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Central America’s Most Infamous Jungle – Darién, Panama

Mention the Darién Jungle or the Darién Gap or just plain Darién and images of impenetrable greenery filled with hostile critters and even more hostile interlopers (drug runners, guerrillas and others) spring to mind. Like most places, however, there’s more to Central America’s most infamous jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, as we learned when we traveled there for four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle.

Giant trees Darien jungle Panama

Things grow big in the remote, road less Darién Jungle.

Plenty to see here

Just because the Darién Jungle is remote, largely inaccessible and little-visited doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see there. In fact, that remoteness and inaccessibility means that the Darién Jungle is a haven for flora and fauna. The Panamanian portion is a lush rainforest with peaks up to 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) high and most of it is protected as the Darién National Park, the largest national park in Central America.

Flowers of Darien, Panama

Though green dominates the palette in the Darién, other colors assert themselves too.

On the Colombian side, the Darién changes into a 50-mile-wide marsh which is even more impenetrable than the jungle on the Panama side. Much of the marsh is protected as part of the Los Katíos National Park.  The two adjoining parks received UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the area is home to more than 450 species of birds and over 500 types of fish. The Darién is also a place where the communities, cultures and customs of the indigenous Kuna and Embera-Wounaan people are preserved.

Exploring the Darién Jungle with Don Michel

Frenchman Michel Puech has found so much to see and explore in the Darién that he’s spent more than 30 years in the Darién. In that time he’s developed a knowledge of the place and a bond with the people that allows him to take travelers deeper in to the Darién. Locals even call him “Don” Michel as an honorific so we were excited to explore the trails and waterways of the Darién with him and his company Panama Exotic Adventures.

Michel Peuch Panama Exotic Adventures, Panama

French tour company operator Michel Puech has spent 30 years in the Darién and earned the honorific “Don” from the locals.

But first, we had to get out of Panama City and reach Darién Province near the end of the road in Yaviza. Unlike the rest of the country, this paved road had a lot of serious checkpoints along it where everyone had to show proper documents and special permits to be in the Darién (Michel arranged our permits). Officials don’t want people entering the area willy-nilly because of the dangers which range from some of the world’s deadliest snakes to some of the world’s deadliest bad guys (guerrillas, drug traffickers, etc).

Goodbye roads, hello waterways and trails

Sabana River Boca de Lara Darien Panama

We give a local Wounaan woman a lift on the Sabana River through the Darién Jungle.

We reached the town of Santa Fe and left the road behind. From there the only way through the Darién was by floating on the waterways or hiking on the trails that criss-cross the vast area. We got into a wooden canoe with an engine and took it to the village of Boca de Lara where the Sabana and the Lara rivers meet.

Old growth trees - Darien Jungle Panama

The few inhabitants of the Darién Jungle have small-scale farm plots for subsistence farming but revere and protect old growth trees like this one.

Boca de Lara is a Wounaan village that was settled by the historically nomadic Wounaan in 1973 after the Panamanian government said any that place with 100 people or more would get a school. Despite the settlement, many Wounaan still go off into the jungle for periods of time.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

In recent years Michel has assisted Boca de Lara in many ways, including building his three room Dosi Lodge here along with the villagers using their traditional architectural style. The employees are Wounaan and lodge guests are customers for their handicrafts too.

Wounaan basket weaving Darien, Panama

Wounaan women work on their intricate, traditional weaving in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

After eating lunch at Dosi Lodge we saw some of the handicrafts made by Wounaan women who traditionally go topless, including elaborate basket weaving using local reeds and natural dyes.

Wounaan woman - Boca de Lara, darien Panama

A Wounaan woman with traditional tattoos in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

Boca de Lara Wounaan woman, Darien Panama

Wounaan women in the Darién Jungle traditionally go topless.

Hiking in the Darién Jungle

Later in the afternoon a Wounaan guide lead us on our first hike in the Darién Jungle. Commercial logging is a growing threat to the Darién but as we left the clearings around Boca de Lara village the jungle immediately closed in around us. The Wounaan have cleared some small-scale, subsistence farms in the Darién they’re tiny and spaced far apart with ample jungle left in between. The massive old-growth trees are obviously revered and left standing wherever possible, even in areas where the undergrowth has been cleared for a farm plot.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village, Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara as seen from a hilltop in the Darién Jungle.

