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  • Coral-Princess-traverses-Panama-Canal-4 - Coral Princess is one of two Princess ships specially built to sail through the Panama Canal to Alaska.
  • Coral-Princess-traverses-Panama-Canal - Coral Princess is one two Princess ships specially built to sail through the Panama Canal to Alaska.
  • Holland-America-Veendam-Panama-Canal - Holland America's Veendam sails through Panama.
  • Holland-America-Statendam - Holland America's Statendam traverses the Panama Canal.
  • Celebrity_Infinity_Panama_Canal_2 - The Panama Canal is one of the great experiences to be had during a cruise on Celebrity Infinity.
  • Gatun-Locks-Panama-Canal-Coral-Princess - Get a close-up view of the Gatun Locks when Coral Princess passes through the Panama Canal.
  • Celebrity_Equinox_Panama_Canal - Cruising through the Panama Canal is one of the most spectacular experiences you will have while on Celebrity Equinox.
  • Celebrity_Infinity_Panama_Canal_3 - Celebrity Infinity cruises through the Panama Canal, one of its signature sailings.
  • Gamboa-rainforest-in-Panama2.jpg - View of the Gamboa rainforest along Gatun Lake in Panama.
  • Howler-monkey.jpg -  A howler monkey at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Pair-of-titi-or-Tamarin-monkeys.jpg -  A pair of Tamarin or titi monkeys at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Panama-Canal-tugboat.jpg -  A tugboat seen from Norwegian Jade in Gatun Lake, Panama.
  • sloth-in-panama.jpg -  A sloth we spotted in the Gamboa rainforest in Panama.
  • Snail-kite-hawk.jpg -  A snail kit hawk on Gatun Lake in Panama.
  • Titi-or-Tamarin-monkey-closeup.jpg -  A squirrel-sized Tamarin or titi monkey at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Titi-or-Tamarin-monkey-in-tree.jpg -  A Tamarin or titi monkey looks to see whether visitors have brought him lunch at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Titi-or-Tamarin-monkey-near-boat-2.jpg -  A Tamarin or titi monkey considers whether to approach a tourist boat at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Titi-or-Tamarin-monkey-on-boat.jpg - A Tamarin or titi monkey enjoys a treat after hopping onto our boat at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Titi-or-Tamarin-monkey.jpg - A diminutive Tamarin or titi monkey eats from a passenger's hand at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Titi-or-Tamarin-monkeys-coming-close-to-boat.jpg - Tamarin or titi monkeys dangle their tails at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Titi-or-Tamarin-monkeys-enjoying-treat.jpg -  Tamarin or titi monkeys enjoying a treat at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Tour-boat-at-Monkey-Island.jpg -  A tour boat plies an inlet off Gatun Lake in Panama.
  • Tour-guide-Fabio.jpg -  Our tour guide, Fabio, points out the local flora at Monkey Island, Panama.
  • White-faced-capuchin-3.jpg -  A white-faced capuchin has something to say at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • White-faced-capuchin-6.jpg -  A white-faced capuchin looks for higher ground at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • White-faced-capuchin-approaching-boat.jpg -  A white-faced capuchin approaches our boat at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • White-faced-capuchin-coming-onto-boat.jpg -  A white-faced capuchin is rewarded with a snack after climbing onto or boat at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • White-faced-capuchin-in-tree-2.jpg -  A white-faced capuchin approaches our boat at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • White-faced-capuchin-in-treeb.jpg -  A white-faced capuchin summons up courage to approach our boat at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • White-faced-capuchin.jpg -  A white-faced capuchin checks out lunch opportunities during a tour boat's visit to Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Wildflowers-along-Gatun-Lake.jpg -  Wildflowers along Gatun Lake, the manmade waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
  • Yacht-crossing-Panama-Canal.jpg -  A yacht crosses the Panama Canal. Ship crossings can run well into the six figures for a full transit.
  • panama-canal-cargo-ship.jpg - A cargo ship in the left locks begins a transit of the Panama Canal.
  • panama-canal-countryside.jpg - Scene of Panama's countryside seen from the starboard side of Norwegian Jade.
  • panama-canal-forward-view-first-lock.jpg - A view of the Panama Canal from the first lock.
  • panama-canal-forward-view-first-lock2.jpg - Looking forward to the second and third locks of the Panama Canal from the first lock.
  • panama-canal-mule-in-action.jpg - Electric locomotives, called "mules," guide a ship through a Panama Canal lock.
  • panama-canal-mule-in-action2.jpg - Electric locomotives, called "mules," guide a ship through a Panama Canal lock.
  • panama-canal-mule.jpg - A look down at an electric locomotive, or "mule," alongside Norwegian Jade in a Panama Canal lock.
  • panama-canal-mules.jpg - Electric locomotives, called "mules," guide ships through the Panama Canal locks.
  • panama-canal-third-lock.jpg - View of the third of three locks on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal.
  • rear-view-from-third-lock.jpg - Looking back from the aft of Norwegian Jade as it sits in the third lock of the Panama Canal.
  • rear-view-second-lock.jpg - Looking back from the aft of Norwegian Jade as it sits in the second lock of the Panama Canal.
  • side-view-second-lock.jpg - A side view of Panama's countryside seen from the starboard side of Norwegian Jade.
  • coral-princess-in-panama-canal-locks.jpg - Coral Princess en route to passing through the Miraflores & Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal.
  • panama-canal-hummingbird.jpg - See gorgeous hummingbirds and rare wildlife on a cruise to the Panama Canal.
  • panama-canal-tree-frog2.jpg - A rare tree frog spotted during a Panama Canal cruise.
  • panama-canal-tree-frog2-1.jpg - A rare tiny tree frog spotted during a Panama Canal cruise.
  • Capuchins-approaching-boat.jpg -  Capuchin monkeys approaching our boat at Monkey Island in Panama.
  • Excursion-to-Monkey-Island.jpg -  Here's the small boat we took on our shore excursion to Monkey Island, Panama.
  • Gamboa-rainforest-in-Panama.jpg - The richly vibrant Gamboa rainforest along the Panama Canal's Gatun Lake.

