The Ultimate Guide For A Perfect Panama Canal Cruise
While many dream of visiting Central America, very few ever get the chance to experience cruising through the very spot North and South America split. Many note that a vacation to Panama is too expensive or not safe. Well, let me tell you, the best way to see the Panama Canal and possibly get off your boat at an affordable price is through a Panama Canal cruise!
If you are bit wary to cruising, you are going to absolutely fall in love with what the Panama Canal has to offer! I had the chance to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on my Panama Canal cruise back in December 2019, and to this date, it is my favorite cruise that I have been on.
Plus, cruise ships offer an extra sense of security, as you will have a safe place to rest your head everyday. So, grab your free cruise planner and buckle up, because we are going to go through everything you may need to know about Panama Canal cruises!
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means Ill receive a commission if you purchase through my link, at no extra cost to you. Please read full disclosure here.
Small Ship Cruise Tours
Those who cant stand the hustle and bustle of a big cruise ship like the Norwegian Pearl may rather travel the canal on a smaller vesselsay, one that has only 60 guests as opposed to 2,000-some. Some companies, like Grand Circle Travel, offer full-transit land-and-cruise tours for these smaller groups of people. The combination tourswhich can last between one and two weeksprovide a more intimate experience and they actually allow travelers to see more of the country than they would aboard a mega-ship. The bigger vessels dont stop at places like Panama City like small ships do.
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Panama Canal Cruise Highlights
Hike up to an active volcano. Raft one of the many rivers. Scuba dive in its beautiful seas, or zip along a cable through the rainforest tree tops. There are so many adventure sports such as kayaking, rafting, rappelling, and horseback riding.
Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers streets lined with old architecture plus modern amenities like restaurants and shops. The best historical structures are the churches, including the Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion, dating from 1619, and the Iglesia de San Jose, noted for its vaulted side chapels and golden altar.
Central America has breathtaking natural areas, perfect for spotting wildlife or hitting the trails. In fact, more than 25% of Costa Rica is protected land or national parks. With more than 900 species of birds in this region, bird watchers can be sure to check the Resplendent Quetzal off their list.
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Types Of Panama Canal Cruise Lines
No matter what type of Panama cruising experience you are looking for, I guarantee you will find it through one of these main and not-so-main-stream cruise lines.
From 3-day weekend trips to 180-day world cruises, these Panama Canal cruises are worth every penny. There are plenty of Panama cruise deals available for eager cruisers booking through a travel agent or directly with the cruise line.
Make sure to research diligently to find the best Panama Canal cruise for you!
Mainstream Cruise Lines for Panama Canal Cruises
Just about all the main cruise lines offer sailings to and through the Panama Canal:
Smaller Lines Cruising through the Panama Canal
Active travelers may be looking for expedition-style voyages or cruises on a smaller ship to enjoy more time exploring the Panama Canal.
Goodbye Caribbean The Panama Canal Pilot Joins Our Ship
Finally the day was here. As the sun began peaking its way into the cracks of our blinds, we arose to see our position entering the canal. The pilot boat should have arrived an hour earlier , so we figured that we had missed this event which kickstarts the day. But it was right then, when we spotted the small pilot boat motoring up to our megaship to drop off the pilot!
So whats this pilot all about? It was explained that there are only two instances that the ships captain does not have authority over the boat: when the ship is in dry dock for repairs and when transiting the Panama Canal. A special canal pilot actually comes onto the ship to navigate through the canal and locks. We caught all the action of him jumping aboard the Infinity. What a cool way to jumpstart the day! We were officially excited and ready to take it all in.
Brief showers began to pass but we didnt mind. As we left the Caribbean Sea and approaching the canal, a beautiful rainbow further taunted us to get out of bed and take in the experience. We were ready to enter. It was time.
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Panama Small Ship Cruises
Panama has it all: mountains, jungles, beaches, an astounding biodiversity of flora and fauna, world-renowned coffee, indigenous cultures and the incredible Panama Canal. Panama small ship cruises feature daily excursions into awe-inspiring national parks, immaculate shoreline and numerous islands. AdventureSmith handpicks Panama small ship cruises tailored for adventures in nature. A cruise to Panama will introduce you to the Isthmus in the best way
through nature, wildlife, geology and history. Many visitors want to ensure their small ship cruises the Panama Canal. The mighty Panama Canal acts as a vital link between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, shepherding some 14,000 ships each year through its more than 50 miles of lakes and locks. Fortunately, many cruises do a full transit of the canal speak with our experts to select the right Panama Canal small ship cruise for you.
