Cruising the Caribbean: Sailing through Central America with One Ocean Expeditions

The One Ocean Expeditions ship, RCGS Resolute

The One Ocean Expeditions ship, RCGS Resolute

Scanning the parking lot just outside the gates of the old town in Cartagena, Colombia where a sea of tour buses was parked, my friend Amanda and I looked at each other in disbelief. There was no way we were going to be able to figure out which one of these bland, grey monstrosities was the one scheduled to take us back to our One Ocean Expeditions ship docked in the nearby cruise port. Knowing we were already running late, we were just about to give up our fruitless search for our ride home and hop in a cab when we spotted our expedition leader Boris Wise standing on the opposite side of the plaza, in front of a vibrantly painted, tricked-out chiva which is what locals use for transportation. Relieved to see a familiar face we ran straight over, trying to catch our breath as we explained that we couldn’t figure out which of the big tour buses was ours, and hoped we hadn’t missed our ride.

A wide smile broke out across his face, and with a twinkle in his eyes he motioned towards the colourful chiva. It turns out One Ocean does things a little differently than most cruise operators, going above and beyond to give guests authentic, memorable experiences in each port of call. Which today meant renting out an entire chiva to shuttle us back to the ship, complete with blaring music and free-flowing rum much to everyone’s surprise, delight and amazement, and quickly turning what would normally have been a hum-drum 10 minute drive back to port into an unforgettable hours-long dance party on wheels. This spontaneous shindig was the perfect introduction to what life is like onboard a One Ocean Expeditions ship, setting the tone for our weeklong adventure through Central America.

Our chiva in Cartagena, Colombia

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Perhaps best known for their ocean tours that venture through the Arctic and Antarctica, the Canadian-based cruise line began offering guests an opportunity to trade ice floes for sand bars with the introduction of their Pacific Ocean and Caribbean voyages in 2019. One Ocean’s small cruise ships are nimble enough to get near far flung spots like the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica and Panama’s Coiba Island which are inaccessible to larger vessels, which means the chance to explore some of the world’s most untouched areas or cross off bucket list-worthy experiences like sailing through the Panama Canal. Their inaugural voyage navigated along the postcard-perfect Pacific from Costa Rica to Panama, crossed through the canal, then looped back along the Caribbean coast of Panama all the way up to Mexico making stops at some of the most remote spots in Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Belize en route.

Joining the second leg of the Central America Explorer voyage, our nine-night journey kicked off in Panama City where we had a free day to explore the charming, colonial old town Casco Viejo before setting off with a local tour guide to admire sweeping views of the turquoise Chagres River from the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo. Since no trip to Panama is complete without a stop at the canal, we took about an hour to explore the visitors centre at the new Aguas Claras locks and watch a couple of massive tankers pass through the engineering marvel, before making the quick drive over to Colon, Panama to greet our ship. As soon as we set eyes on our new home for the week, we giddily realized we were in for quite a treat.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about a Panama Canal visit

Exploring Fort San Lorenzo in Panama with One Ocean Expeditions

Exploring Fort San Lorenzo in Panama

Exploring Fort San Lorenzo in Panama

The RCGS Resolute

The RCGS Resolute is one of the newest additions to the One Ocean fleet, a gleaming, snow white ship that’s surprisingly large considering it’s built to hold only about 100 guests. All that extra space means it’s seriously well-appointed, especially for an expedition vessel: think expansive outdoor decks, a library, spa with sauna and steam rooms, modern gym, mobile lab for on-site research work, observation lounge, gift shop, and multiple bars and restaurants.

The One Ocean Expeditions ship, RCGS Resolute

Our stateroom on the RCGS Resolute

One Ocean Expeditions cruise Our modern suite with two beds, a full bathroom and living area was incredibly spacious, and the clever storage solutions provided ample space to tuck away our belongings without having to trip over suitcases all week long. Oh, and let’s not forget the rooftop plunge pool with its adjoining hot tub (for this voyage, it was actually a cold tub providing welcome relief from the blazing Caribbean sun), which was the perfect place to enjoy some R&R and chat with fellow guests and staff.

