Cruising the Panama Canal is a bucket-list experience for many travelers. A transit combines history, engineering, scenery and nature -- and somehow feels more momentous than sailing through locks on rivers in the U.S. or Europe. Cruise lines offer a variety of itineraries, with both full and partial transits. While the majority of cruise ships sail the Panama Canal during the day, some -- like Windstar's Star Breeze -- travel between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea at night. We tried out this evening sail on the line's Costa Rica and Panama itinerary.
Windstar has announced that starting in 2017, it will offer daytime transits of the Panama Canal.
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What It Is
Most cruise ships that advertise Panama Canal cruises do the eight- to 10-hour crossing during the day; however, Star Breeze schedules its crossings to begin mid-afternoon and finish at night. The evening transit was chosen by Windstar to avoid heat and bugs during the day; a spokeswoman told us that other small ship lines often choose night crossings for the same reason. The ship is supposed to be in the Panama Canal from 5 p.m. to midnight, according to the posted itinerary, but the final decision on timing is made by the Panama Canal Port Authority, which creates the schedule up to 24 hours in advance (and can adjust it day-of, due to traffic and other circumstances).
You don't have to spend much time in Panama to realize the country runs on its own time and looks casually on its own previous commitments. Authorities were nearly an hour late clearing the ship on our first day in Balboa; we were told that on previous cruises, authorities would not allow passengers to debark at all. So it wasn't a total surprise when we checked our watches, saw that it was 3 p.m. (the time Windstar had said we would enter the canal) and noticed that Star Breeze was still out in the harbor, engines off.
We had overnighted in port, so that morning we had enough time to spend a few hours in Casco Viejo (the old part of the city), while other passengers departed at 7 a.m. for morning tours. Despite an all-aboard from our morning call in Balboa at 11:30 a.m., we remained at sea through the afternoon, likely due to ship traffic and congestion ahead of us. No announcements were made adjusting our canal entry time, likely because the captain had no information to share.
Passengers grumbled about not being able to spend more time ashore in Balboa, speculated as why the ship was delayed in entering the canal, and eagerly watched pilot boats approach and pull away from the ship. As the day went on, people gazed apprehensively at the setting sun. After all, cruising the Panama Canal was a bucket-list activity for many, and an afternoon transit was a selling point for the cruise. Passengers wanted to see the Miraflores locks (our first set, coming from the Pacific and headed for the Caribbean) while it was still light out, and then enjoy the cooler weather as evening set in.
It wasn't until 7 p.m. that Star Breeze began making its way toward the canal entrance (marked by two lanes of red and green lights and the Bridge of the Americas towering overhead), subsequently arriving at the locks around 8 pm. This threw dinner plans into chaos -- especially as the views aren't especially good out the dining room portholes. Some passengers chose to eat early and rapidly, so they could catch the tail end of the locks. Our party watched the entrance, came downstairs to order and then ran upstairs when the naturalist -- who was brought onboard to narrate the transit -- announced we had arrived at Miraflores. We returned to dinner after the ship cleared the first two locks, and missed the third lock and the Continental Divide while finishing our meal.
The locks are lit up at night, so you don't miss any of the action due to lack of daylight (though you'll want a good camera if you plan on taking photos). We found the atmosphere festive with all the lights and passengers gathering out on deck; plus, with only 201 passengers on our cruise, everyone had a good vantage point. The first locks are across from the Miraflores Visitor Center, and people gathered on the building's balcony to watch us go through. One of the mule drivers (mules are the motorized vehicles that tether to the ships on either side and pull them through the locks) was even filming our ship with his own camera.
The locks at the Panama Canal are not much different than other river locks. The ship is attached to the mules via ropes and pulled into position. The lock doors close, with water either entering or draining from the lock to raise or lower the vessel. Then the doors slowly open and the ship sails out. Yet, there's something incredible about standing out on deck and feeling the ship rise up -- especially knowing you're floating on the world's most famous canal. When the ship cleared the second lock, everyone cheered -- it felt like New Year's Eve.
The next part of the canal -- the Culebra Cut and Gatun Lake -- had only minimal lights, so we couldn't see any of the islands in the lake or watch out for the abundant wildlife that lives there. In fact, after dinner, most people went back to their cabins to sleep, with only a handful of people up on deck. We arrived at the final Gatun Locks around midnight, only to find a container ship in line ahead of us. We didn't move into position until 1 a.m., and when we went to bed at 3 a.m., Star Breeze had only cleared two of the three final locks. We heard the next morning that it took another 30 to 45 minutes before the ship sailed into the Caribbean. A few hearty souls stayed awake for the entire crossing; about 10 others went to bed early and set their alarms for 1 a.m. to watch the final lock transit.
Worth a Try?
Cruising the Panama Canal at night was a memorable experience. The weather was pleasant, the dark sky against the illuminated locks and ships made for a festive atmosphere, and the diminished crowds made the experience feel intimate. If you're only interested in the locks and don't mind staying up late, a night crossing is fantastic.
If you actually want to see the canal passage and the islands beyond the lock areas, however, you will be disappointed because it's pitch black through most of the journey. You can book a cruise like Windstar's that promises a mid-afternoon entry, and it could be ideal if all goes as planned -- first locks during the day, some canal scenery, ample time for dinner once it gets dark, and a lit-up transit of the final locks at a late but not obscene hour. But you must know that the likelihood of the canal crossing proceeding as scheduled is iffy. If you are determined to sail part of the transit during the day, we recommend you book a cruise with a morning arrival at the Panama Canal. It's the safer bet.