Cruising through the coast of riches in Central America

A cruise through the Panama Canal and west along the coast to Costa Rica reveals a world of sleepy ports, colonial ruins and pristine nature reserves.

The Panama Canal as seen from Ancon Hill in Panama City.

Eddie Gerald / Demotix / Corbis
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I watched from the deck as the enormous steel gates swung shut behind us and gallons of water gushed into the stone-walled enclosure, forcing our vessel upwards. I was taking the world’s most famous shortcut. The Panama Canal, a vital trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and an incredible feat of engineering, turns 100 this year and it’s still an awe-inspiring stretch of water. In an epic story of tragedy and triumph, thousands died during its construction, begun by the French from 1880 to 1903, and finished by the Americans between 1904 and 1914.

Unlike the first pioneers, I was experiencing it from the comfort of the Variety Voyager, a newly built 68-metre mega yacht. Dwarfed by conventional cruise ships, with only 36 spacious cabins, it's an intimate way to take to the high seas and attracts a loyal following. Many of the passengers – American, English, Dutch and French among them – have sailed with Variety before.

The hands-on crew hail from equally diverse countries. The captain is Greek, the first mate Egyptian, the executive chef Mauritian – but everyone went out of their way to make us feel at home on our week-long cruise.

We’d set sail from Colón, a louche port on the Caribbean side of the canal, and were soon sitting down to dinner in the indoor-outdoor restaurant, where free seating at shared tables made for a convivial atmosphere. After dinner, there was no lavish entertainment but you could dance on deck under a star-studded sky.

The lure of many cruise ships is non-stop entertainment, from cabaret to casinos, and innumerable daytime diversions. This, however, is another type of cruise; one where the main interest lies in the ports of call, the wildlife and the water sports.

On our first night at sea, the gentle sway of the ship was like being rocked in a cradle and I slept like a baby, waking to a view of dozens of islets ringed by translucent water. Our first stop was Panama’s San Blas archipelago, home to the fiercely autonomous Kuna Indians and, on an excursion to a nearby village, it was clear that they were clinging to their ancient traditions. The legs and arms of the diminutive Kuna women were covered in strings of multicoloured beads, heavy gold rings hung from their noses and their blouses were made from a hand-embroidered cloth, known as a mola. Their huts are still made from cane and palm thatch – although there were TV aerials perched on top of bamboo poles. Scores of children played happily in the dusty streets and in the Congress House, the village chief passed edicts from a hammock.

The following morning, we dropped anchor outside Portobelo. Exploring its languid streets, it was hard to believe that it was once the most important port in the Caribbean, where New World treasure was shipped back to Spain. All that remains of its heyday are the atmospheric ruins of stone fortresses, ransacked numerous times by buccaneers, and the stately Customs House, once piled high with Peruvian gold, standing tall among the clapboard houses.

Back on the Voyager, we returned to Colón and excitement mounted as we joined the vessels queuing to enter the canal. Although the process is largely automated now – there are electric "mules", unique engines, to guide vessels along the 77 kilometre-long waterway – it still employs the original principle of gravity to fill a series of channels that flow into and out of the three locks, raising and lowering the water level of each one in turn.

On route, we passed engineering marvels like the Galliard Cut, a 9-mile passage through solid rock; Gatun Lake, the largest man-made reservoir in the world when it was completed in 1913; and numerous ferries, liners and leviathan cargo ships.

The canal saves ships from circumnavigating the southern tip of South America, a treacherous 30-day voyage of almost 12,900 kilometres. Our transit took around nine hours but by the time we reached Panama City in the early hours, only a few diehard passengers remained on deck.

Away from the canal, Panama is a tale of three cities. Downtown resembles a mini-Miami: a skyscraping hub of international finance, shopping malls and sophisticated nightlife. There’s so much construction under way that the locals joke the country’s national bird is the crane.

Across the bay, tombstone-like ruins are all that’s left of Old Panama. Sacked by pirates in 1671, it was replaced by the colonial Casco Viejo, a mini-Havana where crumbling pastel-coloured mansions line the cobblestone streets. Now it’s undergoing an ambitious restoration and the buildings are being filled with boutique hotels, shops and restaurants. “In a few years it will be completely gringofied,” our guide remarked cheerfully.

