WATCH: Highlights of the “Unveiled Wonders” cruise through Costa Rica and Panama with UnCruise Adventures
Fresh off exchanging stories about the day’s adventures over a relaxed cocktail hour in the sun-soaked lounge, it was just about time to head inside for dinner when the ship’s intercom cackled to life.
“Dolphins on the port side! Dolphins on the port side!”
Shrieks of excitement from all corners of the boat rang out, with guests streaming out of their cabins and abandoning half-sipped drinks at the bar to rush to the stern. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Less than 100 yards away, an entire pod of dolphins was chasing the white-capped waves our vessel churned up, joyfully leaping high into the air, even spinning, as if they were purposely putting on a show for us.
It was pure magic, the mesmerizing display lasting for a few minutes before they finally tuckered out and slipped back into the sea of blue. We continued sailing toward the horizon without another soul in sight, as the sunset’s glow bathed the ship’s bow in golden and rose hues. Just another day in the life on the UnCruise Adventures Unveiled Wonders trip through Central America.
In operation since 1996 and based out of Seattle and Alaska, UnCruise Adventures is beloved by guests for its epic itineraries to some of the most untouched places on the planet; think the Galapagos Islands, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the wilds of Alaska. Their Central America cruises give passengers unprecedented access to some of the most remote spots in Costa Rica and Panama, like Costa Rica’s beautifully raw Osa Peninsula, and Panama’s Granito de Oro which just might be the world’s most idyllic island.
Aside from dream-worthy destinations, the reason most guests book with UnCruise is because they go where the big boats can’t. The fleet is made up of expedition vessels and boutique yachts only holding between 22 and 90 passengers, and those small cruises mean explorations away from the masses. Chances are you’ll never come across another tour group on your trip, yet there’s still plenty of space on board to spread out. With a high crew-to-guest ratio no detail is overlooked, the service is impeccable with staff able to accommodate mobility or dietary needs, and small group sizes create camaraderie right from the very first cocktail hour.
The adventure ship
Forget everything you thought you knew about cruising: you won’t find any casinos, overpriced drinks or cheesy entertainment here. Instead, aptly-named UnCruise focuses on the best parts of adventure cruises like discovering untouched bays, greeting the day with sunrise yoga sessions on the top deck, all-inclusive plans so passengers never have to open their wallets, and informative presentations at night covering topics like turtle conservation, Panamanian history, and how to take better photos on a smartphone.
Our home for the week was the 62-passenger Safari Voyager, a sleek ship that stealthily sails through the gem-toned waters of the Pacific Ocean, navigating through the bucket list-worthy Panama Canal and into the Caribbean Sea to eventually dock in Colon. Our route was an eight-night voyage from Costa Rica to Panama (which can also be done in reverse), and one of three UnCruise offerings in the region with the others tacking on additional stops in Panama to stretch the adventure out over 10 or 12 nights.
Fresh off a relaxing day spent poolside at a resort in Costa Rica’s capital San Jose, our journey kicked off with a two-hour transfer to Puntarenas, a cute beach spot accented with a red and white striped lighthouse. Excitement grew as we caught our first glance of the gleaming ship anchored in the water just off the coastline, and thanks to the crew’s efficiency and the speedy pangas that zipped us through the waves it didn’t take long until we found ourselves on board, ready to get our adventure started. And over the next week, those adventures never, ever stopped.
Central America cruise
The first few days brought howler monkey, scarlet macaw and white-nosed coati sightings, leisurely walks through the tropical dry forests, and even rope swings on deserted beaches as we sailed through Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, best known for being home to Bahia Ballena and the Curú National Wildlife Refuge which is a nature lover’s paradise. Our group’s resident birders (or “bird nerds” as they fondly refer to themselves) were in heaven, spending quiet mornings spotting rare species like the sunshine yellow tropical kingbird, northern jacana, and the vibrantly-hued green-breasted mango hummingbird.
Sailing into the Osa Conservation Area which is virtually inaccessible otherwise gave us the opportunity to explore serene Drake Bay, where our skiffs silently glided through the emerald water as we got an up close look at an American crocodile, boat bill and yellow crown herons. Up next was the Saladero Rainforest, where a few of us opted to hop into kayaks and paddle through the calm, glass-like cove into a thick mangrove forest. As our boats bobbed among the dry vegetation twisting over us like a shield from the blazing sun, our guide Jose encouraged us to close our eyes and simply listen to the soothing sounds of the rainforest where insects hummed, the wind rustled the leaves on the trees, and birds sang all around us. It was a truly an unforgettable experience, but incredibly not the only standout moment of the day; no, that came half an hour later as we were paddling back and were greeted by a pod of dolphins leaping in and out of the water around our kayaks, keeping us entertained as we tried to guess where they would appear next.
