We’ll pass through the Panama Canal, a 50-mile-long man-made marvel of engineering featuring channels and open water that was opened to traffic in 1914. The canal links the Atlantic to the Pacific, and roughly halfway through the 12-hour transit we’ll enter the Gatun Lake section. If you’re lucky, you may spot a crocodile or alligator on the shore. Watch the trees and you may also catch a glimpse of monkeys, and maybe even a sloth or two.
Emerging into the Pacific Ocean, over the course of the next part of our journey we’ll take you to visit two national parks, as well as a range of endearing coastal communities across five Latin American countries: Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. But first, we pay a visit to the amazing and little-travelled Darien region.
La Chunga, Darien National Park, Panama
You’ll be on quite the adventure today as we head to an authentic Embera community in the middle of the jungle in Darien National Park. The indigenous Embera have lived in this area for centuries, long before the first Spanish explorer ever set foot in the New World. The tribe here doesn’t receive visitors regularly and we have worked closely with them to give you this rare opportunity. We’ll brief you beforehand on how to make sure our visit to this isolated community is a respectful one in line with their customs on courtesy.
In order to get there, we’ll anchor up in La Chunga Bay and head up the Sambu River through the jungle using our small expedition boats. As we will be travelling inland, it will likely be a lot hotter and you’ll want to bring good protection from the sun and mosquitos. The journey up river will take approximately one hour but will be well worth it.
Bahia Solano, Colombia
Surrounded by thick jungle and situated near the mouth of Rio Jella, the little town of Bahía Solano is the largest settlement on Colombia’s Chocó Coast. It’s also known as Ciudad Mutis after the 18th Century Spanish botanist José Celestino Mutis, 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 people from the interior.
MS Fram will bring us across the Equator early in the morning, and you can join in a traditional onboard seafaring ceremony in which we seek King Neptune’s blessing. Setting foot on South American soil, our first port of call is Montecristi, located five miles inland from the tuna-fishing port city of Manta. This town was established in the 16th Century by Manteños – indigenous Ecuadoreans – seeking respite from the frequent pirate raids on the coast. Montecristi, is actually the birthplace of traditional Panama hats, despite the name.
Isla de la Plata, Ecuador
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 – which means ‘Island of Silver’ – is thought to come from the belief that the English explorer and sea captain Sir Francis Drake buried a trove of silver here. A more prosaic explanation is that all the bird guano reflects in the sunshine and gives the island a shiny, silvery look when seen from the mainland – take your pick which version you’d prefer to believe! Alas, no treasure has ever been found on the tiny island, which measures a little over three square miles.
Still, whatever the island lacks in size or silver, it more than makes up for in a range of wildlife, which rivals that of the Galápagos Islands.
Puerto Bolivar (Machala), Ecuador
Machala’s main claim to fame is Puerto Bolivar, an important port for the export of coffee, cocoa, shrimp and bananas, which the locals call oro verde – ‘green gold’ – due to there being so many of them growing in this region. The nearby Puyango Petrified Forest has one of the largest collections of fossilized trees in the world, thought to be about 100 million years old.
Buffeted by the Pacific’s wind and waves, Salaverry can be a tricky port to access. If we are able to land there, it’ll be a good starting point to explore Trujillo, Peru’s third-largest city, as well as the array of pre-Colombian archaeological sites scattered throughout the region.
Set on a strip of desert between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains is the Peruvian capital Lima. Served by the seaport of Callao, Lima is the largest city in the country and appears as a modern, sprawling metropolis where traditions and modernity swirl together to create a heady cocktail of culture and cuisine. In contrast to this modern metropolis, the fascinating and enigmatic adobe clay ruins of the Huaca Pucllana and Huaca Huallamarca ceremonial pyramids are all that remains of a long-lost ancient culture.
Nestled on a bay behind a peninsula, the humble and sleepy resort town of Paracas is surrounded by brown-coloured cliffs and lovely beaches. Opposite Paracas harbour is a mysterious geoglyph of a candelabra-like symbol, carved into the landscape. The origin and meaning of it remains a mystery, but 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.
Unusual for a city by the sea, Arica is bathed in glorious sunshine almost every day of the year and residents proudly describe the place as being immersed in a never-ending spring. Check out the eye-popping San Marcos Cathedral, designed by Gustave Eiffel of Parisian tower fame, and inaugurated in 1876.
Welcome to a slice of paradise by the Pacific, complete with palm trees and beach promenades. Our main plan here is a visit to the nearby abandoned saltpetre mining town of Humberstone in the Atacama Desert, a UNESCO site, and a piece of history you can literally walk through.
La Serena, Chile
Sat beside the ocean, 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 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 around 350 years old.
Known as UNESCO's ‘Jewel of the Pacific’, this World Heritage listed city is a maze of monuments, churches, historical funicular cable cars, trendy neighbourhoods, cobblestone alleys, colourful houses, and charming plazas.