to the village we were visiting, we had to hitch a ride from locals with a boat that was able to go up river to La Chunga. They picked us up from our vessel and we made our way to the river mouth to begin our one-hour trek. The river was lined with mangroves and, as we passed through larger areas of the river, lots of fishermen. 

Local children from a village in the Darien Jungle greeting guests on tour from their small ship cruise in Panama.

Once we arrived at our landing area, we saw a group of children and tribe members waiting for us. They helped us out of our boat and onto the riverbank. Once everyone was safely on land, the children grabbed our hands and led us to their village. 

They showed how they use local plant fibers to weave baskets and rosewood for their carvings.

After an easy 20-minute walk, we came out of the forest and into a clearing where the village was built. It consisted of about 15 stilt houses, a school, a general store, a basketball court and a restroom for visitors. We were brought to a large meeting area where we met some of the local tribe members including the chief and the medicine man. They showed how they use local plant fibers to weave baskets and rosewood for their carvings, and the women performed a ceremonial dance used to help someone who is inflicted with a sickness.

My favorite part of this experience was the masked dancing. The women weave masks for the medicine man to use during the ceremony. The men play drums and maracas and chant, while the women dance around the ill person lying on the ground. The medicine man then uses the different masks to help draw out the sickness (demon) from the body. The purpose of using so many different masks is so that the demon does not recognize him; to trick the demon into leaving the body. Pretty wild!

Gamboa Rainforest

I love the forest. High desert, rain, ocean… I love it all. There’s something so healing about being out in nature, so any chance I get, I’m out there. And let me tell you, the rainforest in Panama was breathtaking. 

We had the opportunity to visit the Gamboa Rainforest on one of our days of travel and just like the Pearl Islands, I could have spent all day here. We arrived mid-morning after a heavy rainfall. It was still glistening from the downpour and the humidity was thick. We began our walk down the main road towards the observation tower, and after a few minutes we came across an agouti making his way through the forest. He was pretty well hidden walking about the forest floor, but every time he moved we could see his little body scurrying about. A little farther along, we came across very small frogs hopping across the road. Their skin color would change based on their surroundings.  

View from above the canopy on a tour in the Gamboa rainforest of panama.

As we approached the bottom of the observation tower stairs, our guide Fabio let us know to take it slow going up, as it is quite a climb and the temperature gets even hotter as we ascend. As we wound our way up the stairs I stopped to take in the beautiful, lush green forest that surrounded us. Once at the top we were able to catch our breath and take in the view. It was stunning!

For more photos from this trip, including jungle, beaches and even sloths, view my Facebook album on AdventureSmith Explorations’ Facebook page.

This Panama cruise review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Read all AdventureSmith Expert Reviews for more trip reports.  For dates, rates and booking information on this trip, see Panama Adventure Cruise, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about our small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.