Costa Rica and The Panama Canal

From San Jose, Costa Rica to Cartagena, Colombia
  • Panama
  • Small Ship Cruising
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Tour Description

Cruise from Costa Rica to Cartagena, Colombia, on this 15 day voyage.  Explore the stunning coasts of Costa Rica and Panama and cruise the Panama Canal!

Start in San Jose, Costa Rica, one of the most biodiverse regions on earth. Explore lush tropical regions rich with exotic animals, colourful birds, and showy plants. You may encounter two and three toed sloths, as well as white-faced monkeys, toucans, agoutis, armadillos and coatis in Manuel Antonio National Park. Walk or hike in Corcovado National Park one of the most remote parks in Costa Rica discovering more amazing flora and fauna. 

Cruising the Golfo Dulce to Panama, where we explore Coiba National Park and then the stunning white sandy beaches of the Pearl Islands, perfect for some paddle boarding, kayaking and snorkelling in the warm, turquoise waters. 

Learn about the indigenous Emberá Mogue people, and the fascinating history of the Panama Canal, before making a full transit of the Panama Canal itself! Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, is the final stop on the tour. Here, you can soak up the city's rich Afro-Caribbean culture and explore its colourful, historically significant downtown, which is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Viva's Best Bits...

Explore some of the most biodiverse rainforests on earth, a chance to encounter wildlife including sloths, howler, spider, capuchin and squirrel monkeys.

Coiba National Park, in Panama, is a UNESCO World Heritage site recognised for its exceptional marine and terrestrial wildlife watching opportunities.

Enjoy a guaranteed daylight crossing of the Panama Canal and learn about its history. The complete crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean takes approximately 10 hours

Tour Itinerary

Day 1
San Jose

Having made your way to San Jose airport, you will be met and transferred to our pre-voyage hotel.

Enjoy free time in San Jose, take a swim in the hotel’s pool, or relax amongst the extensive grounds. Dinner is at your leisure (dinner not included).

Accommodation: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cariari (or similar)

Day 2
Embarkation Day

Check-out and join your fellow expeditioners in the lobby. Our day is spent at The Green Ark Foundation. This sustainable botanical space has become a focal point for Costa Rica’s doctors, herbalists, botanists, and nature lovers over the past 30 years. Home to 1600 medicinal and ornamental species, the foundation’s gardens have amassed one of the largest collections of herbs, plants, and flowers in Central America. Whilst enjoying a guided tour we visit the Costa Rica Meadery which produces unique chemical free artisanal beverages, while lunch is bursting with fresh ingredients harvested directly from the gardens.

On arrival at the coastal port of Puntarenas we board the Sylvia Earle where there is time to settle into your cabin before attending important safety briefings. Enjoy the thrill of departure as we ‘throw the lines’ and set sail for our adventure.

Day 3
Curu National Wildlife Refuge

Curú National Wildlife Refuge is a privately-owned nature reserve offering visitors outstanding eco-tourism experiences. The refuge is the first privately-owned refuge in Costa Rica, encompassing more than 3,700 acres of tropical forests, mangroves, and well-marked paths. 17 hiking trails wind through the varied terrain within the reserve, where you may see white-tail deer, armadillos and iguanas. Various monkey species are prolific within refuge including native capuchin, spider, and howler monkeys. Located on the southern Nicoya Peninsula of north-western Costa Rica, the refuge is brimming with wildlife and hosts one of the most beautiful beaches and protected bays on the Nicoya Peninsula, a great place to enjoy water activities.

Day 4
Manuel Antonio National Park

Boasting over 100 species of mammals, 184 species of birds and an impressive variety flora, Manuel Antonio National Park understandably attracts wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world. Costa Rica’s star attractions - two and three toed sloths, as well as white-faced monkeys, toucans, agoutis, armadillos and coatis are a few of the exciting animals that you may encounter within the park. We explore the park in the cool, early hours of the morning before returning to the vessel for lunch. In the afternoon, you have the option to explore Quepos town or enjoy some water activities.

Day 5
Drake Bay & Corcovado National Park

The untamed Osa Peninsula is considered by National Geographic to be ‘one of the most biologically intense places on earth’. Considered to be the crown jewel in the park system of Costa Rica, 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 tropical primary lowland rainforest in the world and 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. We enjoy a hike along well-marked trails within the national park to not only search for wildlife but also to experience the incredible wet tropical rainforests containing tall trees measuring over 60 metres (197 feet), lianas, epiphytes, palms, gingers and orchids.

