One of the seven wonders of the modern world, the Panama Canal is celebrating its centenary this year. Sarah Gilbert joins a Central American cruise on Variety Voyager to get a closer look.

 

It’s 5 pm and the deck is still bathed in sunshine when we brave the tropical heat to line the rails as our diminutive vessel sails past a string of leviathan ships and ferries; all waiting to enter the world’s most famous shortcut, the Panama Canal.

We follow closely behind the vast-hulled Baltic Novator as it edges into Gatun Locks with just inches to spare on either side, and watch in awe as the colossal steel gates swing shut, gallons of water gushing into the stone- walled enclosure, forcing us upwards.

The Central American canal is a vital trade route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across Panama’s narrow landmass. It was first of three locks on the transit from the country’s Caribbean coast to the Pacific. Although the process is largely automated now – there are electric ‘mules’; unique engines to guide vessels along the 77km waterway – it still employs the principle of gravity to fill a series of channels that flow into and out of the locks, raising and lowering the water level of each one in turn.

This incredible feat of engineering turns 100 this year. Steamship SS Ancon made the first official transit on 15 August 1914 but, unlike the first pioneers, we’re experiencing it from the comfort of Variety Voyager. Dwarfed by conventional cruise ships, with only 36 spacious cabins, it’s an intimate way to take to the high seas.

Variety attracts a loyal following and many of the passengers – American, English, Dutch and French – have sailed with the line before. The hands-on crew hail from equally diverse countries. The Captain was Greek, the First Mate Egyptian, the Executive Chef Mauritian, and from the bridge to the dining room, the engine room to the bar, everyone goes out of their way to ensure that we enjoy our week-long cruise.

We set sail from Colón’s modern cruise terminal on Panama’s Caribbean coast and were soon dining in the indoor-outdoor restaurant where free seating at shared tables made for a convivial atmosphere. After dinner, there was no entertainment but you could dance on deck under a star-studded sky.

The next morning, we dropped anchor outside Portobelo. As we explore its languid streets, it’s hard to believe that this was once the most important port in the Caribbean, where New World treasure was shipped back to Spain. All that remains of its heyday are the atmospheric ruins of stone fortresses, ransacked numerous times by buccaneers, and the stately stone Customs House, once piled high with Peruvian gold, standing tall among the colourful clapboard houses.

The Portobelo to Panama City route was the land equivalent of the canal, with mules in place of ships. The Spanish dreamt of building a canal but it wasn’t until 1881 that Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, followed on from his Suez Canal and began building in Panama. Sadly hundreds of thousands died from yellow fever and malaria, landslides and natural disasters during its construction. After eight years, little progress had been made and money was running out. Admitting defeat, in 1904 the French made a deal with the US and, during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, the canal finally opened in 1914.

It was controlled by the Americans before being handed back to Panama in 1999 and now handles nearly five per cent of global trade, earning billions of dollars a year.

Some modern ships are too wide to pass through and a new, larger set of locks is currently being built, due to open in 2015. the canal saves ships from circumnavigating the southern tip of south america, a treacherous 30-day voyage of almost 12,900km. our transit took around nine hours and we passed engineering marvels like the Galliard cut, a 14km passage through solid rock and the expansive Gatun Lake.

We saw the canal from another angle the following morning. From the rooftop of the high-tech visitors’ centre at miraflores locks, we watched the slow passage of a cargo ship as it is shunted into the narrow channel, and the tea-coloured sweep of the canal disappeared into the horizon.

Away from the canal, Panama is a tale of three cities. Downtown resembles a mini- Miami: a skyscraping hub of international finance, shopping malls and sophisticated nightlife. across the bay, tombstone-like ruins are all that’s left of old Panama. Sacked by pirates in 1671, it was replaced by the colonial Casco Viejo, a mini-Havana where crumbling pastel-coloured mansions still line the cobblestone streets. now undergoing an ambitious restoration, the buildings are filled with boutique hotels, shops and restaurants.

There are daily excursions but the occasional afternoon at sea means time for a siesta, a spa treatment, reading in the air- conditioned lounge or bagging a comfortable sofa on deck, sipping on a cocktail and taking in the endless expanse of sea and sky. curious pods of dolphin race alongside us, frigatebirds fly past in strict formation and brown pelicans nosedive into the water, emerging with fish wriggling in their beaks.

The amiable Captain Andreas leaves the door to the bridge open, and passengers can drop in to study the array of electronic navigation equipment, as well as peruse the old-fashioned hand-drawn charts.

We sail north along Panama’s Pacific coast to coiba island, site of an infamous alcatraz-like prison until 2004, when it became a national Park. after a feet-in-the- sand barbecue of freshly caught fish and tropical fruits, we head to Granito de oro, an archetypal paradise island, populated by palm trees, with powder-fine white sand and bath-warm water.

The waters around Coiba teem with life; when snorkelling we descend into a seemingly infinite array of vibrant coral and exotic fish. my heart skipped a beat as i float over a white-tipped reef shark patrolling the seabed but, with shoals of iridescent fish darting around, he shows no interest in me.

Elliot, the ship’s Costa Rican naturalist guide, gave entertaining talks on local history and his country’s staggering biodiversity.millions of years ago, it became part of a land bridge connecting the north and south american continents, allowing its flora and fauna to mix – no wonder the spanish conquistadors christened it the Rich Coast.

Now central america’s number one eco- tourism destination, costa rica has 27 per cent of its landmass devoted to national parks and reserves. From rainforests and mist- wreathed cloud forests, to marine reserves and smoking volcanoes, it is home to six per cent of the world’s animal and plant species.

That night, we set sail for the Osa Peninsula, one of the country’s wildest and most isolated areas, dropping anchor in Drake Bay, gateway to corcovado national Park. lagoons, mangrove swamps, rivers and rainforest have seen it dubbed ‘one of the most biologically intense places on earth’.

Everything on our gentle hike through the steamy forest is supersized – from the butterflies to the foliage. We follow the low growl of howler monkeys and found a troop sat on high branches, basking in the sunshine.

The marine life is equally remarkable; we spot a humpback whale and her calf gliding through the water before coming up for air with a splash. Giant manta rays jump joyfully out of the water and a hawksbill turtle paddles gracefully on the surface before disappearing into the depths.

Our penultimate port of call is Quepos, which survived on fishing and palm oil before tourism took over. the Manuel Antonio national Park is the big draw, backed by rainforests and fronted by stunning beaches.

A black spiny-tailed iguana meets us at the entrance and along the trail our sharp-eyed guide spots a flamboyantly coloured poison dart frog, no bigger than a thumb nail; and a cyanide-oozing millipede that smells ever so faintly of almonds.

That evening, there’s a lavish but informal captain’s dinner of filet mignon, lobster and Baked alaska. contact details are exchanged and promises to keep in touch made. Passengers and crew are all now firm friends. this has been an experience like no other, and one we’d all like to repeat.

GETTING THERE

A seven-night Treasures of Costa Rica and the Panama Canal cruise on board the M/Y Variety Voyager runs from Panama to Costa Rica and reverse from December 2014 to March 2015. Cruise-only fares from £1,799pp plus £275 port charges. Flight inclusive fares from £2,995 plus £275 port charges per person* (varietycruises.com).