After boarding our ship in Punta Arenas and spending four days exploring some amazing national parks along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, we crossed the border into Panamanian waters and officially began the Panama cruise itinerary portion of our Central America cruise with UnCruise Adventures.
This would mark our first official visit to Panama, taking us along the Pacific Coast, the Gulf of Panama, to the Darien Jungle, across the Panama Canal, and to the Caribbean Sea. Along the way reveling in the natural, historical and cultural wonders of this diverse country.
The best part? The itinerary is all onboard the Safari Voyager, UnCruise Adventure’s answer to expedition travel and exploration in Central America. There are many Panama cruises on offer, but if you want something different then this is the best option available.
UnCruise Panama Cruise Stops
Granito de Oro
Part of the incredibly off the beaten path Coiba National Park is the tropical paradise of Granito de Oro. An island among hundreds, this beach is lined with a handful of palm trees and is home to thousands of hermit crabs.
The sand is as white as sugar, leading you into some of the clearest turquoise waters we have ever seen. Under the surface, there are massive fields of brightly colored corals and enough fish species to keep even the most experienced diver occupied.
UnCruise literally brings you to paradise and then gives you an entire day to enjoy it. A highlight of our trip, Granito de Oro was the perfect introduction to Panama for us.
With a full morning and full afternoon on the island, we used our time to partake in as many adventures as possible. We went standup paddleboarding, kayaking, snorkeling, swimming, beachcombing, walking and lounging during our time spent on the island.
After the 3 days spent exploring Costa Rica, it was a welcomed day of a slower pace.
Something worth noting, due to the location of Granito de Oro, the water temperature creates the perfect environment for a small species of jellyfish. When you are snorkeling, you may experience stings in this area.
This shouldn’t deter you from enjoying the snorkeling on this island, but you should come prepared. Purchase both a long sleeve rash guard and rash pants to bring on your cruise. This will keep the stings to a minimum.
Coiba National Park
After a stunning day on Granito de Oro, our guides decided to show us a bit more of the coastline for this stunning national park.
Loading into skiffs, we spent the morning beach hopping and looking for wildlife. It was insane to see the park from this perspective. The closer we got to shore, the more we realized just how wild this part of the world is.
The rainforest is primary, thick and thriving here. So much so that you cannot even penetrate it with your eyes. It maintains an incredible eco-system, letting in only the amount of light it needs and shutting out the rest. As a result, it maintains the perfect balance of heat and moisture.
The smell of this forest is something I will never forget. So clean and fresh. Truth be told, we didn’t see much for wildlife that day. It was hot and the sun was high, so I can imagine everything was hiding in the comfort of the forest canopy.
We did see some incredible coastline, beautiful empty beaches, loads of palm trees and gorgeous coral reefs from the skiff.
Isla de Iguana
This stop in the middle of the Gulf of Panama was a total surprise to us. Home to hundreds of iguanas, hence the name, it also plays host to a massive colony of Giant Frigate birds and an exceptional powder white sand beach.
After landing on the beach, we were split into groups to hike around the island. Our group walked clear to the other side and then all the way around, making for a great little hike. The island itself is small, with low lying brush throughout the middle.
In the blazing hot sun, there were very few places to seek refuge. However, we enjoyed making our way to the beaches on the other side. From there, we headed up the rocky shoreline to see the Frigate birds, who were well into their mating rituals.
Big males with bright red pouches sat on brush nests, signaling to the females that flew above. If I had to guess on the numbers, I’d say there were close to 200 or more frigates on the island that day.
Following our hike, we enjoyed some time on the beach with the option of walking and swimming.
We did some amazing things on our Costa Rica and Panama cruise, but I’d have to admit that the highlight of the trip was our visit to the Darien jungle.
The land link between Central America and South America is filled with one of the most notorious, untouched and pristine stretches of rainforest on the planet. Known as the Darien Gap, it is a place of legend and we got a little taste of that on our Panama cruise with UnCruise Adventures.
Journeying south to the tributary of the Mogue River, the Safari Voyager took anchor and we disembarked into wooden motorized canoes and into the jungle along a beautiful mangrove channel.
After an hour, we rounded a bend and came face to face with our hosts for the morning, the Embera tribe. The Embera people have lived in the Amazon rainforests of Colombia, Brazil, and Panama for centuries. They live off the land and maintain a tribal way of life.
Our visit to the tribe was done from a cultural perspective and we were welcomed with open arms to get an inside look at their way of life. Patrick, our onboard Panamanian Specialist, narrated our visit and helped us to interact with the people in a sustainable way.
They showed us their houses, food, dance, music and offered the opportunity to purchase handmade baskets and jewelry. Having the opportunity to venture into such a remote part of the world and have interaction as pure as this one is a gift. It promotes tolerance and peace among differing faces, it is the ultimate act of leaving your comfort zone.
For us, our time spent with the Embera people made us want to learn more. We have both agreed that we want to return to the Darien Gap in the future for a longer visit.
After an amazing morning in the Darien Jungle, we headed back into the Gulf of Panama. While we had all came to terms with the rest of the day being onboard the ship while sailed towards Panama City, we couldn’t contain our excitement when the crew announced to us that we would be stopping in the Pearl Islands to have happy hour on the beach.
This effort is something that sets UnCruise Adventures apart from the bigger cruise companies. They sail a small ship, have a small number of guests and as a result are able to be flexible. Let me tell you, flexibility is magic, just like that happy hour sunset we spent on the beach during our Panama cruise.
While we got ready in our cabins, the crew went ashore and set up a bar, complete with a drink of the day and a big enough selection to have pretty much any drink you could want. They even set up a snack buffet with meat, cheese, and chips.
We spent sunset with drinks in hand and sand between our toes as we explored one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen.
