Thousands of people head to Panama every year to see one of man’s greatest engineering marvels – the Panama Canal.  This 48 mile long canal changed history and revolutionized the way which global shipping and receiving has been handled ever since.  To witness this achievement, most visitors head over to the museum and visitor’s center at Miraflores Lockes, located a few miles outside of Panama City.  This is a great way to learn about the Canal and to see many boats that may be passing through at the time.  Plan it right and you might even see a big ship!  However, we wanted to experience what it is actually like to cruise the Panama Canal.

Getting Started

We selected a half day tour which included hotel pick up and drop off, a buffet lunch, and unlimited non-alcoholic drinks.  Getting to the starting point of our cruise took some time as we had to pick up other people from their hotels, check in, and then drive about an hour inland to Gamboa.  Once there, we were on the boat and cruising down the canal in no time.  The first thing we noticed was how murky the water was.  This is because of pollution as well as erosion and the constant churning of sediment that the traffic causes.  They actually continually move earth out of the canal and use it to build up Panama City (the Amador Causeway is an example of this).  The first part of the cruise is pretty uneventful and is a great chance to sit back and relax while listening to the great information the guide shares.

Cruising The Canal

The first thing you will come upon is the Centennial Bridge, which is part of the Pan-America Highway.  Take this highway north, and eventually you’ll end up in Alaska!  It is customary to kiss your partner as you pass under the bridge – it is said to bring luck to your relationship. 

Not long after this bridge, you’ll come up to the terraced Culebra Cut.  If you ever wanted to know what a cross-section of the continental divide looks like, here is your chance to see it.They literally cut through the continental divide! The continental divide runs right through our state and we drive across it often.  To see it from this point of view was incredible!  Sit back and enjoy the views as you work your way toward the Pacific!

Moving Through The Locks

The first lock we came upon was the Pedro Miguel Lock.  Once in the lock, a sailboat came from behind to tie up to our boat, making room for the huge freighter that was unknowingly working its way down the canal behind us.  There, we waited and waited. It was a tight fit! Once the freight ship was in the lock, the water began lowering until it was at the level where the locks could open.  And, we were off again!  Upon arriving at the Miraflores Lock, the same process followed.  While we waited, we spent some time watching all those people at the visitor’s center watching us experiencing the canal.  Although it wasn’t busy, I think they were jealous that they were just standing there. After some time waiting in the lock, we began the process of quickly lowering, then the lock opened and we were in the Pacific Ocean!

The Bridge Of The Americas

Nearing the end of the canal is the Bridge of The Americas, which is an impressive sight.  Once you’ve passed under it, you can see the lineup of ships waiting in the Pacific for their turn to transit the canal from the other direction.Believe it or not, these ships have been waiting in line for approximately 30 hours for their turn in the canal.  Arrangements must be made months in advance, and the fees and tolls are incredibly expensive.  Should they miss their arrival time, they are S.O.L. and no longer able to pass through the canal.  After passing under this bridge, you’ll make your way to the Amador Causeway to board the bus back to your hotel.

Four Things You Need To Know

  1. You can cruise the canal via cruise ships, personal vessels, or on a tour like we did.
  2. If you want to do a full day tour from Panama City to Colon, plan your trip well in advance.  This option is only offered about twice per month and can be difficult to secure as well as expensive.
  3. If you book a partial day tour, it will end up lasting a full day.  So, keep that in mind when considering a full day tour vs. a half day tour.
  4. Do not plan anything on the day you cruise the canal.  See points #2 and #3.  Regardless of what is indicated for your tour length, once you are in the water you are on “canal time”.  Everything that happens from this point forward is based on this fact.  You might be sitting in one of the locks for an hour or more just waiting.  Our tour was scheduled to end at 1:00pm, and we were still in the water at 5:00pm.

Fascinating Facts

  • Regardless of the type of vessel, in order to transit the canal, the captain must give up control.  Only a Panama Canal Pilot can have command while passing through the canal.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a personal boat or a Navy vessel.
  • One person in history was permitted to swim in the Panama Canal from ocean to ocean.  In case you are wondering, he had to have a pilot in a boat next to him the entire time.  He also had to have a sniper with him in case any crocodiles or caiman attacked.
  • And, part of why he is the only person in history to do this is because Panama has abolished hunting.  If a person was to ever try this again, they would not be able to have the sniper with them.
  • There are just over 300 Panama Canal Pilots.  Two of them are female.
  • The expansion of the canal is just north of the original canal.  Although it cost nearly $6 billion USD, it will pay for itself within 2 years.  These locks can accommodate today’s mega ships.

