The Panama Canal by cruise ship (full transit) is definitely a bucket list itinerary. Consequently, this was one of the most memorable cruise itineraries I’ve ever experienced. Being able to say that I’ve traveled from ocean to ocean is quite a feeling!
We were on a smaller cruise ship, The Island Princess. This cruise ship was a perfect size for transiting the old locks in the Panama Canal as it had only a few centimeters separating each side of the boat from the land.
Our trip was especially fantastic because we had started it as a seven-night repositioning cruise from Vancouver to Los Angeles. The ship had finished its Alaska season and picked up passengers in Vancouver. A week later, the ship dropped some other passengers off in Los Angeles and then continued for 15 more nights to Fort Lauderdale. Had we planned it better, we could have even started from Alaska. But that’s for another day.
The first portion of our “repositioning” cruise stopped in Astoria OR, San Francisco (which was particularly fun because we had an extended stay until 11 pm), Santa Barbara, San Diego and finally ended up in Los Angeles (San Pedro). We have done this particular itinerary a couple of times before because leaving in Vancouver was very convenient for us.
After that first week, the real Panama Canal adventure began. The first port of call, Puerto Vallarta, was a very familiar story because we have done several Mexican Riviera cruises and we knew what to expect.
Having been in Puerto Vallarta several times we decided to take a beach excursion to the small town of Yelapa. This very small village can be reached only by boat. After about 45 minutes of the catamaran ride, we arrived in the little village in the jungle. From there we climbed to a great waterfall where we were able to swim. After that, we had to cross a muddy river before reaching the beach. I have to admit this wasn’t one of my favorite excursions and I don’t think I’ll do it again.
The second port of call was a total gem: Huatulco Mexico. This was probably one of my favorite ports in Mexico, second only to Loreto.
The ship docked a few steps away from a fantastic beach, with beautiful calm, warm water. Ideal for relaxing, and sipping a nice cold Mexican Beer. Huatulco beach had several cute Mexican restaurants that served delicious food at very reasonable prices. It was a real treat. I did not want to leave this small cove of tranquility.
We had an amazing Mexican feast in one of the local beach restaurants and we loved it. The food was awesome, the service very friendly and it was really affordable.
This port of call was probably one of the highlights of the trip.
San Juan Del Sur
After Huatulco, we had a relaxing day at sea before arriving in San Juan Del Sur in Nicaragua our next port of call. We had a special guest on board that used to work for the United Nations and gave us an outstanding lecture about Nicaragua and San Juan del Sur in particular. I didn’t know it was a popular destination for people in America to go and live.
This little beach town is charming and very hospitable. People were friendly and kind. Unfortunately, the weather was not as cooperative: we had lots of rain.
Due to the torrential rain, we decided to return to the ship early, and we did not have much time to explore this port. When I go back to San Juan del Sur, I think I’ll book a snorkel excursion. I spoke with other fellow passengers that came back from one, and they were pretty enthusiastic about what they experienced. As we sailed away from Nicaragua, the sun came out. It was an incredible sunset.
Puntarenas: The Port we Missed
The following morning we approached Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the weather was miserable as the rain was torrential. Due to the rain, I was no longer excited about our excursion in the Jungle. We looked to buy a couple of rain ponchos for cover. But the Captain announced that the weather was getting worse and it was not safe for us to dock in Puntarenas. So we sailed on.
I have to admit I was relieved that we moved on. I pictured myself soaking wet in the Costa Rican Jungle, and it was not pretty!. Now we were back at sea for one more day before arriving at our next destination, Panama City.
After two sea days, we woke up to a spectacular sunny day and a beautiful skyline of Panama City; and wow, it was so modern! The horizon was stunning, and our tender ride towards the dock was a great place to take a lot of exciting photos.
We did not pre-book any excursions in Panama. Immediately after getting off the ship, we decided to try the Hop On Hop Off bus that was waiting for cruise ship passengers.
While on the bus, we decided to stay on board for a full loop of the bus route so that we could have a general idea of what to see and what to expect. The heat in Panama was quite intense, and the breeze on the upper deck of the bus made it a bit more pleasant.
Miraflores Locks, The Pacific Side of the Panama Canal
We decided to get off at the Miraflores Lock, at the Canal, and visited the Panama Canal Museum. The museum was very informative and well worth the entrance fee. As a bonus, we got to see the canal and the locks from land, and I was quite surprised at how narrow the old Canal was.
Our ship stayed anchored in the bay of Panama City throughout the afternoon and into the evening. We were blessed by another striking tropical sunset from our balcony.
Entering the Panama Canal by Cruise Ship
As we woke up around 7 am, we found ourselves well on our way to the Canal. We decided to have breakfast on the balcony so we would not miss any moment of this epic experience.
While approaching the first set of locks, Miraflores, it made me realize how precise the maneuver has to be. The canal was such a narrow space. Consequently, we had only a few centimeters of clearance on each side of our ship. Once we were inside the barrier, the lock started to fill up with water, and our giant cruise ship started lifting slowly. Wow, that was an experience.
It took about 20 minutes to clear the first lock, and we proceeded to sail toward the Pedro Miguel lock and the Puente Centenario Bridge.
The 2nd Set of Locks: Pedro Miguel
We watched the second set of locks from the lower deck, and we were almost able to touch the ground off the side of the ship. It was incredible.
It took about half an hour to clear this set of locks, and we were again moving. I thought about how much work this must have been to open the canal. It must have been quite the effort clearing it all out at the beginning of the 20th century. Not only that, they had to use tons of dynamite!
Around lunchtime, we arrived in the calm and serene Gatun Lake, in the heart of the country. Gatun Lake was designed to feed the Panama Canal with water. Meanwhile, we decided to have pizza and beer on our balcony to be able to see the view of the lake passing by.
We approached the last set of locks around 2 pm and proceeded to exit into the Atlantic. The Gatun locks were probably the most impressive because we were watching them from the back of the ship. It took an hour of careful ship maneuvers and skilled mule operators to help us clear this last set of locks and finally leave the canal.
Bonus Video: Transiting the Panama Canal By Cruise Ship –
The Entire 8 Hour Crossing In Less than 2 Minutes!
Upon reflection, I was a bit sad when we left the canal for the Atlantic ocean. That is to say, sailing the Panama Canal By Cruise Ship an extraordinary feeling.
Our first stop was the old Spanish fortress that we explored. From the top of the fort, the view of the city is quite spectacular.
After that, we boarded the bus and got off in the charming downtown. The old city is still surrounded by 11km of city walls with bastions. Inside the walls, the streets are lined with incredibly colorful houses perfectly preserved from the old days.
We walked in the old city for about two hours until the intense heat made us wanted to go back on board our ship.
After leaving Cartagena we sailed for two more days towards our final destination, Fort Lauderdale Florida. It was time to disembark and fly back home.
We were very sad to leave the ship. It was a great time and we met some new friends. We went home with great memories and photos.
I hope my review has inspired you to do the same itinerary. In conclusion, I am certain that you won’t be disappointed!
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In March 2017, Rick and Andrea started a Facebook Group called Travel Addicts as a way to share their travel photos and videos with the world. And boy did it ever grow! As of Feb 2020, the group has grown to over 200,000 members! One reason for their success is that they have done their best to ensure only those high quality content get shared, all while limiting the use of commercial content. This is a painstaking process – a labor of love that each takes both very seriously.
Thanks for reading!
Rick & Andrea