One of the few engineering marvels in the world with its own palindrome, the Panama Canal should be on everyone's list of must-see places. Ninety years after its completion, this link between two great oceans is as vital and vibrant as ever. It is also one of the greatest testaments to good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity that the world has ever seen.
Travelers have always made their way across the 50-mile isthmus that connects North and South America, dubbed the "Crossroads of the World." But, until the canal was built, the trans-isthmus trek involved a winding path through jungle rivers. In 1880, the French began a canal-building project that after twenty years ended in failure and the death of an estimated 20,000 workers. The U.S. took over in 1903, poured $352 million dollars into the project, and opened the Panama Canal in August of 1914.
Best Time To Go
The Panama Canal cruise season runs from October to April. The best time to go is after the rainy season ends in November.
Most of the major lines and some smaller ones offer at least a few Panama Canal sailings each season. Princess leads the pack as far as number of departures, with 40 scheduled this season.
Choosing An Itinerary
Not that long ago, most Panama Canal cruises followed the same standard itinerary: 14 days, from Florida to the West Coast, with stops in the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico. Now, variety is the buzz word in the cruise biz. Cruise lines are expanding their offerings, eager to lure new passengers to the seas, as well as snag cruisers who may have already traversed the Canal once or twice in the past. Current cruise lengths can be anywhere from 7-9 days (Regent Seven Seas, NCL) to 10-11 days (Princess, Costa, Holland America, Crystal, Royal Olympia), or 14-16 days (Princess, Carnival, Celebrity, Silversea). Several lines, such as Princess, Holland America and Cunard, also offer a few cruises per season in the 18-21 day ranges.
The most popular Panama Canal itinerary is still some version of the standard Florida-West Coast route. Miami and Ft. Lauderdale are the main departure cities in Florida. Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco are the key West Coast cities. But, there are several permutations of the standard itinerary, such as Silversea cruises from Port Canaveral to Vancouver and from Tampa to Seattle.
The biggest decision you'll need to make on a Panama Canal cruise is whether to opt for the traditional trans-canal experience, which means you spend a day on the Canal, crossing from ocean to ocean. The majority of cruises still follow this option. But, Princess and Holland America also offer "partial crossings," in which the ship doesn't actually cross the entire Canal. Rather, the ship crosses through one lock, then lets passengers off in the town of Gamboa, along the Canal. From there, passengers can enjoy a myriad of shore excursions and take in sights they otherwise wouldn't see on a day-long crossing. Some lines, such as Silversea, offer the same "partial crossing" shore excursions without entering the Canal at all. Rather, its ships dock for a day at the Pacific entrance to the Canal, at Colon, Panama.
Most Panama Canal cruises call in the Western Caribbean, and the Costa Rican ports of Limon (on the Atlantic side) and Puntarenas (on the Pacific). Ships not making the traditional trans-canal journey also stop at Colon, Panama, at the entrance to the Canal. Although Cartagena, Columbia has long been a staple in the Panama Canal itinerary, many cruise lines are shying away from that port for the foreseeable future, due to recent U.S. State Department Travel Advisories.
Not-To-Be-Missed Shore Excursions
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
There are so many fabulous encounters with nature available from this port, you'll have a hard time deciding on a shore excursion. A visit to the Tabacon Resort Hot Springs takes you to the slopes of the active Arenal volcano. The Poas volcano features the amazing sight of a huge crater filled with iridescent blue water. Walk through a cloud forest at Villa Blanca, where you're surrounded by mist, and water droplets clinging to the vegetation. See one of Costa Rica's renowned rain forests at Pura Vida Gardens, or climb a set of wooden steps up to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
Panama Canal/Colon, Panama
If you're on a trans-canal trip, enjoy the engineering marvels of your 50-mile journey. The highlights are Lake Gatun, the Gaillard Cut along the Continental Divide, and three locks: Gatun on the Atlantic, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores on the Pacific.
Those on "partial crossings" or simply docked at Colon, might consider completing the crossing in a smaller boat. This popular shore excursion begins at Gamboa, one of the towns along the Canal. It takes passengers through the remaining two Canal locks, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. A motorcoach ride delivers passengers back to their waiting ships at Colon. Other great shore excursion options include taking refurbished Panama Railway from the Pacific to the Atlantic. It rides parallel to the Canal, and offers a great view in luxuriously paneled railway cars. Another exciting alternative is to take a trek through the rain forest at Gamboa, or visit an authentic Embera Indian Village on the Chagres River. The last 45 minutes is in a canoe!
Limon, Costa Rica
Tortuguero National Park offers close encounters with the green tortoise, crocodiles, monkeys and exotic birds, all seen from your canoe. Braulio Carillo National Park has the first aerial tramway in Central America; you'll be above the trees, at times 100 feet high, and close enough touch tiny orchids, spectacularly colored birds, butterflies, and -- if you're lucky -- a toucan or monkey. Heartier souls can try white water rafting on the Revantazon River.
Photo of Gaudy Leaf Frog was taken by Juan Amighetti and appears courtesy of the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo.