Costa Rica, Panama and a New Safari Voyager

UnCruise Adventures’ Safari Voyager looking spiffy at her Puerto Caldera berth on January 14, 2017. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

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.

Safari Voyager’s route through Costa Rica and Panama. Illustration courtesy of 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

The Real Intercontinental San Jose Costa Rica. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

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?”

Although optional now, later this spring UnCruise will include a one-night, pre-cruise hotel stay with their voyages in Costa Rica and Panama. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

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.

The Real Intercontinental San Jose is a comfortable hotel. I particularly enjoyed the brightly-lit atrium area off the main lobby. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

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.

Welcome aboard the totally-redone Safari Voyager! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

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.

New carpeting complements the new walls, doors, trim, cabinets, lighting, ceilings, and technical upgrades (electrical, air conditioning, galley, navigation equipment) that Safari Voyager has been given. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Stateroom carpeting is brand new, and boasts a brown colour scheme. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

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.

Commander Stateroom 218, port side aft. A modern world of difference from the ship’s previous look (below). Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Safari Voyager’s Commander staterooms as they looked in 2014. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Last time, I had Commander Stateroom 217 to myself. This time, I’m across the hall, in Commander Stateroom 218. It’s a small, oceanview room with two beds (convertible to a queen); a writing desk; and an en-suite bathroom. And as I walked in, the closet and the desk are the only two things that were here before. Everything else is brand-new.

Like all staterooms aboard the Safari Voyager, my stateroom features: a new window to replace the old two-pane variety that looked like it came out of a motorhome; new blinds; new lighting, both ceiling and accent; new beds; new carpeting; new ceiling panels; new in-room audio; a flat-panel TV/DVD player combo; more electrical outlets (five in total; six if you unplug the clock radio); REAL air conditioning (the old Safari Voyager featured a lethargic fan and plenty of finger-crossing); and a bathroom with a new toilet, new lighting, and new showerhead. It’s still a weird, oddly cold space, but it’s a gigantic shower for a ship of this size, and it looks spotless.

A look around my stateroom:

Beds can be configured as either twins or one queen in most categories, and all staterooms offer ocean views. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

New pillows are designed by artisans from Mexico and Peru…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and new lighting and electrical outlets light up the room and provide convenient places to charge electronics. All told, six outlets are easily accessible bedside. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Looking back from the window towards the stateroom door: a large wardrobe provides a decent amount of storage space…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…while a medicine chest lets you tuck toiletries out of sight. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Goodbye, hot-and-humid staterooms! New air conditioning keeps things nice and cool. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Commander Stateroom 218 bathroom: spartan but functional. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Toiletries are manufactured by Costa Rica-based RAW Botanicals. Hand cream, hand soap, body wash, shampoo and conditioner are provided. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I can’t say enough positive things about how well this refit came off. UnCruise paid close attention to what needed fixing on this ship, and the company spent the money to do it right. That should earn it brownie points in anyone’s book.

What hasn’t changed though – and what didn’t need changing – is UnCruise’s amazing crew, who are adept at making you feel instantly at home. I recognized Hotel Manager Tim from onboard the S.S. Legacy a few years ago, along with bartender Danny, and a few other folks from my past trips on the Safari Voyager and Safari Endeavour in Alaska.

Staterooms also include new flat-panel TV’s with inset DVD players. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

After being escorted to our cabins and shown around, it was up to the Lounge -also beautifully redone – for cocktail hour and our Welcome Aboard briefing. Most beverages are complimentary here onboard the Safari Voyager, including beer, wine and spirits. A selection of top-shelf brands are available for purchase at an additional cost, but there’s little reason to do so unless you’re curious or a connoisseur – or both. Local beers and spirits are offered up whenever possible, and the ship boasts an impressive selection of Central American rums.

After the briefing, it was down to the Restaurant on Deck 1 for dinner. Meals are typically taken at a set time each day, although seating is always open. In typical UnCruise fashion, three different choices were offered – steak, fish and a vegetarian portobello mushroom – served with roasted potatoes and asparagus. A starter salad was offered along with fresh bread, complimentary wine, and dessert.

The Lounge on Deck 3 is Safari Voyager’s main gathering spot. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

There’s no need to be bored here: games of all kinds are available in the lounge, along with books and DVD’s to watch in your stateroom. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Allergies and dietary restrictions are handled with surprising ease for a ship of this size; tonight’s starter salad came with almonds on it, and my waitress fetched one without nuts when she learned I had a nut allergy.

After dinner, we returned to the lounge for our expedition briefing on the day to come. We were given the choice of three separate hikes that we can enjoy tomorrow morning, each with its own difficulty level. Our Expedition Team then came around the room to ask us which one we’d like to sign up for, and provided us with information on what to expect from our Zodiac landings (all water), and how to safely enjoy our time ashore.

I’ve only been onboard for a few hours now, but UnCruise has lost none of its personal touch and infectious enthusiasm for the world that we live in. The line has consistently impressed me with its adventures in Alaska, the Sea of Cortes, and on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and I can’t wait to see what they can do here in Costa Rica!

Safari Voyager facing Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze as both ships prepare to set out from Puerto Caldera. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Report aboard UnCruise Adventures’ Safari Voyager continues tomorrow as we begin our exploration of Costa Rica! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

Safari Voyager - Costa Rica & Panama

Day 1Arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica & Embarkation in Puerto Caldera
Day 2Manuel Antonio National Park, CR
Day 3Curu National Park, CR
Day 4Oso Peninsula, CR
Day 5Golfo Dulce & Golfito, CR
Day 6Isla de Coiba, Panama
Day 7Transiting the Panama Canal
Day 8Disembarkation, post-cruise Panama City stay and recap.

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