See Panama and Costa Rica Through the Canal

Celebrate the Panama Canal’s 100th Birthday with Odysseys Unlimited

By Sarah Robertson

Odysseys Unlimited's M/Y Variety Voyager
Odysseys Unlimited’s M/Y Variety Voyager.

This winter celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal’s opening with a cruise through the historic channel and around Central America with Odysseys Unlimited.

The 12-day all-inclusive cruise highlights the history and natural beauty of the region while taking voyagers on an exciting trip through the canal and up the eastern coasts of Panama and Costa Rica.

As the canal marks its centennial year Odyssey tourists will experience Central America’s past and present through the region’s stunning beaches, national parks, museums, and culture.

The Odyssey

The Panama Canal and Costa Rica cruise is just one of dozens of vacation packages offered by Odysseys Unlimited. They offer small group tours everywhere in the world except North America and Antarctica with a dizzying variety of options available including small group tours to small ship cruises.

Edna and her guide Margaret on an Odyssey tour in Portugal.
Edna and her guide Margaret on an Odyssey tour in Portugal.

And small is the keyword when it comes to an Odyssey vacation. Founded in 1989 as a small group company, Odyssey Unlimited saw the merit in small travel groups and has stayed true to their creed ever since. They believe that by having smaller tour groups it provides travelers with a more enriching experience and allows them to provide the highest quality customer service.

“We were founded as a small group company,” says Sue Bonchi, vice president of marketing at Odysseys Unlimited, “We are focused on the guest and our goal is to provide them with an excellent travel experience with the best value.”

Macaw in Panama.

An Odysseys Unlimited vacation caps their travel groups at twenty-four but most do not get that large. A typical tour lasts about two weeks with some spanning as long as three weeks. All excursions, transportation, gratuities, and most meals are included with the initial trip fee. The all-inclusive trips are designed so travelers have nothing to worry about other than having a great time.

“I find Odysseys very accommodating,” says Edna Ritzenberg, a seasoned traveler and repeat Odysseys customer, from Long Island, NY. “I needed an aisle seat because I had gotten knee replacement and they made sure I got that seat. I was also on a salt free diet and they made sure I got no salt.”

The Panama Canal cruise is a twelve day excursion anchored by stays in Panama City and San Jose. Seven of the nights will be spent aboard the M/Y Variety Voyager, a luxury 72-passenger mega yacht, with the remaining spent at luxury hotels in Panama City and San Jose. The trip is active, with guests walking about three miles each day through cities and nature reserves, but not strenuous.

Odysseys Unlimited has been consistently ranked among the top travel agencies in the world and is a six time honoree of Travel & Leisure’s World’s Best Tour Operators Award. They say what puts them above other travel companies is their attention to detail and knowledgeable tour guides.

Maricosa butterfly in Costa Rica.

“I would go anywhere with Odysseys,” says Edna, “Their accommodations are always excellent, their guides are excellent, the arrangements they make for your entertainment are excellent. I’m a devotee.”

The Nature

“You definitely want to have an affinity for nature,” says Sue Bronchi on the many excursions Odysseys Unlimited offers its customers. Over the twelve day tour guests will visit four national parks and learn about the amazing biodiversity of Central America through museums and nature reserves.

Beach in Panama.
Beach in Panama.

One of the best birding sites in Central America, Soberania National Park, marks the first stop on the tour. The park boasts some 525 bird species like toucans, hawks, and the rare crimson-bellied woodpecker. Later that day guests will see the Gamboa Rainforest from a 280 foot tall aerial tram and visit the Rainforest Discovery Center in the town of Gamboa.

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The learning continues throughout the cruise when Odyssey guests visit the Punta Calebra Marine Exhibition Center in Panama City. The open-air museum and research institute teaches guests about the marine life and ecosystems of Panama’s Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

Next tourists will visit the beautiful Biodiversity Museum: Panama Bridge of Life. Designed by the famous Canadian architect Frank Gehry, the building is a fantastic piece of modern art made of endless angles and colors set against the backdrop of the Panama Bay.

Guests will also experience the abundant vegetation of Costa Rica when they visit sites like the flower sanctuary in Casa Orquidas, Corcovado National Park, and Manuel Antonio National Park. Corcovado is located on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica and comprises of 2.5% of all biodiversity on earth. Spanning 164-square miles from glistening beaches into the dense jungle, the park is ranked as one of the most biologically intense places on earth. Manuel Antonio National Park is the smallest park on the tour but is still home to hundreds of different animal species.

