Costa Rica is a country blessed with abundant nature, pristine beaches and immense biodiversity. The warmth applies not only to the climate but also to the friendly locals commonly known as ‘Ticos’. Covering only 50,660 square kilometres (19,560 square miles) – 0.03 per cent of the Earth´s surface, Costa Rica contains an astonishing number of plant and animal species, approximately six per cent of the world’s biodiversity – greater than Europe or North America. This abundance of flora and fauna is partly due to the country’s geographical position on a land bridge between North and South America and its environmental conservation policies. On this journey, you will experience the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, filled with remote national parks and biological reserves brimming with colourful wildlife, both in the rainforest and in the surrounding coastal waters – perfect for hiking, kayaking, paddle-boarding, diving and snorkelling. You will also discover Panama City before traversing the iconic Panama Canal on a guaranteed daylight crossing to the Caribbean Sea. Finish the voyage in Cartagena de Indias, where you can soak up the Afro-Caribbean vibes in this vibrant and colourful UNESCO-protected fort city.
In San José, use the complimentary airport transfer service provided by the hotel to transfer to your hotel for check in. Once you have checked in, enjoy time at leisure.
After a leisurely buffet breakfast, check-out of your room and drive two-hours west to Puerto Caldera where your vessel Greg Mortimer awaits. After boarding, you’ll have time to settle into your cabin before our important briefings before sitting down to enjoy lunch as you sail to Isla Tortuga (Turtle Island). You can relax on the white sand beach or venture into the warm water to swim, snorkel or dive. The water is teeming with a dizzying array of fish and other creatures including manta rays, spinner dolphins and perhaps sharks. There are even some buried treasures there – literally. There are three shipwrecks off the shore of the island, offering plenty of opportunities to explore the remains of sunken vessels. At Isla Tortuga, we will do our kayak orientation and have our first introductory paddle.
This evening, get to know your fellow expeditioners and friendly expedition team and crew at a welcome dinner to celebrate the start of a thrilling adventure to Costa Rica and Panama.
Curú National Wildlife Refuge is a privately owned and managed nature preserve offering visitors some of the best eco-tourism experiences in Costa Rica. The refuge is the first privately owned refuge in Costa Rica and is an example of a successful sustainable development program, offering over 3700 acres of tropical forests, mangrove swamps, and grassy fields sitting right along the coastline. 17 hiking trails wind through the varied terrain and you may see white-tail deer or catch a glimpse of armadillos or iguanas. Monkeys are prolific including the native capuchin, spider, and howler monkeys. Located on the southern Nicoya Peninsula of northwestern Costa Rica, the area is teeming with abundant wildlife and hosts one of the most beautiful beaches and protected bays on the Nicoya Peninsula, where we hope to go for a paddle and swim.
Boasting over 100 species of mammals, 184 species of birds and a plethora of diverse flora, Manuel Antonio National Park is a paradise for wildlife lovers. Costa Rica’s star attractions – two and three toed sloths, white-faced monkeys and toucans can all be found on hikes that weave through the park. Hiking trails snake their way through the parkland offering access to its rainforest, waterfalls and remote white sand beaches whilst from the water we can snorkel, kayak and paddle-board to view the exquisite coral.
We anchor off the shores of Espadilla Beach and Zodiac to shore for a wet landing. Walk along this soft-sand beach or follow a trail through the rainforest parallel to the beach to get to Playa Manuel Antonio, which is the most popular beach inside the park. It’s a short, deep crescent of white sand backed by lush rainforest. There are numerous clearly-marked hiking trails to choose from – a circular loop trail (1.4km/0.9 mile) around a high promontory bluff, which includes a visit to the highest point on this hike – Punta Catedral, which offers spectacular views, takes approximately 25 to 30 minutes return. The hiking trails in Manuel Antonio National Park offer excellent opportunities to spot monkeys, sometimes sloths, agoutis, armadillos and coatis.
Over the next two days, we explore the untamed Osa Peninsula, considered by National Geographic to be ‘one of the most biologically intense places on Earth’. Considered to be the crown jewel of Costa Rica’s park system, Corcovado National Park is the country’s largest and one of the most remote parks in Costa Rica. It is home to the largest and only tropical primary lowland rainforest in the world, provides habitat for a plethora of endangered plant and animal species including the scarlet macaw, various frogs, and the tapir – the largest terrestrial mammal in Central and South America. In order to conserve the integrity of the national park, restrictions are placed on the capacity of daily visitors permitted in the park. We therefore hike through a private conservation reserve adjoining the national park looking not only for wildlife, but also to experience the incredible wet tropical rainforest filled with tall trees measuring over 60 metres/197 ft, lianas, epiphytes, palms, gingers and orchids.
