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Discovery of Central America
Ponant’s cruise along the Pacific coast of Central America manages to fit a remarkable array of experiences into less than two weeks. On the 12-day Discovery of Central America expedition cruise, you’ll see five different countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. You’ll have opportunities to see cities built by ancient cultures, including Mayan sites in Guatemala. Colonial gems await in destinations like Granada, in Nicaragua. And Panama City presents an entirely different aspect of the region—brash, bold, and exciting, it has emerged as one of Latin America’s most cosmopolitan capitals. The expedition will also take you to some of the region’s stunning natural wonders, from the volcanoes of Costa Rica to mangroves and rain forests that are home to monkeys and macaws. 

Your home for this adventure is the 132-stateroom L’Austral, a ship that evokes the atmosphere of a private yacht, albeit one with a library, state-of-the-art fitness center, and a crowded schedule of lectures and lighter performances.
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    Day 1
    You’ll start your cruise in Acapulco, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. The resort area is perhaps most famous as the playground of Hollywood royalty in the 1950s and 60s. Elizabeth Taylor married Mike Todd here and Elvis helped make the city a household name with the 1963 film Fun in Acapulco. While other resorts may now be enjoying their moment of being the hot destination, Acapulco’s location on Santa Maria Bay is as stunning as it ever was. Many of its appeals are timeless, from its famous divers who plunge from 130-foot high cliffs to its charming old town with a zocalo (or main square) with a fountain and planted with palm trees. The star-shaped San Diego Fort (first built in the 17th century and then rebuilt in the 18th), is one of the city’s most iconic sites. Embarkation is at 5 p.m., so you’ll have time to get a taste of Acapulco before you set sail.
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    Day 2
    At Sea
    You can use this day at sea to explore L’Austral, taking advantage of some of the many services and activities on board. Relax with a treatment at the spa, visit the fitness center, or, claim a chaise in the sun on the pool deck. You can also attend a lecture for insights on the history and natural wonders of the ports you will be visiting.
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    Day 3
    The Mexican beach town of Huatulco somehow flies under the radar of most Americans compared to better known resorts like Cabo and Cancun. And yet it sits on nine beautiful turquoise bays and during your day here you can choose from 36 different beaches, four of which are ecological preserves. If shopping interests you more than lying on the sand or swimming in the sea, the towns of La Crucecita, Santa Cruz or old Santa Maria Huatulco all offer opportunities to shop for local handicrafts.

    Oaxaca—the state where Huatulco is located—is famous as one of the culinary capitals of Mexico, noted for its rich moles, tlayudas (Oaxacan-style tamales), and its mezcal. You can get a taste of the region’s celebrated cuisine at many of the popular restaurants in the port.
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    Day 4
    Sail to Puerto Quetzal
    You’ll have another day at sea aboard L’Austral as you sail to Puerto Quetzal, in Guatemala. Ponant’s ships offer the atmosphere of a private yacht, albeit ones with a library, two restaurants, and a fitness center with all the latest equipment. Perhaps start the day with coffee on your private balcony—almost all the staterooms on L’Austral have one—then maybe curl up with a good book in the library or head to the fitness center. When you are ready for a meal, choose from French and international cuisine at the Gastronomic Restaurant or the buffet lunch and themed dinners at the Grill.
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    Day 5
    Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
    Located on Guatemala’s Pacific Coast, Puerto Quetzal is the country’s largest port and sits 60 miles sout of the country’s capital, Guatemala City. Most travelers, however, choose to head instead to Antigua, a former capital where many of its lovely colonial houses, convents, and monasteries have been lovingly restored. With its historic riches, it’s not surprising that the town has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antigua’s shady plaza is lively at all hours of the day, and ringed with cafés that are popular with both locals and travelers.

    Lake Atitlán is another popular day trip from Puerto Quetzal, with its three volcanoes rising along its southern shore. The German naturalist Alexander van Humboldt called it the “most beautiful lake in the world.” In addition to the stunning setting, Atitlán is home to a number of Mayan villages where age-old traditions are maintained and festivals are celebrated. It’s also a good place to shop for unique textiles and other crafts.

    Finally, Iximche is a small Mayan site, but a fascinating one, located just outside of Antigua. It’s noteworthy in part because it was thriving up to the time when Spaniards first arrived in Guatemala. At first smallpox decimated much of the population before the city was abandoned completely in 1524, leaving a number of temples and palaces behind.
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    Day 6
    Sail to San Juan del Sur
    During today’s day at sea, you can make the most of the many services and activities on board. This day without a port of call will also be an opportunity to enjoy the lectures and or shows presented on board, to do some shopping in the boutique, or to meet the Ponant photographers for a portrait. Those sailors who love the open sea may want to head to the upper deck to admire the ocean views, as well as the birds and the marine mammals that sometimes fly and swim along with the ship. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the sights you have already seen and read up about the ones that lie ahead.
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    Day 7
    San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
    You’ll arrive this morning in the third country on your itinerary, Nicaragua. San Juan del Sur is considered the country’s surfing capital, and whether you are a novice or a pro, there are opportunities to hop on a board, either on your own or in a class. You can also just lay out a towel on the golden crescent of sand or wander the streets of this low-key fishing village.

