A cruise. To a certain kind of traveler, the mere suggestion sounds like a dirty word. It conjures up images of conga lines. Of endless buffets. Of hairy chest contests. But it doesn't always have to be that way.

There are many cruises that provide a 360-degree view of a country and its culture, offering adventure of a different sort. With its lush rainforests, diverse bodies of water teeming with wildlife and of course, that famous canal, Panama is the perfect backdrop for this type of excursion. 

Aerial view of Panama Canal on the Atlantic side © Shutterstock
Panama's diverse terrain makes it a great spot to enjoy an adventure cruise © Shutterstock

Currents of history

One option is the Panama Canal Expedition Cruise and Adventure, offered by EcoCircuitos, a tourism organization that promotes eco-tourism and education. Their seven-day excursion brings you up close to Panamanian culture on the ground and, later, on board the 110-foot Panama Discovery catamaran. This 24-guest vessel is manned by 11 crew members and equipped with kayaks and snorkeling gear.    

From visits to the world-renowned BioMuseo to walking the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo and Casco Viejo, the long history of Panama and its people slowly comes into focus during the first two days. From Cathedral Tower in Old Panama to the flavorful dishes served in Colon, Spanish and African influences are intertwined with the Panamanian culture.

Actually being on the canal provides a unique look at the locks operating the Panama Canal Mark Dozier / Shutterstock
Locks on the Panama Canal open for a ship to pass © Mark Dozier / Shutterstock

Passageway to adventure

The journey begins with a southbound passage down the Panama Canal, which only cements what documentaries and school teachers have explained for years – it is an absolute marvel of engineering. It can’t be stressed enough how breathtaking the Panama Canal truly is, and the sheer scale feels impossible to quantify. Sailing down the huge body of water that was completely man-made is hard to comprehend.

Position yourself at the front of the ship for a unique view of the intricate workings of the lock system. It’s one thing to stand on the side and look down from the Miraflores Visitor Center. It’s another to be on the water, waiting for the huge metal doors to open and usher you through to the Pacific Ocean.

Traditional Embera home made of wood with a thatched roof Alicia Johnson / Lonely Planet
Living so close to the river means building houses on stilts just in case the river overflows © Alicia Johnson / Lonely Planet

Visiting the Emberá

The hosts appear suddenly as the motor boat slowly docks to the edge of the river and their brightly-colored fabrics contrast with the dense green jungle. But after the hour-long ride up the Rio Sambú, the smiling faces of the Emberá people are a welcome sight.

The indigenous Emberá – 'The River People' – have lived in the Darién region for centuries and work with tour operators to invite travelers into their village to showcase their culture. Sitting under a thatched roof made of Nahuala palm leaves, the village's chief educates visitors on the Emberá way of life by passing around intricate carvings made from the tagu nut, along with, tightly woven baskets and masks from the Nahuala palm fibers.

The women of the village perform a traditional healing dance called the ñeque followed by a social dance (rumba and cumbia) that includes both men and women. Fair warning – you may be pulled out to the dance floor so be ready to get down.  

About 300 people live in the village, which has a school, a store to purchase goods and a working phone booth. Wooden houses are built on stilts just in case the river floods, but that doesn’t keep a few from showcasing small gardens out front to increase curb appeal, of course.

The people are welcoming but be respectful. Ask for permission to take photos, and no matter how adorable the children are, visitors should be mindful of the Emberá way of life and not to hand over phones, cameras or other electronic devices. Make sure to bring extra money (US dollars) to buy handcrafted baskets, jewelry and other items sold by the women of the village. If you choose to get a traditional temporary jagu tattoo, don’t opt for the face. The black dye, sourced from a local plant, really darkens in the first few days and could cause a fright once you leave the village.  

Canas Island is one of a group of islands that make up the Pearl Islands in Panama Alicia Johnson / Lonely Planet
The Pearl Islands provide a chance for visitors to explore, snorkel and kayak © Alicia Johnson / Lonely Planet

Panama's natural playground

The cruise continues with a visit to one of its most popular destinations: the Pearl Islands. Once known for their abundance of pearl oysters, these islands in the Gulf of Panama are now a natural playground. Even the TV series 'Survivor' has shot on location on the archipelago – twice. The diverse collection of islands offer sand and surf for a little relaxation; jagged rocks for exploration; calm waters along the shorelines for kayaking; and plenty of fish like the parrot fish, the king angelfish and the cortez rainbow wrasses to make snorkeling an event.   

A major focus of the expedition is to share knowledge. There are two EcoCircuitos guides on board (this trip it was Fabio Trujillo and Ian Sanchez), each with a deep well of information on topics from Panama’s history to its wildlife. Following a gourmet dinner, nights on the vessel include a slideshow presentation explaining the history of the places visited that day.

The observation deck at Panama Rainforest Discovery Center in Panama Fundación Avifauna Eugene Eisenmann
There is no better way to take in the beauty of the Soberania National Park than on top of a 40-meter observation deck © Fundación Avifauna Eugene Eisenmann

After disembarking on the last day, the adventure continues. Guides take you through Gamboa Road to Soberania National Park for a hike and a stop at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. Brave souls can visit the Rainforest Tower; at 131-feet (40 meters) tall, it offers a unique vantage point of the rainforest canopy.

The role of the center is provide information on the eco-positive projects and highlight sustainability initiatives. Hummingbirds, green iguanas and of course everyone’s favorite velocity-challenged friend – the three-toed sloth – fill the rainforest. Also, that 'pack of dogs' you hear is just howler monkeys making their presence known from miles away.

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with organized activities, pool time, and doing the Cha-Cha Slide until you pass out. But for those looking for something more out of their cruise, there's adventure to be found on the waterways of Panama.

Alicia Johnson traveled to Panama with support from EcoCircuitos. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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