The One Ocean Expeditions ship, RCGS Resolute

The One Ocean Expeditions ship, RCGS ResoluteThe One Ocean Expeditions Crew

Throughout our week at sea we got to know the fun crew members so well that at times it felt like we were all on vacation together, whether it was sharing bottles of wine during dinner, laughing as we jumped into the back of open truck beds to explore the island of Providencia, Colombia, or singing songs and swapping jokes to pass the time when our zodiac ran out of fuel in Honduras (oops). Our voyage had a 2-to-1 ratio of staff to guests, which meant impeccable service at every turn–I’m still trying to figure out how the lovely stewards and servers managed to memorize all of our names on the very first day.

Riding the zodiac with Boris in Honduras…that one time our boat accidentally ran out of fuel!
Photo by Jason Ransom

While the majority call Canada home, staff represent an impressive international rolodex of countries such as Hungary, Austria, the UK, Germany, Bulgaria, South Africa and the Philippines. On-board expertise includes massage therapists, historians, and a large number of ‘adventure concierges’ responsible for leading the included activities like zodiac rides, kayaking, snorkelling, yoga, paddleboarding and hiking. Take Kristy Wright Schell, the insanely flexible yoga instructor and pro SUP competitor who’s just as sweet as she is strong (hello #bodygoals); adventure concierge Steve Moir who can help guests with a gamut of requests, assisting with anything from paddleboard lessons to arranging cabs and tracking down power chargers; naturalist Matt Allen who’s always good for a great laugh or conversation, and program coordinator Eva Molin Westerholm and naturalist Geoff Carpentier who often had us in stitches with their wisecracks over the loudspeaker encouraging us to join one of the on-board lectures or happy hour.

There’s even a pro photographer on each of the ocean expeditions to capture every moment, and the curated collection of photos makes for an amazing keepsake for guests to take home. Our voyage employed the services of the incredibly talented Jason Ransom, an award-winning photojournalist who for years served alongside his wife as the official photographers for Canada’s former prime minister Stephen Harper. Aside from assembling nightly slideshows which are a fun way for us to relive the day, Ransom also leads easy-to-follow lessons about editing, composition, and tips for making the most of the camera on your smartphone. Just another way that One Ocean Expeditions elevates the cruising experience.

The lovely serving staff setting up lunch on the beach in Guanaja, Honduras

The Central America cruise

Aside from the on-board offerings like pirate parties (yes, really) and nightly lectures covering a wide range of topics related to the destinations like wildlife conservation or a glimpse into the life of infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, plenty of thought clearly went into how to make our time on land just as impactful. On this voyage we were set to visit some of Central America’s most beautiful islands, which just so happen to be notoriously difficult or expensive to access from the mainland. On top of that we’d be treated to authentic experiences, the kind of local encounters that separates travellers from tourists.

One of our first stops was the idyllic San Blas Islands in Panama, inhabited by the indigenous Kuna Yala tribe which independently runs the area separately from Panamanian laws and governance. The vibrant, colourful patterns woven into their hand-sewn clothes stood out against the brilliant white sand beach they greeted us on, and we were soon treated to a cultural demonstration and traditional dance.

RELATED: The best day trips from Panama City, Panama

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Panama

San Blas, Panama

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Panama

Photos by Jason Ransom

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Panama

San Blas, Panama

The dancing continued over in pastel-hued Cartagena when a wedding procession broke out as we boarded the chiva, and again on the tiny island of Guanaja, Honduras where our arrival was greeted with much fanfare from the locals in the form of a spirited conga line and marching band. It’s no wonder they were excited to see us: it turns out our ship was the first one to anchor here in more than three years. Our visit brought a welcome economic boost, since One Ocean contracted local guides to assist with our visit through the town and to nearby Michaels Rock Beach, where the water was such an intense cerulean blue it felt like we were swimming in an infinity pool.

