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.
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