After a brief hike we reached a ridge above the village near the spot where Spanish conquistador and explorer (back in the days when those two things went hand in hand) Vasco Núñez de Balboa saw the Pacific for the first time in 1500s. Balboa is considered to be the first European to lay eyes on the Pacific.

The French later stood near this same area and were inspired to consider the Darién as the first spot for their Panama Canal project because the natural waterways in the area seemed to make an easy route from ocean to ocean. The mountains they later discovered changed their minds and the French shifted focus to the Panama Canal‘s current site (thought they failed to complete it, leaving that task to the US).

Michel told us that this area was also used by the US to install a radar station after the attacks on Pearl Harbor the CIA later put in an airstrip to monitor drug trafficking through the Darién.

Filo del Tallo Lodge Meteti, Darien Panama Exotic Adventures

Buildings of the Filo de Tallo Lodge were built-in a traditional round style with thatch roofs and split bamboo walls. The carved wooden figure on top is traditional as well and it’s considered good luck when it topples off.

Our first day of hiking in the Darién Jungle behind us, we headed to Michel’s Filo del Tallo Lodge which is named after the massive reserve it adjoins. The place has been designed to work well in nature using traditional Wounaan building techniques including round shapes, thatch roofs and split bamboo walls that help keep interiors cool and carved wooden idols on top (it’s considered good luck when the carving topples over).

Poison Arrow dart Frof - Darien, Panama

This pair of poison dart frogs lived in our shower at Filo de Tallo Lodge in the Darién Jungle.

Parrots Filo de Tallo Lodge - Darien, Panama

These parrots live at Filo de Tallo Lodge and they like to be gently scratched.

Interiors at Filo de Tallo Lodge are well-appointed with good beds, mosquito nets and full service bathrooms including gorgeous carved wood sinks.Bonus: we had a pair of poison dart frogs in our shower. Furnished private patios are the perfect place for nature watching and we saw hummingbirds, parrots, toucans right from our patio.

The Darién’s complicated capital

The next day, shortly after day break, we were got back in a boat at Puerto Quimba for a trip up the Rio Iglesia through mangroves to the Gulf of San Miguel.

Mangroves on Rio Iglesia Darien Panama

Floating through the mangroves along sections of the Rio Iglesia, one of the waterways through the Darién Jungle.

Along the way we stopped on some surprisingly sandy beaches and bought some fish fresh off the fishing boat for dinner. We also visited remains of two Spanish-built forts which have been utterly re-taken by the jungle before stopping in La Palma, the Darién’s complicated capital.

Fishermen Gulf of San Miguel, Darien Panama

Fresh fish off this boat was turned into dinner in the Darién Jungle.

Ruined Spanish fort Darien jungle Panama

The Spanish built forts in the Darién Jungle, but the vegetation has long since reclaimed them.

With 4,300 inhabitants, La Palma is the most populous town in the region but that doesn’t mean it has more than one street which boasts a hospital, a police station plus a few hotels, bars and restaurants. Oh, and an airstrip. Michel said that In the bad old days when Manuel Noriega was still in power, planes from Colombia landed here three times a week  packed full of cash which Noriega then laundered in his banks.

La Palma capital Darien Provence Gulf of San Miguel, Panama

La Palma may be the capital of Darién Province but it’s not connected to the outside world by road and can only be reached on the water.

THE street in La Palma Darien, Panama

Downtown La Palma.

Meeting the Embera of the Darién

After another night in Filo del Tallo Lodge lodge we drove a short distance to Puerto Limon where we got into another wooden canoe for a trip on Rio Chucunaque to a trail head for more time hiking in the Darién Jungle. This was the most impressively virgin and dense jungle we’d seen yet and we spent four hours enjoying the silence and size of everything around us.

Canoe Rio Chucunaque Darien, Panama

Our river guide on the Rio Chucunaque through the Darién Jungle.

Exhausted but exhilarated we then visited the village of Alto Playona and met members of the Embera indigenous group before heading back to Puerto Limon and the lodge via the Rio Chucunaque. Howler monkeys and other critters we could hear but couldn’t see serenaded our journey from the river bank.

