The city of Colón lies by the entrance to the Panama Canal on the Atlantic coast. There are high-quality hotels, a casino, hot springs, a thriving handicraft scene and great restaurants with local delicacies. If you want to really explore the city or join a Pre-Programme to a beautiful jungle lodge next to the Chagres River, you should clear your calendar and arrange to arrive a couple of days earlier.
Once on board the ship, you'll be busy picking up your complimentary expedition jacket, settling into your cabin, exploring the ship and attending a mandatory safety drill. After dinner and a welcome toast by the Captain, you'll meet your Expedition Team who run through important health and safety aspects with you.
If you want to really explore the city or join a Pre-Programme to a beautiful jungle lodge next to the Chagres River, you should arrive a couple of days earlier.
We depart Colón early in the morning to start the process of entering the Panama Canal. The complex canal network is over a hundred years in the making, stretching 80 km through natural and man-made waterways. We'll wait with anticipation for our allocated slot to enter the first of a series of huge locks. In a feat of modern engineering, these ingenious locks effectively lift the ship more than 26 metres above sea level. If weather allows, the Expedition Team will be out on deck to point out sites of interest around the canal and to talk about the history of this ambitious project.
Roughly half way through the 12-hour transit of the canal, the ship will enter the Gatun Lake section. Created by damning the nearby Chagres River, it is one of the largest artificial lakes in the world. By contrast, the surrounding rainforest is virtually untouched by any development and various flora and fauna native to Central America flourish here undisturbed. Along the shores, you might be lucky enough to spot crocodiles and alligators. Scan the trees for glimpses of monkeys and maybe sloths too.
After a few more locks and lakes, the ship will pass under the Bridge of the Americas and emerge into the Pacific. Passing from one great ocean to another in a day, you've just experienced the culmination of centuries of planning, hard work and resourcefulness. It's sure to be a moment you won't soon forget.
The little town of Bahía Solano is the largest settlement on Colombia's Chocó coast, near the mouth of Rio Jella and surrounded by thick jungle. It is also named Ciudad Mutis after the 18th century Spanish botanist, perhaps a reference to the natural biodiversity that exists in the area's jungles, mangroves, mountains, marshes, rivers, and bays.
The community here opens their town to us and warmly invite you on a hosted walk through their settlement. Along the way, you'll meet and talk to the mainly Afro Colombian residents who live alongside indigenous Embera and other Colombians from the interior.
Passing by the main church and kindergarten, we'll come to the local secondary school where students will greet you with a traditional welcome song and show you around their classrooms. Over at the small fishing port, you'll learn about the town's fishing co-operative, which is the main source of income for the community. Your tour ends at the seafront where you'll be treated to a performance of unique Afro Pacific Colombian music and dance.
There is an optional excursion to the Botanic Gardens located on the long sandy beach of Playa Mecana. The gardens are actually a 170-acre jungle reserve with fascinating nature trails and home to a seed bank plus different reforestation projects. Another potential optional excursion might take you to the fishing village at Playa Huina where you'll have the opportunity to walk through the jungle to waterfalls with crystal clear swimming holes or to visit a local indigenous community.
Spend some of your day taking a relaxing walk out on deck, enjoying the seascapes and keeping an eye out for marine wildlife like whales, dolphins and sea birds. If you want to feel closer to the water, go for a dip in the infinity pool or the two outdoor hot tubs, and still be able to admire the scenery.
This is also a great opportunity to head to the Science Center for lectures with the Expedition Team and to learn more about what you will experience in the following days. Pick one of the proposed Citizen Science programmes to get involved in too, knowing that you will be helping research currently happening around the world. When darkness falls and it's a starry night, you might also join the Expedition Team out on deck to do some stargazing. Or settle into a comfortable seat in the Explorer Lounge & Bar to raise a glass or two with new-found friends.
