The central ridge of these two countries is comprised of lush hills, mountains and volcanoes, covered with cloud forest and rainforest, home to abundant wildlife including iguanas, snakes, birds, monkeys, tree frogs, and more than a few sloths.
Distances are not huge, but the roads are slow. The relatively short journey from San José to Fortuna in the Arenal Volcano National Park, for example, is just 80 miles, but takes a good three hours to cover. So to get a great taste of these two countries, including the must-do transit of the Panama Canal, a cruise is the perfect choice. We picked Windstar's intimate Star Pride, whose size enables her to visit remote locations well away from the crowds, and whose adventure style (with zodiacs for beach landings and lots of equipment such as snorkels, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards) really enhances the whole exploration experience.
We kicked off with a two-night stay at the lovely Relais & Châteaux Nayara Springs hotel, with spacious villas clustered in the lush rainforest, each with its own private plunge pool fed by the thermal springs. Sloths and toucans were visible in the canopy, we were woken in the morning by the booming of howler monkeys in the distance, and one evening we opened the door on the way to dinner to find a pair of armadillos having a stand-off outside the door.
We joined our ship on the Pacific coast in Caldera, and the following day were in Manuel Antonio National Park watching a sloth, complete with baby sloth clinging on, climbing from tree to tree. Fat iguanas lazed on the beach and a gang of naughty spider monkeys waited for families to start bathing in the ocean before raiding their belongings.
In Puerto Jiménez we spent a magical morning kayaking through the mangroves. A troop of capuchin monkeys disturbed the peace as they came crashing through the treetops and across the canal right in front of us. And on our return to the ship, anchored in the glassy Golfo Dulce, we found ourselves surrounded by pods of dolphins and porpoises leaping and playing, with a turtle languidly doing the circuit alongside.
Our magical beach barbecue on Panama's deserted Isla Parida, set in Chiriquí Gulf National Marine Park, was everything you could wish for. The following day, at the mouth of the Panama Canal, we set off by speedboat along the canal itself in search of wildlife, whilst others visited Panama City (with late flights, we were able to save this for the final day after disembarkation).
The final highlight was of course the daylight transit of the Canal, fascinating and extraordinarily beautiful. We saw the huge Neopanamax cargo ships entering the new locks, and were charmed by the contrast of this extraordinary feat of engineering, and the fact that the rope to hold our ship in the lock was delivered by rowing boat. Ponderous pelicans flew alongside us like a fleet of Lancaster bombers, whilst a multitude of more agile birds flitted to and fro, and two hefty crocodiles watched from the bank as we made our way across the Gatun Lake, before emerging at sundown into the glittering Caribbean Sea.