We just returned from sailing hundreds of nautical miles down the Pacific coast of Costa Rica with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, on their 62-passenger ship Sea Lion. On the trip, we toured a coffee plantation, hiked through dry tropical forests and eco-preserves, snorkeled in two remote sites, rode horses near the base of a volcano, coasted through mangroves teeming with wildlife and watched local children perform traditional dances at an authentic hacienda over a frosty cerveza -- all in five days.
The brand-new itinerary, labeled "Guanacaste's Coral Reefs and Volcanic Peaks," is offered by Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic as part of their Wild Escapes program; short sailings that pack an energetic punch, typically focused on a specific region. In this case, Guanacaste is just one of Costa Rica's provinces (in a country with only 5 million people), known for its benchmarks in biodiversity and the very long lifespans of its human inhabitants.
Lindblad has been operating expedition cruises for more than 50 years and working with National Geographic for the past 15. The family-owned company is no stranger to adventure or new territories, but only recently are other cruise lines moving into the expedition cruising space.
The competitive aim with the abbreviated Wild Escapes (also available in places like Alaska, Belize and Baja, Mexico) is that anyone with less time to spare -- and maybe less of a budget, for that matter -- can still experience an active adventure. Notably, this draws a younger-than-usual passenger base, with guests averaging 45 on some sailings, and attracting families looking to bond away from the digital world.
So what did we think? Lindblad delivered on both coral reefs and volcanic peaks, but getting there was not for the faint of heart. We broke down who might benefit from the "pura vida" of this new itinerary, and who might opt for a different sort of escape.
Costa Rica is considered one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and on Lindblad's five-night itinerary, you certainly see why. Three national parks -- Santa Rosa National Park/Junquillal Wildlife Refuge, Rincon de la Vieja and Las Baulas Marine National Park -- plus the private Curu Wildlife Refuge are squeezed into nearly as many days. Stops in the morning and afternoon maximize opportunities to explore land and sea, with many scheduled to offer time to hike among the vegetation and also get into the water.
You'll begin to make your own links between many of these rich locations, but onboard and local guides are expertly trained to point out the crocodile hiding in the roots of the mangrove or explain why deer -- of all things -- are such a symbol for conservation in Costa Rica. They'll even pilot over on a Zodiac to where you're snorkeling to let you know a sea turtle is swimming just ahead. Just as you’re not guaranted to see a bear in Alaska, you're not guaranteed to see a monkey or toucan, but the range of locations you'll visit increases the odds.
Five guides were onboard (plus a videographer), and two-thirds (including the expedition leader, Gustavo Abarca) hailed from Costa Rica. The passion of these naturalists and Nat Geo-certified photographers shines through, but how immersed they are in their own country and culture makes a very palpable difference in the authenticity of the experience. Not only was Gustavo involved in helping to put together this itinerary, but his history with Lindblad spans more than 20 years. Brand loyalty is not a rarity here; the same could be said of other guides' tenure onboard, as well.
Beyond the stunning range of knowledge displayed on a regular basis (birds were near-instantly identified by very specific names), the team onboard makes themselves available. This means you could count on at least one of the guides being around in the lounge after a snorkel trip to help figure out which fish you spotted, or that the photo expert was on hand to help with camera challenges and techniques. In this way, the expedition staff become more of a ship family than designated crew.
On our cruise we were kept so busy that we willingly disengaged from the constant news and social media cycle to instead focus on the whales spotted just outside our cabin door. As folks become more inundated with information, a purposeful move away from distractions has factored into vacation choices. In this case, it's not lying at a beach club with a cocktail in hand, but maybe you're enjoying a cold beer with your fellow passengers discussing what you saw after a long and muddy hike.
It's still possible to connect nearly anywhere these days, but the cost of Wi-Fi onboard deters that temptation; on our sailing, it was $200 per person for a voyage-long internet connection (rates vary). Apart from the screens used for enrichment lectures in the lounge, there are also no TVs to be found onboard; nightly entertainment involves actually connecting with other people -- heaven forbid, your own family -- face-to-face.
