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. Celebrating its centennial in 2014, 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.
Many cruisers consider a Panama Canal transit a bucket-list item, and for a long time, the itineraries drew mostly seniors, due to the length of a full-transit trip, which usually runs 14 days. Partial transits, where the cruises only go halfway through the locks before turning around, not only cut the number of days, but increase day-trip options in the Central American cities near the canal. While several ships bring lecturers on board to talk about the canal's history, this is one trip where a little extra reading might add to your enjoyment.
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 designed two ships, Island Princess and Coral Princess, to sail the canal; each ship has more than 700 balcony staterooms, and both sail the canal all winter long. The Panama Canal is also a popular repositioning cruise between Alaska and the Caribbean. Expedition ships, such as Lindblad, and tour companies known for river cruises, such as Grand Circle and Tauck, also make the journey.
At one time, Panama Canal cruises followed the same standard itinerary. The 14 day from Florida to the West Coast, with stops in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico. Apart from length of sailing, the biggest decision you'll need to make on a Panama Canal cruise is whether to opt for a traditional trans-canal experience or take a partial crossing. Apart from length of sailing, the biggest decision you'll need to make on a Panama Canal cruise is whether to opt for a traditional trans-canal experience or take a partial crossing.
Trans-Canal Crossing - The most popular Panama Canal itinerary is still some version of the standard Florida to 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, although longer transits also depart from Seattle or Vancouver. Passengers often choose an Atlantic to Pacific or Pacific to Atlantic route, depending on where they live, although you'll gain hours if you choose the latter.
Partial Crossing - On partial crossings, the ship doesn't actually cross the entire canal. Instead, 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 daylong crossing. For those who still want to see the full canal, including Gaillard Cut, the Centennial Bridge and the Bridge of the Americas, excursions are available that will take you out in a smaller boat.
Faux Crossing - Some lines offer the same "partial crossing" shore excursions without entering the canal. Instead, ships dock for a day at the Caribbean entrance to the canal, at Colon, Panama. Look for Caribbean or Central America itineraries that call on Colon, and check the shore excursion offerings closely.
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.
Colon, Panama - 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 the 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.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica - Tortuguero National Park offers close encounters with the green tortoise, crocodiles, monkeys and exotic birds, all seen at water level on the canals. 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 to 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.