The 40-mile Panama Canal is a common route for cruise ships due to its lush scenery and gentle waters. The canal cuts through a part of protected rainforest—Soberania National Park—that would otherwise be tough for tourists to see. Along the route, you're likely to get a glimpse of the resident monkeys, crocodiles, manatees, and more.
Panama Canal cruises also highlight the marvel of the manmade canal, itself. This big ditch was made in the early 20th century and has fascinated travelers for decades. There are three types of cruise ships you can take to see the wonder up close.
Passenger ships carrying anywhere between 20 and 2,800 guests pass through the Panama Canal regularly. A 2016 expansion now allows for larger ships (as wide as 160 feet as opposed to the original limitation of 106 feet). Ships like the Norwegian Pearl, Island Princess, Queen Elizabeth, and Disney Wonder fit into these restrictions.
Full transits between the Caribbean and the Pacific are available during most of the year on ships of nearly all sizes, but many people opt for a repositioning cruise on one of the ships that is either on its way to Alaska during late spring or returning from Alaska during fall. These cruises usually travel between Florida and California, stopping in the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico along the way. These same cruise itineraries are popular from October through April.
Full transits are also available as part of longer voyages like world cruises, circumnavigations of South America, or other extended-length journeys. They offer longer itineraries than partial cruises for those who have the time (and money) to spare.
Most of the full-transit cruises through the Panama Canal take 11 days or more, but not all travelers have the time to take such a lengthy vacation. For that reason, some cruise ships offer partial transits of the Panama Canal, usually as part of a larger cruise of the western or southern Caribbean. These ships pass through the Gatun Locks, enter Gatun Lake, and then exit the same way.
Although these cruises don't actually cross the entire Panama Canal, they do provide a taste of its spectacular rainforest scenery and offer a glimpse into Panama, itself, via a stopover at Colon as well. Even partial transits allow passengers to learn about the fascinating operation of the canal firsthand.
Small Ship Cruise Tours
Those who can't stand the hustle and bustle of a big cruise ship like the Norwegian Pearl may rather travel the canal on a smaller vessel—say, one that has only 60 guests as opposed to 2,000-some. Some companies, like Grand Circle Travel, offer full-transit land-and-cruise tours for these smaller groups of people. The combination tours—which can last between one and two weeks—provide a more intimate experience and they actually allow travelers to see more of the country than they would aboard a mega-ship. The bigger vessels don't stop at places like Panama City like small ships do.