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Colombia

Dancers greet a wedding procession in Cartagena, Colombia

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Guanaja, Honduras

Guanaja, Honduras

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Guanaja, Honduras

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Guanaja, Honduras

Guajana, Honduras

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Honduras

Guanaja, Honduras. Photos by Jason Ransom

Back in Colombia, Amanda and I took advantage of the full day in port to take an easy boat ride over to the nearby Rosario Islands, where we soaked up the sun and sipped pina coladas right out of a coconut while lounging on a plush cabana. In Providencia (normally accessed by a choppy four-hour ferry ride from the mainland or two expensive flights), One Ocean’s zodiacs deposited us right on the dock where we had the option to wander through town, head straight to the beach, or hike up The Peak to enjoy the most unbelievable island views–again, lead by locals who know the hills like the back of their hand. The humidity and height had us working up a sweat which made the mid-day break back at pristine South West Bay even sweeter, especially when a spread of fresh fish paired with ice-cold beers was served up on the beach. We savoured the flavours along with the feeling of soft, sparkling sand squished between our toes, while gazing out at the water.

Lounging on the beach in the Rosario Islands, Colombia

Climbing up to The Peak on Providencia, Colombia

Climbing up to The Peak

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Colombia

At the top of The Peak in Providencia, Colombia.
Photo by Jason Ransom

South West Bay, Providencia, Colombia

South West Bay, Providencia, Colombia

South West Bay, Providencia, Colombia

South West Bay, Providencia, Colombia

During the quick stop in Belize our group got to choose between a road trip out to the ruins of the Lamanai archaeological site, or snorkelling in the clear waters of Gallows Point Reef where we spotted eels, eagle rays and even dolphins. It was a short but sweet introduction to the country, the last full day of our cruise before setting sail for the diver’s paradise of Cozumel which would signal the end of our voyage.

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Belize

Belize City

But true to form, even though our cruise was technically over once we grabbed our bags and disembarked the ship off the east coast of Mexico, the fun was far from over. We’d made fast friends with fellow passengers and crew throughout the week, and had no problem assembling a fun group to make the most of our last few hours. We soon found ourselves in a convoy of fire-engine red scooters zipping around the entire island, ducking into beach clubs and capping off the adventure by planting ourselves on the sand. We sipped margaritas as waves lapped at our feet, the perfect way to end our six-country journey through Central America with One Ocean Expeditions.

One Ocean Expeditions cruise Cozumel scooters

One Ocean Expeditions cruise in Cozumel, Mexico

Cozumel, Mexico

One Ocean Expeditions cruise Cozumel
PRACTICALITIES:

  • Inclusions: All meals and activities (with the exception of the wine tasting session) are included. There are additional charges for alcohol, as well as soda in the restaurant. It’s worth noting some cabin classes include complimentary wine, beer and soda in cabins, and alcoholic beverages on the ship are very reasonably priced–particularly during happy hour. Tips for the expedition crew are also an additional charge.
  • What to bring: The RCGS Resolute uses European power outlets, so be sure to pack a converter like this one for your North American electronics. You’ll also want to bring plenty of sunscreen and bug repellent. Reusable water bottles are provided for each guest, and are a great souvenir to bring home. If you suffer from seasickness, you’ll definitely want to bring medication as the water can be very rough.
  • What to wear on board: One Ocean cruises are adventure expeditions, so leave the stuffy attire at home. The vibe around here is very relaxed and casual, so your wardrobe should focus on breathable, casual, sweat wicking clothes you can easily move around in. Don’t forget to bring a rashguard or long-sleeve shirt for snorkelling, as well as plenty of swimsuits, hats, activewear and a few evening-appropriate outfits (such as a collared shirt for gentlemen or a maxi dress for ladies).
  • Travel insurance: One Ocean Expeditions requires that each guest has travel insurance with sufficient coverage for emergency evacuation from a remote location and repatriation. I purchased mine through SafetyWing, and it only cost about $70 for an entire month in all of the countries we visited–a small price to pay for peace of mind. Click here to buy
  • Worth noting: One Ocean prides themselves on being an expedition company, which means the itinerary is much more flexible than one might experience with a larger cruise line and guests need to be adaptable. Factors such as weather or government regulations may impact the original plan, at which point the expedition leader and captain work together to plot an alternate route. During our Central America cruise, about half of the stops ended up being on different islands versus what was originally scheduled, including three full days at sea instead of just one.

Globe Guide explored Central America as a guest of One Ocean Expeditions. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.

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