Costa Rica / Panama
Exploring Costa Rica lets you experience firsthand what the locals call Pura Vida, or Pure Life, as you explore untouched natural wonders in this laid-back, sunny country of tranquil turquoise beaches, lush tropical jungles, and a fantastic variety of flora and fauna.
Manuel Antonio National Park presents a wonderland of wildlife just waiting to be photographed. Four species of monkey live here: capuchin, howler, spider and (if you’re lucky) the cute but rare squirrel monkey. Keen eyes will spot colorful little crabs, tiny hummingbirds and the basilisk, or Jesus Christ lizard (so fast it can walk on water!).
Kayak or Zodiac through lagoons surrounded by mangroves teeming with life above and below the water. Spectacular bird watching opportunities here! Their sounds will amaze you. Try out your best “Arrrgh!” as you follow the footsteps of pirates on Cocos Island—a lush, tropical place with a rich history and few tourists.
On the Osa Peninsula, declared “one of the most biologically intense places on earth” by National Geographic Magazine, you’ll have the chance to view rare and endangered species like the puma, jaguar, harpy eagle and scarlet macaw. Here you can explore your share of the single largest expanse of lowland tropical rainforest in Central America—and one of the tallest rainforests in the world.
Head to Costa Rica’s southern neighbor where beautiful sandy beaches, lush forests and rich history await you on an unforgettable Panama tour. Learn about current rainforest research at the Barro Colorado Nature Monument, the primary Smithsonian center for tropical rainforest study since 1923. Panama trips allow you to see the famous Panama Canal firsthand as your boat passes through it. Explore the Pearl Islands’ picturesque beaches, marine life, lush vegetation and aqua blue waters.
Enjoy the stunning biodiversity of Darien National Park’s varied habitats—sandy beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, swamps, and lowland and upland tropical forests. This park forms a land bridge between Central and South America where mammals like bush dog, giant anteater, jaguar, ocelot, capybara, douroucoulis, howler monkey, brown-headed spider monkey, Baird's tapir, agoutis and white-lipped peccary reside. The rare harpy eagle also lives in the park, along with caiman and American crocodile.
You’ll feel like you’re in a nature documentary film on your Costa Rica cruise and Panama tour—as tropical parrots and toucans fly overhead, and iguanas dart away from your feet.
Legend has it that when Christopher Columbus arrived at the port of Limón in 1502, he was greeted by friendly natives bearing quantities of gold objects. This tale and others of great riches made their way to back Europe, inspiring the name Costa Rica, or Rich Coast. These accounts proved false, however, as the fabled sums of gold were never discovered in the area.
Spain’s efforts to colonize this region were hampered for decades by pirate raids, the impenetrable jungle, illnesses, and by the Indians themselves, who resisted as long as they could. The first successful colony was established in 1563 by Juan Vasquez de Coronado, and Spain held control until 1821.
Shortly after gaining independence, Costa Rica became the first country in Latin America to grow coffee for export. Next came the banana trade. The two industries together still form a significant portion of Costa Rica’s economy. Tourism, however, has surpassed both as the country’s main source of income today.
Ecotourism is said to have originated in Costa Rica. Not only is this important industry generating income for the country; it is also raising awareness about conservation. The Costa Rican government invests revenues back into conservation efforts, environmental education, and management of its protected areas. It also actively supports scientific research.
Today Costa Rica is sometimes referred to as the “Switzerland of Central America” because of its political stability. It is one of the only countries in the world without a military. Ticos—as the locals are called—enjoy a high quality of life and a high literacy rate.
Although Europeans never found the gold they were looking for, the true “riches” of Costa Rica lie in the country’s natural world. Costa Rica is home to an estimated half a million species of plants and animals—a staggering number considering the country is slightly smaller than West Virginia in area.
Costa Rica’s southern neighbor, Panama, is probably best known for its canal. Constructed in just nine years (completed in 1914), the Panama Canal is a series of locks that allows for a short route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is still regarded today as one of the greatest feats of engineering ever completed. However, greater demand for goods along with advancements in shipbuilding have led to ships that are too big to pass through the canal. A deeper, wider Panama Canal opens for business in early 2015.
Long before construction of the Panama Canal, Panama was an important commercial center within the Spanish empire. Its mere 47 miles between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans allowed for Spain to transport its wealth through the Atlantic port of Portobello, overland via mules, and on to Panama City to distribute to colonies on the Pacific coast of the Americas. This concentration of wealth attracted the attention of pirates like Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, who attached various areas of the country.
Panama declared its independence from Spain in 1821, becoming a part of the Great Colombia—then a union of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador—and later becoming a free republic in 1903. Today the country enjoys a democratic government with an economy buoyed up by tourism, the Panama Canal and the International Banking Center.