We cross the Equator early in the morning. You can join a traditional ceremony on board where we seek King Neptune's blessing. If we are lucky, he may even make an appearance before we reach our first call in Ecuador.
Our main tour of the day will be to the handicraft town of Montecristi located 8km inland from the tuna-fishing port city of Manta. It was established in the 16th century by manteños fleeing the frequent pirate raids on the coast. Montecristi, Ecuador is the actual birthplace of traditional Panama hats, despite the name.
The misnomer originates from when President Roosevelt wore one of these hats on a visit to the Panama Canal in 1904, sparking their popularity worldwide. You'll see many shops throughout the town selling the genuine article in all sizes and shades, expertly handwoven from the leaves of the jipijapa tree by local artisans.
Aside from hat-hunting, you can spend time browsing the stalls at the pretty plaza, admiring the architecture of the church, or looking at the varied street art. One prominent mural at the plaza depicts General Eloy Alfaro, two-time Ecuadorian President and Montecristi native. You might also have time to head to the top of the main hill where there is a museum and grandiose mausoleum in honour of Alfaro who was also known as the Viejo Luchador or "Old Warrior".
Isla de la Plata is a part of Parque National Machalilla, Ecuador's only coastal national park. The island sits quite far off the coast and is prone to large waves that can make landings a challenge. Its name as the ‘Island of Silver' is thought to come from the belief that English seaman Francis Drake buried a bunch of silver treasure here. Or it's possibly because all the bird guano reflected in the sunshine gave the island a shiny, silvery look when seen from the mainland. No treasure has ever been found on the island though which only measures less than 6 square kilometres.
Still, whatever the island lacks in size or silver, it more than makes up for in a range of wildlife that rivals that of the Galápagos Islands. If we are able to go ashore here successfully, keen bird watchers among you will enjoy walking on the island with binoculars at the ready to spot some of the 32 species of bird found here, like famous blue-footed boobies, nesting waved albatrosses, pelicans, gannets, and frigate birds. The waters around the island are equally diverse and you might be lucky enough to see whales, manta rays, green turtles, and dolphins.
Machala's main claim to fame is Puerto Bolivar, an important Ecuadorian port for the export of coffee, cocoa, shrimp and bountiful bananas which the locals call oro verde – ‘green gold'. As part of a choice of optional excursions, you can visit a local banana plantation and also try and spot hummingbirds, parakeets and howler monkeys in Buenaventura Nature Reserve to the south. Puyango Petrified Forest is nearby with one of the largest collections of fossilised trees in the world, thought to be about 100 million years-old, as old as the Andes Mountains themselves.
At Puerto Bolivar, you can feast on fresh seafood at one of the many harbour restaurants and enjoy views of the natural mangrove swamps of Isla Jambeli opposite. Machala itself has all the charm you'd expect from a small coastal city, including friendly locals, cute plazas and unusual monuments dedicated to sort-fish and bananeros. The restaurants are evolving and beginning to dabble in the hip modern cuisine which Ecuador and Peru are increasingly known for.
Enjoy the serenity of this day at sea, relaxing and admiring the scenery from the observation deck or over in the lounge.
Throughout your journey, the Expedition Team will be running lectures in the Science Center to share their extensive knowledge of the region with you. Topics could include periods of pre-Columbian history, the geology of the surrounding mountains and islands, folklore of local communities, and so on. But not all lectures are confined to indoors. If the ship attracts seabirds who come to fly alongside us, the Expedition Team might also help you spot and identify these feathered followers out on deck.
Buffeted by the wind and waves of the Pacific, Salaverry can be a hard port to access. If all goes to plan though, it will be a good transit point to explore Trujillo, Peru's third largest city, as well as an array of archaeological sites scattered throughout the surrounding region.
Trujillo sits in a fertile valley oasis irrigated by the Moche River. It boasts a colourful baroque 17th century cathedral, 10 colonial churches, and many neoclassical mansions, not to mention one of the longest mosaic murals in the world at the local university. However, it is more than likely that your focus will be elsewhere and on things not so modern.
