Finding the Secret Beaches of Panama and Costa Rica — Page 2
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

Granito de Oro off Coiba Island in Panama

The only place to stay on Coiba Island is a ranger station where they do wildlife research and it can take two or three hours to get to the mainland. So by the afternoon when our skiffs have beached on little Granitos de Oro, there's not another boat in sight. We pop on snorkeling gear and see more of the fish we've been seeing-angelfish, parrot fish, hawkfish-as well as a sea turtle and a moray eel poking his head out. In the evening I sip some good rum from our deck and look at the islet glowing in the sunset, its beaches empty again and not another soul in sight.

On to the Osa Peninsula

We spend another day on deserted beaches of Panama, taking out the kayaks and paddleboards to go exploring along the shore. Another day of exertion matched with good food and drink back on the ship.

After a night of the moving ship gently rocking us to sleep, we end up in Costa Rican waters, gliding into the Gulfo Dulce. This deep body of water is surrounded by a patchwork of wildlife reserves, from the huge Corcovado National Park and Piedres Blancas National Park to dozens of adjoining parcels that let the big mammals that need lots of territory run free. All five of Central America's wild cats live here, including jaguars and pumas. There are patches of human settlement along the coasts and some great eco-lodges, but humans are a tiny minority in this region of thick vegetation and old-world rainforests.

Some of the guides on an Uncruise ship are seasoned regulars that bop back and forth between Alaska and Latin America. Most of the workers are locals though, people who grew up in the areas we're exploring and know the plants and animals in depth. One of them shows us around the botanical garden Casa de Orquideas-House of Orchids. There are plenty of those flowers, of course, but also nutmeg and tropical fruit trees. This is a tamed part of the landscape designed to show off what grows in the area, but up above us the hillside looks like a place we could easily get lost in a hurry.

We split into groups to go explore the mangrove estuary at the top of the gulf. Those of us on paddleboards see golden rays gliding along beside us and we hear monkeys jumping around the trees on shore. A windstorm kicks up as we're headed back to the ship though and I burn through enough calories huffing and puffing to fight the waves that I think I might actually make up for what I'm going to scarf down at dinner.

Osa Peninsula Costa Rica beach

Our legs finally get to join the workout party the next day as we go for a hike along the shore of the Osa Peninsula. We see thorny trees, bamboo patches, and lots of tropical birds and we make our way inland to a stream-fed pool for a cooling-off swim. We pass beach after beach on the way that doesn't have a soul on it. There are no houses in the area and no roads. Along the Corcovado National Park, the beaches stretch for miles and miles, most of them permanently off limits to developers. On this one patch of land in one small country, you can find 2.5% of the entire planet's biodiversity, including all four of Costa Rica's monkeys and 16 different species of hummingbird.

We have been seeing glorious sunsets as we make our way along the coast of Central America, but this night's is especially good. The orange orb goes down over Caño Island in the distance, the sky many shades of yellow and red. Our boat chugs up the coast some more, on the way to another pristine part of Costa Rica.

Osa Peninsula sunset over Cano Island

The Nicoya Peninsula and Curú National Wildlife Refuge

After a hearty breakfast we pile into skiffs and head ashore to the Curú National Wildlife Refuge. Here at the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula, several microclimates jostle for space, from dry mangroves to meadows to jungle. It's monkey heaven here, as we see and hear howler monkeys, then watch about 20 white-faced capuchin monkeys make their way across the tree canopy. One comes especially close to us and his eyes dart back and forth at the two-legged creatures with cameras. "That one is the guard," our guide explains. If he thinks there may be danger to the others, he will sound an alarm and they will go faster into the forest."

Curu National Wildlife Reserve Costa Rica

Apparently we're not a threat. After a while he jumps from tree to tree to catch up with the others. We keep hiking along the trail, seeing some deer and agoutis. That afternoon we have our last private beach break, feeling melancholy knowing this is our last bit of relaxed freedom before facing a week's worth of e-mail messages when we get to San Jose. I go for a solo walk along the shoreline for a last round of wildlife spotting and it's a productive one. One tree is filled with a dozen scarlet macaws and two of them are squawking away so loud that I hear them 100 meters before I get there. It seems to be mating season...

We have a last night on the ship, enjoying more great food prepared in what seems like an impossibly small kitchen. These Uncruise trips include everything, including good booze and a massage even, so by the end I'm feeling about as relaxed and fulfilled as anyone could want on a vacation. Because we were active every day instead of just bellying up to a buffet table, this certainly didn't feel anything like the typical cruise experience. I've got hundreds of photos to process, but hardly any of them are of the ship. They're of secret beaches and a wealth of wildlife.

If You Go
Most of the empty beaches highlighted in this story can only be reached by boat. If you don't have your own, go exploring with Uncruise on their Unveiled Wonders tour up or down the coast of Central America.

Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer and the author of five travel books, including A Better Life for Half the Priceand Travel Writing 2.0. He has run the Cheapest Destinations Blog since 2003.

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Related Features:
Karaoke at Sea on a Cargo Ship - Rebecca A. Hall
Kayaking Around Specks in the Ocean in Belize - Tim Leffel
Mexico City's Island Life: Enchanting and Endangered - Lydia Carey
Rescuing Costa Rica's Howler Monkeys - David Lee Drotar

See other Central America travel stories from the archives

Read this article online at: Finding the Secret Beaches of Panama and Costa Ricak

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