CruiseWest's 'Between Two Seas' sailings get passengers close to nature

IN THE GOLFO DULCE, Costa Rica

“The temperature is 90 or 92,'' Stephen Watson advises a swimmer off the stern of the Pacific Explorer.

"That's the water temperature,'' adds Watson, a third-generation Costa Rican.

Bathtub hot or not, the Pacific Ocean water was cooler than the steamy air that, even for an 8:30 stroll that morning, had tested the passengers' interest in a 6-acre botanical garden near this southeastern tip of Costa Rica.

So after the narrated walkabout, which included the option of tasting or smelling leaves, blossoms and fruits, and then lunch back onboard, some passengers settled in with their novels and field guides. Other chose to nap.

And when the 2 p.m. announcement came that the motorized Zodiac rafts would take anyone back ashore, instead, some passengers stepped off the water-level platform to swim. A few got in the kayaks to paddle toward the palm tree- and hibiscus-lined shore, or to just peer down for tropical fish.

With no takers for further guided walks, Watson joined the other crewmen who always wait by the platform, helping the swimmers, snorkelers, kayakers and rafters. More often, as one of three naturalists onboard, he was shepherding land and snorkeling excursions during the nine-night voyage that the CruiseWest line titles "Between Two Seas.''

Focused on animal and plant life, the 185-foot Pacific Explorer takes 100 passengers from the port of Colón, on Panama's Caribbean coast, through the Panama Canal, and then along the Pacific coasts of Panama and Costa Rica. Nights are for motoring from place to place, days are filled with trips onshore or in the water. It is much more a hands-on ecology lesson than a cruise.

"Our guests come with a common disease: 'neo-tropical expectations,' '' jokes Daniel Fernandez, the chief naturalist. "They want to see animals and birds. But all we can promise that you'll see in the forests is green.''

Learning, lazing

The Duarte River expedition typifies the CruiseWest motto, "Up-close, personal and casual."

On the Pacific Explorer, the only dress code is no bathing suits or bare feet in the dining room, and expect the crew to call you by your first name.

While the Seattle-based cruise line owns eight ships, this vessel is chartered for the late-October-to-April season. The majority of the crew is Costa Rican, but everyone speaks English. (At press time, an ownership change facilitated a restructuring and bookings had been suspended temporarily. They were expected to start again in a few weeks.)

The cruise is both downscale and upscale, in other words, informal but pricey. Fares generally run from $4,200 to $5,600 per person based on two in a cabin, depending on the time of year and the four cabin categories. What those fares buy are often-fascinating field trips, modest cabins and attentive service, but at least on my cruise, uneven meal preparation.

Most of the passengers I spoke with greatly enjoyed their on-scene lessons from the guides, enhanced by their remarkable ability to find us birds, monkeys, lizards, iguanas and insects.

Ecology experts

Ignoring the slight motion of the Zodiac as it purrs along the mangrove-lined Duarte River, Karla Taylor stands at the stern and points left and right, directing attention to various birds. There are egrets, kingfishers, brown pelicans, herons, osprey, white ibis and other birds familiar to Floridians.

There are also some not so familiar, such as the mangrove swallow and snail kite. In this one-hour expedition, we'll spot 18 species.

Taylor spent more than seven years in the jungles and along shorelines of her native Costa Rica collecting and classifying insects, plants and marine mollusks. She also worked alongside the late Archie Carr, the acclaimed University of Florida professor who was a pioneering leader in protection of sea turtles.

After several minutes on the raft, she asks her passengers, "What are you expecting from this cruise trip?''

A few answer and then she puts it in context:

"It's always the same: The women always say, 'Nature,' and the men always say, 'The canal!' "

A touch of history

At 6:30 on another morning, 19 show up to ride the Zodiacs a brief way to really stretch their legs: We scramble up a sharply steep, grassy slope between two levels of a 1750s Spanish fort at Portobelo, Panama. For about a century's time, this hamlet on the Caribbean Sea coast was perhaps the richest city in the world, because the Spaniards stored their looted gold and silver from South America here, before shipping it home.

This hillside fortification and two other forts proved fruitless against seven raids by the British — though Sir Francis Drake was fatally wounded here — so Spain stopped using Portobelo. Like any other company town, when the company moved away, Portobelo became a partial ghost town.

But the old stone walls are picturesque and also provide, at the hillside middle battery of the fort, a place perhaps 125 feet above sea level that is much better for spotting birds.

Fernandez, the chief naturalist, stays with the sweaty handful of us who can't contemplate the ascent to the highest level. Barefoot, he moves easily across the battered stone flooring, setting the tripod beneath his 60X Bushnell spotting scope.

His ears more than his eyes tell him where to look. In his 12th year as a naturalist, the native Costa Rican can imitate the sounds of numerous birds, and he whistles to get them to call back or move about, the easier for him to fix the spotting scope for us novices to see them.

"Oh my god, this is what we came up here for!'' he suddenly announces. "It's a white-vented euphonia!''

Just as he focuses in on the bird, which grows to just 3 1/4 inches in length, it flies away. We barely see the flash of yellow feathers on its underside.

Undeterred, Fernandez keeps talking quietly but is actually listening and watching for telltales.

"Everybody be quiet and just listen toward the right side,'' he directs. "That chu-chu-chu sound is one of our most colorful toucans.''

Sure enough, across the valley on a ridge-top tree, he has recognized the shape of a keel-billed toucan. He trains the scope on it and calls us over.

Even at 60-power magnification, the toucan is little more than a silhouette. Its black feathers are discernible but not much of its colorful yellow, green and red bill or bright yellow chest. We file up to the scope, take a look, then let someone else in.