Day 6
Gulfo Dulce

Golfo Dulce, or Sweet Gulf, is a large bay that hugs pristine beaches, rivers and tall evergreen forests - a protected area known as the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve. As one of the wettest places on Earth with over 5,000 millimetres (200 inches) of rainfall per year, the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve features some of the world’s tallest trees.

The warm tropical waters in the gulf are a great place to enjoy aquatic activities, where spinner dolphins are often seen frolicking in the bay. There are ancient coral reefs to explore, where you can see enormous coral gardens and the creatures that inhabit them. On land, there are more pristine rainforest trails for you to explore, where you can marvel at the extraordinary flora and fauna that contributes to Costa Rica’s biodiversity.

By Zodiac, we shuttle ashore to Saladero Ecolodge and explore the gardens and walking trails filled with flowering plants. Keep a watch for birds including toucans, scarlet macaw, caracara and woodpeckers.

In Golfo Dulce we exit Costa Rica and continue our journey as we sail to Panama.

Day 7-8
Coiba National Park

We continue to Coiba Island, a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site, located off the southwest coast of Panama. The national park includes the main island of Coiba and 38 smaller islands in the surrounding marine areas within the Gulf of Chiriquí. Protected from the cold winds and the effects of El Niño, the Pacific tropical forest if Coiba Island features exceptionally high levels of endemic mammals, birds and plants. It is the last refuge for a number of threatened animals including the crested eagle.

On Coiba Island, we spend the morning in the area of Granito de Oro islet, a unique place that allows snorkellers to encounter a diversity and volume of marine life that is usually reserved for scuba divers. This is one of the world’s most sought-after diving destinations. The local ranger will provide guidance on the optimal places where we can enjoy water activities.

The following morning, we plan to land at Punta Clara, which served as a penal colony from 1919 to 1996, where Panama’s most notorious criminals and political prisoners were incarcerated. At the peak of its operations, the prison housed up to approximately 3,000 inmates in about 30 camps spread around the islands. You can visit the dilapidated penitentiary buildings or walk along the beach looking for scarlet macaws, yellow caracara and various seabirds. Back on board, enjoy lunch as we set towards the Pearl Islands.

Day 9
Bartolome Island 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.

We plan to visit Bartolome Island to enjoy some paddle boarding, kayaking and snorkelling in the warm, turquoise waters.

Day 10-11
Panama City

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 km (48 mi) canal that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean.

Panama’s history has been formed by a rich pre-Columbian era for more than 12,000 years. Early cultures in Panama were the Monagrillo, the Cueva and the Conte, particularly famous for their pottery, which was the first in the Americas. The first European claiming the territory of today’s Panama was Rodrigo de Bastidas, coming from Colombia’s Atlantic coast in 1501. In 1513 Vasco Nuñez de Balboa became the first Spaniard to see the Pacific Ocean from the top of a hill. Four days later he and his men stood at the shores of the Pacific Ocean. In 1519, Panama City was founded and became an important hub for seized goods making its way from Peru to Spain.

We visit an Emberá village, an indigenous tribe who have inhabited this region for centuries. There are about 33,000 Emberá living in the Darién, Panama, and 50,000 in Colombia. On our visit to one of the Emberá villages near Panama City, you will be warmly welcomed by the local villagers and enjoy a presentation to learn about their history, culture and way of life. On a guided walk through their village, you will meet more villagers who may show you inside their home, sample local snacks and learn about their medicinal plants. The Emberá are renowned for their exquisite handmade jewellery and woven handicrafts, and you will have the chance to appreciate and to purchase their work.

In the afternoon, we stop at the Miraflores Visitor Centre overlooking the Miraflores lock of the Panama Canal. 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 and the passage of ships through the locks.

The following day, we visit Gatun Lake, 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 artificial 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 that heads 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 leisurely cruise along the forested banks of Gatun Lake looking for wildlife such as capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, three-toed sloth, 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 old quarter. Inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites in 1997, Casco Viejo 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, also known as Panama Viejo, 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 to the ship.