Panama Canal travel guide: What to do & see

our guide

The vibe

 
  CRUISEABLE TRAVEL GUIDES
 
 
 

The sweeping human drama behind the 50-mile Panama Canal is a fascinating chapter of history best appreciated by those who have done some homework before arrival. But equally as captivating is the scenery — deep green rainforest teeming with exotic animal and bird life, processions of cargo vessels from around the world — that floats by.

Depending on itinerary, your ship may make a complete transit of the canal and linger an extra day in port for shore excursions. Or, it might enter from either the Atlantic or Pacific end and proceed as far as Gatun Lake, the large body of water in the center of the isthmus, before turning around. A third option is for ships to offload passengers to smaller vessels for a partial or complete canal transit, returning them to the mother ship by motor-coach.

Ships that sail through the Panama Canal

Top reasons to go

  • History! The Isthmus of Panama has been strategic to world travel and trade ever since 1513, when Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa became the first European to cross it.
  • Nature! Some of the world’s most easily accessible stretches of rainforest border the canal, and many “eco” activities have been developed to expose cruise passengers to its wonders.
  • Culture! Shore excursions provide exposure to indigenous communities, colonial architecture and the cosmopolitan, Miami-like vibe of modern Panama City.
Looking forward to the second and third locks of the Panama Canal from the first lock.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseableLooking forward to the second and third locks of the Panama Canal from the first lock.

Top things to do & see on a Panama Canal cruise

Start by doing  your homework about one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. “The Path Between the Seas,” historian David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of efforts to build the canal, is highly recommended for pre-trip reading. The 2012 PBS American Experience documentary on the canal also provides great background.