By the time we sailed into Panama it was hard to believe our adventure was only halfway through, as our heads, hearts and bellies (yes, the food on board is absolutely amazing) were already full from the past few days. But one of the best spots was yet to come: Granito de Oro, a little piece of paradise that staff nicknamed the ‘cartoon island’ since its grove of palm trees and rounded, sandy shoreline are so perfect it seems like a drawing. That perfect day started by slipping on snorkelling gear to explore the crystal-clear waters surrounding the tiny island, and it didn’t take long to spot giant sea turtles, a manta ray lurking at the bottom, and even a school of hundreds of big eye jack fish. The spectacular sight was enough to prompt our guide Gabe–a proud Panamanian–to pull off his mask and excitedly cry out “this is Panama baby, this is Panama!”
The rest of that sun-drenched excursion had us cracking into ice cold beers on the golden beach, hitting the water in our kayaks, and hopping on stand up paddleboards. Best of all, save for a couple of small groups that quickly came and went we had the entire place to ourselves.
As our ship continued to navigate Panama’s southern coast, we enjoyed stops at Isla Iguana to marvel at a gigantic frigate bird colony circling overhead, and Taboga Island where we ambled through the colourful neighbourhoods, sipped on water straight out of coconuts, and climbed up Cerro de la Cruz to soak in spectacular views of the volcanic island spread out below with Panama City’s glittering skyline in the distance. Despite Taboga’s population of only 1,000 people it felt like the first sign of civilization we’d seen the entire trip, easing us back into real life that awaited us on the other side of the Panama Canal.
When it finally came time for the last leg of our journey, you could feel the excitement vibrating through the ship. For many people seeing the Panama Canal is bucket list-worthy enough, much less actually getting to experience crossing on a ship and having a front row seat to one of the world’s most impressive feats of engineering. We all knew how lucky we were, and were determined to soak up every minute of it.
Until we found out we were crossing at 2 AM.
As one can imagine the canal is rather popular, and each ship is charged thousands of dollars for the privilege of sailing through it. That means they have no control over what time their crossing is scheduled for, and they’d better be ready to go otherwise the spot is forfeited and the payment is non-refundable. Our voyage cost around $18,000 based on the number of berths, and some of the large vessels carrying shipping containers are charged an astounding $450,000. This time around our UnCruise was scheduled to start heading through the waterway at sunset, and with a six-hour crossing ahead that meant our captain would be navigating the canal until dawn. That left us with a choice: enjoy the experience of going through the first set of locks then call it a night, or pull an all-nighter to watch the ship pass through the remaining two sets of locks and glide through Gatun Lake out to the Caribbean Sea. To no one’s surprise, all of us save for two energetic guests happily went with the first option.
As the Safari Voyager pulled into the bay weaving through a maze of tankers to head into the locks, we all clamoured up to the top deck in a scene reminiscent of our earlier excitement over the pod of leaping dolphins. The setting was tranquil with a pink-hued sunset casting a glow over the imposing Bridge of the Americas as we passed beneath it, sailing alongside the colourful Biomuseo that seemed to have drawn inspiration from a Rubix’s Cube while the city’s silver skyscrapers peeked out of the horizon. The dockyard was a hub of activity as giant machines shifted shipping containers, and sparks ignited by welders lit up against the darkening sky.
With cocktails in hand we jockeyed for position at the ship’s bow, gazing up at the imposing iron locks that marked the gateway to the Panama Canal. We raised our glasses for a toast, and as if on cue the gates began to part, welcoming us to the final leg of an unforgettable journey through Central America with UnCruise Adventures.
What to pack for an UnCruise adventure:
Leave your fancy threads behind: the vibe onboard an UnCruise is comfortable and casual, even at dinner. Focus on bringing enough sweat-wicking, breathable clothes to get through the week (there aren’t laundry facilities available), and avoid synthetic fabrics or heavy cotton–it gets way too hot and humid in Central America for those.
Each cabin has a hair dryer, soap, shampoo, conditioner and lotion, as well as binoculars. Sunscreen, insect repellent and motion sickness medications are also provided on board. Some items you might want to consider packing include:
- A rash guard for snorkelling (there can be tiny jellyfish in the water around Granito de Oro, fortunately if they do sting you it’s only a slight pinch)
- A large hat and polarizing sunglasses
- Flip flops, some type of water shoes, and closed toed runners. Some guests may want to bring hiking shoes, but none of the trails are intense enough that they’re required.
- A camera with plenty of SD cards for all the photos you’re bound to take
Globe Guide experienced Central America in partnership with UnCruise Adventures. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.
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