Panama Canal Cruise Routes
Most cruises are 10 to 15 nights, sailing between Florida and cities in California, or round trip from Miami or Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Panama Canal itineraries generally include five, six or seven days at sea. There are various combinations of these itineraries, as ships travel between seasons in Alaska and the Caribbean. Here are two of the most common:
14-Day One Way:The 14-day route sails between Fort Lauderdale or Miami and San Diego or Los Angeles and typically visits Puerto Quetzal or Santo Tomas, Guatemala Puerto Caldera or Puntarenas, Costa Rica Cabo San Lucas or Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and some combination of the San Blas Islands or Colon, Panama plus Aruba and Cartagena, Colombia.
Good For: History buffs will love the canal transit and the 2,000-year-old Mayan ruins at Guatemalas Tikal. Outdoorsy types will like the rain forest treks in Costa Rica and the beauty of rock formations off the coast of Cabo. Arubas white sand makes beach lovers happy.
11-Day Round Trip:The 11-day route conveniently sails round trip from Fort Lauderdale or Miami. Ports are Limon, Costa Rica Colon, Panama Cartagena, Colombia Aruba and Grand Cayman.
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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.
Keep An Eye On The Weather
While some cruise lines continue to operate in the Panama Canal throughout the summer, many close down in anticipation of hurricane season, which runs from June 1st to November 30th in the Atlantic and May 15th to November 30th in the Eastern Pacific, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If you choose to book a cruise during this time frame, its important to pay close attention to any tropical storm warnings and sign up for weather alerts on a mobile device. Its unlikely that your cruise ship will be caught by a severe storm while its at sea, but preparing for the worst can give you significant peace of mind.
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Panama Canal Cruise Tips The Transit Experience & Celebrity Infinity Review
This is a three-part post about taking a Panama Canal cruise full transit.
- For our own personal experience transiting the Panama Canal on the Celebrity Infinity, simply continue reading.
- For Panama Canal cruise tips: skip here.
- For our brief Celebrity Infinity review of the Panama Canal transit: skip to the end.
Popular Ports For Panama Canal Cruises
No matter which cruise line and itinerary you ultimately decide on, you will likely visit a mix of these fantastic Panama, Caribbean, and Central American cruise ports.
Many cruises through the Panama Canal offer trips to these popular ports of call that are consistent with most itineraries. Like mainstream Caribbean cruise ports, these ports cater to the tropical cruise market. If you are looking for more than touristy attractions and activities, make sure to get out of the main port area and explore.
The city of Colón is most frequently referred to as the gateway to the Caribbean for the country of Panama. Therefore, if you are cruising through the Panama Canal, there is a high chance this port will be on your cruise itinerary.
If you are looking to learn about the history of the Panama Canal before you embark on your transit, make sure to spend two to three hours at the Agua Clara Visitor Center. Here, you will learn about one of the world’s greatest engineering feats the Panama Canal. For more history of Panama, check out Fort San Lorenzo another must-do attraction in Colón. This fort is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers no official tours, but you can walk around the area with a handy map.
If you prefer to hit up the Panamanian shopping scene on your Panama cruise, check out Avenida Central— a six-block-long pedestrian mall that is filled with tasty, local restaurants with boutique shops and unique finds alike.
Fuerte Amador , Panama
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From Chicken Buses To Modern Luxury
In the distance we saw chicken busses pass by. These tricked-out old American school busses were often our primary means of transportation throughout the three-month overland journey from Mexico to Panama we had embarked on earlier during this same year. It was an interesting throwback to a prior time in our trip to view the rough and chaotic means of transport we always relied on, now from the balcony stateroom of our refined luxury cruise. And while the cruise is undoubtedly a nicer means of transportation in everyway imaginable, these crazy chicken busses also have an adventurous & fun allure to them. It was interesting to recollect on these two means of transportation we often use, that couldnt be any more different from one another.
Best For Bird And Wildlife Lovers
The 10-night Costa Rica & PanamaCanal, Culture, Adventure trips offered by small-ship specialist UnCruise Adventures are all about hiking, kayaking, bird-watching, and other outdoor pursuits in Panama and nearby Costa Rica . Watch for giant frigate birds and yellow warblers as you head out in skiffs to explore Panamas Bartolome Island bird sanctuary, just a day after a wildlife-filled motorized canoe ride to a local village in Panamas remote Darien Jungle, where villagers will greet you with a traditional welcome and share customs, stories, songs, and dance. Another stop offers a vigorous hike in Costa Ricas isolated Osa Conservation Area, known for its diverse array of plant and animal species, including monkeys, tree frogs, caimans, anteaters, scarlet macaws, coatis, and 16 different types of hummingbirds. The trips take place on the companys intimate, 62-passenger Safari Voyager, which is notably packed with kayaks, paddleboards, skiffs, and other gear for use on daily adventures. Fares from $6,695 per person uncruise.com.