Stops along the way

  • Gamboa. Most cruise ships making a partial transit dock at this canal-side town for shore excursions. Some of the world’s largest dredges are based here. A top attraction is the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, home to an aerial tram that runs for 1.2 kilometers through the rainforest canopy, ending at a 10-story observation tower offering panoramic views from the top of a spiral ramp. Great for families. Bring binoculars!
  • Miraflores or Gatun Locks: Through a series of three locks, ships are raised about 85 feet to Gatun Lake in the isthmus’s mountainous interior, then lowered again to sea level. Miraflores, the first set of locks on the Pacific side; and Gatun Locks, on the Atlantic side, have visitor facilities. A tour of one or the other should be on every passenger’s “must” list.

Get a close-up view of the Gatun Locks when Coral Princess passes through the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal Railway

Completed in 1855 to service California Gold Rush trade, the Panama Canal Railway today offers passenger service linking Panama City on the Pacific coast and Colón on the Atlantic. Two-ocean journeys serving cruise passengers must be booked directly through the cruise line and often sell out in advance.

Nature & outdoor activities

  • Bird-watching. Panama boasts some of the most diverse bird life in the world (more than 350 species recorded), but you don’t have to be a seasoned birder to enjoy a naturalist-led excursion along jungle trails in Soberania National Park. Several observation towers offer opportunity to observe exotic species (and sometimes monkeys) flitting around the treetops.
  • Boat trips. Excursions by boat, kayak or canoe along the steamy Chagres River or in the canal itself bring nature close up and personal. An indigenous people, the Emberá, maintain a village on the Chagres where lunch is served and customs demonstrated to tourists during the course of many such excursions.
  • Sportfishing. Peacock bass, snook and tarpon are among species living between the seas in scenic Gatun Lake, at 164 square miles once the largest manmade lake in the world.

Panama City

Shimmering skyscrapers and a skyline rivaling Miami’s take many travelers by surprise, but for day-trippers, the old city center of Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the place to go, either with a tour or on your own.

Many shops, restaurants and historic buildings beckon, but don’t miss the Panama Canal Museum or the Paseo Las Bóvedas, a landscaped esplanade atop a 300-year-old seawall. It offers views of the iconic Bridge of the Americas arching over the canal and of ships waiting (sometimes as long as a week) for their turn to transit.

Colón

The Atlantic terminus of the Panama Canal has always been a rough place. Keep street crime at top of mind if you choose to walk around the colorful if decrepit streets. The Colon 2000 cruise port, developed to give visitors a safe haven, boasts a modern (and duty-free) shopping center, and the nearby historic sites of Portobelo and San Lorenzo are worthwhile attractions included on many shore excursions.

 A Tamarin or titi monkey considers whether to approach a tourist boat at Monkey Island in Panama.
JD Lasica / Special to Cruiseable A Tamarin or titi monkey considers whether to approach a tourist boat at Monkey Island in Panama. Visit Monkey Island on a shore excursion. 

Family-friendly options

Getting out on the canal in a small boat puts giant cargo ships in perspective the way views from a cruise ship cannot. Book an excursion through your cruise line or arrange in advance with a tour operator such as long-established and highly regarded Ancon Expeditions. Motorized canoe trips to Emberá villages on the jungle-cloaked Chagres River are another option that kids and parents find fascinating.

Don’t miss

  • Touring the locks (see above).
  • Getting up high for intimate views of the rainforest canopy.
  • Sampling carimeñola, deep-fried yucca root stuffed with spiced meat; and ceviche de corvina, lime-marinated sea bass with cilantro, celery, hot pepper, onion, tomato and green olives.
  • Bringing home a souvenir mola, a boldly designed applique blouse panel crafted by the indigenous Kuna women of the San Blas Islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast.

YOLO (You only live once!)

Book a helicopter tour with Air Charter Panama and get an aerial view of Panama City, the canal, the rainforest that surrounds it and the dozens of ships waiting to pass through.

Best bets for dining

Few cruise itineraries allow time or opportunity for independent dining, but if yours affords a few mealtime hours in Panama City, check out one of these best bets in the Casco Viejo historic district. 