The following day, we will round the peninsula’ most southern point to enter Gulfo Dulce, or Sweet Gulf. The large bay hugs pristine beaches, rivers and tall evergreen forest, a protected area known as the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve. As one of the wettest places on Earth with over 200 inches/5000 mm of rainfall a year, the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve boasts some of the tallest ancient trees. Established in 1979, the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve was created to protect the lowland forested areas that surround the gulf – the reserve also connecting other national parks in the area.
We visit a private reserve called Casa Orchideas (Orchid House), akin to a botanical garden adjoining Piedras Blancas National Park. A hike in Casa Orchideas allows you to appreciate colourful orchids, heliconias, palms, and all the tropical wildlife such as toucans, macaws, tanagers, and honey creepers that feed from the flowers. The warm tropical waters in the gulf are a popular playground for dolphins – perfect for snorkelling, paddle-boarding, kayaking, and Zodiac cruising.
Leaving Costa Rica behind, we sail through the Panamanian islands of Coiba National Park, located off the southwest coast of Panama and inscribed as by UNESCO as a place of outstanding universal value. The national park protects Coiba Island, 38 smaller islands and the surrounding marine areas within the Gulf of Chiriqui. Protected from the cold winds and effects of El Niño, Coiba’s Pacific tropical moist forest maintains exceptionally high levels of endemism of mammals, birds and plants due to the ongoing evolution of new species. It is also the last refuge for a number of threatened animals such as the crested eagle. The property is an outstanding natural laboratory for scientific research and provides a key ecological link to the Tropical Eastern Pacific for the transit and survival of pelagic fish and marine mammals.
Due to Coiba Island (the main island in the archipelago) previously serving as a penal colony, access to the island was heavily restricted. As a result, nearly 80 per cent of the islands’ natural resources have remained untouched and flourished because of limited human contact. Coiba National Park is managed by the National Authority for the Environment (ANAM) and is accessible only by permit from ANAM. With its designations as a National Park and UNESCO protection, Isla Coiba, its surrounding waters and island neighbours have been given a greater degree of protection. Despite being subject to poaching, illegal logging and other trespasses, the Panamanian government has taken a large step in their preservation.
On Coiba Island, we plan to spend the morning at Granito de Oro islet, a unique place which offers the casual snorkeler a diversity and volume of marine life that many avid scuba divers spend their lives trying to see. The waters surrounding are considered one of the best diving destinations in the world. Enjoy the morning snorkelling among abundant marine life, kayaking around rocky outcroppings, and basking on the warm sand. At Granito de Oro you can also enjoy hiking the “Monkey Trail”. The forest here is home to rare indigenous flora, and provides sanctuary for wildlife such as mantled howler monkeys and crested eagles, as well as threatened bird species such as the crested eagle.
On Day 8 we spend the morning on the hiking trails that lead to a number of waterfalls, hot springs. Remains of the prison, now roofless and rusted, can still be found at Damas Bay on the eastern side of the island. Back on board, enjoy lunch as we set towards the Pearl Islands.
The Pearl Islands of Panama is an archipelago located in the North Pacific Ocean in the Gulf of Panama, covering around 250 small islands. The Spanish Conquistadors discovered the islands in 1503 and gave the Islands its name due to the great amounts of pearls found on them. The Pearl Islands were originally named by the Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa due to the bountiful pearls that were harvested off the islands’ shores. The Pearl Islands are most famous for their spectacular and tranquil white sand beaches, untouched forests, and colourful coral reefs offshore – ideal for diving, snorkelling and kayaking.
The largest of the islands is Isla Del Rey but Isla Contadora is the only destination in the archipelago that is equipped with enough infrastructure to attract a large number of visitors. In addition to Isla Contadora, we plan to visit a few nearby islands including Bartolome to enjoy some aquatic activities before exploring Pachequilla, and Pacheca island, also known as Isla de Los Párajos (Bird Island) because it hosts several colonies of seabirds.
There are few places on Earth like the Darién – a region of great interest to biologists, anthropologists, and a notorious route for smuggling narcotics. It is a place of immense natural beauty, where life in the rainforest has remained relatively unchanged for the indigenous communities that live there. It is Panama’s last frontier. The Darién is enormous. The province itself spans some 16,671 square kilometres and contains Panama’s largest national park and most the country’s most extensive lowland tropical forest. However, with only 40,000 inhabitants, the Darién is also the most sparsely populated part of Panama. Its residents live in small, impoverished towns, and include members of the Guna and Emberà-Wounaan indigenous groups.
