Cruise International Contributing Editor Sara Macefield and her family take a cruise on the wild side and get a look at the Panama Canal on an NCL Central American adventure

Old buildings in the historic district of Panama City © iStock
Old buildings in the historic district of Panama City © iStock

Upsetting the locals had never been so entertaining. Each time the engines revved on our small river boat, an angry chorus of deep barks echoed through the air as a large troop of howler monkeys vented their displeasure.

As I looked up at the huge tree overhanging the river, I could see dark shapes jumping through the branches in rising consternation at every mechanical roar. Then twigs and branches started to rain down around us as the furious primates began throwing whatever they could lay their hands on.

“We’d better go,” our guide advised. “This is their first line of defence and if it doesn’t drive us away, they’ll start throwing their poo at us.”

A green iguana native to Central and South America © iStock
A green iguana native to Central and South America © iStock

Naturally, we didn’t hang around and roared off into the jungle to explore this slice of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast on a hunt for exotic wildlife.

This pocket-size eco-tourism haven proved to be a real high point on our Norwegian Cruise Line round-trip voyage from Miami, but it wasn’t the only one. The other big draw was the chance to sail through the Panama Canal, one of the bucket list attractions in this part of the world.

Sara with her 14-year-old twin daughters, Holly and Dani
Sara with her 14-year-old twin daughters, Holly and Dani

In the lead-up to our departure, I’d impressed upon my 14-year-old twin daughters the historical significance of this legendary waterway linking the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. But then, just a few weeks before we departed, the penny suddenly dropped. We weren’t actually going to be sailing through the Panama Canal – well, not the entire length of it, anyway.

We were simply popping into the Caribbean entrance, turning around and coming back out again in what cruise lines describe as a “partial transit”. I’d had no idea such sailings existed and felt a tad foolish and disappointed. But while it meant that we could only partially tick off this famous shortcut, which neatly avoids the 8,000-mile 21-day detour around Cape Horn, it was still a fascinating diversion.

Norwegian Pearl in the Panama Canal
Norwegian Pearl in the Panama Canal

It was also something of an eye-opener as I hadn’t realised the 103-year-old canal was made up of locks and man-made lakes linked together to form a 50-mile transoceanic passage, which takes ships about 10 hours to complete.

During our early morning approach there was a palpable air of anticipation on the packed decks of our ship, Norwegian Pearl, as everyone strained for the first view of the locks that signified the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal.

The onboard commentator pointed out the entrance to the new larger locks, which opened in summer 2016 to take larger “Neopanamax” ships, and then ahead of us were the original Gatun Locks that we squeezed through with just centimetres to spare, before entering the man-made Gatun Lake.

This provides much of the water that gushes in and out of the lock, which acts as a “water elevator” to raise ships by 26 metres; while the surrounding terrain is surprisingly lush and unspoilt, kept that way to attract rainfall that maintains the lake’s high water level.

A boat tour of Gatun Lake © iStock
A boat tour of Gatun Lake © iStock

It was all fascinating stuff, and one of the advantages of being on a partial transit as opposed to the full crossing was that we could disembark on ship tours.

Around half of us decided to do just that. I left my family on board as I was keen to get a closer look at the canal and was among the last visitors to the Gatun Locks observation centre, which closed the following month.

We moved on to the purpose-built larger facility at the new Agua Clara Locks with its café, nature trail and small cinema screening a film about the canal’s development.

It lacked the close proximity to the vessels of the original facility, where I was able to see ships passing through at close quarters, but the sweeping views across Gatun Lake where large container ships were lining up for their transit, more than made up for that.

As we departed, we could see Norwegian Pearl making its way back through Gatun Locks on its way to pick us up from nearby Colón.

Colón Island’s beach © iStock
Colón Island’s beach © iStock

This Panamanian port city is famous for its free trade zone, claimed to be the world’s second largest after Hong Kong thanks to its proximity to the famous canal, but the rundown streets outside it were among the worst I’d ever seen; desperately poor and full of crumbling buildings.

It was a world away from the colonial glories of the gem Cartagena, whose evocative streets we’d strolled along the previous day after taking a 10-minute $20 taxi ride from the port to the old city.

As is often the case in these parts, a famous compatriot had beaten us to it. On this occasion it was Sir Francis Drake, whose raid on the city in 1586 prompted the construction of the hefty fortified walls that remain to this day.

But they haven’t deterred modern invaders: thousands of tourists and accompanying hordes of persistent hawkers who we became adept at batting away, though after 50 rebuffs we gave up counting.

The Great Outdoors buffet area on board Norwegian Pearl
The Great Outdoors buffet area on board Norwegian Pearl

This was a contrast to our first port stop at the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba where we spent a lazy day at stunning Eagle Beach, with its impressive expanse of blinding white sand and rolling waves that kept my daughters Holly and Dani suitably entertained.

Life on board Norwegian Pearl was also relaxing thanks to its flexible “freestyle” approach, enabling us to eat when and where we wanted to, and its new Premium All-Inclusive programme, that included gratuities and drinks. Not having to think about these extras made the entire experience more enjoyable, leaving us free to concentrate on where to dine instead.

With 16 venues, this was no mean task. Being on a $69 dining plan that included three speciality eateries on top of four complimentary restaurants meant that we dined at a different venue nearly every night, from delicious fresh pastas and pizzas at Italian La Cucina to succulent meats carved from skewers by “gaucho” waiters at Brazilian steakhouse Moderno Churrascaria.

Japanese Teppanyaki chefs on board
Japanese Teppanyaki chefs on board

However, our favourite by far was the Japanese Teppanyaki, where boisterous chefs added singing and showmanship to their culinary skills by juggling knives and eggs as they cooked up a delicious feast of egg-fried rice and succulent meats.

As we sailed back to Miami, we threw ourselves into life on board during our sea days. From activities such as line-dancing and salsa sessions to fitness classes and a Mr Sexy Legs contest that we watched with amusement by the pool.

But this couldn’t compare to the adventures of our last stop in Costa Rica where, in addition to our boat trip, we also took a canopy tour through the rainforest, whizzing among the treetops at speeds of up to 30mph. It was exhilarating, but the real highlight came after we finished when a large furry sloth climbed on to the last zipline, stopping everyone in their tracks, and stubbornly refused to budge. This hirsute interloper then climbed down to where we were standing, giving us a fabulous close-up of its beady button eyes – and its sharp teeth as it tried to bite one of the guides before eventually disappearing into the foliage. It may not have been the friendliest of locals, but it sprinkled even more animal magic on to a truly memorable trip.

See sloths in the wild in Costa Rica © iStock
See sloths in the wild in Costa Rica © iStock

GETTING THERE: Norwegian Cruise Line offers a 13-night package departing 11 March 2018. From £2,335pp including flights and gratuities (0333 241 2319; ncl.co.uk). CruisingExcursions.com offers a six-hour Adventure Combo Shared Tour at Puerto Limón in Costa Rica, from £135pp (0800 091 8274).