Alto Playona Darien Panama Rio Chucunaque

The Embera village of Alto Playona on the banks of the Rio Chucunaque in the Darién Jungle.

Peccary jaw bones Embera village house Darien Panama

Peccary (wild pig) jaw bones in an Embera house in the Darién Jungle.

Our toughest (and most snake-filled) hike in the Darién

The following day brought our toughest hike in the Darién. Though it only took two hours, the uphill terrain and need for our guide to machete his way through thick jungle had us all working hard.

Boa Constrictor Darien Panama

Yep, that’s a boa constrictor overhead.

Cuipo trees, with their bulbous bellies, towered above us and strangler figs snaked their way up tree trunks. The thick vegetation made spotting animals difficult, though there was no mistaking a six foot (two meter) boa constrictor in the canopy over head. We also saw two small fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, on the trail before bidding goodbye to the Darién.

Hiking Darien Jungle, Panama

We were delighted to see so many enormous trees while we were hiking in the Darién Jungle.

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River Rising – Rio San Juan, San Carlos & El Castillo, Nicaragua

The whole southeastern chunk of Nicaragua is set for rising tourism. A fantastic new road has greatly reduced the drive/bus time from Managua to San Carlos on the banks of the Rio San Juan, there’s now better boat trip service to El Castillo and a new airport in Greytown makes reaching that far-flung southern destination easier than ever. No more excuses. Here’s our travel guide to Rio San Juan, San Carlos town and river trips to the historic fort in El Castillo.

El Castillo Fort Rio San Juan Nicaragua

El Castillo Fort above the Rio San Juan was built by the Spanish to help keep pirates from navigating the river to Granada where they stored their gold.

Getting to San Carlos and the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Forget what you’ve read about the hellish journey required to reach the town of San Carlos, gateway to the Rio San Juan region in southern Nicaragua. A new amazing paved road now whisks you from Managua to San Carlos in about four hours. For much of the drive we had the wide, smooth road all to ourselves and conditions were so good we even used the cruise control for a bit, something that is generally impossible on crumbling Central American “highways”.

The road was built in anticipation of increased traffic to a new, more direct border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica following the construction of the Santa Fe bridge across the Rio San Juan. The bridge, which is four lanes wide, 1,187 feet (362 meters) long, 131 feet (40 meters) high and was built by the Japanese at a cost of US$30 million, is now finished. However, the bridge and the border remain closed due to bad relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Stay tuned…

Construction of Santa Fe Bridge over Rio San Juan Nicaragua Costa Rica

Construction of a US$30 million dollar bridge across the Rio San Juan to create a new border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The bridge is now completed but the border remains closed.

Where to sleep in San Carlos

San Carlos is a typical river town. Dirty, slow and unavoidable. It smelled a bit like fish, stale river water and boredom. Everybody seemed to have a dearth of free time. We looked at a few accommodations in San Carlos and quickly realized that Hotel Cabinas Leyko was the budget hotel choice for us. For US$25 we got a private double room with a bathroom, Wi-Fi and parking which is key for us. The hotel even let us leave our truck in their lot while we took a boat trip on the Rio San Juan to spend a night in El Castillo.

San Carlos, Nicaragua

San Carlos on the Rio San Juan is a typical river town: slow, dirty and unavoidable.

Boat trip on the Rio San Juan to El Castillo

There are two ways to get from San Carlos to the small riverside town of El Castillo: slow boat and fast boat. We chose the slow boat (US$4 per person each way) which was a clean, basic motorized boat with a roof and seating. Fast boats, which do the trip in about half the time, are US$11 per person each way.

Transportation on the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

This is how you’ll travel on the Rio San Juan between San Carlos and El Castillo.

Our slow boat was full but not packed and the four-hour journey on the Rio San Juan was pleasant and even included some animal sightings (kingfishers, osprey, howler monkeys, egrets). We made a handful of stops to pick up or drop off passengers at riverbank docks serving the handful of people who live along the river.

The Rio San Juan is sometimes called El Desaguadero (The Drain) because its 120 mile (192 km) length drains Lake Nicaragua into the Caribbean.