Habana Panama is a 1950s throwback nightclub, dance spot and bar-restaurant with tasty appetizers and lots of energy, while Tantalo is a trendy tapas spot in a hotel of the same name (be sure to take in the skyline views from the Roofbar).

Manolo Carocol is a fine-dining, farm-to-table venue headed by Manolo Madueño, one of Panama’s most renowned chefs. Another great upscale choice: Mostaza, serving inventive Latin and world cuisine in a beautifully restored historic building.

Best time to go

Most ships visit October to April, although repositioning cruises often transit at other times of year. A full transit takes the better part of a day. Your ship will be assigned a time to enter the canal, ideally in early morning. Pack bug repellent and an umbrella; you’ll need both for shore excursions.

Celebrity Infinity cruises through the Panama Canal, one of its signature sailings.
Courtesy of Celebrity CruisesCelebrity Infinity cruises through the Panama Canal, one of its signature sailings.

Fun facts

  • The canal opened on Aug, 15, 1914, the day after the first major battle of World War I commenced.
  • Due to the dimensions of its lock channels, the canal can only accommodate “Panamax” ships with a maximum beam (width) of 106 feet and maximum length of 965 feet.
  • The largest expansion project since the canal was built has been underway for a decade. It will add a third set of locks, a new Pacific access channel and other features to allow ships of “post-Panamax” dimensions to pass through. However, mega-liners like Carnival’s Magic and Dream and ships of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis, Freedom and Voyager classes will still be too wide or tall to pass (height is limited by the Bridge of the Americas, which passes over the canal’s Pacific portal). Two years behind schedule and way over budget (total costs estimates now top $6 billion), the modernized facilities are set to open in 2016.
  • The canal’s original lock gates, still in place, were designed by French engineer Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. Gates for a third set of locks in an expanded canal are being fabricated in Italy.
  • Almost 30,000 laborers died building the current canal and working on a previous effort aborted by the French. Accidents, landslides and infectious disease were the main culprits. A massive fumigation effort successfully brought malaria and yellow fever under control by 1906.
  • The canal’s construction was an epic drama of politics, egos and intrigue, but its opening effectively positioned the United States as a world superpower. Exclusive U.S. control of the waterway ended in 1979 under the Jimmy Carter administration. The gradual handover to Panama was completed 20 years later. The canal remains strategic to world shipping, saving an 8,000-mile journey around Cape Horn.
  • About 14,000 ships a year pass through the canal. A mid-size cruise ship pays around $30,000 in fees for the privilege.

Docking information

Ships entering the canal from the Atlantic (Caribbean) side dock in Colón, either at Cristobal Pier or at the fancier Colon 2000 complex. On the Pacific side, the main port of call is Fuerte Amador, on an island connected by causeway to the mainland. Duty-free shopping opportunities are available at all three gateways.

Need to know

Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a passport.

Tap water in Panama City and in other communities along the canal is safe to drink.

Language: Spanish, although English is widely spoken. 

Currency: The Balboa, on par with and completely interchangeable with the U.S. dollar.

Your take

How about you? Have you sailed through the Panama Canal? What was it like? Would love to hear your top highlights!

Help improve this article! See anything wrong? What did we overlook? Be a co-creator!

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Janet Fullwood
Janet Fullwood is an editor, writer and photographer-at-large specializing in travel and hospitality topics.

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Overheard

“Casco Viejo seems poised to become a kind of South Beach-style hotbed of cafes, hotels and nightclubs.”

New York Times

“The star attraction of these cruises — and their real selling point — is, or course, the Panama canal, with its three sets of locks that raise ships 85 feet to Gatun Lake, then lowers them down on the other side, back to sea level. Passengers get up early for the big day, lather on sunscreen, and find a prime viewing spot on the bow as cruise ships mingle with freighters waiting their turns to enter the locks.”

Cruise Travel magazine

“(The canal) is at once a masterpiece of engineering and a blend of tragedy, scheming and an unimaginable amount of human effort.”

Watchboom

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Shore excursions

 
 
 
 

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