Poas Volcano Costa Rica.
Poas Volcano Costa Rica.

The last one of nature’s wonders on the Odyssey cruise is the Poás Volcano National Park in San Jose’s Central Valley. There tourists will see one of Costa Rica’s largest and most active volcanic craters. Inside the crater geysers erupt 800 feet high and a highly acidic lake fills the air with the smell of sulfur; meanwhile outside the crater, dense vegetation and wildlife canvas the park.

The Culture
Odysseys Unlimited believes that a crucial part to any experience abroad is immersing oneself in the local culture. The cruise offers its passengers opportunities to see and experience local culture through its people, food, and customs. Making this all possible are Odyssey Unlimited’s dedicated and knowledgeable tour guides who will be seasoned locals of Panama and Costa Rica.

“They give you an important view into local culture,” says Edna, “The guides are always willing to show groups around and give tips on where to eat and shop.”

On the first day of the cruise passengers will spend the morning with the Kuna Indians on the island of Carti in the San Blas archipelago. There tourists will experience the Kuna culture through a traditional dance demonstration and learn the stories of their ancestors. Later an afternoon of sunbathing and snorkeling awaits guests on the beaches of Grand Perro.

In the San Jose suburb of Escazu Odyssey guests will see the oxen-powered sugar mill of Don Torino. By using the most traditional and time-tested methods of processing sugarcane visitors see San Jose as it was in the colonial period. The Doka Coffee Estate on the fertile slope of the Poás Volcano gives tourists another look into one of the oldest Costa Rican traditions. Coffee is one of Costa Rica’s largest exports and has been since the early 19th century.

The Canal

Leaving Miraflores, Panama Canal. David Rich photo.
Leaving Miraflores, Panama Canal. David Rich photo.

The Panama Canal, an engineering marvel and vital trade artery to this day, was the result of more toil than its mere forty-eight miles would suggest. At the time it was the single most expensive construction project the United States had ever seen, cashing out at almost $400 million and taking over three decades to build.

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President Theodore Roosevelt’s crowning achievement opened its gates for the first time on August 15th, 1914 when a tugboat named Gatun crossed the threshold finally connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific.

On their Odysseys Unlimited cruise tourists will not only get to learn about the history of the Panama Canal but also get to see the amazing feat of engineering in action. This transfer happens overnight in a matter of hours with the M/Y Variety Voyager reaching Panama City late that night.

The following morning passengers will learn about the overnight passage through the canal and tour the Panama Canal Museum in the country’s capital city. There they learn even more about the troubled history of the canal. The museum chronicles the history of the French’s first attempt at building the canal to the United States handover of the canal to Panama in 1999.

Coiba island's former prison, in Panama. photo.
Coiba island’s former prison, in Panama. photo.

The History

In order to fully experience the culture of Panama and Costa Rica Odysseys Unlimited makes sure that its guests understand the history behind the young nations. Rich in resources, the histories of these nations are vastly shaped by trade.

Visits to museums and national parks give tourists a physical understanding of their surroundings, while sites like the fortress ruins of Portobelo, Old Panama, and the timeless Coiba Island give tourists a window into the past.

Portobelo was a Spanish colony established in the 17th century as a port for exporting Peruvian silver. A fortress was built on the strategic northern isthmus of Panama to protect these assets, and to this day the ruins can still be explored in the once great city.

On the second morning of the cruise Odyssey guests will go on a guided walking tour of the ruins, learn about the history of the city, and see magnificent examples of 17th and 18th century Spanish colonial military architecture.

The sixth day of the cruise ends with a walking tour of Old Panama (Panama Viejo), the original city established in the early 16th century as an important stop on trade routes. Destroyed by fire in 1671, Old Panama today is a UNESCO site located in the suburbs of the modern capital city.

Perhaps the oldest gem in the time capsule, Coiba Island is a virtually untouched nature reserve that is often called the “Galapagos of Central America”. Its pristine beaches and untamed rainforest are living displays of Panama at its youngest before any human development.
Until 2005 Coiba served as a penal colony where prisoners were exiled and even executed for almost one hundred years. Outside of the prison the island has remained an undeveloped natural oasis for exotic creatures and plants to flourish. And if the nature isn’t enough, there are many ghost stories about the island to let your imagination take off with.

Sarah RobertsonSarah Robertson is a student at UMass Amherst studying Journalism and Social Thought in Political Economy. She is Lifestyle editor for The Daily Collegian and AmherstWire. Follow Sarah on twitter at @srobertson__ and read her blog at


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