The engineering marvel that is the 105-year-old Panama Canal remains the main draw for cruises to—and through—this Central American country.
The number and variety of cruises to Panama has grown in recent years, in part due to the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2016. Giant cruise vessels such as the 4,004-passenger Norwegian Bliss that once were too big for the waterway now can cross it with ease, and they’re arriving to do just that. The destination is also attracting a growing number of small boutique and adventure ships, lured by the country’s lush landscapes, pristine beaches, and cultural offerings.
For nearly all the vessels that visit, the canal remains the big draw. Indeed, the typical sailing to Panama is billed as a “Panama Canal cruise” and often offers only a day or two in the country, a visit that is typically almost all about the man-made waterway. Panama calls tend to be sandwiched between stops in the Caribbean and along the Pacific coast of Central America as ships make their way between Florida and California (and, occasionally, to and from other gateways as well). Passengers can expect a lot of sea days due to the long distances involved in the full passage.
Opened in 1914 and a marvel of engineering, the Panama Canal is a 51-mile series of locks and channels that crosses Central America at its narrowest point, allowing ships to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in less than a day. Unveiled in 2016, the expansion of the canal introduced two massive new locks on each side of the waterway that allow for much wider vessels to transit. The nine-year project also included excavating channels that lead to the new locks and expanding existing channels.
The typical Panama cruise includes a full transit of the canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific, which usually takes about nine hours. Most big-ship cruise lines arrange to have their ships enter in the early morning, allowing for an all-daylight crossing. Smaller ships are sometimes relegated to nighttime crossings. During the passage, a canal guide will usually narrate from the bridge, explaining the entire process, as passengers line outer decks to watch the vessel rise and fall nearly 100 feet through the impressive lock system.
On some itineraries, ships will spend a second day docked at a port near one of the entrances to the canal so passengers can visit a lock up close on a shore excursion (or head off on an alternative Panamanian adventure offered by the cruise line). A small number of voyages add even more days for exploring the country.
Whether your interest is limited to the canal itself or includes other Panama allures, there’s a Panama voyage that’s right for you.
Best for romantics
For pure romance on a Panama cruise, it’s hard to beat the occasional Barbados to Panama voyages that Star Clippers offers on its 227-passenger Royal Clipper—the world’s largest sailing ship. You’ll feel the power of the wind as the majestic, five-masted vessel hopscotches between such Caribbean islands as St. Lucia, Aruba, and Curaçao on its way to a full transit of the Panama Canal. A throwback to a bygone era that feels more like a private yacht than a traditional cruise ship, the Royal Clipper offers such diversions as climbing one of its towering masts or helping to hoist its 42 sails. Or laze the day away with your significant other in its bowsprit nets, which jut out from its sleek bow. Because the trips begin or end in Panama, it’s easy to add a few days in the country to see it in more depth. Fares from $3,990 per person; starclippers.com.
Best for a deep dive into the canal
While many Panama cruises bring only a day of canal-related sightseeing, the seven-night Costa Rica & Panama Canal sailings that Windstar Cruises offers on its 212-passenger Star Pride promise a much deeper exploration. In addition to a day spent transiting the canal, the itinerary includes a day at Colón, Panama, on the Atlantic side of the waterway, where passengers can arrange tours to the giant new Agua Clara Locks a few miles away (these are the locks that raise the biggest ships into the waterway from the Atlantic side). The ship also docks for a night and day at Balboa, Panama, on the canal’s Pacific side, for tours to the nearby Miraflores Locks and related exhibit halls (the Miraflores Locks lower ships into the Pacific). The trips are rounded out by a beach day at Panama’s pristine Isla Parida and two outdoorsy stops in Costa Rica where passengers have the opportunity to bird-watch and hike in rain forests or kayak through mangroves. Fares from $1,999 per person; windstarcruises.com.
Best for families
No other ship sailing regularly to Panama has an array of kiddie offerings that can match Disney Cruise Line’s 1,754-passenger Disney Wonder. To keep the munchkins happy on the vessel’s twice-a-year, 14-night Panama Canal Cruises, which always are loaded with sea days, you’ll find extensive, supervised indoor play areas (all with a Disney theme) as well as lots of deck-top, kid-approved play zones; Disney-themed shows; and–in typical Disney fashion–some of the most family-friendly restaurants at sea. In addition to a full transit of the canal, the trips usually include several stops in Mexico as well as visits to Cartagena, Colombia, and Grand Cayman Island. Fares from $9,337 per person; disneycruise.disney.go.com.
Best for bird and wildlife lovers
The 10-night Costa Rica & Panama–Canal, Culture, Adventure trips offered by small-ship specialist UnCruise Adventures are all about hiking, kayaking, bird-watching, and other outdoor pursuits in Panama and nearby Costa Rica (plus, of course, a transit of the canal, along with a tour of its Agua Clara Locks). Watch for giant frigate birds and yellow warblers as you head out in skiffs to explore Panama’s Bartolome Island bird sanctuary, just a day after a wildlife-filled motorized canoe ride to a local village in Panama’s remote Darien Jungle, where villagers will greet you with a traditional welcome and share customs, stories, songs, and dance. Another stop offers a vigorous hike in Costa Rica’s isolated Osa Conservation Area, known for its diverse array of plant and animal species, including monkeys, tree frogs, caimans, anteaters, scarlet macaws, coatis, and 16 different types of hummingbirds. The trips take place on the company’s intimate, 62-passenger Safari Voyager, which is notably packed with kayaks, paddleboards, skiffs, and other gear for use on daily adventures. Fares from $6,695 per person; uncruise.com.
Best for luxury lovers
Fine cuisine, top-notch service, and elegant public spaces are hallmarks of Crystal Cruises’ famously luxurious, 848-passenger Crystal Symphony, which typically operates Panama Canal cruises once or twice a year. Grab one of the oversized leather chairs at the front of the ship’s spacious, glass-walled observation lounge, Palm Court, to watch the canal transit in comfort as tuxedo-clad waiters serve you scones and tea. Afterwards, you can head downstairs for art-like bites at the ship’s Nobu eatery. Or tell your private butler (yes, in many cabins, you’ll have one) to send some back to your suite. Such pampering on a canal cruise is relatively rare and it’ll cost you. The typical Crystal voyage through the canal starts at more than $700 per couple per day. Fares from $3,570 per person; crystalcruises.com.
Best for the mega-ship fan
If big, bustling resorts are your thing, your best bet by far for a Panama sailing is one of the handful of voyages available on Norwegian Cruise Line’s two biggest vessels, Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy. Significantly larger than any other ship sailing through the canal, the 20-deck-high vessels offer dozens of eateries and bars, large casinos, Broadway shows, and some of the most outrageous deck-top attractions around. You’ll find go-kart racing (on double-decker tracks), giant waterslides, laser tag courses, multiple pools, comedy clubs, and giant spas, among the standout features. Be prepared for sharing your vacation with a lot of fellow travelers. Each of the ships can carry nearly 5,000 people. Fares from $1,149 per person; ncl.com.
A big caveat to Panama cruises, as noted above, is that they typically don’t include many days in Panama. Due to the country’s long distance from cruise hubs such as Miami, many Panama voyages involve long travel over open seas. If you want an in-depth Panama experience, we recommend choosing one of the itineraries that begins or ends in the country and extending your visit with a stay on land.
>> Next: The Best Around-the-World Cruises