Panama Canal, Central America Cruise Guide
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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.
When to go
The majority of Panama Canal cruises are offered between October and April, with a few ships doing the run year-round since temperatures consistently hover in the mid- to upper80s throughout. The high season, like the rest of the Caribbean, spans January through April, plus major holiday weeks, when the winter weather in the U.S. drives people south to warmer climes. A Panama Canal cruise during the offseason summer and fall months will be cheaper, but with a caveat: high humidity and the threat of heavy rains.
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 Guatemala’s Tikal. (You’ll have to take a short flight to get there, but the ancient city of Tikal’s temples is worth it.) Outdoorsy types will like the rain forest treks in Costa Rica and the beauty of rock formations off the coast of Cabo. Aruba’s 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.
Good For: The canal passage appeals to history lovers, and so does the Spanish colonial architecture of Cartagena’s historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Costa Rica and Grand Cayman are ideal for anyone who likes to explore nature, including diving, hiking, boating or ziplining. Colon, on the northern entrance to the canal, has a huge shopping complex at the Cristobal cruise terminal that many passengers never venture beyond, even though there is more to the area, from beaches and rain forests to rides on the historic transcontinental railway and excursions to see 16th-century fortresses in the nearby town of Portobelo.
Cruise Lines That Sail Panama Canal, Central America
3 Ships - 2 Cruises
Azamara Club Cruises
29 Ships - 16 Cruises
Carnival Cruise Lines
15 Ships - 4 Cruises
8 Ships - 2 Cruises
Compagnie Du Ponant Yacht Cruises
4 Ships - 4 Cruises
3 Ships - 8 Cruises
4 Ships - 3 Cruises
Disney Cruise Line
15 Ships - 33 Cruises
Holland America Line
17 Ships - 24 Cruises
Norwegian Cruise Line
6 Ships - 15 Cruises
20 Ships - 20 Cruises
5 Ships - 10 Cruises
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
27 Ships - 6 Cruises
8 Ships - 5 Cruises
11 Ships - 2 Cruises
6 Ships - 11 Cruises