The Panama Canal, in operation since 1914, is 50.72 miles long, as narrow as 108 feet wide in places, and an engineering marvel of unparalleled brilliance. You will see every type of vessel there, from cargo ships to tankers to cruise vessels like the one you'll be on. The Panama Canal runs from Cristobal/Colon on the Carribbean Sea to Balboa on the Gulf of Panama. Although the canal took ten years to build, you'll cruise through it in less than a day (approximately 8-10 hours), thus cutting 8,000 miles off the trip around the southern tip of South America.
A Panama Canal cruise takes you through three locks, or sections, in which vessels are raised or lowered by adjusting the level of water within each section. The locks are on both sides of the canal, thus allowing boats through in both directions simultaneously. Although ships remain under power while in the canal, they are positioned by locomotives called "mules" that run on tracks on either side of the locks and use cables to keep the ships centered.
Before you go on your Panama Canal cruise, there are a few things to decide ahead of time:
Where to go. Cruise lines offer the traditional transcanal trip, which means that you cross from one ocean to the other. Some cruise lines also offer partial passage, in which the ship passes through one lock (the Gatun Lock), across Gatun Lake and then lets passengers off in Gamboa. In Gamboa, passengers can experience the canal from land, or take a much smaller excursion boat. Still other cruise lines offer excursions that do not enter the canal at all but dock at Colon.
Size of boat. Some Panama Canal cruise passengers feel that a smaller boat provides a more intimate experience. Windjammer can take you through the canal on a sailboat holding anywhere from 64-122 passengers, which will make for a different experience than the 1500+ passengers you might find on other Panama Canal cruise ships.
Departure city. Miami and Fort Lauderdale are the primary departure cities in Florida. Primary departure cities on the west coast are Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. There are variations on these standard itineraries which include departures from Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, New Orleans, Acapulco and so on.
Season. The season for Panama Canal cruises runs from October through April. Keep in mind that the rainy season ends sometime in November.
Now that you've decided on these points, here's what you can expect from your Panama Canal cruise:
As of the last day of last century, control of the canal was ceded to Panama. Thus don't be surprised when you are boarded by a Panamanian pilot, who will have control of your boat during transit. This fact should put you at ease since the Panamanian pilot will have the technical skill and know-how to make it through the sometimes-narrow canal.
Remember your passport. Thanks to the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, you will be required to have a passport or other accepted form of identification to re-enter the United States.
Don't be surprised to see a large number of boats in a waiting area for boats without reservations. If you're on a big cruise ship, you will definitely have a reservation, and will begin your journey through the canal right on time.
The biggest size boat that can fit through the canal is 108 feet by approximately 950 feet. If you're on one of the bigger Panama Canal cruises, chances are that your boat is close to this size, thus making it likely you may bump or scrape the edge of the canal. No worries, mate. The crew will paint those scrapes at your next stop.
Be on deck early for your planned arrival at the Panama Canal. Unless you have a balcony suite, you'll want to reserve a good spot on deck as the crowd there gets rather large for the actual canal crossing.
Close to 14,000 ships cross the Panama Canal yearly, paying tolls that depend upon the ship's weight. Your cruise ship will probably be paying more than $100,000 in tolls, which might just help you feel better about the cost of your Panama Canal cruise.