“When the cicadas croak, the jaguar may pounce.”
That’s what I read in my guidebook. Now it’s 5:30 a.m., and I remember it as I clamber aboard one of the Zodiacs that will ferry me and my fellow RCGS Resolute passengers to the idyllic shores of Costa Rica’s Curú National Wildlife Refuge, where we hope to see the elusive spotted feline.
Barefooted, we wade ashore on a sandy beach dotted with flowering nine-metre-high almond trees. A white-faced capuchin monkey swings by to see what it can snatch from our knapsacks and a parrot squawks hello from a palm tree.
It’s the second day of One Ocean Expeditions’ 10-day inaugural trip to Central America, and it’s full of the promise of pura vida, a favourite local expression meaning “pure life.”
Best known for its voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic, One Ocean Expeditions introduced trips to Central America — Costa Rica and Panama, specifically — for its 2019 season, and the transition feels seamless, with staff members specializing in everything from stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking to nature photography and Central American Indigenous history.
Costa Rica pretty much invented the concept of eco-tourism and packs the most biodiversity in the world into its slightly-smaller-than-Nova Scotia territory, about 25 per cent of which is set aside as national parks, reserves and refuges.
Tempting as it is to gape aloud at the beauty of the refuge, our guide, Milton Hancock, advises us to stay silent and focus on the barrage of sounds in the rainforest.
Alongside singing cicadas, we hear a deep guttural roar in the distance. It’s loud enough to be a herd of elephants or, in my overheated imagination, a dinosaur, straight out of the pages of Jurassic Park. Or wait. Could it be a jaguar?
Farther along the path, we finally see the culprit: a black ball of fur, high up in an ancient fig tree, climbing through the canopy in search of breakfast. It’s not a big cat, but a howler monkey. Despite the ferocity of its roar, which can carry up to four kilometres, the howler is only about a metre tall and a strict vegetarian.
As we continue along the trail, Hancock alerts us to the smell of puma urine; one has been here recently, marking its territory. He points out the alligator tree, so named because of its conical spikes.
In the refuge’s mangrove swamp, crocodiles lurk. We see green basilisk — a.k.a. “Jesus Christ” — lizards skimming across the water, several stunning giant blue morpho butterflies and agoutis, a species of rodent that looks like a cute rat, sans tail. But alas, no jaguar; the country’s highly endangered primary land predator is rarely seen in the day.
“Everything in the jungle is so perfect,” says Hancock. “It is only man who destroys things.”
The following day RCGS Resolute sails south to Manuel Antonio National Park. Unlike Curú National Wildlife Refuge, this park is crowded with tourists lining up to visit one of the country’s smallest but most popular protected areas, with great Pacific Ocean views and an abundance of wildlife.
Ten minutes along the trail, we see our first three-toed sloth, hanging from a tree by long claws reminiscent of coat-hanger hooks, its face seemingly frozen in a perpetual smile. Known as the world’s slowest mammal, sloths only come down from the trees once a week to relieve themselves.
“Watching sloths cross the road is like watching a man with two broken legs drag his body across the street,” says Nick Baker, a British naturalist and one of the guest lecturers aboard RCGS Resolute. “But they’re not lazy. They’re brilliant at what they do. They eat very tough and waxy tree leaves so everything they do is about efficiency. It can take a month for the food to go through their systems.”
We spend some time watching a fascinating parade of leaf-cutter ants, a species that forms the most complex society on Earth, next to humans. Their underground nests can grow to more than 30 metres across and contain as many as eight million individuals divided into castes that perform different functions: soldiers; spies; foragers; guards; doctors. Some even produce their own antibiotics.
On our way back out of the park, we see the same sloth. It hasn’t moved an inch.
“Deep inside the park we see a tamandua anteater snacking on a nest of termites, as ecstatic as a bear with honey.”
The next day, we arrive in Corcovado National Park, at the southern end of the Pacific coast. It’s home to all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species — spider, howler, white-faced capuchin and squirrel — as well as 20 species of hummingbirds. After a bumpy three-hour drive (with many stops to ogle wildlife), we hike several kilometres through rainforest and across a deserted beach to the park’s entrance. Unlike yesterday, we’re the only people here apart from a park ranger and two American students.
