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Pure Panama and Costa Rica: A Nature Photographer's Dream Cruise


By Elisabeth Brentano, guest writer and photographer aboard the Safari Voyager

When I visited Costa Rica for the first time in 2015, I was blown away by the wildlife — both along the coast and in the lush jungles inland. The country is just 19,700 square miles (smaller than the state of West Virginia), yet it contains approximately five percent of the world’s biodiversity. I had never been to Panama, but after learning that nearly a third of the country’s wilderness is protected via national parks and private reserves, I knew I wanted to go. This April I joined UnCruise Adventures for the 12-day "Pure Panama and Costa Rica" cruise aboard the Safari Voyager, and I came back with several thousand photos of birds, pristine beaches and fiery sunsets. Here are a few of my favorite moments from the trip...

1. Exploring the mangroves in Golfo Dulce

As much as I love sunshine, experiencing the mangroves of Golfo Dulce with low fog and raindrops dancing on the water was absolutely magical. Every few minutes I spotted a new species of bird, and even when they weren't visible, they were singing and chirping away. The landscape looked like something straight out of Jurassic Park, and the color of the water was equally mind-blowing. With several days along the Pacific side of Costa Rica, we had plenty of time to explore this verdant wilderness by foot, kayak and skiff.

2. A different kind of climate

When you’re dripping with sweat and the air is so full of moisture it feels like you could swim through it, that’s the sort of experience that truly sticks with you. Even though I was inwardly groaning about the humidity at times, the way our bodies respond to a country’s climate is just as important as our memories of scenery, smells, and tastes. When I look back at photos taken from this region of Central America, I can almost feel that moist air kissing my skin, and I actually miss it, because I miss being there. (On a different note, it's important to remember that your camera will likely have its own special experience with the humidity as well. Be sure to bring a rain cover and remember that you'll need to set aside at least 5 minutes to allow your lenses to de-fog each day.)

3. Wildlife around every corner

We spent several hours quietly walking through the Curu National Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica, and we only logged about a mile because we were constantly stopping to observe birds, lizards, iguanas, deer, coati, and monkeys — and learn a little bit more about their behavior and habitats. And this is how all “interactions” with wildlife should be — respectful, peaceful and a beautiful reminder of the precious gems tucked in every corner of our planet. This is one of the reasons I recommend UnCruise to every nature lover I know, because from Alaska to the tropics, they always make sure to keep a safe and responsible distance when viewing wildlife.

4. Something for the birders, too

It's only been the last couple of years that I've truly become a bird nerd, and when I recently watched the Nat Geo film, Into the Okavango, Dr. Steve Boyes' summed it up best. “The longer you’re in the wild and the more you visit it, the more you will become interested in birds," he explained. "Some will become your familiar companions; others will become exciting and privileged visitations.” I think it's safe to say that even if you aren't a die-hard birder outfitted with a binocular harness and a 600mm lens, you will come to appreciate everything from hummingbirds to Magnificent Frigatebirds on this trip.

5. Magnificent indeed

When I joined UnCruise in the Sea of Cortes last winter, I spotted a Magnificent Frigatebird for the first time. Since then I have become more and more fascinated with this particular avian species, and I could stare at their silhouettes soaring in the sky for hours. Visiting a nesting colony at the Isla Iguana Wildlife Refuge in Panama was a real treat, and our guides gave us all kinds of incredible information about these large seabirds. I had never been close enough to see the red throat pouches males inflate to attract females, and quite a few flying above us at Isla Iguana were puffed up and ready for action. Males can get quite aggressive with one another, and they sometimes try to puncture the pouches on rivals in a bid to render them incapable of attracting a mate for the rest of the season — or until the wound heals.

6. Electric skies

Watching the sky turn into a palette of pinks and purples with a cocktail in your hand is the ultimate way to end the day. And with most of the route along the Pacific side of Panama and Costa Rica, you're almost guaranteed to have a sunset like this every night. With no distractions (there is no WiFi or cable on board UnCruise vessels…), you’re able to pay more attention to what’s in front of you — and create vivid memories of the moments that matter the most.

7. Dancing with dolphins

On one of our final mornings in Panama, a pod of half a dozen bottlenose dolphins followed one of our zodiacs back to the Safari Voyager. They leaped into the air and swam through the wake of the skiff, and when it was time to pick up anchor and move on, we were all bummed to leave. But much to our surprise, the dolphins followed us for nearly half an hour, riding the bow of the boat and continuing to jump out of the water. One dolphin started swimming sideways and looked right at me, which I absolutely couldn't believe. In fact, you probably won't believe me either, so here's a photo of it:

8. Pure bliss in Guna Yala

After snorkeling and paddle boarding in Coiba National Park and crossing the Panama Canal, we spent our last two days relaxing in Guna Yala (formerly the San Blas Islands). The water was calm, warm and crystal clear, and from the soft white sand to clusters of palm trees all around us, it was truly the definition of paradise. I don't know that it gets any better than this, and I can't think of a more perfect and relaxing way to have wrapped up this trip.

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