Cruising the Panama Canal was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  The guides are knowledgeable and the experience was great.  I’m so glad we decided to do the cruise instead of just looking down from the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center.  If this is something you’d like to do, there are plenty of cruise options available online!

Touching the side of the Panama Canal from our tour boat!

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  1. Sounds fascinating. Our boat, when it was with it’s previous owners, Dwayne’s parents, did a circumnavigation and went through the Panama Canal. I still have all the paperwork that was involved. We hope to do it one day ourselves.

    1. How cool is that?! I am sure one day you will be able to do it and I can’t wait to hear all about it!

  2. What a fabulous trip, made even more fascinating by the fascinating facts you have shared, they are brilliant! I love that you touched the panama canal from the boat … definitely a once in a lifetime experience! #feetdotravel

  3. This does look like a really cool time and way more fun than my time looking on from the Miraflores Lock. That cutting is super impressive!

    1. It really was a fun way to experience the Canal! Glad you think the Culebra Cut is as impressive as I did!

  4. A really fascinating post and looks like a real bucket list item to me! Love your facts about the canal – didn’t know most of these! Definitely something I would love to do if I ever visit Panama!

    1. So glad I could inspire your bucket list a bit! Panama is great and hopefully you will make it there one day!!

  5. The Panama Canal is so fascinating along with the facts you mentioned. I did not see the canal like you did from a boat which sounds like fun. I love how you are on Canal time as to how long your cruise will be. I was able to sit at one of the locks you have pictured and have dinner to watch the sunset and ships go through the locks. After reading your post I think the boat excursion would be a lot more fun! #feetdotravel

    1. Thanks Stephanie, it was a great way to experience it! But, dinner at the locks sounds pretty cool too!!

  6. What an amazing experience! I learned some new facts about the Panama Canal. I would love to go through the canal someday so I pinned this for later!

  7. What a cool trip! For some reason, I thought it would take longer – like a couple of days, at least. Definitely something we want to do, but never thought about a local cruise instead of a big cruiseliner transit. Very cool – we are super #jeally! 🙂 #FeetDoTravel

    1. Originally we had looked at a cruise, but that was going to cross over $1500 per person. This is the way to go! So glad you were inspired!!

  8. What a great experience. We cruised the Yangtze River and went through the locks at the 3 Gorges Dam so have a bit of an idea of the process. It’s quite exciting being packed in and the water either lifting you or dropping to the next level. I’d love to cruise Panama though so will pin for later. 🙂

  9. We went through the Canal in April as part of our Uncruise. It really is an amazing experience. It’s fun to see your pictures since we did it at night and in the opposite direction. I love the picture of all of the people watching you at the visitor’s center as you went through. I remember being one of those viewers when were in Panama years ago.

    1. I’ve heard of these Uncruises and need to look into them more! It was kinda fun being “the thing” all the tourists were watching for once. I’m sure the Canal was cool at night too!

  10. What a fantastic way to enjoy this historically significant canal! I can totally imagine myself floating around, sipping wine! Loved the interesting facts too, I had no idea there were crocodiles in the murky water! And to go swimming there, wow!

  11. These are some great tips! Surprised that the half day tour ran till 5! Gotta keep that in mind. Customary to kiss your partner as you pass under the bridge – Such a cute practice!

  12. Isn’t cruising through the Panama Canal fantastic? We did it a couple of years ago, and it’s definitely one of those once-in-a lifetime experiences. I wish I had known that you’re supposed to kiss your partner while passing under the Centennial Bridge. We crossed under it just after dawn, and I was up snapping pictures while he was sleeping. So maybe I wouldn’t have had good luck if I had woken him up 😀

  13. I loved cruising the Panama Canal, it was such a unique experience! I had no idea someone actually swam across it! We did see a few crocodiles while we were there – so it makes sense that they don’t allow it anymore.

  14. What a fascinating experience! I love that you are then on Canal time once you are there. That must have been terrifying swimming and having to watch out for crocodiles!

  15. This sounds like such an interesting experience. I bet they know exactly how to navigate it and move through the locks efficiently. 🙂

  16. I have always been mesmerized by locks and will happily stand and watch boats navigate their way through them for hours, but to experience this between two continents in the Panama Canal would be pretty spectacular!

  17. I’ve never really thought of visiting the Panama Canal, but it sounds kind of fascinating! Thanks for the read!

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