    Another one of the country’s most popular destinations is an easy daytrip from San Juan del Sur. Granada, which sits at the foot of the Mombacho volcano on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, was founded in 1524. It is one of Central America’s most beautiful colonial towns, with brightly colored houses sitting along a typical colonial grid of narrow streets. You’ll want to visit the main square, as well as masterpieces of colonial architecture like La Merced church and the San Francisco convent.
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    Day 8
    Herradura, Costa Rica
    Herradura is the Spanish word for horseshoe, and it doesn’t take long to figure out how this town got its name. It sits on a broad bay shaped like a horseshoe, with a volcanic gray-sand beach lined with palm trees. It’s a perfect setting for an al fresco meal or a romantic walk along the sea.

    If you are looking for something a little more active, one of the most popular excursions here is to the Carara National Park where cruises on the Tarcoles river pass through crocodile-infested waters. The park is also known for its remarkable diversity of bird species—among the most stunning of them is the scarlet macaw, with its gorgeous plumage in bright red, yellow, and blue.

    Costa Rica is known for its adventure activities, and Herradura is no exception. If you have been meaning to try stand-up paddleboarding or zip-lining, outfitters here will help you get up on a board or flying through the air.
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    Day 9
    Your second stop in Costa Rica is in Quepos, a charming town located next to one of Costa Rica’s most famous national parks, Manuel Antonio. The town’s seafront is lined with market stalls selling pineapples, bananas, and other tropical fruits. There are other vendors selling items that might work better as gifts for friends back home: homemade cotton clothing, ceramics, and home items made of hand-painted wood. Beyond the market, the town’s streets are lined with trees and with its low-key, relaxed feel it is a good place to wander on a stroll.

    If you decide to visit Manuel Antonio, you’ll understand why this national park is so popular, despite being the country’s smallest. There are two beautiful beaches, hundreds of different bird species, and its charming and social monkeys. It won’t take long before capuchin, howler, and squirrel monkeys emerge to greet you. Just make sure to keep an eye on any snacks you have with you, and don’t share them.
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    Day 10
    Your last stop in Costa Rica is Golfito, or “little gulf.” For most of its history, this part of the country was best known for its banana plantations. Beginning in the 1990s, however, travelers came to appreciate other aspects of the region beyond its fertile soil and excellent growing conditions. The area is home to some of Costa Rica’s best beaches noted for their exceptionally calm waters that make them ideal for swimmers of every age and ability. It has also become a base for sports fishing with outfitters arranging excursions from the town’s small marinas.

    This part of Costa Rica is especially lush, with some areas receiving almost 200 inches of rain each year. This translates into dense and tall rain forests, with the canopy reaching heights of up to 150 feet. The closest park where you can explore this unique ecosystem is at the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Golfito (or the Golfito Wildlife Refuge), which sits just to the north of town.
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    Day 11
    Cébaco Island, Panama
    Panama’s largest island, Cébaco, off of the Pacific Coast in the Golfo de Montijo, can feel lost in time. There are only 30 families that live on the island, and no regular ferry service from the mainland. Most of the residents depend on fishing for their income, and sports fishing excursions can be arranged. If you would rather just admire the wildlife than try to catch it on the end of a hook, there are excellent scuba diving and snorkeling spots. The area is also home to humpback whale populations, which can be found in the waters here from August to October. Birders will want to bring their binoculars with them when they head ashore, as the island is home to a number of seabirds and it is possible to explore it on foot or horseback.
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    Day 12
    Fuerte Amador
    You will end your Central American odyssey at Fuerte Amador, also known as Flamenco Island (even though it is not an island, but connected by a causeway to the mainland). The cruise terminal is just outside Panama City, which has emerged in recent years as one Central America’s most dynamic cities, with a skyline that may soon rival Miami’s. Highlights include the Biomuseo, designed by stararchitect Frank Gehry; the Casco Viejo, the city’s historic heart with buildings that date back to the 17th century; and, nearby, one of the world’s great engineering wonders, the Panama Canal. If you want to learn about the epic saga of the construction of the canal, the Miraflores Visitors’ Center is just a half-hour car ride from downtown Panama City.