Panama Cruise or land adventure

Panama Cruise vs. Overland Adventure: Which One Is Right for You?

Panama Cruise or land adventure

Discover The Best Panama Travel Adventure To Fit Your Needs

Because Panama is located at the juncture where North America and South America meet, any trip to the county is sure to be filled with excitement.

Here, historic colonial architecture melds into the landscape, with most cities surrounded by nature. The diverse array of animals in Panama range from massive beasts that swim to smaller ones that swing in (or fly from) trees. For those who love water, there’s the Caribbean Sea, Pacific Ocean, Panama Canal and a number of rivers and lakes to enjoy.

There’s no question that Panama is a destination stuffed with adventure, and options abound for what to see and how to see it. The challenge can sometimes be deciding which choice is best suited for your personal preferences.

International Expeditions currently offers multiple opportunities to explore the country, including the Costa Rica to Panama Voyage and private land options such as Panama Wildlife Adventure, which are customized to match your travel time, interests and budget. Each of these fantastic journeys offers its own bevy of activities to enjoy, so it’s worth learning about all three before deciding how you want to see Panama.

One of the first and most important decisions to consider when planning your journey is whether a Panama cruise or an overland adventure feels right for your travel style. The Costa Rica to Panama Voyage is a small ship cruise along Central America’s Pacific coast, while IE’s custom escorted tours are overland adventures (though not completely devoid of boats and water).

There are pros and cons to every form of travel, but either way, Panama promises to offer a lot of fun along the way. Here’s a look at the primary differences between Panama cruises and overland expeditions.

Panama Cruise

Why Take a Panama Cruise?

This region is known for its warm temperatures, white sand beaches, picturesque palm trees swaying in the breeze, and impossibly blue waters.

When we think of Panama’s coasts, history buffs may envision old tales of pirates and colonial conquests, while the more culturally minded might imagine the laid-back vibes of reggae music as the soundtrack for a round of rum punch or piña coladas. Nature lovers may picture remote islands with lush vegetation and crystal-clear coastlines, with bird and marine life aplenty.

In Panama, you’ll find all of the above, not to mention modern cities that are bustling with life. Of course, the country’s coast also has a plethora of nature reserves and national parks, including Soberania (near Panama City) and Darien National Park (near the Panama Canal). A fertile haven for biodiversity, Panama is home to more than 10,000 types of plants and hundreds of species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

Cruising Panama allows travelers to explore disparate parts of the country that would be difficult to reach in an overland adventure. Cruising and swimming these warm waters offers great chances to see migrating whales, whale sharks (the world’s largest fish), dolphins and endangered sea turtles. And of course colorful coral reefs and tropical fish are a given.

Panama Cruise

Why Overlanding in Panama Is Awesome

Then again, there’s also a lot to be said for taking an epic road trip. And that sentiment is only amplified when the adventure’s stops involve tropical rainforests and 500-year-old forts. Overlanding in Panama allows visitors to explore the country in more immersive depth, allowing them to see places and things average travelers never get to see.

What makes overlanding so great is that it allows passengers to take in so much more along the way. As you travel along the Pan-American Highway, the forest dances just outside the windows, intriguing animals pop up along the road’s edge, and the countryside just seems to open itself up to you. And that’s just what you see before setting foot outside the vehicle!

Many of Panama’s roadways are lined with lush jungle. They amble along waterways. Just miles outside the cities—which are filled with colonial architecture, ancient forts and canal locks—the hustle and bustle of the modern world slips away and transmutes into some of the purest natural beauty you can imagine. Birds flash brilliant colors. Monkeys howl from the treetops. Crocodiles stalk lazily along rivers. It is truly a wonder to behold.


Panama Cruises Vs. Overlanding

No form of travel is without its inherent challenges. Still, taking that trip slower would certainly add different elements to the adventure. In other words, how we travel has a lot to do with what we’re after, and that means we need to have an honest look at what’s ahead.