There were daily excursions but the occasional afternoon at sea meant time for a siesta, reading in the air-conditioned lounge or simply gazing out at the endless expanse of sea and sky from a shady spot on deck. Curious pods of dolphin would often race alongside us, frigate birds flew past in strict formation and brown pelicans nosedived into the water, emerging with fish wriggling in their beaks.

The amiable Captain Andreas left the door to the bridge open, and passengers could drop in to study the array of electronic navigation equipment, as well as peruse the old-fashioned hand-drawn charts.

We sailed along Panama’s Pacific coast to Coiba Island, the site of an infamous prison until 2004, when its pristine state and unique marine environment turned it into a National Park. After a feet-in-the-sand BBQ of freshly caught fish and tropical fruits, we sailed to Granito de Oro, an archetypal paradise island, populated only by palm trees, with powder-fine white sand and bath-warm water.

The waters around Coiba teem with life and just snorkelling off the beach I descended into a seemingly infinite array of vibrant coral and evocatively named fish – parrotfish, butterflyfish, angelfish. My heart skipped a beat as I floated over a white-tipped reef shark patrolling the sea bed but, with shoals of iridescent fish darting around, I wasn’t on the menu.

Throughout the cruise Elliot, the ship’s naturalist guide, gave entertaining talks on local history and, as we entered Costa Rican waters, his country’s staggering biodiversity. Millions of years ago, it became part of a land bridge connecting the continents of North and South America, allowing its flora and fauna to mix – no wonder the Spanish conquerors christened it the Rich Coast.

Now Central America’s number one eco-tourism destination, it has 27 per cent of its land mass devoted to national parks and reserves – from dense rainforests to mist-wreathed cloud forests, marine reserves to still-smoking volcanoes – that are home to around 6 per cent of the world’s plant and animal species.

That night, we set sail for the Osa Peninsula, one of the country’s wildest and most isolated areas, dropping anchor in Drake Bay, the gateway to Corcovado National Park. Made up of lagoons, mangrove swamps, rivers and rainforest and ringed by pristine coastline, it’s been dubbed “one of the most biologically intense places on Earth”.

Everything on our gentle hike through the steamy forest was supersized, from the butterflies – giant blue morphos – to the foliage – elephant ears the size of umbrellas and lofty trees laden with bromeliads. We followed the low growl of howler monkeys and found a troop spread-eagled on high branches, basking in the sunshine.

The marine life was equally remarkable and we were lucky to spot a barnacle-pocked humpback whale gliding under the water like an enormous shadow before she came up for air with a loud splash. Eagle rays jumped joyfully out of the water and a hawksbill turtle paddled gracefully on the surface before disappearing into the depths.

Quepos, our penultimate port-of-call, used to survive on fishing and palm oil before tourism took over. Tiny Manuel Antonio National Park is the big draw, backed by verdant rainforest and fronted by stunning beaches; it’s one of the easiest places in the country to spot wildlife.

We were met at the entrance by a black spiny-tailed iguana and along the trail our sharp-eyed guide spotted a flamboyantly coloured poison dart frog, no bigger than a thumbnail, a cyanide-oozing millipede that smelt faintly of almonds, and a perfectly camouflaged Jesus Christ Lizard, so called because they can walk on water.

Elliott pointed out a shadow that, through his telescope, became a somnolent three-toed sloth supine on a branch. We didn’t need him to point out a boisterous posse of squirrel monkeys as they scampered from tree to tree or the bad boy white-faced capuchin monkey baring his fangs at us.

I couldn’t leave Costa Rica without getting my own monkey’s eye view of the forest. As I tentatively stepped off the first platform of a towering zip-line, my speedy descent over the treetops was accompanied by a heady rush of adrenaline and scattering birds, startled by my shrieks.

That evening, there was a lavish but still informal captain’s dinner, with filet mignon, lobster and baked Alaska on the menu. Contact details were exchanged and promises to keep in touch made.

As I boarded the Zodiac for the last time, I was told that if you look back at the ship you're sure to return. I craned my neck to catch a last glimpse of the Variety Voyager and didn't turn away until I reached dry land.