Day 12
Crossing of the Panama Canal

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 splendid 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 (52 foot) 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 (29 foot) 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 is the Gatun Locks, the only set of locks in the Atlantic sector of the canal. At Gatun Locks, the vessel will be lowered a total of 26 metres (85 foot) 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, when vessels were forced to sail around the notoriously rough seas around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America to reach the Pacific coast.

Day 13
At Sea

As we sail to Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, on the only sea day of the voyage, enjoy a few final presentations from our team of experts, edit photos, treat yourself to a massage or stay active in the gym.

Day 14

Disembark in Cartagena de Indias, inscribed by UNESCO as a site of Outstanding Universal Heritage. The city’s rich history, diverse culture and energy captivates visitors with its vibrancy, Afro-Caribbean character, indigenous influences and some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in all of South America.

Founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, Cartagena was formerly one of the gateways to the Caribbean for the Spanish. It was here they would store the riches plundered from South America before they were transported back to the old world. It is not surprising, therefore, that the city drew the attention of buccaneers and pirates, who attempted on many occasions, to seize the city. Most notable was the attack by Francis Drake, who in 1586, "mercifully" agreed not to destroy the city in return for 10 million pesos. It was after the attack by Drake that plans were made to fortify the city and work on the defensive fort walls began. These walls still mark the boundary between the old and new parts of the city and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After disembarkation, enjoy a guided introductory tour of Cartagena’s old town. Your local guide tells tales of Cartagena from ancient times to present day, while we visit the cities sites, from the Plaza San Pedro Claver with its stunning Church and monastery, to the Plaza Bolivar and Inquisition Palace, considered to be one of the most elegant colonial constructions of its time. The cloister where Pedro Claver lived and died has become a special place of silence, and reflection – a shrine to his life's work which centered around the protection of slaves. Lunch is classic Colombian fare, with time to wander the eclectic streets of colourful terraced homes and classical colonial architecture before transferring to our waterfront hotel mid-afternoon. The remainder of the day is at leisure. (Breakfast and lunch included)

Accommodation: Cartagena Intercontinental (or similar)

Day 15
Depart Cartagena

Farewell your fellow travellers and check-out of your room before making your own way to the airport for your onward journey.

What’s Included

  • Included Copy 20 On-board accommodation during voyage including daily cabin service.
  • Included Copy 20 One night’s hotel accommodation in San Jose, including breakfast, on Day 1.
  • Included Copy 20 One night’s hotel accommodation in Cartagena de Indias, including breakfast on Day 14.
  • Included Copy 20 Beer, house wine and soft drinks with dinner.
  • Included Copy 20 All meals, snacks, tea and coffee during voyage.
  • Included Copy 20 Captain’s Welcome & Farewell reception including four-course dinner, house cocktails, beer & wine
Fees & Services
  • Included Copy 20 All transfers as mentioned in the itinerary.
  • Included Copy 20 Tour of Cartagena de Indias
  • Included Copy 20 All shore excursions and Zodiac cruises.
  • Included Copy 20 Educational lectures and guiding services from Expedition Team.
  • Included Copy 20 Comprehensive pre-departure information.
  • Included Copy 20 Port surcharges, permits and landing fees.
  • Included Copy 20 Gratuities for ship’s crew and local guides.
  • Included Copy 7 International or domestic flights & transfers unless mentioned, Airport arrival or departure taxes,
  • Included Copy 7 Travel insurance, activity surcharge, optional exursions, laundry, phone charges
Sylvia Earle | Arctic & Antarctic Cruise Ship

138 Passengers


  • Included Snorkelling & Stand-up Paddleboarding included
  • Included Explore some of the most biodiverse rainforests on earth
  • Included Wildlife spotting - scarlet macaws, taipir, toucans, howler monkeys...
  • Included Trips ashore to walk, hike and explore
  • Included We visit an Emberá village, an indigenous tribe
  • Included Explore Panama City
  • Included Lectures on wildlife, our environment, history and destinations
  • Included Whale and mammal spotting
  • Included Tour Cartagena’s old town
  • Included Enjoy a guaranteed daylight crossing of the Panama Canal.
Click here for dates & prices

15 days

Price from

$10,881 USD

Per person, sharing

Based on a triple share cabin

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