Costa Rica isn't the first place that comes to mind as a cruise destination. It's not as easy to get to from Miami as the Bahamas or Virgin Islands, nor as quick as Mexico from Galveston, Texas, or Los Angeles
I recently spent several days there on the Pacific side on an itinerary that departed from Colon, Panama. As a guest of Windstar Cruises on the Star Pride I visited the Golfo Dulce, Drake Bay and Quepos, home to Manuel Antonio National Park, frequently described as the crown jewel of Costa Rica.
Commerce, history along the Panama Canal
Sailing the canal is a bucket list item for many veteran cruisers. Although one can see the locks in operation at a visitors center, going through the entire canal is one of those experiences that can only be done from a ship. Read More
All three spots offered ample opportunities for the kind of soft adventure that Windstar is trying to specialize in.
In Golfo Dulce, where my fellow shipmates were touring a chocolate farm or learning to cook an authentic Costa Rican meal, I opted for a morning boat excursion into the bay to look for dolphins.
I was not disappointed. In fact, whatever the opposite of disappointment is, that's what our dolphin-watch excursion delivered. After being picked up directly from the anchored Star Pride by a double-deck sightseeing craft, we motored for about 20 minutes across a placid bay to a location where dolphins had been spied.
Our guides said the mammals in question were spotted dolphins, which enjoy the protected and warm waters of the bay. Smaller than their bottlenose cousins, they travel in larger groups.
We spent the better part of an hour watching what I estimated to be about 200 dolphins that cavorted around our vessel. They surfaced for air, often in groups of two and three but sometimes in groups of 10 or 12. Some made for our ship in a friendly greeting party and ran ahead of the bow by a few feet as the boat made way at 4 or 5 knots.
In the middle distance, groups of dolphins were at nearly every point of the compass, with many regularly jumping out of the water. This was no aquarium show where animals were rewarded for doing tricks but intrinsic behavior in their natural environment.
I've seen whales, seals and other marine mammals on cruise excursions before, but this may have been the most enchanting hour I've ever spent watching marine creatures. It was truly magical.
A guide ziplines through the canopy of the rain forest in Corcovado National Park. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
The following day I had a chance to participate in one of Costa Rica's signature adventure activities, a zipline tour through the rain forest canopy near the Corcovado National Park at Bahia Drake, or Drake's Bay.
The Star Pride comes equipped with Zodiac-style inflatables, which were used to shuttle us to the Aguila de Osa Inn on shore. We had a close-up view of two scarlet macaws in a tree while waiting for a bus for the 15-minute ride to the start of the tour.
Ziplining can be a test of nerves for anyone who's never done it or with the slightest fear of heights. This particular course included 13 platforms ranging from 30 to 75 feet high, affixed to trees with cables designed not to harm the flora.
Eleven steel cables run between the treetop platforms at lengths ranging from 623 to 1,312 feet. There's a quarter-mile hike midtour between two of the towers that some of my fellow passengers found tiring.
Zipliners are tethered to something secure at every moment of the tour so there's practically no way to fall. There's a tight-fitting harness and metal clips that secure riders to the pulleys that ride the cable.
Swooping through the canopy is a bit like going on a waterslide or a roller coaster. It is gripping, hard to take in while you're doing it and when it's over it feels like it was too short and you want to go again.
"It's very exhilarating, and it's beautiful just gliding through the trees," said Carol Olson, a Star Pride passenger from Fort Collins, Colo. "It's a thrill ride."
Olson said she was a little scared at first but determined. The chance to zipline through the canopy was one of the deciding factors in her choice of the Panama/Costa Rica itinerary, she said.
Olson braked too hard and stopped short of the platform on her first few segments, requiring an instructor to fetch her. But after that she got the hang of it and completed all of the lines on the course.
A sloth is spotted at Manuel Antonio National Park. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Per square mile, Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and it has capitalized by creating 27 national parks and more than 100 protected nature areas. One of the biggest nature draws is Manuel Antonio, where sloths and monkeys are the star attractions.
We were lucky in the course of a 2.5-hour nature hike to see three monkey species: the easily spotted white-faced monkey, the more elusive howler monkey and the small squirrel monkey.
The howler monkey is a sizable creature that makes a distinctive call somewhere between a barking seal and a roaring lion. All of the monkeys were harder to spot than I had imagined. An experienced guide with a scope on a tripod is almost a necessity for this excursion.
Ambling along a stony dirt road, we saw lizards, crabs, grasshoppers, spiders and toucans. The sound of cicadas chirping provided constant background noise.
The guide was able to point out several sloths moving slowly in the trees. About halfway through the tour, we stopped at a magnificent crescent-shaped beach where some of the group went swimming. There are showers at the beach to wash off the salt before a return trip to the bus along a boardwalk through the undergrowth.