Fortress of the Immaculate Conception - El Castillo, Nicaragua

The El Castillo Fort was recently refurbished by the Spanish, who built it in the first place.

The town of El Castillo, only accessible by river, almost feels like an island town – small, contained, protective. Or maybe that’s just the vibe coming off the demurely-named Fortress of the Immaculate Conception (aka the El Castillo  Fort), which is the one and main attraction in town.

The hulking stone fort overlooks the Rio San Juan and was completed by the Spanish in 1675 as part of a string of forts meant to stop pirates from navigating the river to Granada. Since 1995 the fort has been on a tentative list for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rio San Juan Fort - El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan snakes past the formidable El Castillo Fort.

The fort (US$1.75 per person), nicely rebuilt by the Spanish to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, includes a tidy little museum where a guide informed us that “The bravery does not depend on the sex” as he was explaining how the daughter of a Spaniard managed to defend an attack on the fort after her father was killed during the battle. Sex-based bravery aside, the fort was a great place to wander around near dusk with good views of the river. We had the place to ourselves.

view of Rio San Juan from Fort El Castillo, Nicaragia

The El Castillo Fort overlooks treacherous rapids in the Rio San Juan which the Spanish hoped would slow pirate ships long enough for cannons to take them out.

As impressive as the fort are the Raudal del Diablo (Devil Torrent) rapids which rage away directly below it. That’s no accident. The fort was placed in this spot precisely because of the rapids which represented a natural barrier which forced pirate ships to slow down and navigate carefully at this notorious spot in the river giving the Spaniards a fighting chance to pick them off from above.

Devils Torrent rapids  Rio San Juan - El Castillo, Nicaragia

The Devil Torrent rapids as seen from the El Castillo Fort.

Canon El Castillo Nicaragua

We swear that flower was in that cannon when we got there.

Sleeping and eating in El Castillo

El Castillo is a tiny town but there are a surprising number of hotels and a handful of eateries to choose from. We intended to stay in the Hotel Albergue el Castillo directly behind the fort. Our Lonely Planet described the place as feeling like a Swiss chalet, however, the room we were shown felt more like  a stall so we moved on.

We finally chose Hotel Victoria where US$25 got us a spotless (if small) private double with bathroom and full breakfast. A torrential downpour arrived as we were checking in so we retreated to hammocks on the covered patio of the riverfront hotel and listened to the water flow and fall. We were not alone. Colorful birds darted between leafy tree hideouts to nearby platforms which the hotel’s perky owner kept stocked with tempting fruit.

El Castillo, Nicaragua

Main street in El Castillo town which is only accessible by river and has no cars.

When the rain finally let up we reluctantly hauled ourselves out of the hammocks and found Border’s Coffee. Owner Yamil Obregón is a young and talented Nicaraguan chef. He’s also a gay man and, he told us, had to fight the government for his right to open the place. We enjoyed perfectly cooked (from scratch) shrimp over pasta (US$7.50), terrific fresh fruit juices with no ice or sugar and wonderful organic Nicaraguan coffee made using real espresso  machines.

Unfortunately Border’s Coffee was not open early enough to get another one of those coffees before our very early morning boat ride back to San Carlos.

Bus stop El Castillo, Nicaragua

Waiting for our river boat back to San Carlos.

 

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A Remote Float – Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

To say Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is remote is an understatement. Located in Northern Costa Rica less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the border with Nicaragua, travelers usually get here as part of group tours. Because we’re on a road trip (and we hate group tours, just sayin’) we drove ourselves to Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge from Rincon de la Vieja National Park, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.

Though the area is reached via a numbered highway (#4 to be exact) it was well into the process of crumbling apart leaving gaping potholes in the beleaguered pavement which required radical swerving and slow speeds to avoid the most cavernous of them. Welcome to Costa Rica where even the numbered highways will kill your car.

Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro

The humble entrance to Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in northern Costa Rica.

After such a jarring overland journey it was a relief to get into a boat. There are no trails in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge because it’s made up of 12 lagoons connected by waterways and Lake Caño Negro which is fed by the Rio Frio. Volcanoes loom in the distance (including Tenorio, Maravillas and Arenal). Animals surround you. And there’s not a pothole in sight.

