The Panama Canal has been called one of the wonders of the modern world, and for those who have been lucky enough to transit it by cruise ship, there would hardly be any disagreement. Sitting high atop the ship, gazing out of the panoramic wrap-around windows of the Crow’s Nest lounge, one can relax with a drink in hand and watch the modern engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal.
Feel your ship rising as the gate opens to allow water to rush into each lock. Watch the “electric mules” move the ship through the locks, guiding her and keeping her centred. Spend some time at Gatun Lake after passing through the first set of locks approached from the Caribbean Sea. If you are fortunate enough to be making a full transit of the canal, from the Atlantic to the Pacific side, you will go through the remaining two sets of locks required to get to the Pacific Ocean.
Why visit Panama Canal?
One of the most popular cruise choices
In the past, all Panama Canal itineraries were 14 days in length and went from Florida to the West Coast. Generally, stops were made in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico on these voyages. Today, however, cruise ship passengers have more choices and they don’t necessarily have to make a full transit of the canal. They can opt for a “partial crossing,” where the ship doesn’t actually pass through the entire canal. Rather, it crosses only through one set of locks and then spends some time at Gatun Lake. From there, passengers can participate in a variety of shore excursions for the day and the ship will then pick them up at Colon, Panama, where it will dock for the day.
Not only do passengers have to decide whether to do a full or a partial crossing, but they also have options in terms of itinerary length and cruise line. Just about every major line traverses the Panama Canal, as long as they have ships in their fleet that can fit through the locks. Some of the mega ships cannot make the crossing due to their size, but other, smaller ships can. The new Panama Canal expansion will offer larger ships to travel through giving even more choice.
The season for Panama Canal voyages runs from October to April. This is to avoid both the rainy season and the season when the weather is simply too hot and uncomfortable to enjoy the voyage.
The most popular Panama Canal voyages follow the Florida-West Coast route. That is generally from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. Other voyages will cruise out of Port Canaveral to Vancouver or from Tampa to Seattle.
Panama Canal cruises will generally make port calls in the Western Caribbean, as well as the Costa Rican ports of Limon and Puntarenas. Some also stop at Colon, Panama, as well as Cartagena, Columbia.
As for the Panamanian ports, there is much to see and do in them. In Puntarenas, Costa Rica you can have unparalleled encounters with nature on just about any shore excursion you may pick. Visit the Tabacon Resort Hot Springs, which is located on the slopes of the active Arenal Volcano. If you go to the Poas Volcano, you can view its huge crater filled with iridescent blue water. You can also walk through a cloud forest at Villa Blanca, where you will be shrouded in a mist, with water droplets clinging to the vegetation all around you. Visit the rain forest at Pura Vida Gardens, or climb up the wooden steps to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
You may dock in Colon, Panama, if you’re on a partial crossing, so make the most of your time there. One option for doing so is to disembark your ship and make the crossing in a smaller boat where you can get up close and personal with everything going on around you. After your trip, you will be picked up by motor coach and delivered back to your waiting ship in Colon. Another option in Colon is to ride the Panama Railway from the Pacific to the Atlantic side of the Canal. This trip offers a great view that can be enjoyed in luxuriously panelled railway cars. You can also opt to trek through the rain forest at Gamboa, or an authentic Embera Indian Village along the Chagres River. The possibilities are endless.
Finally, in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica you can visit the Torrtuguero National Park which offers close encounters with green tortoises, crocodiles, monkeys and exotic birds, all viewed from the canoe in which you are travelling. You can also visit Braulio Carillo National Park which is home to the first aerial tramway in Central America. Here you’ll be way above the tree line, at times over 100 feet above them. From here you can view up close and personal tiny orchards, multi-coloured exotic birds, butterflies, and even a toucan or monkey. You can even try white water rafting on the Revantazon River if you have the time.
A transit of the Panama Canal has been long considered one of the most popular cruise choices. Considering all the remarkable sights you will see, it should definitely be one of the items on your “to do” list in the not too distant future.
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