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Cruising the Panama Canal

Are you thinking of cruising the Panama Canal? In this article, we will tell you all you need to know before going on your cruise.

Facts About the Panama Canal

So what is the Panama Canal? It is a man-made canal that connects the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean. It is 82km long, located in the Central American Country of Panama. The original canal was inaugurated in 1914. At that time it was built it was renowned as one of the engineering marvels of the world.

The French began the construction in 1881 but stopped because of engineering problems and a high worker mortality rate due to malaria. Americans took over the project in 1904 and they were able to complete it in 1914. The Canal was inaugurated on August 15, 1914.

Old locks versus new locks

In the new century, due to the increased size of cargo ships, it became necessary to built a new set of locks to accommodate the bigger cargo. This new canal was inaugurated in 2016.

The old canal has 3 sets of locks on the Pacific entrance.  These are the Miraflores locks and then the Pedro Miguel locks. While on the Atlantic side the Gatun locks. In the middle of the Canal ships transit in a vast artificial lake – the Gatun Lake, which also acts as a water reservoir for the locks.

The Panama Canal

Different types of cruises through the Panama Canal

Well, that’s let’s talk about cruising the Panama Canal. We think that a Panama Canal cruise should be a bucket list item for every cruiser. In fact, it is a thrilling experience going from one ocean to another one in less than a day.  You can choose between two kinds of Panama Cruises: 

Full transit versus partial transit

You can do a Full transit (also called ocean to ocean) and runs from Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or San Diego and ends up in Florida (Miami or Fort Lauderdale) or vice versa.

Or you can do a Partial transit (or return). These kinds of cruises usually go through one set of locks (normally the Gatun locks) up to the Gatun lake then turn around to go back to the port of origin.  In our opinion, as a first Panama Canal cruise, full transit is the way to go. In fact, most of the excitement is going from one ocean to the other. 

Which ship should I pick?

An important thing to consider is which ship should you take. This is a very important detail. In fact, the size of the ship determines if you are going to sail the old canal or the new one.

In order to transit the historic Panama Canal, the ship has to be a Panamax size. So when booking your cruise make sure to tell your agent that you want to go through the old canal (If this is important for you).

Does the Cabin type matter?

Yes – and we strongly suggest you book a balcony cabin as well. In fact, one of our best memory about cruising the Panama Canal was having pizza and beers on the balcony while going through Gatun Lake.  If you want to know more about how to pick the best cabin on a cruise ship you can check out our article.

We cruised the Panama Canal on the Island Princess, a Panamax ship, and we did the full transit from Vancouver Canada to Fort Lauderdale Florida. If you want to read about our journey you can check the article here. It was an epic experience that took 21 days with some amazing ports, but today we will only talk about cruising the Panama Canal itself. 

A crew member advised us that the best cabins when cruising the old Panama Canal eastward are the ones on the starboard side of the ship because from there you have the best view! Obviously, if you are going westward it will be on the port side. 

Our Personal experience

The day before Cruising the Panama Canal

The day before cruising the Panama Canal we stopped in Panama City. Because of that, we had the opportunity to explore the Miraflores Locks from the land side.  And we visited the locks museum which is really informative. If you have the opportunity of doing so, go check it out because it will make your experience even more fascinating. 

Panama Canal Miraflores Locks Information Center

Entering the Panama Canal

The morning of the transit started bright and early, in fact, we approached the Canal at 7 am and the pilot came on board then. 

Panama Canal Pilot boat
Pilot Boat

About half an hour after that we reached the first set of locks the Miraflores locks.

It is quite fascinating to see the ship go through this tight passage with less than a meter clearance on each side.  To keep the ship in place through the locks, a special set of trains called mules attach tension ropes on each side of the ship – and pull it through!

Panama Canal the mule

While going through the first set of locks we were able to see a big cargo on the new canal a few hundred meters away.

Once we reached the first set of locks, we found it is incredibly fascinating to feel the ship being lifted several meters in just a few minutes. Also, the cruise line arranged for the photographer to walk along the outside of the ship and take photos of the ship while was transiting. 

Panama Canal photographer

To transit, the Miraflores locks took about 50 minutes, and then we were sailing towards the Pedro Miguel ones. 

Panama Canal ship clearance

Pedro Miguel Locks and Gatun Lake

Right after the Pedro Miguel locks, we entered the narrowest part of the Panama Canal the Culebra Cut, before entering Gatun Lake.  This was one of the most difficult parts of the canal to dig due to a large number of landslides. 

Around lunchtime, we reached the tranquil and wide Gatun Lake. As we told you before we very much enjoyed ordering pizzas and beer on the balcony! One word of caution – it gets really really hot at noon in Panama so be aware of dehydration and use a lot of sunscreens.

Pizza on the Balcony

Gatun Locks and the Atlantic Ocean

Around 2 pm we reached the final set of locks of the Panama Canal, the Gatun Locks. We decided to watch this last set of locks from the back of the ship (all the way aft) to have the best view.

We’re glad we did because from there you could really see and feel the changes of level in between each lock. We were also able to see pretty well the mules pulling the ropes to keep the ship in the center of the narrow passage. 

About an hour later we were entering the Atlantic ocean! This was a really epic experience and we would gladly do it again!

Panama Canal Gatun Locks

We hope you enjoyed these few tips about cruising the Panama Canal, see you in the next video. Take care!

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