What’s it like to cruise through the Panama Canal?

Just about everyone has heard of the Panama Canal, but how much do you really know about it, or how it works? Prior to the canal opening in 1914, ships wishing to sail from the east coast of the U.S. to the west coast had to make the dangerous, long journey around Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America. We’re talking almost to Antarctica here! Through a series of locks and an artificial lake, it’s now possible to take a 48-mile journey from Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean within a day or so, which saves an astounding 8,000 miles. The Panama Canal truly is an engineering masterpiece, even for today’s standards. To experience it up close, many cruise lines now offer a variety of trips that you can take. So, what’s it really like to sail through this modern marvel?

First, some canal basics. Here’s a fun fact – did you know that when going from the Atlantic side to the Pacific side, you actually go from west to east in the canal? It seems backwards, but because of Panama’s shape like an upside-down “U”, it’s true. Regardless of which side you start on, you’ll go through 3 locks – sort of like a staircase – that raise you up a total of 85 feet to Gatun Lake. From there, you sail across the lake to the other side’s 3 locks to bring you back down to sea level. The sheer power of the locks to raise huge ships is astounding, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially if you are in said ship. Panama Canal cruises are leisurely, and while sailing through the locks and the lake there are endless chances to view the surrounding scenery before crossing to the other ocean.

Cruise options. There are a variety of cruise lines and itineraries that will get you up close to the Panama Canal. We’ll help sort through the options, but the first question is how much time do you have, and what are your sightseeing priorities? If you’re looking for a shorter vacation, there are roundtrip options that will generally take you into Gatun Lake and then turn back to home port – typically Miami or Los Angeles. If you want to say you’ve traversed the entire canal, really get away from it all with a 14 day cruise one-way from East Coast to West Cost, or vice versa.  In addition to seeing this marvel in person, a Panama Canal cruise offers a wide array of sightseeing opportunities along the way! Read on.

What you’ll see. The great thing about this type of trip is you get to check off many “bucket list” items from both oceans in one fantastic trip. Sound like a trip of a lifetime? There are many itineraries out there, but for example, one east to west option may include excursions in Aruba, Grand Cayman, a scenic cruise through the canal itself, then Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Cabo San Lucas. Each one of these destinations is worth a trip in itself. You’ll pretty much get to do it all – from hanging out on a Caribbean Beach, seeing pristine rainforests (zipline tour, anyone?), visiting historic and attractive cities, and leisurely sailing through the scenic canal and across Gatun Lake while learning about its history and engineering.  

Since the main feature of the cruise is the canal, don’t miss the many sights of Panama City, where North and South America come together. This city is laid-back, tropical, and historic, with plenty of colorful, cobblestone-laid streets. The most popular attraction is probably Panama Viejo, which is the ruins of the oldest capital in the Americas from the 1500s. There are also great attractions for foodies – and plenty of places to take a great photo.  

Take the world’s “greatest shortcut” with a Panama Canal cruise! This type of trip is a rite of passage for many, and a trip of a lifetime for anyone.

Like what you see? LIKE us on Facebook for other great destination ideas and expert travel advice.

About Denise

My goal is to simplify travel-planning through an equal exchange process where I acquire your ideas and expectations for your trip relieving you of the worry, hassle, stress and time that accompanies Do-It-Yourself planning.

Recent Posts

Will you need a “Visa” to visit Europe in 2024? Here’s what to know

starting in 2024, the European Union is preparing new document requirements for American citizens to visit. Is it technically a “visa”? No. But there will be some additional hoops to jump through before you can begin your European escape. Here’s what is changing and what you need to know.

Stay safe on your next vacation with these crucial tech tips

We all like to assume people are inherently good. Unfortunately when traveling, sometimes that isn’t always the case. With your phone and other technology, it’s a good idea to be cautious when a helpful stranger offers to take a group photo. You key in your PIN and...

A Successful Plan to Beat Jet Lag

A Successful Plan to Beat Jet Lag

As someone who loves to travel, I’ve experienced my fair share of jet lag. The fatigue, insomnia, and general feeling of being out of sync can really put a damper on a trip. So when my son and I planned a trip from Toronto to Perth, involving three different flights,...

What’s the best cruise cabin for you?

Cruise lines offer a dizzying array of cabins for you to choose from. Fortunately, your travel expert can help vet all the options for you. Do you tend to get seasick? Want to be close to all the action? Whatever your travel style, there is a location best suited for...

It’s hot outside! How to travel safely during a heat wave

There has been a lot of news coverage recently about the extreme temperatures in much of the northern hemisphere. Traveling in the summer has its perks – generally it’s peak time for tourism so everything is open and running, but you do need to be weather-aware....