For many, the Darién is little more than the place where the Pan-American Highway ends and the Darién Gap begins. The gap is the only missing link in a system of roads that connects North and South America, all the way from Alaska to Patagonia. Darién National Park, which spans a total of 579,000 hectares, is the largest national park in Central America. Rarely visited, the region is characterised by unspoiled sandy beaches, jagged rocky coasts, mangrove swamps, and tropical forests bursting with endemic and rare species of plants and birds such as the scarlet macaw, toucan and harpy eagle. Mammals include ocelot, jaguar, Baird’s tapir, anteater, sloth, coatis and kinkajou, In an effort to save the Darién from being poached by loggers and developers, UNESCO inscribed the Darien National Park into its list of World Heritage Sites in 198.
You will visit Mogue, an Emberá community in the Darién, a remote destination where you will be rewarded with a unique look at a traditional Emberá village. The village is accessible after a 30-minute Zodiac ride (during high tide) up the scenic and swampy Mogue River surrounded by rainforest. You may see birds such as willets, whimbrels, and laughing falcons. Nearing the village, we will be warmly welcomed by the community leaders who will meet our Zodiacs and personally transfer us to their village using their traditional boats. On arrival, the village is a 15-minute walk from the shore of the river. Mogue was established by the indigenous Emberá in the 1960s and tourism plays a substantial role in sustaining its existence.
Upon arriving at the village, the Emberá women will perform a traditional blessing dances to welcome us followed by a more formal welcome by the main ‘Nocoe’ (chief). It is customary for the Emberá to share food and fruits of the season with visitors. Local artisans are proud to show you their handicraft skills such as woodcarving, mask-making, weaving and jewelry-making – all available for purchase, and a wonderful way to directly support the community. On guided hikes, you might be able to spot a harpy eagle or crested eagle—the nests of both birds have been spotted here in the past.
Three million years ago, the Isthmus of Panama emerged from the sea and changed the world forever. It divided an ocean and joined two continents together, triggering one of the most important natural evolution events in the history of the world. Today, this narrow land bridge in Central America is home to more species of birds and trees than the whole of North America. Panama is of course world-famous for its 77-kilometre (48-mile) canal that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean.
Panama City shore excursions (choose one of the following):
Miraflores Visitor Centre and Colonial City Tour at “Casco Viejo”
At the Miraflores Visitor Centre, you will find different activities to learn and fully enjoy the Panama Canal. In the cinema, watch a short 10-minute film on the history of the Panama Canal from its beginnings to the present. Four exhibition halls portray the Canal’s history and biodiversity, while three terraces and observation decks are ideal places for observing the Canal’s operation, the passage of ships through the locks and how they move.
Inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites in 1997, Panama City’s Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) is a compact treasure trove of 16th and 17th century colonial architecture. The oldest continuously occupied European city in the Americas on the Pacific coast, Panama Viejo as it is now known was founded in 1519. The excursion includes visits to two exceptional sites as well as a guided walk around the historic quarter and the cobblestone streets for a leisurely look at many historic landmarks including: Plaza Herrera, San José Church, Plaza Francia, Plaza Bolívar with the San Francisco de Asis Church, Plaza Mayor (where the Metropolitan Cathedral is located). After the tour, you have the option of exploring Casco Viejo at your own pace or return to the ship. A shuttle service will be available to transfer you back to the ship if you extend your time in the old town.
Gatun Lake Expedition & Walking Tour at “Casco Viejo”
Gatun Lake is a large artificial lake with a unique ecosystem that forms a major part of the Panama Canal, carrying ships for 33 km (20 miles) on their transit across the Isthmus of Panama. At the time it was created, Gatun Lake was the largest man-made lake in the world. The vegetation at Gatun Lake offers ideal habitats for a large number of bird species.
The excursion starts with boat trip heading north on the Canal for 25 minutes where we may get close to some of the larger ships that transit the canal daily. Enjoy a slow cruise along the forested banks of Gatun Lake, a protected area, looking for wildlife such as Capuchin Monkeys, three-toed sloth, howler monkeys, various kinds of toucans and other bird life. This is a place to observe the raw regenerative power of the forest as it struggles to claim what was once wild. Enjoy lunch at a resort located in the shores of the Gatun Lake. Afterwards, head to Casco Viejo, Panama’s historic colonial centre listed as a UNESCO world heritage site filled with delightful colonial houses, narrow cobblestone streets and impressive churches. In the “Casco Antiguo” lies French Park, a monument to the French builders who started the Panama Canal. Some superb museums are found in the Old Quarter, including the Canal Museum, which traces Panama’s history. Transfer back to the ship or explore Casco Viejo at your own pace. A scheduled shuttle service will transfer you back to the ship.