Boat tour Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

There are no trails in Costa Rica’s Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge so boats are the only way to go.

Birding boat tour Cano Negro Costa Rica

On a clear day a whole string of volcanoes can be seen from Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica, including Tenorio (seen here), Maravillas, Rincon de la Vieja and Arenal.

The animals of Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

Volcanoes are cool and all, but the real highlight of any tour of Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge (US$35 per person including a guide/boatman, roughly 1.5 hours) is the wildlife. We saw caimans, a whole host of birds, huge fish, frogs, trees full of monkeys, cool lizards and more (though the area’s pumas and jaguars took the day off).

Here are some Caño Negro wildlife highlights.

Birdwatching Jicana Cano Negro, Costa Rica

A jicana hunts for lunch in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

Caiman crocodile Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

This was one of the smaller caimans we saw in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge.

Birding juvenile Tiger Heron Cano Negro Costa Rica

We saw or first juvenile tiger heron in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge and its stripy coloration (which they lose in adulthood) made their name make sense.

Basilisk Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

Can a lizard be sexy? We think this basking baselisk in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge comes close.

Birding Egret  Cano Negro Costa Rica

An egret glides through Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

Purple Gallinule birds of Cano Negro Costa Rica

This bird’s name, purple gallinule, is as impressive as its look.

Bird watching juvenile Jicana Cano Negro Costa Rica

A juvenile jicana tries its wings on for size in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

Mantled Howler Monkey Cano Negro Costa Rica

This male mantled howler monkey was just hanging out on a branch over the water in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge.

Touring waterways of Cano Negro Costa Rica

The shores of the waterways in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge are a haven for all kinds of critters.

Birding boat tour in Cano Negro National Wildlife Reserve Costa Rica

The trail left behind by our boat as we toured Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.

 

 

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge Travel Tips

We stayed at Caño Negro Natural Lodge (US$120 double including continental breakfast) which is located just a short stroll from where the tour boats depart from. The lodge has its  own wildlife-filled grounds and a pool along with 42 motel-style rooms. Some have been recently renovated so be sure you get one of those.

During the dry season (November to March) the wetlands of the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge dry up considerably, shrinking the boatable area. For maximum access visit in the wet season. Skies are clearest in October, affording the best views of Arenal Volcano, Tenorio Volcano, Maravillas Volcano and Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in the distance.

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Ocean to Ocean in One Day – Panama Canal, Panama

There’s only one place in the world where can you travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa) in one day and that’s Panama and you can thank the Panama Canal for that.

The amazing Panama Canal

This engineering wonder enables more than 14,000 vessels a year to cut 8,000 miles and millions of dollars off their transport costs by short-cutting through the isthmus of Panama. The 48 mile long original Panama Canal is also open to day trippers for half day or full day transits through the canal’s famous locks. Only the full day tour takes you from ocean to ocean so, of course, that’s the one we chose and thanks to Adventure Life, we found ourselves on board the Pacific Queen for a full day transit of the Panama Canal.

Traveling ocean to ocean through the Panama Canal

Here’s the ocean to ocean time-lapse video we shot as we, along with massive cargo ships and beautiful sail boats, rose 85 feet from the Pacific Ocean through the first three locks, then floated across Lake Gatun before going down 85 feet through the last three locks to reach the Atlantic Ocean and sea level once again.

Still want more? Check out our travel tips about all of the ways to explore the Panama Canal from which observation facility is best to the most dramatic spot to drive over the canal).

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Rum Runnin’ New Year’s Eve 2013 – Panama City, Panama

In the last hours of the year we boarded the Isla Morada (Purple Island), a wooden ship built in the United States in 1912 as a luxury yacht, for a New Year’s Eve 2013 celebration in the Panama Bay off Panama City. At one point or another Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Errol Flynn and James Garner have all been aboard the storied Isla Morada and now we have too.

Originally christened the Santana, the ship has been owned by millionaires, the US Navy and some dude in Florida (who re-named it the Isla Morada). Most (in) famously, the gangster Al Capone used the Isla Morada to smuggle rum and whiskey from Cuba and the Dominican Republic to the Florida Keys during prohibition. 

