The Magnificent Seven: Sustainable Tourism on Central America’s East Coast

The Magnificent Seven: Sustainable Tourism on Central America’s East Coast

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

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

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,

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

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

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

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

For more info on eco-tourism visit Prices for this annual
expedition start at 3,790€ per person, not including flights to/
from San Jose/ Miami International.