Panama Canal Cruises

Panama Canal
Linda Garrison

Panama Canal cruise is often at the top of many travelers' bucket lists. Those planning a Panama Canal cruise have three different ways to see the Canal--full transits as part of a cruise between the Caribbean and the Pacific (usually between Florida and California), partial transits as part of a Caribbean cruise, and full transits as part of a Panama land tour and cruise.

Although a partial transit of the Panama Canal will give visitors a passage through the first set the locks and a look at Lake Gatun, it's not as impressive at crossing the Continental Divide on a ship and passing under the Bridge of the Americas near Panama City. These Panama Canal cruise reviews and tips provide a good overview of cruising through the Panama Canal:

Background and History of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is one of the great engineering marvels of the 20th century. It was opened in 1914 and served as an important link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Although a French engineering firm originally attempted to build a flat water canal (like the Suez Canal) across the isthmus of Panama, this plan was not successful due to the huge amounts of dirt that had to be transferred out of the Canal.

Having frequent mudslides didn't help the effort. The United States stepped in and built a canal with locks that was successful. The Panama Canal greatly reduced the time it took to travel from the eastern United States to the western United States.

Now is a great time to visit the Panama Canal. An expansion project, which added another set of locks, opened in 2016.  These new locks can handle larger ships, so cruise lines can now send some of their larger ships through the Panama Canal.

Dozens of books have been written about the history of the Panama Canal. One of the best and deservedly the most popular is "Path Between the Seas" by David McCullough. I highly recommend that those planning a Panama Canal cruise buy this book or check it out of their local library and read it before traveling to Panama.

Overview of a Panama Canal Transit

An 8-hour trip between Gatun Lake and the Bridge of the Americas covers about 50 miles. Ships transiting the canal must be raised 85 feet to cross the Continental Divide, and then be lowered again to sea level.

Unlike the Suez Canal (a sea-level canal), three sets of locks are used to raise and lower the ships. The lock gates range from 47 to 82 feet high, are 65 feet wide, and seven feet thick. Not surprisingly, they weigh from 400 to 700 tons each. These behemoth gates are filled and emptied by gravity, water flowing through a series of 18-foot diameter tunnels allowing the filling and emptying of a lock chamber in about 10 minutes.

Each ship passing through the waterway requires 52 million gallons of fresh water to operate the locks. This water then flows into the sea. The Panama Canal pilots on each ship transiting the Canal use radios to communicate among themselves. The precision required in the locks is tremendous.

There is only about one foot on each side of a large ship, and you can easily touch the side of the lock or step off a ship onto the concrete lock. The ship displaces tons of water, but the pilot keeps it on course, without tapping the walls of the locks. Everyone transiting the Panama Canal on a cruise ship comes away from the trip with a great appreciation for the job that the pilots do.