A cruise through the Panama Canal is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many travelers. The canal is an engineering marvel connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the 50-mile long Isthmus of Panama. The original construction of this narrow waterway was completed in August 1914, but the most recent expansion project, which doubled its capacity, began operation in June 2016.
Completing the passage through these world-renowned locks is a highlight of any Panama Canal cruise, but the surrounding region and ports of call offer extraordinary opportunities for exploration and sightseeing in Central and South America.
We've compiled this list of the must-do tours when visiting the Panama Canal. Many cruise lines offer similar excursions, but depending on the itinerary, they can depart from either Colon, Gatun Lake or Panama City. You can also independently arrange for a private or group trip for some of these tours.
No matter which excursion you choose, they all afford opportunities to explore the rich biodiversity of the Panama Canal region. They also offer historical perspectives about one of the world's most incredible engineering feats.
Embera Indian Village
Take a step back in time to visit the native Embera tribe. The Embera are one of seven indigenous groups in Panama. Their origins are unknown, but their traditions and customs live on today in this small Indian village just as they did before Panama was colonized by Spain.
This tour travels deep into the Panamanian rainforest and then to Chagres National Park. Here you will board a dugout canoe that transports you through the jungle along the Chagres River to meet the Embera people. Wildlife is abundant along the banks of the river, so keep an eye out for jaguar, white-tailed deer, herds of wild pigs and various species of monkeys living in the forest's canopy.
Arriving at the village, the chief will greet you, as members of the tribe perform a ceremonial dance. The Embera live in primitive huts with thatched roofs that are elevated by stilts. They also paint their bodies in colorful designs and wear some of the crafts they make and sell, including uhua (sarongs) and beautiful pieces of jewelry. Be sure to purchase one of these pieces or an intricately woven basket as a keepsake from your time in the village.
Panama Canal Railway
Climb aboard one of the great train rides of the world. This historic railway travels between Colon and Panama City and offers a glimpse into the golden age of rail travel with wood-paneled cars featuring carpet, soft lighting and large windows outfitted in wooden blinds. Some excursions also offer seats in the refurbished 1938 dome car with its glass roof.
The construction of the railway began in 1850 and was completed in 1855. Sit back and relax while you travel the route along the canal from coast to coast. There are also open-air viewing decks, where you can take in the sights and sounds of the more than 50,000 acres of tropical rainforest. Along the way, pass through Culebra Cut (formerly known as Gaillard Cut), see the sets of locks and then cross over Gatun Lake.
During this one-way excursion, learn the history of the railroad project, including tales of the extraordinary loss of life caused by malaria, yellow fever and other maladies. While it took its toll, the building of the rail line was vital to the construction of the Panama Canal. Before or after the railway trip and depending on your itinerary, you will travel by motor coach either from the ship or back to the ship.
Rainforest, Gatun Lake Cruise and Agua Clara Locks
This excursion is best for those who want to mix science and nature. It begins with a 1.5-hour eco-cruise on Gatun Lake. This large man-made lake was created between 1907 and 1913 as a result of building the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River.
The shoreline along the lake is surrounded by dense rainforest, which is known as one of the most accessible green zones in the world. Stop for a walk with a naturalist through the forest where wildlife is abundant. Sightings can include several species of monkeys such as the boisterous howler monkey, iguanas, sloths, exotic birds and crocodiles.
The tour ends at the Agua Clara Locks Visitor Center, where a guide explains the engineering ingenuity that went into building the canal that links two oceans. You can also view the new locks in operation. These locks are part of the expansion that now allows access to the channel by larger vessels known as Neopanamax or New Panamax.
Rainforest and Aerial Tram
Get a bird's-eye view of the Panamanian rainforest with an excursion to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. The resort is located in the 55,000-acre Soberania National Park, which borders the Panama Canal and the nearby Chagres River. Once there, board the aerial tram to view local wild and plant life; the Gamboa Rainforest's ecosystem is as known as one of the richest and most intricate in the world.
The tram climbs 280 feet through the rainforest's dense vegetation to the treetops and rainforest canopy. Along the way, keep an eye out for sloths, white-faced capuchin and howler monkeys, toucans, butterflies, iguanas and frogs.
After the tram ride, take a hike to the top of the Gamboa Observation Tower for panoramic views of the Panama Canal, Chagres River and Gatun Lake. Before departing the resort for your ship, spend time exploring its aquarium, serpentarium and butterfly farm.
Kayaking Gatun Lake and Visiting the Agua Clara Locks
The active adventurer will appreciate this up-close look at the wildlife and flora and fauna that surrounds Gatun Lake.
From the Melia resort, paddle around the islands of Gatun Lake while keeping an eye out for Panama's national bird, the harpy eagle, or listening for the eerie sounds of the howler monkeys. Along the shoreline, you might even spot a crocodile or two.
After kayaking, rejoin your group to see the locks of the Panama Canal in operation. The Agua Clara Locks Lookout is located near Colon on the Atlantic side. Take in panoramic views of the Panama Canal expansion with the three-chambered Agua Clara Locks from the observation center. You can also see the original Gatun Locks.
Panoramic Drive and a Visit to Panama City
Departing by motor coach from Colon or Gatun, this full-day tour visits the vibrant capital of Panama, Panama City.
Highlights of the excursion include a visit to the ruins of Old Panama or Panama la Vieja. The Spaniards built the city in 1519; Welsh Captain Henry Morgan sacked and destroyed it in 1671. Learn the story behind monuments like the Golden Altar. Jesuit priests painted black this significant piece of history and hid it from pirates before moving it to a new church in Casco Viejo.
Casco Viejo or the Old Town was the next capital city built in Panama and was founded in 1673 by French colonists after La Vieja was destroyed. Today it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is also referred to as Casco Antiguo or the French Quarter for its French origins. The guided walking tour will take you through the cobblestone streets of this small district lined with colorful pastel-painted buildings.
Notable sites to visit and photograph in Old Town are the National Theater and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Mary. In addition to the historic sites, Casco Viejo is also an eclectic neighborhood with chic hotels, lively bars and fashionable boutiques. Be sure to pick up a Panama hat while in town. These famous woven white hats from Ecuador garnered their name after being shipped to Panama before being exported to other countries around the world.
When heading back to your ship, you'll pass today's modern Panama City. In contrast to Old Town, the glistening cosmopolitan city center is populated with skyscrapers and looks much like the city of Miami.