The Panama Canal - Cruising The Big Ditch

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As we watch the ship’s captain pace up and down on the bridge wing of the ship, it’s obvious there’s more on his mind than that night’s deck party. For the man in charge, a transit through the Panama Canal is a stressful event. For passengers, however, it’s a fascinating and leisurely experience that truly grips the imagination. All we have to do is sit back in a comfy chair, order a cool drink, and watch as one of the great engineering achievements of the 20th century passes right before our eyes. 

Gatun Locks

Our transit of the Panama Canal began at Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side of the canal, early on a muggy morning. Although we’d made a point of watching the excellent documentary, “A Man, A Plan, A Canal - Panama”, on the TV in our suite, in truth it did little to prepare us for the experience of seeing this engineering marvel first hand. As we inch towards the first lock, the early morning serenity is rudely interrupted by the drone of electric locomotives - called mules - that pull ships through the lock system. Every crew member and the canal pilots watch carefully as Regent’s Seven Seas Mariner is ‘hooked up’ and eased into the first of three locks. Unseen currents and wind make maneuvering a large ship always tricky, but guiding a 216-metre-long, multi-million-dollar luxury cruise ship into a 305-metre long chamber is an especially demanding task - especially as there is just one metre clearance from the hull to the edge of the lock. One mistake and the ship’s hull is damaged or even breached. Minutes later, a pair of 700-ton behemoth gates close behind us and millions of gallons of freshwater pour into the chamber, raising us slowly to the level of the next lock. Then the huge front gates slowly open and the mules pull us gently forward to repeat the process. 

About The Panama Canal

For a savvy traveller who loves history, engineering marvels and cruising, you can’t beat a transit through the Panama Canal. Completed in 1914, it is the product of 35 years of sweat, tears and its construction came at a cost of 20,000 human lives. The 80-kilometre-long waterway connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at the Isthmus of Panama. It cuts through the heart of what was once one of the earth’s deadliest jungles, allowing ships to glide effortlessly over the spine of an entire continent 25 metres above sea level. As cruise ships have grown in size, however, the Panama Canal has been forced to move with the times. IN 2007 a huge project to widen the canal and create a new lane, costing over US$5 billion, was launched, to allow bigger ships to make the transit - and in greater numbers. After passing through the last lock we sail into Gatun Lake, a parking lot for all manner of cargo ships, freighters and other vessels waiting their turn to navigate the narrow Galliard Cut en route to the Pacific Ocean. The mechanical marvels of the canal are juxtaposed against the surprising backdrop of a mirror-still lake surrounded by untouched rainforest. Like neighbouring Costa Rica, Panama’s rainforest is abundant with wildlife. But while most cruise ships merely pass through the Canal, denying passengers an opportunity to experience some of Panama’s natural delights, occasionally some will make a stop at Gatun Yacht Club.

Panama’s Canal Sights 

In spite of its grand name, the club is a small uninspiring recreational area used by local residents and Canal employees. But it’s a pleasant enough spot for the locals to enjoy a cold beer, a cooling swim, or to fish for peacock bass, and for us to see a colourful folkloric show and shop for local arts and crafts. A short distance away, however, is the Chagres River where we board a small covered boat and brave the heat to set off on a cruise of a different kind. Within minutes, our tour guide spots some of the more engaging local wildlife. First we see a large three-toed sloth, clinging to a tree trunk almost entirely camouflaged in the dense foliage, and then a group of howler monkeys. Instead of retreating deeper into the jungle to avoid the intense midday heat, they treat us to grand display, hurtling themselves between the branches and screeching wildly. Later, back on board our ship, our transit of the Canal continues as we enjoy a lavish deck party. We dance to the band, feast on a magnificent buffet, and indulge in complementary fine wines oblivious to the dark, hostile jungle that surround us on either side of the Galliard Cut.Then it’s into the lowering phase of the Canal transit - this time the Pedro Lock into the Miraflores that lowers us into the blue Pacific Ocean. The final stretch of the Canal leads to the harbour of Balboa, then beneath the Bridge of the Americas and into the Bay of Panama where northbound ships wait their turn to transit. By 2am we’re out in the Pacific Ocean, hugging the Panamanian coastline en route to Costa Rica. 

The Rest Of The Itinerary 

Our cruise had originated in Fort Lauderdale and was bound for Los Angeles, the 17 days in between offering plenty of sea days for rest, relaxation and enjoying the ship’s facilities. Although the predominant reason for taking this cruise is the Panama Canal transit, the itinerary often includes stops in the Caribbean, Costa Rica, and Mexico, highlighting the diversity of the two great oceans - the Atlantic and the Pacific. The three ports of call on the Atlantic side included the funky, colourful port of Key West, the duty free shopping haven of Grand Cayman, and the isolated archipelago of Colombia’s San Andres Islands. On the Pacific side stops usually include Puntarenas, gateway to Costa Rica’s stunning western countryside, and the old-meets-new feel of San Diego. In between is Mexico with the steamy craziness of Acapulco, the shabby chic of old Mazatlan, and the youthful groove of Cabo San Lucas. At one time, a transit of the Panama Canal was considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Today, however, more and more cruise passengers are repeating the journey, both for the canal itself - which never fails to enthrall - and for the diverse ports of call in the two great oceans on either side. For those who love history, engineering marvels and cruising, it really can’t be beaten.


Ben Hall


  • 4
    Once Is Good

    Posted by Emmy on 3rd Jun 2019

    Loved doing a transit but wouldn't necessarily do a cruise again for it. It was a long day, rained a lot and if you're not into engineering I don't reckon it's that interesting. Still loved a long cruise from Miami to San Diego, although it cost and arm and a leg!

  • 5
    Best Cruise Ever

    Posted by George D on 3rd Jun 2019

    We've done this journey 3 times and it never fails to enthral! None of our cruises stopped in the canal for a port visit though which would be added amazement. I could do it again and again it's brilliant.