Known by many as “the world’s best shortcut,” the Panama Canal is much more than just a convenient way to get from point A to point B. In fact, travelers that overlook Panama Canal cruises are not only missing out on one of the world’s most incredible man-made marvels, but also some of the most exotic rainforests and wildlife.
The nearly 50-mile Panama Canal, which first opened in 1914 and was recently expanded in 2016, is truly a marvel to behold. Far greater than just a century-old engineering feat, the Panama Canal is critical for global trade, a testament to human willpower and a cruising gateway to the wonders of the Americas. Discover the canal’s history in person, explore colonial cities and enjoy a front row seat to the daily chorus of wildlife singing from the rainforests.
Departing for the Panama Canal
Panama Canal cruises often sail between two cities on opposite coasts of North America. A westbound trans-canal itinerary, for instance, might sail from Fort Lauderdale, FL to Los Angeles, CA. Other possible departure ports include Tampa, Miami, New York, San Diego, San Francisco and Vancouver.
Some cruise lines, such as Princess Cruises, even offer roundtrip (partial transit) Panama Canal voyages! Rather than completing a full transit, these unique itineraries typically enter and exit the Panama Canal on the same side (sometimes referred to as a partial transit). It’s also possible—and sometimes required—for world cruises or world cruise segments to transit the Panama Canal while completing select segments of their voyage.
Full Transit vs Partial Transit
Full transits, as the name implies, sail completely through the Panama Canal, cruising from one ocean to the other. Sometimes referred to as “repositioning cruises,” these itineraries are usually at least 14 days long and often call in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia and the Western Caribbean while sailing from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, or vice versa. The biggest reason to do a whole transit is to have the full Panama Canal experience while completing the entire system of locks.
If you’re interested in a shorter vacation, or more concerned about shore excursions than the actual canal system, a partial transit might be the perfect alternative! Typically departing roundtrip from Florida, partial crossings sail into Gatun Lake and may afford more time on land in Panama—usually in Colon.
Lastly, a tip for the day you actually transit through the canal: get up early and head up to fully appreciate the scope and scale of the Panama Canal! The best viewing areas—usually at the bow or along the windows of higher decks—can fill up quickly.
When to Go
Cruises through the Panama Canal typically sail from September through May, but the experience varies depending on which month you depart. The rainy—or green—season is more lush, if a little wetter, and can run from April through December. On the opposite of this is the drier “summer” season, which starts in January and runs through April. Either way, you’ll be sailing through a tropical climate, so expect warm weather and high humidity year-round.
Featured Ports of Call
In addition to showcasing one of the world’s most impressive feats of human engineering, Panama Canal cruises highlight a remarkable array of beautiful, diverse cities. Enjoy everything from ancient ruins and vibrant art to lush rainforests and unique wildlife as you sail to some of the featured ports highlighted below:
This colorful city’s castles, forts, monasteries and museums all tell incredible stories about Cartagena’s past. This old city may be surrounded by walls, but the vibrant culture is overflowing from the cobblestone streets to surrounding beaches and countryside! Tour an old Spanish fort, take a carriage ride, enjoy a traditional folk show or shop in the markets.
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Located along Panama’s Caribbean coast, Colon offers a breathtaking combination of beaches and jungles, plus ruins, forts and flavor. Birdwatch in the rainforests, surf up and down the white-sand beaches, explore the forts of Portobelo National Park and dig into some fresh ceviche. If you’re in Colon as part of a partial transit, consider taking an excursion aboard a smaller boat to sail through the remaining locks to complete your crossing!
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Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
This eco-tourism paradise is growing in popularity, and for good reason! Keep your eyes peeled for sleepy sloths as you make your way out towards Tortuguero or Braulio Carrillo National Park, or any of the surrounding national parks with diverse environments. Spot exotic birds, butterflies and monkeys along the lower canals, or head into the clouds aboard an aerial tram to take in the lush landscape from above.
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Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
Head inland to Lake Atitlan—which is surrounded by picturesque volcanoes—or tour a coffee plantation, learn about macadamia nut farming or take in the region’s Mayan history. Oftentimes, cruisers can jump on the opportunity to travel from Puerto Quetzal into the nearby colonial city of Antigua—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—or the Acatenango Volcano, if you’re feeling adventurous!
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Puntarenas (Puerto Caldera), Costa Rica
Puntarenas, located less than 30 minutes from Puerto Caldera, features buzzing cafes, spectacular beaches and abundant outdoor activities for nature enthusiasts. Relax in the Tabacon hot springs, journey through a misty cloud forest, cross a suspended hanging bridge, zip line past swinging monkeys, wander the Pura Vida Botanical Gardens and spot birds in Carara National Park—where you can also walk across the aptly-named Crocodile Bridge.
CLICK HERE to view Panama Canal cruises to Puntarenas (Puerto Caldera), Costa Rica
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
This sunny beach town is a favorite vacation spot for local Nicaraguans, highlighted by great shopping, delightful food and pristine views. Take it easy and enjoy some bay-front dining while watching the local surfers, or navigate the wonderful landscape on a horseback ride or catamaran tour. Masaya and Granada, each located about 90 minutes north of San Juan del Sur, also attract cruisers with lake-side water activities and hiking adventures in nearby Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve.
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Connected to mainland Nicaragua via bridges, Corinto is home to stunning beaches—with both white and black sand—and serves as an impressive gateway to the country’s vibrant cultures, historical treasures and natural wonders. Hike the black hills around the Cerro Negro Volcano, tour a banana plantation, witness an equestrian show and enjoy a premium Nicaraguan cigar! Plus, the nearby colonial town of Leon, which features a beautiful cathedral, park and botanical garden, allows access to the ruins of Leon Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and archeologists’ paradise.
CLICK HERE to view Panama Canal cruises to Corinto, Nicaragua
The Central American cities listed above are just a small sample of the possible ports of call for your Panama Canal cruise. When you combine any number of these incredible ports with the value and convenience of cruising, the result is an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind vacation.
To learn more about cruising to and through the Panama Canal, contact The Cruise Web’s experienced cruise consultants at 1-800-377-9383. We’ll help you find a crossing, either full or partial, that fits your budget, schedule and travel goals!
The Cruise Web, Inc.