But all at once, the person looking in the scope says, "There's more than one of them.'' Fernandez acknowledges that toucans seldom travel alone. So we all return to the scope, and are rewarded by seeing the first toucan has been joined by four more.

A special surprise

The cruise is winding down and yet simultaneously winding up.

The ship anchors off Corcovado National Park and at 6:45 a.m., the first bunch opting for a zipline experience sets off for shore. Before the second zippers leave, three nature walks of increasing difficulty will set off.

It turns out the word "moderate'' is open to interpretation. Though the route starts on a sidewalk in front of a few block-and-stucco rental cabins, it quickly becomes a steep climb, first on grass and then a muddy track. One of the oldest trekkers turns back.

But once again, the wildlife lecture will ease the burden of watching out for tree roots, mud and dewy grass. Among the creatures we see are a three-toed sloth — this one moves enough on its open tree branch that we can watch it happen — several large, electric-blue morpho butterflies and more birds.

We move farther on the trail and one of the trekkers points over our leader's shoulder. We all turn to look up but only Watson suddenly clasps his head between his hands, in delight.

"We never see this bird here — it stays in the tree tops!'' he offers, almost breathlessly, as we look at the small black bird with the brilliant red head. It is the red cap manakin, and it is not more than three yards from our group, posing on a branch.

This cannot be topped so we troop back to the beach. The outbound trek that had taken us two hours, including pauses for sightings, takes 18 minutes on return.

Back at the beach I show Taylor my photo of the manakin. "This is a five-star bird,'' she says excitedly. "This has made your day.''

Yes, but the cold Pilsen beer I sip before our beach picnic is a nice step back to civilization.

Robert N. Jenkins is a freelance writer and former travel editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached through his website, bobjenkinswrites.com.

if you go

Small ship cruise

CruiseWest offers the "Between Two Seas" voyage from late October into April; optional multiday sea and land trips can be added. The four-deck Pacific Explorer passes through the Panama Canal on each itinerary though it usually takes place at night; one of the naturalists on my trip said our entrance in the afternoon was the first he could remember in six years.

Every one of the 50 cabins has either two singles or one double bed, with private bathroom; the four suites, or deluxe cabins, can sleep three. Cabins range from about 107 to 152 square feet and beyond the beds typically have just a nightstand and a small table by the door. The cruise line does not provide room keys, though cabin doors may be locked from the inside.

Prices run from $4,200 to $5,600 per person based on two in a cabin, depending on the time of year and the four cabin categories.

The suites have a TV with a VCR; there is no reception of external channels but the ship carries a library of nature and theatrical tapes, as well as about 200 books, both field guides to the region and novels. Passengers can check out binoculars for the trip's duration, taking them on the field trips.

All but one landing is made by stepping into the water at the beach; passengers wear life vests for every landing. The cruise company sends passengers a small three-ring binder that includes suggested reading and packing lists; each day of the trip, cabin stewards (who double as the dining room waiters) distribute a page for the binder that discusses the next port and includes that day's timetable.

There is a single dining room and a single set of dining hours, though continental breakfast is available before the full meal. The ship has a full-service bar but no pool, casino, elevator or other big-ship amenities. There is one stationary bike to ride, on a back deck, and four free clothes dryers but no washers. The cabin stewards will do laundry, for a fee.

Each evening before dinner, there is a cocktail hour on the open, uppermost deck; one of the naturalists reviews the day's events. And after each dinner, documentary videos or narrated PowerPoint shows about the region's history, culture or wildlife are presented in one of the air-conditioned lounges.

Visiting

the Embera

The Pacific Explorer is the only ship visiting one particular tribal village; go to www.cruisewest.com for details on the "Between Two Seas" cruise. But there are other Embera villages close enough to Panama City that day trips are offered. For options, enter "Panama tourism Embera'' into a search engine.

If you want to visit an Embera village but don't have the time or inclination for a nine-day exploration cruise, you can arrange for day trips and even overnight stays in one of the villages, leaving from Panama City.

One of the smoothest choices is Embera Village Tours, operated by an American woman, Anne Gordon de Barrigon, who married an Embera man. She picks up tour participants at their city hotels and drives them for about an hour into the country, to the Chagres River, where Embera tribesmen wait with a dugout canoe.

After about an hour on the river, participants arrive at the village. They will be led into the jungle by the village shaman and will learn about medicinal plants, while always watching for monkeys, sloths, toucans and other wildlife. There is also the option for taking a dip in the river; village children love to join in this.

Back in the village, there will be tribal dances like those described in the article, then a lunch of native foods, followed by shopping for handicrafts. Then it's back to Panama City. This all-day tour is $150 per adult, with reduced rates for each additional adult in a group; children 5-12 are charged $50 to $75, depending on age.

To contact de Barrigon, go to emberavillage

tours.com.

Also well-recommended is Garceth Cunampio, an Embera tribesman who was educated in the United States before returning to Panama. He also drives Panama City visitors — including passengers off the big cruise ships — to a dugout canoe. He stops to let everyone swim beneath a waterfall, then continues paddling to a village, where participants also have lunch, watch tribal dances and can buy handicrafts.

These tours are $120 per person for groups of four or more; contact Cunampio if you have fewer than four. Go to www.emberatours

panama.com.

For more information on the Pacific Explorer and its nine-day exploration cruise, go to www.cruisewest.com. At press time, CruiseWest was in the middle of a restructuring with new owners. It may be a few weeks before bookings will resume; however, the Panama trips are expected to continue.

Robert N. Jenkins

CruiseWest's 'Between Two Seas' sailings get passengers close to nature 09/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 11, 2010 5:30am]

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