COSTA RICA AND PANAMA ON THE YORKTOWN CLIPPER
Exploring the coastal rain forests of Costa Rica and Panama sounds like an arduous trip, but not when traveling in the luxury of the MV Yorktown Clipper, one of the excellent Clipper Cruise line small ships. Our travel was not limited to the ship, however. We also traveled by aerial tram, cayucos (native canoes), DIBs (metal-framed inflatable boats), and the more prosaic tour bus.
We selected Clipper for this, our third visit to Costa Rica, because of previous delightful trips with this all-American line and because of the itinerary. Our first visit was a one-day excursion from a Princess giant boat. Our second was aboard the Costa-Rican-owned MV Temptress. We wanted something more spacious than the Temptress since our extended family of seven, including an 8 year old grandson and a 3 year old granddaughter, made the trip.
The flight from Los Angeles on American Airlines was uneventful, with the exception of our intermediate landing in Miami. We were greeted by fire trucks since our landing was made without benefit of wing flaps. The captain advised us that the landing would be delayed so that the longest runway could be made available. After a very "hot" landing he announced, "Well, now you can say that you have survived a no-flaps landing in a DC-10."
After clearing immigration in San Jose, Costa Rica, we were convoyed through the airport to our bus by a Clipper representative. It was a quick bus ride to the Cariari Hotel and Country Club where we were met by our daughter who had traveled separately from Denver. Although all meals at the hotel were included, we had been fed adequately on the planes and skipped supper. The meals we did have, buffet breakfasts and menu-based dinners in the pool-side dining room, were plentiful and delicious. (Probably anything accompanied by the rich Costa Rican coffee would be delicious.) Although the serving staff spoke English they graciously tolerated our attempts to communicate with 50-year-old high school Spanish.
In general, the Costa Ricans are pleasant, friendly people who have justified pride in their country. This democratic country requires schooling through the sixth grade and voting is mandatory. It has the highest literacy rate in the hemisphere, perhaps the World. Their armed forces were eliminated after the 1948 revolution.
San Jose is located in the temperate Central Valley. As a result of its 4000 foot elevation, temperatures are pleasant and the humidity is much less than will be found in the coastal regions. We arrived just at the end of the rainy season and did not encounter any significant rain during our visit.
One of the highlights of the trip occurred on our first full day in San Jose. We all took the optional Rainforest Aerial Tram ride. Dr. Donald Perry conducted research in the rain forests by applying rock climbing techniques to ascend into the canopy. His success encouraged him to develop the Tram as a way of exposing this hidden world to less athletic people.
The tram is located in a 1000 acre private nature reserve, along the northern border of Braulio Carrillo National Park. It is similar to a ski lift, with each open basket carrying six passengers, five tourists and a guide-narrator. The lower, outbound leg traverses the subcanopy from which we saw the ground dwelling plants and the lower story of the forest. We saw many orchids, ferns, lianas, some lizards and snakes.
The turnaround point is located on a hill top. The return leg is through the upper reaches of the canopy. Green, cloud-like tree tops were penetrated by the truly gigantic emergent trees that soar above all. We had a distant view of a male three-toed sloth in one of these.
Lunch at a pleasant open-air restaurant at the tram terminus was included. A friendly coati mundi roamed the area while we ate. There was also a nest of the always fascinating leaf-cutter ants defoliating a tree near the restaurant. Although we were advised to bring rain gear and bug repellent, we needed neither. Both are required at other times of the year.
We set out for the ship the next morning via Poas Volcano National Park and the tourist town of Sarchi. Since it was the end of the rainy season and since we arrived in late morning, the crater of Poas Volcano was not yet cloaked in clouds. Steam was emerging from the bright blue-green pool in the crater. The walls are brilliantly colored.
Lunch today was served at a traditional open-air Costa Rican restaurant. Delicious pumpkin soup was followed by a typical meal of black beans and rice, plantain, and chicken.
Most of the Costa Rican coffee is grown in fields we passed through. Many plants were covered with bright red coffee "cherrys," indicating that the harvest season has arrived. In fact, we saw the hand-harvesting underway in several fields. One plant will provide approximately 125 cups of coffee. Each cherry contains two beans covered with a skin and protected by a sticky material.
Sarchi is the home of the famous gaudily painted ox carts. During the frantic one hour shopping opportunity, we were offered all sizes of carts, ranging from small napkin holders to full sized ones. Shopping was not limited to ox carts. There was a full range of Costa Rican goods available.
We embarked the Yorktown Clipper in late afternoon at its dock in Puerto Caldera and enjoyed the first of many, traditional Clipper Chippers. These are sinfully delicious, unique chocolate chip cookies for which Clipper ships are justly famous.
