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 any 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.
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
- You can cruise the canal via cruise ships, personal vessels, or on a tour like we did.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
Have you cruised the Panama Canal? If so, tell us what you thought about the experience in the comments below. If you haven’t, is it a bucket list item of yours?
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