Think of it as a Caribbean cruise with a theme. Panama Canal cruises are long, leisurely trips through the Caribbean, Central America, and often Mexico, topped off with a daylong transit of the Panama Canal, one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time. Built between 1880 and 1914, this massive project was started by the French and finished by Americans, but not before thousands of workers died of malaria and harsh working conditions.
The 50-mile-long, all-day trip includes passage through three main locks, which, through gravity and levers, raise ships over Central America and down again on the other side of the isthmus. Onboard experts narrate the entire trip over the ship’s PA system, explaining how the canal was built and how the locks operate. On the day of transit, set your alarm and get up early enough to snag a good spot by a window or on deck so you don’t miss the show.
Because Panama Canal itineraries are lengthy, they attract an older crowd drawn to a slow-paced cruise that’s heavy on days at sea — six or seven on a two-week sailing. For those who have less time, partial transits go halfway through the canal and turn around to offer a taste of the canal experience on a seven-night sailing.
Since the canal is 110 feet at its widest point, the largest cruise ships are too big to pass through it — for instance, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ships are about twice as wide. The ones that can make the trip are called “Panamax vessels,” and they travel through the locks guided by small locomotives on each side tethered to the ship by cables, sometimes with just a couple feet of clearance. (A wider lane of locks is currently under construction and will accommodate ships up to about 180 feet wide. In addition, neighboring Nicaragua has expressed interest in building a canal to rival Panama’s.)
Cruisers choose a Panama Canal sailing for the experience of transiting the famous inter-ocean waterway and learning more about its history and engineering. When it comes to the ports, a Panama Canal cruise is a mixed bag — in a good way — and ideal for folks who like their cruise to include variety. You can enjoy the diversity of the region, from the beautiful beaches of Aruba and Mexico’s Pacific Coast, to the cultural riches of Guatemala’s Mayan ruins and Costa Rica’s lush national parks, where you can trek the rain forest, take riverboat rides through mangroves, or zip line or ride a ski lift-style tram above the forest canopy.