Crossing the Panama Canal will surely be a highlight for many travellers. Each year, over a million people visit the canal to witness this engineering marvel at work. Starting in the Pacific Ocean, you will be able to admire the Bay of Panama and Panama City’s splendorous skyline before passing under the ‘Bridge of the Americas’. The vessel will then transit through the first set of locks, the Miraflores Locks, where it will be lifted 16 metres in two distinct steps. Next, your ship will enter Miraflores Lake, which is a small artificial body of fresh water that separates Pedro Miguel Locks from Miraflores Locks. The vessel will transit through Pedro Miguel Locks, which is one of the two sets of locks on the Pacific side, and here the vessel is lifted 9 metres in one step. After exiting Pedro Miguel locks, your boat will travel through the Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River flows into the canal. The Gaillard Cut (also known as Culebra Cut because its curves resemble a snake) is one of the main points of interest for visitors because it was carved through the Continental Divide and this section of the canal is full of history and geological value.
As you transit the cut you will see dredging occurring to control the sediments entering the canal because of the terrain’s susceptibility to landslides. Sail through Gatun Lake, which was formed by erecting the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River, and during your transit through the lake, you will pass the Smithsonian Research Station at Barro Colorado. The last of the three locks in the Gatun Locks, the only set of locks in the Atlantic sector. At Gatun Locks, the vessel will be lowered a total of 26 metres in three distinct chambers.
The complete crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean takes approximately 10 hours, a journey that once took almost two weeks to complete, where vessels were forced to sail around the notoriously rough seas around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America to reach the Pacific coast.
Enjoy a few final presentations from our team of experts including how to edit photos, finish that book you’ve been reading, or simply relax on your private balcony or in one of the many shared spaces on board the ship.
Disembark in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, listed by UNESCO as a site of Outstanding Universal Heritage, the city’s rich history, diverse culture and energy captivates visitors allowing them a glimpse into the city’s past and also a chance to relax in superb surroundings. This passionate and vibrant city, with some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in all of South America exudes character; mix in African rhythms and indigenous influences with the Spanish colonial splendour, and Cartagena is truly an amazing destination to extend your holiday.
Carved from a colourful history rife of piracy, sultry Caribbean heat, with fusions of African, indigenous and European culture, Cartagena is Colombia’s living, breathing and pulsating museum. Absurdly photogenic, the old quarter awards even the laziest of travellers. Colour splashes every corner, balconies overflow with blossom, and energy seeps beneath the ancient wooden doors of hotels, restaurants and private houses.
Today’s introductory tour will take you through Cartagena’s old town under the Puerta Del Reloj (Clock tower entrance) into the Plaza de los Coches. Your expert local guide will tell stories of the myths and legends, histories and stories of Cartagena from ancient times right up to the present. From the Plaza San Pedro Claver with its stunning Church, to the Plaza Bolivar with its shady areas, where you can watch the world go by. Cartagena is steeped in history and it’s a delight to stroll the streets accompanied by a knowledgeable local to show you around. During the walk you will visit the Inquisition Palace, considered one of the most elegant and characteristic colonial constructions in Cartagena in the 17th century. In September 1610, the Spanish established the inquisition in Cartagena de Indias, where its jurisdiction covered the kingdom of Granada and Venezuela until reaching Nicaragua, Panama, Santa Domingo and the Barlovento Islands. Throughout its interior, visitors to the palace museum will find instruments of torture and prison cells.
A short walk away and your final stop is a visit to San Pedro Claver Cloister, monastery and museum built in homage to the protector of slaves, San Pedro, and serves as reminder of the turbulent past of Cartagena and indeed the Americas. The Cloister where Pedro Claver lived and died has become a special place of silence, and reflection – a shrine to the life’s work of this extraordinary man. Here, visitors will find examples of pre-Colombian ceramics and a museum filled with religious art objects. Adjoining the monastery is a baroque church designed by German and Dutch architects, where the remains of Saint Pedro Claver is enshrined.
The tour ends with a transfer to our group hotel. After check-in, enjoy the remainder of the day at leisure (breakfast included; lunch and dinner at own expense).
After breakfast, farewell your fellow travellers and check-out of your room before making your own way to the airport for your onward journey.
Important note: due to strict regulations enforced by local environmental authorities to conserve and protect the pristine places visited on this voyage, permits can be cancelled by authorities at any time with very little notice. Under such circumstances, Aurora Expeditions reserves the right to change our itineraries with little or no prior notice.