Expedition cruising is an increasingly popular way to see the world, but for all their appeal, they are not cheap endeavors. The logistics involved in getting to far-flung or tucked-away destinations, matched with the high level of expertise needed to provide that experience, mean that price tags can disqualify the average traveler.
While Lindblad trips are not a low-cost option, the Wild Escapes collection brings down the total price to just under $4,000 per person for an entry-level cabin. (For comparison, a two-week voyage to Alaska starts over $10,000 per person and some long, polar expeditions stretch to hundreds of thousands for a couple in top accommodations.) If you're a couple saving a few hundred a month, the kind of experience we had in Costa Rica enters the realm of possibility.
Eliminating single-use plastics and attaining carbon neutrality have become a top-of-mind trend for many consumers in the past year, but Lindblad has been operating with an environmentally responsible mindset for decades. Starting out in the Galapagos in the 1970s, the small-ship cruise line has remained crucially aware of how fragile this earth is, and many programs (albeit not widely advertised) have been in place to protect the places they travel, along with the educational component that is central to their mission.
The LEX-NG fund operates in every place that Lindblad sails, and allows passengers to make meaningful contributions to the regions they are visiting. In Central America, donations are used to fund grants for students and future conservation leaders. For any donation of $250 or more, Lindblad will issue a $250 voucher per person toward any future trip.
The patch or pill will pull you through five straight days of pitching and rolling, but no amount of ginger will make you totally immune to the motion you might experience on this Costa Rica itinerary; we're off the ship now and we're still rocking. The National Geographic Sea Lion currently runs this cruise, and the captain was the first to admit that the ship was not built for this type of sailing (it's not dangerous, just rough). A newer ship, the 100-passenger National Geographic Quest, is scheduled to take over in 2020, but while the ride might be a bit smoother, the vessel still does not have stabilizers in place for the conditions of the Pacific Ocean.
Most expeditions have an adjustment period of some sort, and choppy seas shouldn't deter anyone from trying this type of travel. But the reality of waking up at 3 a.m. and gripping your bed not to fall out, is a significant factor to note while making plans. Anyone who has ever been seasick knows how easily it can ruin a trip -- especially one as short as a few days.
Balance, grip and your ability to stay steady are as important to consider for this cruise as the gear you'll need to stay cool and dry. With no elevators, occasional steep walkways and a full roster of activities that involve physicality, this sailing -- let alone any expedition cruise -- is not a viable choice for someone with reduced mobility.
After five days of hiking, swimming, horseback riding, morning yoga and simply trying not to fall out of the shower each night, this 30-something's muscles are sore. If you're looking to come home tired and are eager to "engage your core," walking up and down the stairs multiple times a day on a moving ship should do it.
While you might find pockets of time to sit and soak in the sunset or grab a very quick souvenir, those activities are the exception. We had one real town visit for the length of our cruise, on the last day in Tamarindo, but you had to opt out of a mangrove tour in order to spend time in the town. Because we were on a mission to spot the most wildlife possible, it meant we never had time to stroll the streets for the entire trip. (Holiday shopping happened at the comprehensive boutiques at the San Jose airport.)
The nature of this expedition -- as with most -- focuses on getting out there and getting your hiking boots dirty or your snorkel fins wet. A beach barbecue at sunset was super enjoyable because there was the chance to sit and unwind with your toes in the sand. But if that's all you want to do for a week, this cruise is not for you.
Lindblad-National Geographic is many things -- educational, exploratory, inquisitive, exciting -- but it's not luxurious. While the price point is that of a high-end experience, what you're purchasing is the deep expertise of the staff and the unique places you'll be able to dig into. For that same price tag, it's important to note that gratuities and alcoholic drinks are not included.
Beds are mostly two twins, rooms have storage space but are teeny-tiny, and you have to go into the trip knowing your toilet is in your shower -- an adventure of another color. But if you recognize that you're paying for the privilege of (key word responsibly) seeing some of the most pristine nature we still have to explore on this planet, luxuries like personal space quickly fade away.