A flock of toucans fly overhead, and deep inside the park we see a tamandua anteater snacking on a nest of termites, as ecstatic as a bear with honey. We also spot a long, slender dark-brown tayra, a member of the weasel family.
What does it say about Costa Rica that, for all its exotic wildlife, it has chosen the white-tailed deer as its national animal and the clay-coloured thrush as its national bird? Perhaps the message is that it values all creatures, the extraordinary and the most humble.
And then there’s Panama.
Our first stop is Coiba National Park, a marine reserve in the Pacific’s Gulf of Chiriquí that comprises a ring of 38 islands that are part of the same undersea mountain chain as the Galapagos Islands.
The park is incredibly difficult to reach (which could explain why one of its islands, Isla Coiba, was once a penal colony), with most visitors having to take a two-hour fishing boat journey from Santa Catalina, a surfer’s paradise 250 kilometres from Panama City, to get there. We’re fortunate to access it simply by stepping out of our Zodiacs. When we do, we find that the snorkelling is superb, with beautiful coral reefs, hammerhead sharks and whales. There’s also a plethora of scarlet macaws — a bird that’s endangered on the mainland.
The following day we arrive in Panama City where, after having seen so much nature, it feels surreal to see the gleaming, towering skyline beckoning in the misty orange-and-pink sunrise.
While Panama has similarly impressive wildlife and rainforest as Costa Rica, its back story — a long and often fraught history with the United States, the building of the globally strategic Panama Canal, a reputation as an offshore tax haven and a duo of disgraced criminal leaders in Manuel Noriega and Roberto Martinelli, to name but a few chapters — is more complex.
Today, though, Panama City is a Latin American success story, an economic crossroads with more than 100 multinational regional headquarters, a sophisticated dining scene and a government that is tackling the endemic corruption that has long plagued the country.
And there’s plenty to charm visitors, too.
Across the bay from the downtown is the city’s historic quarter, Casco Viejo, neglected for decades but today dotted with beautifully restored mansions, churches, cobblestone streets and cafes. I marvel at the impressive Plaza de la Catedral and the grand Teatro Nacional, the latter of which is built on the site of a former convent. At the nearby ramparts, built atop a former defensive seawall, are more than a dozen artists from the Indigenous Guna community selling handicrafts. I buy a mola, a hand-made textile on maroon cloth with parrots outlined in yellow and trees in lime green.
The trip ends with the pièce de résistance: the Panama Canal. No matter how much you’ve read about it, transiting the 80-kilometre-long waterway that links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans still impresses, even 105 years after its completion.
The great steel gates of the Miraflores Locks swing open at the canal’s Pacific end and RCGS Resolute enters. Eight minutes later, the ship is elevated and being kept in place by electric locomotives known as mules. Eight hours later, as we descend the Atlantic-side locks at the port of Colón, I’m ticking off a mental checklist of the experience and canal facts. Highest point above sea level? A mere 26 metres. Freighters loaded with cargo passed? Too many to count. Litres of water poured into the ocean with each vessel’s passage? About 197 million. Size of Gatún Lake, which was formed by building a dam across the Chagres River and was once the largest artificial lake in the world? Just a tad over 423 square kilometres. Time in advance that One Ocean Expeditions had to book RCGS Resolute’s transit through the canal? One year.
As I leave the ship and return to Panama City, I think about how the vitality and exuberant beauty of this part of Central America seduced me, whether it was on the enduring engineering marvel that is the canal or in the pristine wilderness of Costa Rica. Pura vida indeed.
See more images from the One Ocean Expeditions voyage to Costa Rica and Panama in the gallery below.
Marina Jimenez (@marinacjimenez) is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose previous story for Canadian Geographic Travel was about Havana, Cuba. Christian Fleury (@christian_fleury) is a documentary-style photographer who recently shot a story about the Magdalen Islands for Canadian Geographic Travel and has had other work published in Time, Reader’s Digest and Canadian Geographic.