We recently named the Panama Canal as our cruise destination of the month thanks to its fascinating voyage through the isthmus connecting North and South America as well as the rich and varied culture that a Panama Canal cruise encompasses. Travelling from America’s Floridian east coast, through the Caribbean and Central America before landing on the west coast means that you’ll experience the best of many different worlds.
While the main highlight of the trip, particularly for those bucketlisters, is travelling through the Panama Canal itself, the way to truly experience everything a Panama cruise has to offer is by taking advantage of the shore excursions available. Here are just a few of our favourites located around the canal itself:
Explore the locks
Passing through the various locks that make up the 48 mile long Panama Canal is an experience in itself, but make sure that to fully understand and appreciate the wonders of it by hopping off board to watch them in action, raising and lowering ships from one ocean to another.
The Miraflores Locks are closest to Panama City and are popular among visitors thanks to an elevated viewing platform, however it’s for this reason that they’ll be very busy. There is an impressive visitor centre and museum about the canal’s history with a 3D movie included that’s always worth a visit.
If you have a port call in Colon, this will give you the opportunity to see the even more impressive Gatun Locks in action. This series of three locks raises and lowers ships by 85 feet. The viewing platform is also much closer and less crowded, with guides offering commentary rather than a loudspeaker.
Embera village trip
If you want to get out of the busy tourist areas, some cruise lines as well as local tour companies, provide opportunities for day trips into the Chagres National Park to visit a traditional village of the indigenous Embera people. The drive will take around an hour, but the trip incorporates the chance to take a river canoe, try some of the native food and drink while partaking in their traditional dining customs and dance, or even get a temporary tattoo using the ink from a native fruit.
Panama Canal Railway
Before the Panama Canal existed, the only way to get quickly between oceans, particularly during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, was by land. The narrow strip that connects North and South America is tricky to traverse so the first transcontinental railway was built across a treacherous, swampy landscape.
Today you can still travel on board the Panama Canal Railway between Panama and Colon.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
While Panama itself is fascinating, the surrounding area is just as much so. No trans-canal crossing would be complete without an excursion into Costa Rica, and the Tabacon Resort Hot Springs on the slopes of the active Arsenal volcano makes a fantastic trip. The tropical vegetation of the Pura Vida Gardens and the “cloud forest” at Villa Blanca will have you captivated.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
For a more wildlife focused experience in Costa Rica, a shore excursion to Tortuguero National Park at Puero Limon will be just your cup of tea. Encounters with monkeys, exotic birds, tortoises and even crocodiles are common. Braulio Carillo National Park also makes an impressive stop with its aerial tramway, the first of its kind in Central America.