Cruises may sound like magical explorations out at sea. The thought of seeing the sunset over endless saltwater horizons just seems downright romantic. But cruises can have a few downsides when contrasted with overland travel.

Cruising Panama gives us a somewhat singular view of the landscape. If it can’t be seen or reached by water, then some parts of a destination—save day-long tours here and there—must be left out of the trip. An overland trip gets right into the heart of a place and puts travelers more in touch with the local flavor.

Weather can play a bigger factor with cruises. Being stuck inside on a boat can be limiting, which can either feel like tight quarters or cozy, depending on the person’s preferences. On land, there are simply more indoor options for activities and entertainment should a storm roll in.

For those not accustomed to being on the water, the motion of the ocean has also been known to unsettle a stomach or two. If motion sickness is an issue at all, it may require taking extra precautions on a small ship cruise. Cars can still be problematic in this regard, but getting off a bus is typically a lot easier (and more frequent) than a ship.

Overlanding in Panama really does put us deep into a place while allowing us to keep our feet on the ground, which means a lot to some folks. On the other hand, this style of travel might not fulfill all our desires either.

Though International Expeditions’ tours always allow plenty of stretching breaks and stops, not everyone is comfortable sitting for long spells. Panama probably has the best highways in Central America. But the cities can have traffic, and the country roads do meander slowly. Ships allow passengers to move a little more freely when in motion, and there’s rarely any traffic at sea.

Overlanding puts you in the thick of things, but sometimes you have to go greater distances to get away from the bustle of the city. It’s good to put down the iPhone, look out at vast expanses of nothingness, and to simply exist with what’s there. Cruises pull you right out into the abyss, insisting you stop and recognize the moment rather than surfing the Internet or checking texts.

Aside from hiking or catching the occasional river boat, overland trips are limited by where roads can take you. While roads can go to some pretty amazing spots, including deep into jungles (and, in the case of Panama City, literally over the Pacific Ocean), they cannot reach some places, particularly coastal areas. Small ships reach remote areas few people ever see.

When considering these pros and cons of cruising Panama versus overlanding, it isn’t so much a consideration of what’s bad. It’s more like an issue of what’s so good that you feel like you can’t miss out on it. Rest assured, any trip to Panama will be one to remember. Here’s a more detailed look at the specific activities each of IE’s escorted Panama tours have to offer:

Panama Cruise or land adventure

Costa Rica to Panama Voyage

For cruise lovers (and anyone who likes to explore two destinations in one trip), International Expeditions has a fantastic trip that includes not just the best coastal sites in Panama, but also some of the best that Costa Rica has to offer.

The cruise includes an incredible collection of national parks and nature reserves. It incorporates stops at remote islands, as well as trips into the historic district of Panama City.

In Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio National Park has a bounty of monkeys to spot. Further down the coast in the Osa Peninsula, which National Geographic deemed among “the most biologically intense places on Earth,” there’s an insane array of tropical birds, butterflies, and bigger wildlife.

The first stop in Panama is a tropical island situated between two protected marine areas that are known to be a migratory stop for sperm and humpback whales. The ship also visits Darien National Park, where indigenous people still live very much within their own culture. There are also visits to the Pearl Islands (for snorkeling), to Panama City (for a tour of the colonial section), and into Lake Gatun (which is formed by the Panama Canal). It all makes for a very well-rounded look at this amazing country.

Finally, Soberania National Park kicks it up one more notch. This is one of the most renowned places on the planet for birdwatching and wildlife spotting. It’s home to over 500 species of birds and over 100 species of mammals, which are easy to spot from the 100-foot observation tower. What a way to spend the final day of your Panama cruise!