After the cookies, we enjoyed a glass of wine in the Observation Lounge while the crew escorted the passengers to their cabins. Since our group numbered seven, and since we were enjoying our wine and talk, we waited until all the other passengers had been taken to their cabins before we went to ours.
The Yorktown Clipper is a 130-passenger, shallow draft cruise ship of American manufacture. The 8-foot draft allowed us to visit locations unavailable to the more traditional cruise ships. An all-American crew of mostly college-aged men and women made us feel truly welcome. (The officers and management-types are of a more mature age.)
Our small but adequate cabin offered two single beds, common on most cruise ships including the miss-named Love Boats. The closets were generously sized and provided with several drawers. There was a mirror and desk between the beds against the hull. The bathroom was adequate, however storage space or a medicine cabinet was missing.
Although seating in the Charleston Dining room is "open," the size and make-up of our group dictated a reserved table for the length of the trip. With the exception of the Captain's Welcome and Farewell dinners, dress was quite casual. Dress wasn't very formal for those two ceremonious occasions, either.
Every dinner menu started with an appetizer, a choice of a special salad or a green salad, and soup. Main courses always included fish or seafood, meat, pasta, and a vegetarian dish, with appropriate vegetables and starch. There was always a special dessert in addition to freshly made ice cream.
The grandkids enjoyed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or cheese burgers with either chips or french fries most evenings.
Excellent and reasonably priced wines added to our dining pleasure. Cocktails were available in the lounge almost all the time, other than at meal times. They were generously sized and also reasonably priced. (Of course, all drinks were reasonably priced for me. My daughter paid for all cocktails and my son paid for all wine.)
As we enjoyed the first of many excellent dinners aboard, the Yorktown Clipper motored off to our first stop, Punta Leona and a visit to Carara Biological Reserve. After dinner we adjourned to the lounge for a briefing on the next day's activities by Heidi, the Cruise Director, and Patty, Carla, John, and Marcel, the on-board naturalists. Carla and Marcel are Costa Ricans. Patty, an avid birder, is an American who was on our previous Clipper trip to the Bearing Sea and Siberia. John is a tropical expert from England.
Our anchorage at Punta Leona was off a small beach resort. Several hikes were offered in Carara. The grounds and fresh water swimming pool of the resort were available to those who didn't choose to hike.
We choose to hike with Carla, so after the trip ashore in a DIB, we rinsed the sand from our feet, donned our socks and hiking shoes, and boarded a small bus for the trip to Carara. The DIBs are boarded from the swimming platform at the ship side gate. After beaching through the surf, you must wade through a bit of water to reach the dry shore.
Going into a tropical rain forest from the air conditioned ship is akin to diving into a very warm bath. Sweat pours from every pore even while you are just standing still. The beauty and the bugs and the birds and the animals soon cause you to forget your temporary discomfort.
Carara is a 4,700 acre tropical forest area in the central Pacific coastal region. On a previous visit we saw scarlet macaws, Capuchin monkeys, and numerous birds. The wild life seemed more scarce today although we did see a large iguana and a beautiful yellow and black stripped vulture snake. We also saw a few of Costa Rica's many butterflies.
One fascinating thing we saw there was the symbiotic relationship between ants and two different plants, the bull thorn acacia and one of the varieties of heliconia. In both cases, the plants provide food for the ants. The bull thorn acacia also provides shelter in the hollow thorns. The ants, in return, protect the plants from birds and other insects that may try to eat the plant.
After the hike we returned to the ship for lunch. A menu-based lunch was always available in the dining room. In addition, a soup and sandwich buffet was available in the Observation Lounge. Coffee, hot chocolate, and espresso were always available from a machine in the lounge, in addition to cold tea and juices from another machine. These were at no charge.
DIB shuttles to shore resumed after lunch to allow further enjoyment of the swimming pool and beach. But everyone had to be back on board to get ready for the Captain's Gala Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party. We enjoyed cocktails and hors d'oeuvres until time for dinner. (Although it was billed as a Welcome Aboard party and dinner I recognized it as a clever sham to conceal its true purpose, the celebration of my birthday, duly recognized later with a properly candled cake.)
During the night we moved to our anchorage off of Manuel Antonio National Park. Located in the province of Puntarenas, this park consists of over 1700 acres of protected forest and marine habitats. It offers both rain-forest hiking and lazing on the sandy beaches.
Today we went with Marcel on what was advertised as a strenuous nature hike. This hike took us to the highest point in the park and to a beautiful ocean overlook. In the course of the hike we had an excellent view of another male three-toed sloth, many capuchin monkeys, and, of course, many birds and butterflies. Although there was no rain, the trails were muddy and slippery in some areas.
After lunch on board we went back and hiked around on our own. On this hike we saw more monkeys, a big Iguana, an agouti, and a Jesus Christ lizard.
