National Geographic Expeditions takes you on a voyage of discovery to Panama and Costa Rica with our 11-day expedition. As we explore the Isthmus of Panama, a link between two continents, you will find striking beauty in the biodiversity that is unique in the world. Our voyage will take in dream islands, natural reserves and will include encounters with the fascinating local communities as we journey between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Experience the wonders of this remarkable region in the company of a National Geographic Expert and a National Geographic photographer, who will open your eyes to the rich natural and cultural heritage found throughout this reason and help you to capture your story.

Your journey in Central America will begin with the former gateway to the New World located in Portobelo Bay. The fortifications found here are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and lie between mangroves and tropical forest and will give you the opportunity to discover the Congo culture.

From here, you will sail to the San Blas Islands and meet the Kuna. Enjoy discovering the traditional craft of molas, vibrant weaved textiles made amongst the palm trees and pirogues. The idyllic setting is completed by the golden sands and crystal-clear waters that surround these coral islands.

Crossing the Panama Canal is an iconic moment of navigation. This feat of engineering connects the Atlantic to the Pacific as is one of the most essential shipping routes in the world. Once you have sailed through, you will continue on to the Pearl Islands, which nestle in the Gulf of Panama.

Your ship will then head for the magnificent Darien National Park in Panama. This little corner of paradise is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to remarkable plants and wildlife. Sandy beaches, rocky coastlines, mangroves, swamps and tropical rainforests vie with each other for beauty and offer a feast for photographers. Here we will also be able to meet the semi-nomadic Emberas community and learn more about their way of life.

In Casa Orquideas, in the heart of a region that is home to Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches, you will have the chance to visit a botanical garden with a sublime collection of tropical flowers.

You will be able to enjoy a visit to the Curú Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica. Deep inside the tropical rainforest you may be lucky enough to see multi-coloured birds, monkeys, iguanas and sloths.

At the end of your trip, sit down with your National Geographic Expert and photographer and reflect on the experiences you have shared on your voyage and how they have changed you upon your return. National Geographic and Ponant share the deep belief that when people understand the world, they care more deeply and are inspired to act to protect it.

This Expedition Cruise is onboard Ponant’s Le Champlain ship, part of the Explorers fleet.

The encounters with the wildlife described above illustrate possible experiences only and cannot be guaranteed.

Trip highlights

Sail with a National Geographic photographer, who will be available for lectures, workshops, and one-on-one sessions to help you capture the story of your journey, whether you are a seasoned photographer or just using your phone.

Sail with a National Geographic Expert, a leader in their field who will bring to life the insights and stories of their work, and will guide you to experience this region through the lens of National Geographic.

Sail through the Panama Canal, truly a masterpiece of civil engineering.

Enjoy the unique opportunity to meet with indigenous communities such as the Emberás and the Kuna Indians of the San Blas archipelago.

Explore world-renowned UNESCO sites: the fortifications of Portobelo, the Darien National Park and spend time at San Blas Islands, a unique archipelago boasting spectacular landscapes of sandy beaches and lush greenery.

By travelling with National Geographic to Central America, you will also be doing your part to protect it, as part of the proceeds of your trip are returned to the National Geographic Society, who works to further the understanding and protection of our planet.

Itinerary - 10 Days

1 Colón, Panama

Start your expedition cruise in Colón, the second largest city in Panama. Founded in 1850, Colón is one of the most important ports in the Caribbean Sea and was declared a free-trade zone in 1953. While its founding was linked to the construction of the Panama railroad, that linked the Atlantic to the Pacific, it was not until the opening of the canal that the city overtook the older Caribbean ports of Panama. Explore the old town, historic churches and the Canal Expansion Observation Centre, a park with viewing platforms over the canal’s Atlantic locks and Gatún Lake.

2 Portobelo, Panama

Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502, Portobelo was named for the sheer beauty of the bay. It became a key port for the shipping of gold and silver from the New World to Spain and it was this that drove its early development. Today, its historic fortifications are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the town has preserved the cultural and religious traditions of its past with a strongly-rooted Afro-Caribbean culture. Here, you will learn how Spanish domination over black slaves came to be represented in traditional dance, music and ceremonies.

