Costa Rica, Panama and a New Safari Voyager
Costa Rica is going through a cold snap.
Of course, ‘cold snap’ is relative. Locals are walking through the lobby of the Real Intercontinental San Jose with winter jackets on. I, on the other hand, sat in the lobby with the top button of my shirt open, enjoying an ice-cold Imperial beer; La Cerveza de Costa Rica.
It’s 19°C (66°F) here in San Jose, Costa Rica today. It’s the second time I’ve been here and the first time I haven’t felt like I was melting. I’ve come to the capital of Costa Rica for another cruise through the Panama Canal, this time aboard the small, adventuresome ships of Seattle-based UnCruise Adventures.
Over the next week, UnCruise’s Uncharted Isthmus! Sloths, Monkeys and Mangroves itinerary will take myself and the 61 other guests aboard the Safari Voyager on an adventure-filled exploration of both Costa Rica and Panama, with stops in some of the best national parks, wildlife refuges, and conservation areas, plus a full transit to the Caribbean Sea via the Panama Canal.
Don’t expect big cities and shopping opportunities: this voyage is all about discovering the natural wonders of Costa Rica and Panama. In fact, with the exception of my pre-cruise stay here in Costa Rica and my post-cruise overnight in Panama City, the only civilisation we’ll be seeing for much of the week will be the 62 guests and 31 crewmembers onboard the Safari Voyager.
Arriving in Paradise
I flew into San Jose’s Juan Santamaria Airport last night, after connecting through Houston’s Intercontinental Airport. Unless you’re very lucky, you’ll want to plan on arriving a day prior to the cruise as well. UnCruise uses the Real Intercontinental Costa Rica as its pre-cruise and hospitality base in Costa Rica, and it’s worth the peace of mind to stay here overnight.
Juan Santamaria Airport is like many other airport in Central America: controlled chaos. Expect to be baffled by the two landing cards you’ll be handed on the flight down, one of which asks such pertinent questions as, “Have you been given [a] tax exemption in the last six months?” and “Have you been out of [the] country longer than three days?”
However, Customs and Immigration in Costa Rica is quick and friendly. Don’t be scared of the horrific lineup you’ll see (and trust me – you’ll see one), as it moves quite quickly. The immigration agent serving me looked over my paperwork, stamped my passport, handed it back to me and said, ‘Welcome to Costa Rica, Aaron.’
After that, it’s time to pick up your baggage in the small luggage hall. You’ll find (as I did) that porters have probably already picked it up and placed it on the ground beside the carousel, so look there first. They’ll want to put it on a trolley and cart it out for you (ostensibly for a tip in US Dollars or Costa Rican colones), but if you can handle it yourself you’re not obligated to do so.
In baggage claim, a girl with an UnCruise sign crossed me off her list and gave me a bright-green sticker of a leaf to wear; this would help the UnCruise representative outside the terminal find me. And believe me, you’ll need the sticker, because one you exit the terminal, you’ll be assailed with hundreds of people, all holding signs, all looking expectantly at you.
Indeed, the UnCruise rep saw me before I saw her and directed me to wait over in a central meeting area for the rest of the folks from my fight who were also transferring to the InterContinental. Rather than emptying out onto the main street, as most airports do, Juan Santamaria’s arrival area empties out onto a small, square space about the size of a loading dock. It’s controlled chaos at its finest.
Before long, the shuttle came to take a handful of us over to the Intercontinental. Check in was easy and efficient, and it was no issue to add my IHG Rewards number to the reservation. Before long, I was opening the door to my third-floor room, and immediately crawled into bed.
Welcome To The Safari Voyager
Today, UnCruise guests had the morning to relax and enjoy the hotel, or go out and explore San Jose. The hotel is located adjacent to a major shipping centre (the “Multiplaza”), but is situated far enough away from downtown San Jose that you’ll need to take a taxi if you want to go exploring.
UnCruise sets up a hospitality desk in the InterContinental, which opened at 9:00 am. You can visit them any time in the morning to check in for your cruise and drop your luggage off. Be sure to double-check when you need to have your luggage tagged, as it travels to the ship on a separate truck. There is also a mandatory afternoon meeting that all guests must attend, but in typical UnCruise style, it’s fun, friendly, and informative.
After a relaxing afternoon at the hotel, UnCruise transferred us to Puerto Caldera, where the Safari Voyager was waiting.
I sailed aboard the Safari Voyager three years ago, on an expedition to the Sea of Cortes. It was a wonderful cruise, but the ship wasn’t quite ready for prime-time. UnCruise had recently acquired her from another operator and, while the company had done its best, her previous owners had run her hard. She was dinged up both inside and out, and lacked many of the promised features, like iPod docking stations and flat-panel television screens. She also had some mechanical defects that were creating issues behind the scenes.
The Safari Voyager I embarked on today is so different that I barely recognized her. On the outside, she’s the same. On the inside, there is a world of difference.
UnCruise spent millions of dollars last year refitting Safari Voyager for this new Costa Rica itinerary. It stripped her down to the steel and rebuilt her from the ground up. Some of the changes were technical in nature, like the addition of a brand-new galley, reconfigured mooring and anchor systems for the Panama Canal; new radars, and a navigational bridge that was gutted and modernized with the latest equipment – right down to the windscreen wipers and running lights.
If you never sailed aboard Safari Voyager before her refit, you’ll find lots to like about this contemporary ship. If you did sail Safari Voyager, your jaw is going to drop: everything, down to the carpets, has been completely changed out.