Best for luxury lovers
Courtesy of Crystal CruisesExperience a Panama Canal transit in style aboard the Crystal Symphony.
Best for the mega-ship fan
Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise LineThe Norwegian Bliss is one of two Norwegian Cruise Line mega-ships that crosses the Panama Canal.
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Caribbean Cruise To Panama
Another option to take in a Panama Canal Cruise is to enjoy a Caribbean cruise with either a partial transit or a trip to Colon on the Atlantic coast of Panama. These cruises will often take you to a variety of Caribbean islands from the shopping haven of St. Maarten to the beautiful beaches of Aruba and St. Lucia. You could also take in Limon, Costa Rica and the Rainforest Aerial Tram ride through the nature reserve, adjacent to the national park, or a trip to the cobbled streets and balconies of Cartagena, Columbia.
Where Is The Panama Canal And Why Is The Panama Canal Important
The construction of the Panama Canal took more than a decade and cost nearly $400 million. By the time it was completed in 1914, the Panama Canal had created a shorter and more economical shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, dissecting Central America to simplify the transportation of goods. Today, ships pass through the 48-mile-long waterway about 11,000 times each year without the need to navigate around Cape Horn or the Straight of Magellan. It was a bold project made possible by ground-breaking engineering, and theres still nothing else like it on earth.
The Panama Canal works by moving ships from one ocean to another through inland waterways. But because those waterways lead down to sea level, six lock chambers each work as elevators. Gatun Lake holds the massive amounts of water needed to operate this system that raises and lowers ships from sea level up to the level of this reservoir and then back down again.
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Preparing For The Big Day
The growing excitement of fellow passengers was perhaps contagious. By the night before our crossing, we were getting thoroughly geeked up for our transit. The Celebrity Infinity ran the 1987 David McCullough NOVA special A Man, a Plan, a Canal in the theatre and on the in-room TVs, which served up fun facts to further our interest in the following days crossing.
While most ships wait their turn to enter the canal, based upon their arrival, cruise ships tend to pay extra to ensure a daytime crossing, which was also evident in the taxes section of our cruise payment. During the evening before our transit, the Infinity revealed our slotted time to enter, to the appeasement of many curious passengers that can now review and plan their day. It would be an early morning to begin the journey, so the NOVA documentary would help send us to sleep as it prepared us with details of what was to come.
The 3 Types Of Panama Canal Cruises
The 40-mile Panama Canal is a common route for cruise ships due to its lush scenery and gentle waters. The canal cuts through a part of protected rainforestSoberania National Parkthat would otherwise be tough for tourists to see. Along the route, you’re likely to get a glimpse of the resident monkeys, crocodiles, manatees, and more.
Panama Canal cruises also highlight the marvel of the manmade canal, itself. This big ditch was made in the early 20th century and has fascinated travelers for decades. There are three types of cruise ships you can take to see the wonder up close.
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Best For A Deep Dive Into The Canal
While many Panama cruises bring only a day of canal-related sightseeing, the seven-night Costa Rica & Panama Canal sailings that Windstar Cruises offers on its 212-passenger Star Pride promise a much deeper exploration. In addition to a day spent transiting the canal, the itinerary includes a day at Colón, Panama, on the Atlantic side of the waterway, where passengers can arrange tours to the giant new Agua Clara Locks a few miles away . The ship also docks for a night and day at Balboa, Panama, on the canals Pacific side, for tours to the nearby Miraflores Locks and related exhibit halls . The trips are rounded out by a beach day at Panamas pristine Isla Parida and two outdoorsy stops in Costa Rica where passengers have the opportunity to bird-watch and hike in rain forests or kayak through mangroves. Fares from $1,999 per person windstarcruises.com.
Lowering Into The Pedro Miguel Locks
Eventually we reached the Pedro Miguel locks and began our first of two descents. For us, it was time to crack open some brews to accompany this once-in-a-lifetime experience. We continued to be amazed at just how close the ship comes to the sides. They even blasted a few reminders over the loud speakers, reminding passengers For your safety, please do not touch the sides of the canal. Thats how close we were!
At one point, we think the ship may have even accidentally brushed up against the side of the canal. Once docked later in port, later on the cruises itinerary, I noticed them painting over some scratches on the ship, further corroborating our suspicions.
With this action-packed cruise day, it was time for a little snack to compliment our beers. So we thought it would be fun to take advantage of the gratis room service available on the Infinity and had some pizzas delivered directly to our stateroom. It was a little bit surreal to enjoy pizza delivery as we transited the famous canal.
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