The next morning found us at Marenco Biological Station. Our tightly knit band of seven split into three groups. Two of us took another strenuous hike with Marcel. Grandmother and the two grandkids hiked along the shore with Carla. The other two wandered about on their own. The strenuous hike started with a long flight of stairs to a resort. We paused there to view the macaws, a captive fer-de-lance snake plus several other kinds of snakes preserved in jars, and to watch a juvenile pacarana bite Marcel's finger.
The hike was not only strenuous but it was quite muddy. We did briefly glimpse some spider monkeys, however. Coming from Southern California, I find the intense green of the rain forests overwhelming. The density of the growth is amazing. The trees are covered with epithites, many are blooming orchids. Whenever there is a hole in the canopy, caused by a fallen tree, opportunistic plants spring to life, fighting to outgrow their competition and keep access to the Sun. These light patches are usually lush with flowers.
Our hike ended where the Rio Claro enters the ocean. We were met there by Carla's hike and we all enjoyed rinsing off the mud and sweat in the flowing river water.
When we returned to the beach we found that the crew had set up a bar-b-que lunch on shore. The cold beer was most welcome and the hamburger delightfully big. In addition there were the usual picnic items such as beans and potato salad. For dessert there were the usual Clipper Chippers and chocolate brownies.
After lunch we wandered down to shore to a pretty crescent beach and tried snorkeling. The ship provides free masks, snorkels, and swim fins. The water was a bit too cloudy for good snorkeling however it gave me my first opportunity to try my new prescription face mask.
The next day, our first in Panama, was a cruising day, although we had a scheduled stop at a small, uninhibited island for more snorkeling. We approached and anchored at a legendary postage stamp island with a dozen trees, a promising reef, and a gorgeous crescent of white sand. Before we could go ashore the captain received a message from near-by federal prison telling him that the area was closed since a murderer had escaped and had not yet been caught. So we up-anchored and went off to another spot.
The alternate spot wasn't as picturesque but the swimming was great. A large population of hermit crabs entertained my grandson, and the rest of us.
During our fifth day on the ship we visited the island of Contadora, part of the Las Perlas Islands in Panama. Before anchoring, we slowly passed Isla Pachequilla, home of many sea birds. Today we mostly saw nesting frigatebirds. The brilliant red throat pouch of displaying males was clearly visible in the tree tops on shore. We were surrounded with hundreds of soaring males, white breasted females, and white headed juveniles.
Contadora is the only occupied island of the group. A small resort with casino, several homes, and an airstrip are located there. The hustle and bustle of the airstrip and town was a bit of a shock after the isolation of the ship and the rain forests.
After a visit on shore, we enjoyed the sunset, hors d'oeuvres, and "Jungle Juice" on the Sun Deck. We remained anchored at Contadora until 6 the next morning. Since our cabin was near the bow, our wake-up call was provided by the anchor chain. My usual wake-up was provided by my grandson, an early riser, who needed someone to accompany him to the lounge for early bird breakfast. He prepared a cup of hot chocolate and also a strange brew of fruit juices to consume until the breakfast buffet was laid out.
I haven't mentioned breakfast yet. As on many cruise ships, there is an early bird breakfast available in the lounge from 7 am to 9:30 am. A more conventional breakfast is available in the dining room. Both featured freshly baked bread, rolls, muffins, pastries, cold cereal, fresh fruit, bacon, coffee, and juice. The dining room also offered hot cereals and eggs.
On this day there was no dining room breakfast. In its place we had a Champagne Brunch at mid-morning prior to a trip into the Darien Jungle.
At noon we boarded cayucos. These are long motorized canoes that seem to have been made from hollowed out trees but with lumber used to extend the freeboard. In spite of her shallow draft, the Yorktown Clipper had to anchor several miles from the mouth of the Sambu river. The bay was so shallow that even the cayucos required careful navigation to avoid the sand bars. We were entertained by fishing pelicans and cormorants on our way across the bay.
The total trip to the Choco Indian village was about two hours. It seemed longer. The seats in the canoe were hard and without back rests. The heat, humidity, and bright Sun were amplified by the required life preservers. In addition, we were all heavily lathered with sun block and insect repellant.
The village is located on a small tributary of the Sambu. The Chocos are a solitary people so the village we visited probably was not the actual residence of many of the people. We were met at the landing by several women and young girls who escorted us to the village. All were attired in sarongs of brightly printed cloth. Many were decorated with black markings which, at first, looked like tattoos but were actually made with a vegetable dye. All of the females were topless.
We walked down a wide, mowed path to the village. At several points, the people path was crossed by leaf-cutter ant paths. These industrious bugs had worn down the grass with their continual passage.
