Savvy cruisers consider sailing through the Panama Canal to be a thrill of a lifetime. This year, there's even more to look forward to.
The 77.1-kilometre ship canal, connecting the Atlantic Ocean via the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean, marks the centenary of its opening on Aug. 14 with events throughout the year.
Cruise ships are joining in with special onboard activities and itineraries for the many travellers who have the canal on their “bucket list.” The Panama Canal Authority said about 200 cruise ships will make full and partial transits this year, with Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Celebrity Cruises visiting the most.
Mid-sized ships, carrying from 1,000 to 2,500 passengers or so, mostly make the trip now.
That will change once construction is completed – perhaps next year – on a project currently stalled over financing to add a wider third set of locks. This will allow much-larger ships to make the trip of the engineering marvel across the Isthmus of Panama.
The current fee for cruise ships to ply the canal is up to $300,000 a passage, at about $134 per berth (bed). The first person to swim the entire length of the canal was Richard Halliburton, a Tennessee travel writer, in 1928 who paid a toll of 36 cents.
TAKE A DIP IN THE CANAL
Our first visit was aboard Holland America’s Rotterdam as the ship idled in Limon Bay in the Caribbean Sea waiting to proceed through the first set of locks.
The sun was rising and a new day beginning as the signal – two shrill blasts – pierced the warm tropical air and were answered by two deep blasts of the ship's whistle.
Then, one of those “great moments” in travel began.
"Come in, have a look; I have everything you're looking for" in this colourful Panamanian shopping bus at the Gatun Yacht Club. (Jim Fox/Special to QMI Agency)
We sailed to Gatun Lake, formed when an earthen dam was built across the Chagres River.
Cruisers spend the day at the Gatun Yacht Club where many people dipped their toes and swam in the canal waters and fished for peacock bass off the dock. There were folkloric shows with dancing by Panamanians and a calypso band and plenty of cooling libations and food. The Cuna Indians of San Blas offered their crafts for sale along with wood and nut carvings made by the Embera and Wounan Indians.
Shore excursions included nature hikes in the tropical rainforest to spot monkeys in the trees and see sloths, alligators, bald eagles, herons, exotic butterflies and other flora and fauna.
This was a highlight of a 10-day round-trip cruise from Fort Lauderdale with two nights at sea before arriving in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica for a visit to Dole’s banana plantation.
The next day was the canal transit, followed by a day in Cartagena, Colombia, island- hopping at Aruba and Curacao and a hot, sunny day at Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas. The trip through to the Pacific Ocean takes about eight hours and includes the Gaillard Cut, a winding, 15-kilometre channel called the ditch that broaches the Continental Divide.
Pedro Miguel locks lower ships to Miraflores Lake where the locks are the tallest of the system because of extreme tidal variation in the Pacific Ocean. The 1.6-kilometre Bridge of the Americas is an impressive steel arch straddling the canal at the entrance/exit on the Pacific side.
NEED TO KNOW
Holland America offers voyages of 10 to 22 days with fares from U.S. $899. hollandamerica.com.
Princess has an 11-day sailing from $999. princess.com.
Celebrity has a full transit, San Diego to Fort Lauderdale, of 15 days from $1,219. celebritycruises.com.