3-4 San Blas Islands, Panama

A collection of over 300 islands and cays, San Blas Islands offer unrivalled beauty with turquoise waters, palm-lined beaches and a wealth of exotic marine life. Discover the Kunas Indian community who will welcome you in their villages of bamboo houses amongst the palm trees and learn about their traditional craft of weaving vibrant textiles.

5 Crossing the Panama Canal

Sailing the Panama Canal is a unique experience that has inspired the imagination of numerous adventurers in the 20th century. Its construction started in 1880 under the direction of Ferdinand De Lesseps. Abandoned then resumed, this marvel of engineering was completed by the United States in 1887 and opened in 1914. The canal crosses the Isthmus of Panama and links the Atlantic to the Pacific. Including three levels of locks and by raising ships to the level of Lake Gatun, almost as if the water was a lift, it allows them to avoid having to round Cape Horn.

6 Pacheca and Viveros Islands, Panama

Formed of over 200 islands, the Pearl Islands will remind you of strings of pearls, for which they are named. One of the world’s most famous pearls “La Peregrina” was found in these waters, and through the years was owned by several royals before finding its way into Elizabeth Taylor’s collection. Pachea island is found in the far north of the Pearl Islands and is renowned for its abundant bird life. Join your National Geographic photographer on deck to get top tips for taking that perfect shot of a bird in flight, as we sail by this uninhabited island on our way to Viveros. Upon arrival at Viveros we will make our way ashore where you can enjoy the white sand beaches, or take to the clear waters to observe the multi-coloured fish that make this their home.

7 Playa Muerto, Darien National Park, Panama

Darien is the most remote and least developed region of Panama, yet its unspoilt, natural beauty makes it one of the most majestic places to visit. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, Darien National Park offers its extraordinary scenery of rocky coastlines, mountain ranges, rivers and creeks as well a wealth of flora and fauna. Discover Playa Muerto, a tiny coastal village home to the Emberas Amerindian community. You will visit the village, attend traditional songs and dance performances by the locals, and admire beautiful local craft.

8 Cebaco Island, Panama

Today, your journey will take you to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Coiba National Park, recognised for its magnificent coral reefs and the abundant marine life that can be found here. Our destination is Cebaco Island, a tropical paradise with its dense rainforest, white sandy beaches and an exceptional biodiversity. A number of hiking routes will allow you to explore these forests and experience the pristine environment within.

9 Casa Orquideas, Costa Rica

Your ship will sail across the gulf of Dulce in direction of the splendid botanical garden of Casa Orquideas that you will reach by Zodiac®. Golfo Dulce is one of the most intense rainforest landscapes in the world, unfolding and exposing what has been described by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth”. More than 400 species of tropical birds, over 500 species of vascular plants, 140 species of tropical mammals, hundreds of butterfly species and many more tropical organisms call this place home. Gain insights into the global significance of this jewel of Costa Rica from your National Geographic Expert.

10 Curú Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

As Costa Rica’s oldest protected, the Curú Wildlife Refuge is a text book example of tourism intended to support conservation efforts as it also serves as a research centre for scientists from all over the world. After a short Zodiac® trip, you will discover, via the paths that criss-cross the tropical forest and lead to magnificent beaches, the most characteristic animal species of Costa Rica: monkeys, iguanas and over 200 bird species. Since their recent reintroduction, the scarlet macaw and the spider monkey have thrived in this preserved environment.

11 Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

As your expedition cruise comes to an end, on your final day enjoy the wonderful Puerto Caldera on the Pacific coast, in the Puntarenas region. Head inland to explore the natural wonders in the lush rainforest of the Costa Rica’s national parks, Poas and Arena volcanoes tower up in all their majestic glory. In this thriving natural setting, Costa Rica protects one of the planet’s richest biodiversity: monkeys, sloths, tropical birds, iguanas, crocodiles, waterfalls, canyons, and more than ten thousand species of tropical plants. Enjoy at your leisure before making your way home.
As the plane climbs away for your journey back home, take a last look at the dramatic landscapes you leave behind as you return from this spectacular tropical region.

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