After Capone went to jail the Isla Morada was confiscated and used by the US Navy, which is how it ended up in Panama where it was used as a floating hotel, a fishing vessel and now a tourist boat. The Isla Morada, which turned 100 in 2012, is said to have made more crossings of the Panama Canal than any other vessel still in use. 

New Years Eve Fireworks over Casco Viejo in Panama City.

New Year’s Eve 2013 fireworks over the fast-gentrifying Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City, Panama.

Rum and whiskey (and vodka and beer and wine) were back on board the Isla Morada during her 4th annual New Year’s Eve sailing last night. The annual party cruise is put on by Kevin O’Brien, a Massachusetts native and experienced tour guide who now lives in Panama where he started and runs a full-service and notably sustainable tour company called  Barefoot Panama

New Years Eve Fireworks at the Trump Ocean Club Hotel in Panama City.

New Year’s Eve 2013 fireworks amidst the mini-Miami skyline of downtown Panama City, Panama.

We had a great time enjoying the breeze, views of the skyscraper-filled Panama City skyline and more than an hour and a half of fireworks going off all over the city. It was all a bit haphazard (not at all like the tightly choreographed fireworks displays in the US) and nearly impossible to photograph from the gently rocking boat, but the rum flowed and the times were good.

Celebrating New Years Eve aboard the Isle Morada with Barefoot Panama

Partiers on board the Isla Morada boat for Barefoot Panama’s fourth annual New Year’s Eve bay cruise in Panama City, Panama.


New Years Eve 2013 in Panama City

Happy 2013 everyone!

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300 Feet Down in the Pint-Sized DeepSee Submarine – Cocos Island National Park, Costa Rica

As James Cameron and his team were celebrating the director-slash-explorer’s super sub descent to a mind-boggling 10,898 meters (35,756 feet) under the sea in the Mariana Trench, we were preparing for our own submarine adventure 300 feet down in the waters off Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica.

We were visiting Cocos Island, a national park about 350 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, on Undersea Hunter’s live aboard dive boat, the Argo. We were there to SCUBA dive with endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks which are reliably found in these waters in impressive numbers.

Deep See on Undersea Hunter MV Argo

That domed creature in the bay of the M/V Argo live aboard dive boat is the DeepSee submersible.

As if hanging out underwater as dozens of hammerheads (and rays and other sharks) glided and darted around us wasn’t enough of a rush, we jumped at the chance to go even deeper in a custom built, multi-million dollar contraption called the DeepSee submerisible which travels on board the Argo. Think of it as the cornerstone in the ultimate adventure garage.

The DeepSee looks like a neon yellow, economy-car-sized Lego, but don’t be deceived. It’s actually a complex machine built to keep its occupants alive for hours underwater at depths that deliver bone-crushing pressure and deadly cold. Sign us up!

DeepSee sunset

The DeepSee submersible only looks like a toy–it’s really a powerful scientific tool (and a lot of fun). Photo courtesy of the Undersea Hunter Group.

 

The DeepSee submarine is a pint-sized life support system

Dressed for a DeepSee party

Us all jump-suited up and ready to take our first submersible ride all the way down to more than 300 feet.

Before we could get into the DeepSee and go see what’s down there we had to sit through the obligatory pre-dive safety briefing which included what to do if the oxygen supply conked out (it’s never happened). There were also lots of warnings about what not to touch inside and outside the submersible which is chock full of controls and gauges for everything from monitoring interior CO2 levels to changing the descent rate.

After a quick weigh in (exact cargo weight is needed to properly operate the DeepSee) we each put on a pair of Dickies coveralls. Why? Because the zippers, buttons and buckles on normal clothing can damage the DeepSee cockpit which is nothing more than a 4 inch thick acrylic orb.

Loading into the DeepSee

Us in the tiny cockpit of the DeepSee submersible with Philllpe, our pilot (far left).

 

Wait. We’re going 300 feet underwater in a craft that can’t handle a zipper?

The round, totally clear, pressurized cockpit of the sub carries only three people including the pilot. Once we’d successfully navigated the precise, Twister-like course we had to follow to reach our seats without touching any forbidden areas of the sub, the cockpit turned out to be more comfortable and far roomier than it looked from the outside, though claustrophobics may want to think twice.

