All aboard an eco-conscious voyage across seven nations of Central America's East Coast. Taking in Panama, Nicaragua, Belize and more, we step off the beaten track and into a world of natural beauty and age-old culture.
Hurtling down a tiny dirt path on the edge of a ravine, I squint looking for jaguars. My view is bombarded with lush foliage covering mountains, a muddy golden river and flocks of exotic birdlife perching in the treetops. Beneath me spreads the Braulio National Park, an almost 500k㎡ area where endangered wild cats prowl.
I'm at the start of my voyage from San Jose to the Caribbean Coast, on a sailing adventure that will take me across seven counties in two weeks. As I study the pirate-like map of cays, coves and coasts hardly touched by tourism, I find it impossible not to think of my dad in his go-to fancy dress. Jack Sparrow, eat your heart out.
Before sailing out of Puerto Limón, I explore the Tortuguero Canal. Reeking of essential oils (I have an aversion to DEET), I don my tattered Converse, roll down my linen trousers and climb into a small motorboat. Passing old sailboats with names such as Young Blood and El Doctor, I spy sloths, toucans and crocodiles. Spider monkeys screech to their broods - a sound that seems alien coming from their tiny frames.
Boarding the Norwegian vessel that will be my home for the next fortnight, I'm led to a surprisingly large cabin named Ludvig Hansen. Inside, alone, I pop some bubbly and toast to my cabin's namesake - a handsome sailor and tinsmith who wintered on Svalbard and was a crew member on Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole. My cabin has a massive bed (After Eights on the pillow at turndown), a private shower room and porthole looking out onto deck five. This must be bigger than Amundsen's old quarters, I think. I'm ready to set sail. All hands hoay.
As we pass the Panama Canal, onboard scientist Mattias regales me with stories of the canal's origins, its construction indebted to 16th-century Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa. I'm haunted by the fact that 22,000 workers perished mainly from tropical diseases during the construction of the Panama Canal - I am thankful for my last minute yellow fever jab.
This talk is the first of many illuminating moments I experience on board. I scan ocean birdlife with ornithologist Holly (who doubles as a sunrise yoga instructor) and embark on mile-around-the-ship group walks. Other days I study geology, with choice samples gathered by biologists, and hear more about the dizzying powers of plant medicine as well as how we can help to stop plastic pollution. I hear about history's attempts to combat the deadly mosquito and learn how to use a sextant (for astronomical navigation reading) with worldly Polish sailor, Henryk.
On land, I explore historic ruins of Fort San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River, discovered by Columbus in 1502. Spanish colonists went on to build a fort here in a bid to protect the coast from pirates, though it was destroyed by Welsh privateer Captain Henry Morgan in 1670. (Later in the trip I go on to glimpse Morgan's Head and Morgan's Buttocks - those being two clifftops on the Colombian island of Providencia, which he raided and used as a base during the overthrow of the Spanish Empire).
On Aguja Island, a short distance from Panama's Guna Yala archipelago, I meet one of the Caribbean's last tribes, the Kuna people, clad in bright, geometric patterned textiles, performing traditional song and dance.
Women here are proud breadwinners, as they create the mola textile art, and it is these matriarchal figures - not men - who make the important domestic decisions. Gender fluidity is celebrated too. Young boys who wish to live out their lives as women, for example, are known and accepted as Omeggid, a figure engrained in Guna mythology and one epitomised as a "third gender".
As we journey to Nicaraguan territory, I become tirelessly nosy - ever the inquisitor - and find myself below deck in the guts of the ship. I discover an intricate water system of coolers and heaters that includes a seawater-to-drinking-water contraption that works by reverse osmosis. Dazzled at this eco-technology, I am shown "The Pig", a characterful machine that takes food waste and converts it to grey water that can be safely released to the ocean.
