9 Awesome Reasons to Book a Cruise Through the Panama Canal

By: Kathryn Casna

The idea of creating a passage that allows ships to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific without braving the icy waters of Cape Horn has been alive and kicking since Charles V of Spain ordered a survey of the best options in 1534. From conception to the first completed passage of a single vessel, it took 380 years, 27,000 lives, and the excavation of 170,000,000 cu yards (129,974,326 m3) of earth to accomplish. It’s a modern world wonder, and for most people, seeing it for themselves is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are lots of options for visiting the Panama Canal, but booking a cruise is one of the best, and here is why:


9. Luxury Amenities and Incredible Food on Board

Who doesn’t love trying new cuisine when they travel? For many, food is a primary reason to travel. Unfortunately, the human digestive system isn’t set up to handle the introduction of new foods without a little indigestion. Add in foreign bacteria, unpurified water, and new eating schedules, and your gut might be in for an unpleasant shock. The plus side? Travelers who book cruises have access to plenty of familiar cuisine on-board, included in the price of passage. Keeping more familiar foods in your diet can help your stomach handle new foods more easily, and cruise ships help keep that in balance. I would never recommend ignoring local cuisine completely for the tried and true staples found on-board a cruise ship, but I don’t advise indigestion and food poisoning either. Enjoy the local fare, but when you need a break, cruise cuisine is there.

cruise ship dining hall

8. To Fully Understand How it Works

Wrapping your mind around just how the locks in the canal work can be tough if you haven’t experienced them for yourself. There are three sets of locks: 1 on the Atlantic side, 1 on the Pacific side, and 1 connecting Gatun and Mira Flores Lakes. The purpose of the locks is to raise and lower the water level in each chamber using water from the lakes, and thereby allow ships to pass through what used to be solid earth. The sheer amount of water it takes to get just one ship through the canal – 26,700,000 US gal (101,000 m3) times 12 lock chambers – is staggering. All of the water comes from natural runoff into the lake and empties out into the ocean through the process. In wet, winter months, there’s plenty of water to go around. In the dry season, however, Gatun Lake may experience a shortfall.

panama canal locks

7. See the Bridge of the Americas and Centennial Bridge

The Bridge of the Americas, or Puente de las Américas in Spanish, was built in 1962 at a cost of $20 million USD. It was the first permanent bridge to cross the canal, and it is located right at the Pacific locks. It’s a cantilever bridge, which allows it to extend across the canal without any structures holding it up in the middle. The Centennial Bridge is a gorgeous cable-stay design, much like the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and the Jiang-Shaoxing Sea Bridge in China. The Centennial Bridge was completed in 2004, and completes the Pan-American Highway today. Reading about these two monumental bridges here is nothing compared to the thrill of sailing underneath them. The gorgeous harp design of the Centennial Bridge is simply stunning from any angle, and the Bridge of the Americas is imposingly impressive as well.

Centennial Bridge Panama

6. Learn About the History of Such a Feat First Hand

Reading about the canal’s history on the web or in a book really leads to missing out on understanding the accomplishment of such a feat. It’s hard to understand the difficulty of cutting and blasting through tons of rocky terrain that reached 360 feet above sea level to create a water-bearing canal. Or the disaster that malaria and yellow fever presented for the workforce charged with creating this monumental achievement. Nearly 28,000 people – nearly a third of the total workforce – died creating this engineering masterpiece. Much of the Panama landscape and culture was effected by the canal as well. The builders agreed to lend a hand to create lasting infrastructure in the country, like schools and hospitals, which visitors can see in person. Visitors can also meet some of the locals and talk to them about how the canal’s history has changed Panama.

Tiago Lopes Fernandez / Shutterstock.com
Tiago Lopes Fernandez / Shutterstock.com


5. Cruisers Get to See Other Great South American Destinations

What’s the best South or Central American Country to visit? Can you really know without visiting them all? One of the best thing about booking a cruise, any cruise, is that passengers get a little taste of several, if not many, destinations on their floating hotel. Popular ports of call for Panama Canal cruises are Cartagena, Colombia; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; and Montego Bay, Jamaica. A trip that includes all of these locations is rare indeed, especially when you consider the travel time and cost of booking flight after flight (or passage after passage) between these ports. For around $150 USD per night (the cost of many hotels), travelers literally cruise to their next destination in their sleep. While spending just a day in these ports of call isn’t enough to sate every travelers’ curiosity, it’s a great way to help them figure out which ports they’d like to return to later for more exploration.

Cartagena, Colombia

4. The Mind-Blowing Size of Ships Allowed to Pass

Most people in the world only ever see the Panama Canal on a map or hear about it from other travelers during a slide show presentation of their vacation photos. As with most adventure tales, however, something always gets lost in translation. For the canal, that thing is the mind-blowing size of the ships that are allowed to pass through. The canal is a mere 110 feet wide and has a usable length of just 1,000 feet. Cruise ships traveling through the canal can be as large as 106 feet wide and 965 feet long. Believe it or not, this length actually has an industry-created name: Panamax. And you better believe both shipping and cruise companies use every inch! Standing on deck and gazing down at the measly 2 feet of space between the ship and the concrete edge of the canal is enough to awe any seaman, not to mention the average vacationer.

Fotos593 / Shutterstock.com
Fotos593 / Shutterstock.com

3. Booking Passage

The average fee for a passenger ship passing through the Panama Canal is a whopping $54,000 USD. These fees can quickly skyrocket even higher if you want to cut in line. The Panamax tanker Erikoussa once bypassed 90 other ships to avoid a 7-day delay, turning a fee of $13,430 into a jaw-dropping $220,300. To avoid priority passage fees, ships normally snag a spot in line a year or more in advance. These astronomical fees usually only apply to large vessels, like freighters and cruise ships. For travelers looking to book passage on a small vessel for themselves, fees start at $1,300 – about the cost of passage on a 10-day cruise that includes food, stops at several ports, and maybe a few excursions, too. Plus, cruise passengers don’t have to own or rent their own boat or worry about booking so far in advance. The cruise line takes care of it all.

briefcase full of money

2. Monkeys, Birding, Boating, and More

Along with incredible views of the canal, Gatun and Mira Flores Lakes, and an inside view of the locks, there’s plenty to explore in Panama off-ship. Walking tours and hikes are plentiful in the area for anyone who wants a close-up view of Colon, Panama City, or the surrounding jungles. Historical and educational tours of the locks are also available. There are even small passenger boat tours, where monkeys will literally climb into the seat next to you from branches that hang over the water for a slice of banana. The best part? All tours booked through the cruise company are booked with vetted, quality tour companies. Cruise passengers don’t have to worry about scheduling tours in a foreign language or getting ripped off. Rest assured, bad tours don’t generally make it onto the itinerary, and if they do, they don’t stick around for long.

sloth panama

1. The Perfect Trip

What’s the number one reason to book a cruise to the Panama Canal? Why, to enjoy the canal, of course. Let’s face it: travel can be expensive, complicated, and stressful, especially if you like to have a certain level of luxury on your trip. The point of travel is not to throw away money or stress yourself out so that you need a vacation after your vacation. Travel should be simple, and, above all, enjoyable. And for many adventurers, it is. If you’re not a seasoned traveler, or only have a limited time to experience both adventure and relaxation, book a cruise. You get all the staples, like food, lodging, and transportation for one, uncomplicated price. You get an on-board spa and pool-lounging time, plus the chance to explore numerous destinations, led by some of the best guides in the business. So the only real question is, why wouldn’t you book?

relaxing cruise couple