The sub was towed on the surface of the water behind a small boat (bring your sunglasses for this part) until we were directly over an underwater formation called the Everest Sea Mount, the base of which was the destination of our 300 foot) dive. Unhitched from the tow boat, the DeepSee gently tipped forward like a weeble in mid wobble as the air bladders that had been keeping us afloat were emptied.

DeepSee going down with Karen

Karen says goodbye to the surface and hello to what’s below as the DeepSee submerges.

DeepSee submarine under the surface - Cocos Island

The DeepSee submersible breaking the surface of the ocean on its way down.

 

Then we slowly started to sink

We’ve each done hundreds of dives using traditional SCUBA gear. We’re comfortable under water and comfortable trusting equipment to keep us alive down there. But watching the water rise outside the totally clear orb of the DeepSee and not having a breathing apparatus in our mouths did feel a bit, well, wrong. However, once we were totally submerged (and still breathing) we were hooked.

The orb of the cockpit gives a 360 degree view and the acrylic virtually disappears underwater, making it seem as if there really is no barrier between you and those hammerheads doing lazy figure eights above the orb or the small school of oceanic triggerfish feasting on jellyfish to the right of you or the enormous spotted eagle ray flapping slowly by.

Heading down in the DeepSee submarine - Cocos Island

Us in the DeepSee submersible (Eric is taking pictures, of course).

Unlike most SCUBA divers, the DeepSee doesn’t give off any startling bubbles or make any alarming, predator-like sudden movements so sea creatures are not afraid of the sub. In fact, the animals actually seemed curious about the slow-moving craft. Reef fish even hovered around the DeepSee as if it was part of their environment or at least a safe place to hang out.

Fish around the DeepSee -Everest Seamount, Cocos Island

Schools of fish are attracted to the DeepSee submersible as a safe haven and we were often surrounded.

The mechanics of the DeepSee do create and electromagnetic field which both attracts and repels fish and sharks. The hammerheads, in particular, seemed ultra-sensitive to this energy field, swimming toward us then swerving off suddenly as if they’d just bumped nose-first into an electric fence.

We were so fascinated by the underwater show being put on before our very eyes and delighted to have joined the elite submariners club.

Hammerhead shark from DeepSee submarine

A hammerhead considers checking out the DeepSee then thinks better of it and darts off.

Arriving at the Everest Seamount in the DeepSee submarine - Cocos Island

Part of the airplane-esque control panel of the DeepSee as our captain navigates around a coral-covered rock.

School of Hammerhead sharks above the DeepSee submarine - Cocos Island

Hammerheads circling above the DeepSee submersible.

Check out this highlights reel of our journey down to more than 300 feet below the surface in the shark-filled waters off Cocos Island, Costa Rica.

The deeper you go

A 1.5 hour DeepSee dive to 300 feet (100 meters) costs US$1,200. Yes, per person. If that price tag doesn’t scare you, I highly recommend going whole hog with a DeepSee dive to 1,000 feet (300 meters) which will cost you US$1,800 per person. However, this three hour dive takes you down to where the ocean really gets weird. Some of your adventure will even be spent in complete darkness except for the lights mounted on the outside of the DeepSee.

But you won’t be alone down there. A father and son who did a 1,000 foot submarine dive the day before our shallower trip on the DeepSee saw a rare prickly shark and an amazing completely transparent octopus—two creatures that only live way down deep.

DeepSee rare pelagic octopus

This transparent octopus was seen by some of our shipmates during a DeepSee dive down to 1,000 feet where the really weird stuff starts to appear. Photo courtesy of the Undersea hunter Group.

The DeepSee isn’t just a cool underwater toy. It’s also a powerful scientific tool. Every DeepSee dive is filmed and the footage is shared with marine biologists at the University of Costa Rica and leading oceanographers and scientists, including National Geographic Explorer in Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle, use the craft too.

DeepSee submaringe heading back to MV Argo - Cocos Island

We are officially submariners as we return to the surface after an awesome DeepSee submersible adventure.

 

TIP

Bring your widest camera lens to make the most of photography from inside the orb.

 

We also wrote about our DeepSee adventure for TravelandEscape.ca, the website for Canada’s Travel Channel. 

 

Read more about travel in Costa Rica

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