After an eye-opening experience in the Darien jungle, we set sail overnight and headed for Taboga Island, just off the coast of Panama City. It is a sleepy little island that is most popular with people looking to get away from the city and backpackers.
It has some beautiful, small beaches and a cute town that features some interesting architecture, great views, a colonial cathedral, and a lively market square.
With UnCruise we enjoyed a city walk to explore the sights and streets, followed by some free time in the market. It was also our first chance to use WIFI since we left San Jose, so plenty of people headed for the local cafes with phones in hand.
Panama Canal Cruise
After spending our morning in Taboga, the ship set off to sail towards Panama City and the entrance to the Panama Canal. As a small vessel, we had a later crossing time and our slot was entirely dependent on being able to transit with another vessel of the right size.
UnCruise typically gets cleared for later in the day transits, meaning they enter the Panama Canal often after sunset. There are no set times and when you’ll transit on your cruise depends on the traffic that day. We lucked out and began our transit around 6 PM.
This allowed us some incredible views of the canal and an opportunity to learn about the process that goes on for each ship at each lock. It’s absolutely fascinating, even if you’re not into the history of it all.
We spent the better part of the night coming and going from the upper decks and observing the countless people that help these ships transit the Panama Canal each day. The process is methodical and not a step goes missing along the way.
I can say without hesitation that watching the ship pass into each loch, become secured and then rise with the closing of the doors was pretty special.
Once you reach the Caribbean side of Panama you’re introduced immediately to the Spanish influence. All along the coast are ruined forts and a strong history of Spanish influence.
UnCruise has a couple of options for this stop, meaning you would either visit Fort San Lorenzo or Portobelo. In 1980, both of the sites became designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the name Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama: Portobelo-San Lorenzo.
During our Panama cruise, we made a stop at Portobelo.
Set right on the Caribbean coast, this town is built on the remains of a massive fort. Much of it stands intact today, so you can spend a good amount of time climbing fortress walls, looking at canons and marveling at the coral walls.
Our walking tour toured the fort starting near the docks, then followed all the way into town where the original Royal Customs house, which is built entirely out of coral, still stands. There is also the massive Iglesia de San Felipe, built-in 1814, that houses a statue of Cristo Negro.
Following the tour, we had an option to wander the town. It is small but has some great artisan shops and cafes that are worth popping your head into before heading back to the ship.
San Blas – Guna Yala Islands
Known to most people as the dreamy San Blas Islands, the whole island group has been renamed as Guna Yala to reflect the indigenous communities that live there. Regardless of the name, if you seek paradise than it can be found here.
The Guna Yala islands are an archipelago made up of 365 islands and cays. They are located just off the coast of mainland Panama in the Caribbean Sea. This means you can expect to find white sand beaches, turquoise water and lots of palm trees.
Our 12-night itinerary included two full days of adventure in two different locations. Similar to enjoying Granito de Oro, we were able to relax on the beach or partake in a number of adventure activities including swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, and beach walking.
We were also offered a bit of shopping when a couple of Guna Yala women arrived on the island and set up a shop with authentic moles, handmade art and beaded jewelry.
As with all other stops, the UnCruise staff set us up with a station that offered large coolers of water to refill our water bottles, coolers with bottled beverages, snacks, towels, sunscreen, bug spray and anything else you could possibly need while ashore for the day.
Being the end of the trip, we used our days to play in the water and just relax after a solid 10 days of adventuring through South America. It was the perfect ending to our Panama cruise.
Cruises to Panama are Combined with Costa Rica
This itinerary offered by UnCruise is combined with Costa Rica to explore some of the best of Central America by ship. If you are not starting your itinerary in Panama City, you will start from San Jose, Costa Rica.
This cruise to Panama with UnCruise Adventures also spends another 4 days exploring the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. This includes Golfo Dulce, Osa Peninsula, Corcovado National Park, Ballena Beach, Nicoya Peninsula, and Curu Wildlife Refuge.
To read about the rest of this cruise, check out the highlights of our Costa Rica cruise itinerary.
Complete Cruise to Panama & Costa Rica Itinerary – UnCruise
It is possible to book this cruise in either sailing direction. You can either start in Costa Rica and cruise south to Panama or you can start in Panama and cruise north to Costa Rica.
We sailed on the itinerary departing from San Jose, Costa Rica and ending in Panama City, Panama.
- DAY 1: San Jose, Costa Rica – Embarkation
- DAY 2: Curu National Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica
- DAY 3: Osa Conservation Area, Costa Rica
- DAY 4: Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica
- DAY 5: Granito de Oro, Coiba National Park, Panama
- DAY 6: Captain’s Choice, Panama
- DAY 7: Gulf of Panama
- DAY 8: Darien Jungle, Panama
- DAY 9: Pearl Islands Archipelago/Panama Canal
- DAY 10: Panama City, Panama – Disembarkation Day
NOTE: It is also possible to book a 12-night itinerary on select departures that includes some exploration on the Caribbean side after transiting the Panama Canal.
- DAY 10: Guna Yala, Panama
- DAY 11: Guna Yala, Panama
- DAY 12: Fort San Lorenzo or Portobelo, Panama
- DAY 13: Panama City, Panama – Disembarkation Day
How to Cruise Panama with UnCruise
UnCruise Adventures is a small company headquartered in Seattle, Washington. They operate itineraries in Alaska, Pacific Northwest, Columbia & Snake Rivers, Mexico, Central America, Galapagos and Hawaii. Book directly with UnCruise to cruise Panama on this amazing itinerary.
You can book our same itinerary here: Costa Rica & Panama—Canal, Culture, Adventure
Be sure to tell them that Divergent Travelers sent you!
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We partnered with UnCruise Adventures to bring you this story. All opinions, photos, stories and insane love for ‘uncruising’ are 100% our own. As always.