Finding the Secret Beaches of Panama and Costa Rica
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

A lifelong non-cruiser says yes to a small ship adventure journey that skirts the coasts of Panama and Costa Rica, seeking out empty beaches for paddling and snorkeling.

best beaches Panama and Costa Rica

"Someone's on our beach," the guide says at breakfast, "so we're going to go paddle around somewhere else for a while and find a different beach or two."

We don our personal flotation devices, hop into kayaks or on stand-up paddleboards, and go exploring the wildlife-rich waters and shores of Coiba Island, a nature preserve in Panama. We spot sea turtles and oyster catcher birds, watch pelicans and osprey finding their next meals.

After working out for a few hours, we get some lunch on the ship and then look over at the island that was to be our playground this morning. Instead we get Granito de Oro islet to ourselves as the sun sinks toward the horizon and every other boat has motored back to where they came from. Since we're sleeping on our boat, we've got nowhere to be but here. Out come the rum punch and beers and we alternate between snorkeling and sipping, watching the hermit crabs devour a coconut.

A Small Ship Adventure in Central America

I've never had any desire to get on a giant cruise ship, despite a childhood of watching The Love Boat with low-paid schoolteacher parents, living in rural Virginia. Even when I lived in Tampa, Florida and could have literally walked ten minutes to the ramp with my wheelie suitcase and gotten onto one from Carnival or Norwegian. This even though I have a relative's house to stay in a few miles from Ft. Lauderdale, the home of all those giant floating hotels that keep setting new records for capacity. I even got invited to speak on one once, no pay but "Your cruise will be free!"

"Thanks, but I'm going to pass on that," was my reply. Being trapped on a giant ship between stops at tourist trap Caribbean ports seemed like more work than pleasure.

When I got a chance to go on an Uncruise though, through the Panama Canal and up to Costa Rica, I jumped on that with both flippered feet. The company lives up to its name: these trips are the opposite of a typical sea cruise. When we meet up for orientation, there are fewer than 50 passengers and we all fit into one room. The people working on the ship are buff and adventurous, both badass and generous. We are told that apart from sleeping and eating times, we will spend more hours off the ship than on it. Most of the time there won't be any internet. Even when we're near shore, in many places there won't be a cell signal because the areas are too remote.

white-faced monkey on a Central America small ship cruise

Our fellow passengers are exactly the kind of people you would expect to be on a journey like this. They are decked out in Tilley, ExOfficio, and Mountain Hardwear gear. They talk about cycling trips and the Inca Trail, of Patagonia and Sulawesi. Many have been on multiple Uncruise trips before, cashing in discounts for subsequent bookings after kayaking and whale watching in Alaska or paddling around the Baja Peninsula. They've worked hard and made some money, but they want to spend it in a way that's challenging, enriching, and stimulating.

I'm starting to think "Uncruise" is the best brand name ever when I hear one after another talk about getting dragged onto a regular cruise and looking for any chance to escape. "By the third shore excursion we had learned our lesson," said one outspoken passenger from Atlanta. "We would walk to the taxi line and ask, "How far away from this crap can you take us?"

From the Panama Canal to the Islands

Far away from everything turns out to be the best description of where we're headed on this journey. Sure, we all go through the famous canal, but "exciting" is generally not the first word to come up when people describe that experience. It's a marvel of engineering, a great story of overcoming adversity, but often about as exciting as watching ice melt. So that's mostly what we do-watch ice melt in our cocktails or in the big tin tub holding the beers.

secret beach in Panama with UncruiseOur first morning is a different story though, as we take zodiacs to shore from our ship and claim our spot on an island with no permanent residents. Isla Iguana is a national park and a protected area, with just a few rangers keeping an eye on things. It's the kind of beach you dream about when the squall is whipping around your northern home and the weather forecast says the high is still below freezing. White sand, good snorkeling around a 37-acre coral reef just off the shore, and a gentle blue surf lapping at our ankles. It's a frigate bird sanctuary, so the sky is filled with these fish-stealing thieves. With hardly any other birds around though, it's hard to imagine who's left to steal from. It's like a lunchroom full of bullies with nobody to beat up.

After a day of lounging and enjoying the island, we pull up the anchor and head around the Azuero Peninsula toward Coiba Island, the small ship moving along while we have a fine dinner and free-flowing cocktails on board. With no internet signal, nobody's face is buried in their phone and we have real conversations without distractions.

secret beach in Panama with Uncruise

Coiba Island and Our Own Little Islet

It's not easy to get to Coiba Island, way off the shore of Panama, plus the main island is close to 500 square kilometers in area. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site and a protected area above and below the water. There's a dark past we see though as our skiffs putter past the former prison, which operated for decades until closing in 2004. There are rumors that escaped prisoners are still hiding away in the jungle, thinking Noriega is still running the country.

The island is one of the best wildlife refuges in Central America, filled with animals and birds that are thriving on mostly uninhabited land. We see a caiman swimming in the water at one point as we go by the prison, pairs of scarlet macaws fly between it and our boat. Behind us out to see, we can see a whale spouting and breaching in the distance.

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