Eco-cruising in Central America

The Pacific coasts of Costa Rica and Panama are lined with national parks and nature preserves, reefs and rain forests. This is eco-tourism territory -- off limits to the big ships, but increasingly attractive to small-ship operators and to a growing number of consumers who are more interested in exploring the natural world than in casinos, duty-free shopping and Carlos 'n Charlie's.

We recently journeyed through the region on a seven-day cruise aboard Cruise West's Pacific Explorer, a 100-passenger, 185-foot-long vessel well-suited for navigating the narrow passages between offshore islands and bringing guests in close to shore for unique and engaging excursions.

Perhaps we shouldn't call it Cruise West's ship � for in fact, the Pacific Explorer is owned and operated by a Cruise West partner called Temptress Cruises, based in Costa Rica. Temptress is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the ship, and for its crew. Cruise West provides the expedition leaders (i.e. naturalists) and handles the sales, reservations and marketing of the cruises. The ship's crew, officers, and the expedition leaders were Costa Ricans and Panamanians, although all spoke English. The only American on board our sailing other than the passengers was an energetic Cruise West coordinator (recruited from her summer job as a Park Ranger in Alaska) who served as de facto cruise director and kept everything running smoothly.

Click on the photos to see them full-size:

Typical Pacific Explorer Cabin   Costa Rican Canopy Tour

Click on the photos to see them full-size:

Embera Tribe Girls   Embera sell goods to tourists

The draw for a cruise like this is the itinerary and the shore visits; for all but the most intrepid travelers, this is the easiest way to see most of the remote places we visited. And that's a good thing, because the native flora and fauna (and at one stop, the native people) of Central America's Pacific Coast will best be preserved for future generations if they remain at a remove from civilization and its tourist hordes.

The Shipboard Experience On such a small vessel, passengers necessarily forego many of the luxuries and amenities of a large cruise ship. There's one dining room where guests seat themselves at booths or tables for four to eight people. There's one bar on the top deck (alcoholic drinks are not included in the cruise price), which opens onto a sun deck. There's a lobby lounge next to the dining room, and a comfortable observation lounge overlooking the bow, just below the bridge. And that's it for the public areas on board; most of the space on the ship's three decks is occupied by passenger and crew cabins.

The fellow passengers on our cruise were mainly older and retired. Personal mobility issues might put off some elderly folks off from this kind of cruise, for three reasons: 1) The three-deck ship has no elevator; 2) Due to its size, the ship tends to sway, pitch and roll much more than a mega-vessel; and 3) All of our shore visits, except for the final docking in Panama City, were "wet landings" � i.e., passengers went ashore six to eight at a time in zodiacs and had to wade through the surf for a few feet or yards to get onto terra firma. (Still, these factors may not necessarily be a deterrent. Word was, we had one woman passenger who was 100 years old; and we noticed another woman, wheelchair-bound for much of the time, who nonetheless went ashore in the zodiacs almost every day � along with her wheelchair.)

Scarlet McCaw   Monkey at Cana Blanca Preserve

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100-passenger Pacific Explorer   Panama canal Miraflores locks

Cruisers who choose this ship and itinerary should be prepared to cut themselves off from the world: There is no on-board Internet access for passengers; cell phones don't work in this region; and the TVs in each cabin are only for watching videos from the ship's library. A condensed New York Times printout was distributed during the week, but only sporadically.

Dining Breakfasts came with waiter service and a choice of hot and cold dishes. Lunch was usually served buffet-style in the dining room, but with some variety � one day, it was a buffet on the sun deck; another day, the crew prepared a barbecue on shore. For dinner, passengers had a daily choice among three entrees � one meat, one fish and one vegetarian � plus the option of ordering steak or chicken each night. Dinner came with a salad, soup course and dessert; wine was optional and billed to your account. Dinner was preceded each night by a social hour at the bar/sun deck, including a recap of the day's activities by the naturalists and a preview of the next day's schedule.

Food quality on the ship was inconsistent � ranging from good/excellent to so-so. The service likewise ranged from snappy to lackadaisical. Some passengers we spoke to who had been on Cruise West's Alaska trips said that the shipboard experience on those cruises was noticeably superior to the Pacific Explorer, and that the Alaska ships appeared better-maintained and more frequently refurbished. The differences can no doubt be explained by the fact that the Pacific Explorer, as we mentioned above, is not really a Cruise West ship.

The Cabins Most passenger cabins are the same, and all are compact and fairly Spartan: Twin berths (not large or plush enough to be called beds) are separated by a small four-drawer dresser. There's individually-controlled air conditioning, and cabins have large windows above the beds -- and they can be opened. For storage, there's a small, narrow closet; a few more drawers below it; several open shelves; and a small table (and stowage room under the berths, of course). The tiny bathroom has a shower, toilet, and washstand with one small shelf and a storage cabinet behind the mirror. Two people will not fit into the bathroom simultaneously. But like I mentioned earlier, people don't select a cruise like this for the onboard amenities and activities � the action is on shore.

