If you want to marvel at the engineering behind this man-made wonder, a cruise is the best way to see the storied canal up close. Panama Canal cruises typically sail between Florida (or somewhere in the Caribbean) and Costa Rica or Mexico on the Pacific side. Ports vary widely on these cruises, including Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, and Cartagena, Colombia, on the Atlantic side, and points along Central America and Mexico on the Pacific.
In the huge lock system of the Panama Canal, ships rise to the level of Gatun Lake in the middle and then back down again. Some ships do partial transits, coming in from the Caribbean side to pass through one or two locks before going back.
What We Love
The Commentary: As you go through the Panama Canal, most ships have someone narrating the transit over the PA system. The announcer explains the history of the canal, including the grueling years it took to dig it, and how the locks system works. There are often documentaries shown as well, with vintage construction footage.
The Wildife: Panama and Costa Rica have many nature preserves and national parks. Before or after your transit, you'll have the chance to see sloths, howler and capuchin monkeys, tapirs, and hundreds of bird species, ranging from scarlet macaws to motmots.
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The Canal Transit: It takes six to eight hours to cruise from one side to the other, and most ships enter the locks around dawn after a pilot comes on board to assist the captain. The ship is tied to several electric carts on either side to help guide it through the channels. You can watch the ship go through the locks on deck, on your stateroom balcony, or on your cabin TV, as most ships provide a live video feed taken at the bow.
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Puerto Caldera/Puntarenas, Costa Rica: Many big ships call here, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, as part of a Panama Canal cruise. You can choose to visit one of several national parks in this area. Carara National Park is a thrill for birders who want to spot fiery-billed aracari and keel-billed toucans, while Poás Volcano National Park has scenic hikes that lead you through a cloud forest.
Golfito, Costa Rica: Here, you can access the sprawling Corcovado National Park, one of the world’s most diverse tropical regions. Biologists have identified 375 species of birds, 500 species of trees, 124 species of mammals, and 117 species of amphibians and reptiles.
Tortuga Island, Costa Rica: Beautiful, pristine beaches are ideal for swimming and snorkeling. Small ships stop here on these cruises or, if you’re on a big one, take an excursion from Puntarenas.
Coiba Island, Panama: Small vessels doing Panama Canal cruises visit this island for the excellent snorkeling that may put you face to face with white-tipped reef sharks and manta rays.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
There Could Be Delays: December through March is the high season for Panama Canal cruises, and the increased traffic in the canal means your ship could get off schedule as hundreds of cargo ships pass from one ocean to the other.
Heidi Sarna is a Singapore-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has also written for Condé Nast Traveler and USA Today.