Those looking for a more wildlife-focused tour should check out the Panama to Costa Rica Voyage. You’re going to cover incredible destinations that are outstanding for nature and wildlife from Panama’s remote Darien Province, which is practically inaccessible other than by air or ship, to Punta Patino Nature Reserve and Piedras Blancas National Park (Costa Rica’s newest park). In fact, Piedras Blancas is an important gathering point for many birds from North and South America. Here we’ll be looking to add color to our lives (and birding checklists) by keeping a watchful eye for gorgeous violaceaous trogon, red-capped manakin, long-tailed hermit, Fiery-billed aracari, Scarlet-thighed dacnis and green honeycreeper. 

In addition to the aforementioned Soberanía, guests explore Carara, a sanctuary for scarlet macaws, and also search for diverse marine life while swimming and snorkeling in Coiba National Park and Caño Island Biological Marine Reserve.


Panama: Path Between the Seas

For those a little wary of being boat-bound, the fully customizable Path Between the Seas trip may prove to be just the right fit. It’s a fantastic mix of natural wonders and amazing feats of humanity.

The trip includes two primo (and very different) national parks. As mentioned above, Soberania is the spot for spotting animals, including a great trail system to hike when exploring the park. Fort San Lorenzo National Park is a stone fort located near the Caribbean coast of Panama. It’s nearly 500 years old and was once captured and cremated by pirates, including the world-famous Captain Morgan.

The remainder of the trip doesn’t disappoint, either. There are visits to two different Smithsonian Research Institutes. One is in Gamboa, where large crocodiles like to cruise the waters; the other is on Barro Colorado Island, which lies in the middle of the Panama Canal. You’ll also explore the port town of Portobello, which is home to the Church of the Black Jesus Christ and the Agua Clara Locks, which allow ships in and out of the Panama Canal.

While that may seem like plenty to enjoy, the trip also includes interesting tours of Panama City, including a visit to a museum designed by Frank O. Gehry and a walking tour of Casco Viejo, the old colonial section of the capital. The itinerary also offers a day at an Emberá Village, where a population of unique indigenous people welcome tourists to demonstrate their traditional culture and skills and share local food.

Panama Cruise or land adventure

Panama Wildlife Adventure

For those who revel in encounters with friends of the four-legged or winged kind, the Panama Wildlife Adventure may be the best choice. This trip has occasional stops in human-occupied areas, but it’s really all about getting in nature.

The trip starts off with an incredible four nights in the Canopy Tower at Soberania National Park. Visitors can expect to see several different species of hummingbirds, monkeys, iguanas, and possibly even sloths. There are, of course, many tropical bird species to dazzle you there as well.

After leaving Soberania, other sojourns include trips to the Panama Canal, along the famous Pipeline Road, and on the Chagres River. The list of wildlife to be seen in these places is staggering and seemingly nonstop.

The trip then moves northward, but not before stopping at the Miraflores Locks to see ships entering and exiting the Panama Canal. Up north, the stops include Las Minas Trail, which has a summit from which one can see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Cara Iguana is a birder’s dream. Altos del Maria takes the adventure into a cloud forest, and the Panama Canal Transit is a half-day cruise of the engineering marvel.

Though the trip is largely about being out in the Central American jungle, travelers are also given a tour of Casco Viejo, Panama City’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an absolute must-see on any visit to Panama.


Which Trip Works for You?

The options IE offers each provide a well-rounded exploration of Panama, particularly for first-time visitors. The trips overlap in all the right areas—Soberania National Park, Casco Viejo, and the Panama Canal—but focus on highlights that are designed to suit more specific tastes.

Cruising Panama will definitely excite those with sea legs and a love for wandering the world’s waters. The Path Between the Seas will offer history buffs more interested in cities, museums, and architecture a firm footing, with the added bonus of some side trips into the Panamanian jungle. Nature lovers will flip when the monkeys, agouti, parrots, and sloths start to appear on the Panama Wildlife Adventure.

Whether it’s a cruise or an overland journey you prefer, the country has plenty of action to offer. The trick to making the most of your Panama adventure is simply choosing the type of quest that’s best suited for you. IE’s experienced staff will handle the rest!

BIO: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.