The village itself consisted of a dozen open-sided thatched huts built on stilts eight feet off of the ground to avoid the floods of the rainy season. Access to the huts was by a log into which steps had been cut. Most of the people had handicrafts for sale. Since we were the first ship of the season there was a wide selection of decorated basketry, carved wooden figures, and necklaces, all very reasonably priced. In spite of the primitive nature of the village, each hut had a water faucet and electricity was available. There was even a store where one could purchase cold beer and soft drinks.
There were many delightful children running about. The youngest wearing nothing. The men wore brief, bright red loin cloths. During our visit we were entertained by musicians and dancers. This wasn't presented in a formal manner since that would have interfered with shopping.
After an hour or so it was time to leave. As we headed out we were joined by some of the young girls who held our hands as we walked along. This was another opportunity to try the high school Spanish. About all I accomplished was finding out that my new friend's name was Ava.
Since we were among the last to leave we saw the people heading back to their actual houses. Most had changed into western style shorts and buttoned short sleeved shirts. As we were nearing the end of our village stay I noticed that more and more of the women were covering up. I suspect that someone has told them that tourists expect topless Indians but they are no longer comfortable dressing that way. With no real reason, I was imagining them returning to their actual residence, a cement block bungalow, popping a TV dinner into the microwave, and sitting down in front of the TV with a cold beer.
In spite of the long, uncomfortable ride to and from the village, it was a rewarding visit to a different culture. The Chocos seem to be a friendly, industrious people who have taken some control of their environment.
Finally, the Panama Canal! We entered the breakwater at Panama City at dawn and slowly proceeded to Miraflores Locks. Unfortunately we followed and shared all locks with a large container ship which obscured some of our views. Although this was my second trip through I was still excited and enjoyed it.
The first was on a big Princess boat. Going through on a smaller ship with naturalists pointing out the birds, crocodiles, and other fauna made it a much better trip.
Our expeditious passage was interrupted as we approached the Gatun Locks. We weren't scheduled through until 4 pm so we anchored for a couple of hours. Finally at the appointed time we joined our container ship and passed through into the waters of the Atlantic just at Sunset.
We anchored off of Colon and spent the night there before heading off to the San Blas Islands, an archipelago lying off the north coast of Panama. These islands are home to the Kuna Indians, famous for their "Molas," colorful pieces of fabric art work in all shapes and sizes. We first visited the island of Acuatupu. Acuatupu is low, palm studded island that seems to be a tourist marketing center more than the residence of the many salespeople. As we were approaching and anchoring the small boats were bringing the people and their wares to the island from elsewhere. Many people, children especially, were set up for photo opportunities since all expect to be paid for having their photo taken. We saw kids and puppies dressed up, old women with pipes and birds, men with birds, etc. The thousands of molas were displayed on clothes lines in front of the palm-thatched huts. Many of the huts seemed unoccupied.
After lunch we went to the neighboring island of Nia Tupu for an afternoon of swimming and snorkeling. There were also more molas available. The island was a beautiful little place surrounded by white coral sand beaches. There was even a sunken ship. The coral and ship provided a habitat for many, many tropical fish. Snorkeling was terrific!
Our final stop was the legendary town of Portobelo, once the headquarters of the Spanish treasure fleet. Now it is just a tiny, sleepy town with a beautiful but little used harbor and the ruins of several forts. Our visit consisted of a stroll around town and a very peculiar presentation by a Congo dance group. Given the excellent snorkeling sites close by, our time would have been better spent there.
We arrived at Colon that night and left the ship very early the next morning for the two-hour bus ride back to the airport at Panama City. Traffic across the isthmus was terrible. Residences cover most of the area we saw from the bus. There doesn't seem to be any rubbish collection in Panama. It is just thrown in piles along the road.
The chaotic traffic was a breeze compared to the mess that greeted us at the airport. Our luggage was waiting in a pile to pass through the X-ray machine. We queued up in no particular order and the luggage was slowly passing piece by piece through the machine, also in no particular order. You couldn't check in and get your tickets until your bags were X-rayed. The Clipper contractor who was supposedly handling all this just wandered around smiling. Finally we sorted out our bags and somehow convinced the security people to process them so we could get our tickets. I guess this is the norm for Panama.
Our ride home on Continental Airlines was unremarkable except for the generous hour allowed to pass through Customs and Immigration in Houston and hike several miles to the gate for our flight back to Los Angeles. I should mention the food on Continental. Perhaps I shouldn't call it food but rather substances presented at meal time. It was terrible even considering that it was airline fare.
Rather than ending on these sour notes, I must go back and remember what a wonderful trip it was on the Yorktown Clipper. If you like small ships with young, eager, friendly, attentive staffs, with a heavy dose of nature thrown in, a Clipper cruise is for you.