Going Ashore We boarded the Pacific Explorer from a jetty at the Marriott Los Suenos resort on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica after a three-hour bus ride from the capital city of San Jose. It was the only time the gangway would be deployed until we reached Panama City. After an overnight sail, the ship was positioned to begin its daily series of shore stops and eco-touring.

Shore trips focused on nature walks and hikes, visits to national parks and nature preserves, and beach stops for barbecues, snorkeling and kayaking. All shore activity was included in the cruise price, with two exceptions: One day, passengers could opt for a rain forest canopy tour ($85), which involved hiking through heavy jungle and walking across some very high, narrow and spindly foot bridges � think Indiana Jones -- among the treetops (not for the faint of heart). Another day, a "zip line" experience was available ($55) for those who wanted to fly through the treetops wearing a harness clipped onto steel cables.

Costa Rican Red-eyed Tree Frog

At all stops, the ship's five naturalists were available for expert commentary and observations on the local flora and fauna; there were enough of them that passengers could coalesce in small groups of 10 or 15 for the walks. The naturalists usually carried binoculars (although many passengers brought their own) and a powerful tripod-mounted telescope, since many of the birds and such that they spotted were otherwise hard to pick out among the dappled forest cover. (Note to photographers: Bring a long lens, but be aware that much of the wildlife can be elusive and fast-moving, and/or in shadows; also be aware that when you bring the camera out of your air-conditioned cabin, you should allow some time for the lens to de-fog; and put it in a plastic bag for protection during the "wet landings.")

What you see depends on where you are. The first day, during walks through Costa Rica's Manuel Antonio National Park, passengers spotted sloths in the trees and iguanas on the ground. The second day, when passengers were ashore for a barbecue in Corcovado National Park on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula, the site was invaded by a playful group of white-faced monkeys. The third day brought a visit to a private reserve called Cana Blanca where volunteers work to rescue injured scarlet macaws and monkeys of various species; and a stop at Casa Orquideas Botanical Gardens, home to a plethora of plants, from several species of palm trees to more than 100 varieties of orchids.

On the fourth day, passengers hit the beach on the little island of Granito de Oro in Panama's Coiba Naitonal Park; the highlights here were kayaking and snorkeling (equipment for both is provided at no cost to anyone who wants to participate) . Snorkelers got a glimpse of parrot fish, moray eels, coronet fish, puffers, sea turtles, and white-tipped sharks. One kayaker who strayed a bit far from shore said a very large, unidentified marine creature � possibly a small whale � broke the surface just a few feet from the tip of her paddle. While the ship was moving in the open sea, it was common to see dolphins leaping alongside, sea snakes writhing through the water, and flying fish skimming over the waves.

The Embera Village The ship's next stop was in Panama's remote Darien Jungle region � so thickly forested that the builders of the Pan American Highway left a gap in the road rather than trying to cut their way through � for a visit to a seaside village of the Embera people, an indigenous tribe whose members live in open-air, thatch-roofed huts and raise corn, pigs and chickens. The villagers, dressed in colorful loincloths accessorized with homemade jewelry and body paint, came down to the beach to welcome cruise passengers ashore. After touring the village and learning about the natives' lifestyle, passengers assembled in a large, open pavilion to watch the local women and girls put on dance demonstrations, then got a chance to purchase the tribe's handicrafts, like polished wood carvings and finely-woven, colorfully-patterned baskets. As an added attraction, the Emberas' young men took on the ship's crew in a soccer match.

At this shore stop, passengers also got a chance for a final nature walk in the jungle behind the village (we went along and saw a tree full of white egrets; a blue heron; a squirrel cuckoo; an Amazon kingfisher; various hummingbirds; the peculiar "Jesus Christ lizards," so named because they can walk (well, run, actually) across the surface of streams; and a group of rare night monkeys, who generally sleep inside a tree trunk during daylight hours (except when roused by a naturalist scratching on the tree).

Into the Canal The cruise wound up at a dock near Panama City, where the final full day's attraction was a trip in an excursion boat up into the Panama Canal. The excursion took us through the Miraflores Locks and up through the Culebra Cut to experience this man-made wonder of the world, passing by a number of huge containerships, oil tankers and car carriers along the way. We then boarded a motorcoach for a drive back down to the Miraflores Locks, where we paid a visit to the Panama Canal Visitors Center and Musuem before returning to the ship for a final overnight.

In 2007, Cruise West will offer this seven-day "Coast to Canal" trip four times in November and December, with a starting price of $3,249 per person, double. A nine-day version called "Between the Two Seas" adds a complete transit of the Panama Canal; that version will operate multiple departures from January through April 2007 and is priced from $3,999. For details see

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