Small-ship cruising along Panama's two coastlines yields R&R, jungle adventure and a type of unstructured holiday you don't have to save for your old age.
By Doug Wallace | April 05, 2021
I rarely get excited about boobies. But then I spot my first one—and I’m mesmerized.
I’m talking about blue-footed boobies. I’m on an inflatable skiff looking through binoculars to see their cliffside bird colony on Little Pacheca Island in the Gulf of Panama. My boobies aren’t alone: I also see cormorants, pelicans and more, each commanding their own particular real estate around their wee island rookeries.
I’m on a nine-day small-ship journey with UnCruise, an adventure travel outfit from Seattle, toodling around the bays and islets off Panama’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts on Safari Voyager with 40 or so other intrepid travellers.
When I first hear about it, I think: What in hell is an un-cruise? You’re either on a cruise or you’re not. I’m wrong, of course. I’m on a boat, yes, but the itinerary and the mindset of the cast and crew is not like anything I’ve experienced before.
“We are the antithesis of the big ships,” says UnCruise owner Dan Blanchard, who’s taking a week off to get in on the Panamanian fun with us. “Everything we do is not about the boat, it’s about what’s off the boat—the nature and wildlife. Essentially, the boat is a floating lodge we ‘hub and spoke off’ all day, the tool to get us to the places we can’t get to otherwise.”
“Boomers and GenXers aren’t satisfied with just seeing. They need to touch and experience things in a meaningful way.”
The week before I sail, I hear from a buddy who had gone on a similar trip. “Pack a clothesline,” she says, “you’re gonna need it.” I have one coming from Amazon in a matter of seconds.
On board, the first thing I hang on it are dozens of wet American dollars, soaking from being left in the pocket of my swim trunks. Seriously, the humidity in this part of the world is beyond stifling, even for those who live with it regularly. Thankfully, I adjust quickly (and so will you), but my cotton stuff never recovers nor does my canvas backpack, despite being thrown in the ship’s kitchen freezer overnight to try to kill the bacteria. Thank god for quick-drying fabrics. Live and learn.
Deep in the Rainforest
Further down the Pacific coast from my boobies, we stop in at an Indigenous village in the Darién province, where we spend the afternoon communing with a tribe of very welcoming Emberá villagers still living the same traditional jungle life that goes back centuries.
As we disembark from motorized dugout canoes, a huge crowd meets us, clapping and singing to drum and pipe accompaniment. After taking in the blaze of colour of the traditional outfits—and the lack of clothing, too—I notice the ubiquitous dark blue tattoos sported by everyone, including the children. They turn out to be drawn with vegetable dye, which contains an ingredient that works as an insect repellent.
While some set up craft tables with beaded pendants, woven baskets, carved wooden dishware and the like, others give us tastes of raw sugar cane and show us how they mill grain by hand. After a formal welcome, a bit of ceremonial dancing and a brief rain shower—this is the rainforest after all—I join one of the villagers giving on a tour.
The place is desperately poor. These people are clinging to their original way of life, but it in no way looks easy. The ramshackle buildings all on stilts, the mud, the communal gardens, the wash house, and a single satellite phone booth all point to a harder way of life than I will ever witness again. A simple stockade sits ready to shame wrong-doers. Despite the insufficiencies, the villagers are all very proud of it all, committed to the community and their past—and to teaching visitors all about it. A few guests from the ship brave the tattoo lady’s chair to get some freehand embellishment, once we hear the dye only lasts about three weeks.
The other cool thing about this area is the mangroves, a region of tropical coastal vegetation comprising salt-tolerant trees and shrubs stretching through the shallow sub-tidal zones. Existing before humans, these magical little plants are their own beautiful ecosystem, filtering the salt out of their roots. Kayaking through the mangroves yields an exquisite sense of peace and an arresting realization that I’m visiting a place few people ever get the chance to visit.
I team up in a tandem kayak with a gentleman of about 70 who paddles faster than I can and doesn’t once run out of steam, despite my thinking he would any second. In fact, I have to ask him to slow down. There are no shrinking violets on this voyage and no one has to be told twice to start lining up for the lifejackets. I can tell that the younger passengers are in awe of some of the older ones who have ten tons of gumption. Being adventurous isn’t something you grow out of, I guess.
“The older generation was happy to look, to stand out on the bow and see a whale or a glacier or a bear,” says Dan. “The boomers and GenXers aren’t satisfied with just seeing. They need to touch it and experience things in a meaningful way.”
My takeaway in this regard is that I’m going the adventure route while I’m still fit enough to kayak, paddleboard, snorkel for more than an hour, hop in and out of handmade wooden canoes in the jungle and then drink beer all night.
We slow our kayaks down quite a bit to squeeze as much out of the mangrove experience as possible. Even my paddle mate eases off on the full steam ahead. We languish in the approaching sunset, drinking in the silence, watching the pelicans dive-bomb for fish in the estuary. No wonder these poor creatures go blind from this daily grind. We can see our ship, but aren’t obliged to hurry up, thankfully. This crew is very adept at modifying plans on the fly.
“Our built-in flexibility is great,” says Dan, “but it frustrates our chef sometimes when we call and say, ‘You know, the conditions are perfect and people are loving this kayak. Let’s stretch it a couple of hours.’”
Dreaming on a Desert Island
Later on in the week on Panama’s Atlantic side, after traversing the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal, we make for the Indigenous province of Guna Yala, formerly the San Blas Islands, a grouping of 360 picture-postcard islands, all white sand, palm trees and thatched roofs. We snorkel, paddleboard, kayak some more, eat, play volleyball and shop for molas, the colourful embroidered tapestries the locals have brought to our island-for-the-day. Mostly we just chat and laze about. I get talking with one of the men selling crafts who asks a ton of questions about Toronto, and about my job and what my house looks like. Other local men try to convince one of our guides to buy the lobsters they have in their boat, but the kitchen declines. When I realize there are two days of this particular nothingness and not just one, I am ecstatic.
The second day, on a different and even smaller island, I’m snorkelling and following a few reef fish around in the shallow waters, lost in my own thoughts and not really looking up, so I don’t see the clouds coming or the beach crew packing up before the rain. I’m part of the last group of people out of the water and into a skiff to head back to the ship. As we sit quietly and stare at the incredible sky, one of my boat-mates mentions to Dan that she’s never been anywhere where there are no other boats around.
“That’s the un-part,” says Dan.