Tips for Cruising the Panama Canal
Independent Travel Tips for the professional at Leisure
Janet and I recently completed a trans-continental
cruise and we got the pleasure of going through the Panama Canal. With Manual
Noriega safely locked-up is an American prison, it’s a safe and fun ride. The
Panamanian authorities are always on the lookout for drug smugglers, seeking
suspicious ships (like the one below) that may be carrying marijuana:
Some ships may be smuggling reefer
We have first-hand experience with locks
ourselves, as Janet and I took the kids on a cross-country barge boat trip in
Ireland a few years back, a 45-foot floating mobile home, complete with kitchen,
bathroom and head.
As we traversed the Emerald Isle, we had to operate the locks ourselves and Andy
and Jen became competent lockmasters, elevating us up to 15 feet at a time to
bypass the weirs (waterfalls) that dot the ancient canals.
A great way to traverse the Panama Canal is on a
“transition cruise”, which happens in the late spring and fall, when the ships
shuttle between Alaska in the summer and the Caribbean for the winter. You can
also go through the canal on the around the world cruises.
When riding a cruise ship through the Panama Canal, it’s best to have your
breakfast on your veranda so you can watch your ships pass through the locks.
The cost of the Panama Canal crossing for the ship
is over $200,000 for the nine-hour voyage, a relative bargain when you consider
that the fuel costs alone to go “around the horn” costs over $800,000 and takes
three weeks. The Panama Canal serves over 15,000 ships per year, with dozens of
ships queuing-up in the pre-dawn darkness:
A Man, a Plan, a Canal: Panama
The Panama Canal is the engineering triumph of the
20th century, built at a cost of over 25,000 lives lost, mostly due to accidents
(landslides) and disease (yellow fever and malaria). Disposing of the dead
bodies was such a problem that the canal construction firm started pickling the
corpses in oak barrels and selling them to medical schools for research. Barrels
of pickled construction workers were neatly stacked in the dissection labs, a
morbid side-benefit of the Panama Canal project.
The strange geography of Panama is like an “S” laid on its side, such that a
westward passage actually travels in a southeastern direction:
The largest ships (called Panamax ships), barely
fit through the giant locks, and you can literally touch the side of the locks
from your balcony. The ships queue-up by the dozen awaiting their turn to enter
the Canal, and a Panamanian pilot takes-control of the ship. The first
westward-bound locks are the famous Gatun locks, raising the ship 85 feet to
The panamax ships barely fit, with just inches to
spare. Some of the largest cruise ships (i.e. the QE2) cannot fit in the Panama
Canal. Panama recently announced plans to create new, wider lock channels at a
cost of over four billion dollars, a project that will not be completed until
Panamax sized ships barely fit into the Panama canal
The “cut” is where it was necessary to chop through the continental divide to
expand Gatun Lake.
The dam at Gatun Lake
Cruising Gatun Lake
On the pacific side we have the Pedro Miguel lock:
The Pedro Miguel lock
After exiting the Panama Canal westbound you are treated to the gleaming skyline
of Panama City:
Panamá City and the road to the canal zone
The day trip through the canal takes most of the daylight hours, but most cruise
lines offer safe land tours of Panama City to soak up its unique charm.
The Panama City old town