The city of Chan Chan was raised by the Chimu Empire which appeared in the region around 900 AD. The vast ruins of the 20-square kilometre complex include the Tschudi temple-citadel and Huaca Esmeralda. On the other side of Trujillo are the Mochican pyramids of the Sun and the Moon which pre-date Chan Chan by a few hundred years. Huaca del Sol in particular is the largest adobe structure on the continent while Huaca del Luna is more detailed with many of its pastel frescos still visible.
Set on a strip of desert between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains is the capital city of Lima, served by the seaport of Callao. Lima is the largest city in the country, a modern, sprawling metropolis where traditions and trends converge in an exciting cocktail of culture and cuisine. It's for good reason that its original name was La Ciudad de los Reyes, or ‘The City of Kings'.
The World Heritage historic centre is full of colonial-era architecture like Plaza Mayor and San Francisco Monastery. On the other hand, the clay ruins of ceremonial pyramids Huaca Pucllana and Huaca Huallamarca are reminders of long-lost Inca civilisation. For more pre-Hispanic archaeology, there are at least four separate museums to pick from. Arty types among you will also enjoy the bright and Bohemian area of Barranco, complete with murals, creative cafés and two of Lima's contemporary art museums.
But the ultimate Lima experience has got to be the food. Cuisine emanating from the capital has raised the bar the globe over and there is no shortage of internationally recognised and award-winning restaurants for you to delight in. One of Peru's all-time gastronomic greats is ceviche, fresh fish marinated in tangy lime juice and other seasonings. The staple dish can be savoured in many locations around the city, from up-market diners in Miraflores to salt-of-the-earth cevicherías at the fishing docks over in Chorrillos.
Positioned on a bay behind a peninsula, the small and sleepy resort town of Paracas is surrounded by brown-sugar cliffs and beaches. Known to most as El Chaco, the town has an array of restaurants along the main shorefront and boulevard where you can tuck into jalea, a mishmash of fried seafood with salsa criolla and yuca root. Peruvian silverside fish, known as pejerry, is also a local speciality, best washed down with a glass of pisco – grape brandy which is produced at tourable distilleries in the region. Be careful though, pisco can pack quite the punch!
Opposite Paracas harbour is a mysterious local geoglyph of a candelabra that possibly dates back to 200 BCE. It could be related to the famous Nazca Lines which you can visit in the Pisco valley a short drive away to the south as part of an optional excursion. The Nazca Lines themselves could be older than the candelabra but new ones are still being discovered, prompting all sorts of theories as to their origin, extra-terrestrial or otherwise.
You may also take a boat tour of the nearby Ballestas Islands, which are considered to be the lesser Galápagos Islands. The Ballestas support a range of wildlife, including Humboldt penguins, turtles, Peruvian boobies, cormorants, pelicans, sea lions, dolphins, Inca terns and humpback whales. There's also Paracas National Reserve nearby, covering a rare combination of desert and marine ecosystems in its territory. The Martian-like yellow dunes and red-sand beaches hide more than 100 archaeological sites of the Paracas culture and grant otherworldly views to birds such as the Andean condor and Chilean flamingo.
As we sail further north, leaving Peru behind, we enter the final leg of the voyage. Continue to enjoy the Expedition Team's lecture programme, the healthy salt-tinged breeze and views out on deck, and all the facilities the expedition ship has to offer. These waters are also part of the Humboldt Current, a cold-water current that cools the climate in the region and creates clear skies. It also sustains a highly productive marine eco-system in the region, stimulating the growth of sardines, anchovies, and mackerel in huge quantities.
If you're someone who likes to keep active, there are well-equipped gyms on board, both indoor and outdoor and each with great views. Swimmers aren't left out either and the ship has a heated infinity pool for you to enjoy. If you tire of the treadmill, take your trainers on the outdoor running track. The scenery and the sea breeze will spur you on to do a few miles more.