Hurtigruten, the company which runs the ship and expedition, is among the first cruise operators to ban single-use plastic on board. Casting aside the cruising industry's damaging environmental reputation, Hurtigruten voluntarily abandoned the use of heavy fuel over a decade ago and is set to launch ships with engines that run off rotten fish. Combined with increased energy efficiency on board, this new technology means that CO2 emissions will be reduced by 20 per cent. Its aim is to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Guests are encouraged to sign a list letting staff know when they'll be dining ashore, so food waste is kept to a minimum. Meanwhile the chefs make the most of local produce, buying the exotic, abundant catches of the fishermen on islands en route.
When we reach the Nicaraguan Big Corn Island, I believe I have found true paradise. Here the sand gleams white and waters vary between malachite green and crystal clear. I snorkel among the pristine reefs, being careful not to interfere with them, and chat with bubbly locals and a few travellers - the island is a five-hour boat trip from the mainland, so you won't find many tourists here.
A local cab driver takes me across the island. He, a 24 year old, tells me that he studied in Panama City and frequently travels to Colombia to see his father. Ignorantly, I ask if he craves city life. "Nope. I always come back here," he replies. "Here's where it's at."
The Corn Islands are famed for their seafood - especially lobster - and that evening we eat grilled Big Corn langoustines on deck. I have found my nirvana.
Yet onto Honduran waters we venture, to the raw beauty of Cayos Cochinos, Islas De La Bahia, where there are no roads and no cars and a lot of flaxen sands and jungle. Massive antediluvian-looking reptiles prowl, sandflies feast on my blood, and brown pelicans swoop and dive. Transfixed, I am awakened from my dream state by the sound of drums and singing. I follow the music, swimming in crystal waters as I make my way around to the other side of this tiny island where I find the Garifuna people.
Originally from the Caribbean island of St Vincent, the Garifuna now mostly reside further north in Central America - though some small communities remain here. Women of all ages laugh, smile and dance, taking their turn at the centre of the celebrating circle as others sing. Men, meanwhile, play drums and children wait sweetly and patiently by the sides, thrilled at the sight of their mothers.
This dance, known as punta, was popularised in 80s Belize and has the joyful, fun vibe of calypso made even better with the hypnotic, acapella song. I watch for what seemed like hours, taking a brief moment to lay supine on the perfect sand, before heading back to the rib boat which would lead me on a bouncy journey back to my ship.
Only after stopping on the Isla de la Providencia do I find the finest treasure on the map: Belize. Time spent here is priceless. Among the nation's many churches, visitors will find an abundance of cashew wine and rum. Yet it is for nature lovers and thrill seekers that this outdoor haven is best.
On arrival, I head straight out of the city into more jungle. I am about to face one of my greatest fears. Zip lining just doesn't seem natural, I tell myself as I am buckled up by a man named Bruce at the Jaguar Paw Park Outpost. Then again, neither is the massive ship I've been in for several nights. I hold on for dear life and scream as I career through the jungle canopy along five separate ziplines. Perhaps I will be an adrenaline junkie one day.
I come down in the nearby Nohoch Che'en National Park, tubing in the spectacular Crystal Cave, which is home to ancient Mayan remains and stunning stalactites. Giant crystals glint as Bruce guides us on rubber tubes through the water. Our headlamps illuminate the scale and beauty of this awesome space, which dates back hundreds of millions of years.
I stumble further down the proverbial Belizean rabbit hole aboard a small motor boat (named the Belizean Beauty) some 70km off the mainland. Approaching Lighthouse Reef, our boat is surrounded by reef sharks and barracuda. Yet my eye is drawn to the Great Blue Hole. Once a pre-Ice Age limestone cave, it is now the world's largest sinkhole and an icon of the world's largest coral reef system: the Belize Barrier Reef.
My journey to such under-visited places has left me with the hope that we can reverse the negative impact of mass tourism. Sustainable travel is something we can choose and endorse without foregoing the luxuries of accommodation, natural wonders and adventure. Prioritising the off-the-beaten-track experience with operators and organisations that support the seas and nourish local communities can help protect and raise awareness of our fragile environment and fund research into our fascinating planet.
For more info on eco-tourism visit global.hurtigruten.com Prices for this annual expedition start at 3,790€ per person, not including flights to/ from San Jose/ Miami International.