Unusually for a city by the sea, Arica enjoys a constant desert climate and is classed as one of the driest cities in the world. This also means that it is bathed in glorious sunshine almost every day of the year, and residents proudly like to refer to Arica as enjoying a never-ending spring season. The beaches are popular with sunbathers and surfers alike and the views from the tall, sandy El Morro cliff are well worth the 15-minute hike to the fluttering Chilean flag at the top.
Another hotspot for visitors is San Marcos Cathedral, designed by Gustave Eiffel of Parisian fame and inaugurated in 1876. Calles 21 de Mayo and Bolognesi are lively, pedestrianised areas with plenty of eateries and artesanía stalls while El Agro market and food court is full of sights and scents. Over at the local San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum, you can peruse artefacts from the Chinchorro culture and marvel at mummies which are older than even ones found in Egypt. Head to the south of the city to trek the more rugged Playa Corazones and explore the Caves of Anzota.
Welcome to a slice of paradise by the Pacific, complete with palm trees and promenades. As one of Chile's top seaside cities, Iquique is a hive of activity all year around. Shoppers stream to the duty-free Zofri Mall while maritime enthusiasts will be enthralled by a tour of La Esmeralda corvette that hails from the War of the Pacific. Our main plan here is a visit to the nearby abandoned saltpetre mining town of Humberstone in the Atacama Desert, a UNESCO site and history you can literally walk through.
Back in Iquique, head along the boardwalk of La Costenera next to the sands of Playa Cavancha and admire the scenery of the city skyline on one side and parasailors and surfers on the other. Baquedano Street showcases 19th century Georgian architecture and leads to Astoreca Palace and a photogenic clock tower at the centre of town.
You'll also find many a chic café where you can indulge in local coffee culture or sip on a traditional creamy mango sour. A Chinatown has sprung up around the mercado, marrying Peruvian and Chinese flavours to invent unique chifa cuisine. Aside from a variety of seafood dishes, you'll definitely want to try chumbeque, a dessert that blends fried thin dough with fruity caramels.
You are heading towards the end of your expedition cruise, but don't let that ruin your mood. By this stage of your journey, you'll have made friends with your fellow explorers, finding that you have much in common in terms of your interests and passion for nature. You can spend time chatting with them over a snack, perhaps recalling the best bits of your expedition so far. The Explorer Bar is also open for drinks and you might catch the crew and Expedition Team here in the evening for some friendly banter. As night falls, there are also few things as romantic as stargazing out on deck with your loved one.
Perched on ocean terraces, La Serena is blessed with beautiful sandy beaches all along Avenida del Mar and beyond. You'll find that Chile's second-oldest city has a distinct and purposeful neo-colonial look and feel to it. Modern buildings sit interspersed with classic architecture, such as the 30 or so carefully restored stone churches, some of which are 350 years old. If the churches, while charming, start to look the same to you, a helpful hint is to distinguish them by their different styles of belfries.
Aside from wandering the beaches, promenades and plazas, you can also stroll through manicured public gardens like the Japanese-inspired Jardín del Corazón or shop for arts and crafts at Recova Market. The archaeological museum houses pre-colonial artefacts while the hidden lane of Patio Colonial near Balmaceda is the place to go for chilled-out cafés and eateries.
Your expedition ends when we reach the seaport of Valparaíso. Built on steep hillsides overlooking the ocean, the UNESCO-listed city is a maze of monuments, churches, historical funicular lifts, trendy barrios, cobblestone alleys, colourful houses and charming plazas.
Cerros Alegre and Concepción have probably the best views while the historic port district boasts colonial architecture, bustling mercados, and the maritime and modern art museums.
Why not arrange to stick around for an extra day and discover Valparaiso during a city tour followed by an overnight in Santiago de Chile. From here, you also join a Post-Programme to Easter Island, famous for its mysterious statues of giant heads.