For anyone looking for a unique cruise experience, a journey to the Panama Canal should definitely be at the top of your list. This trip will satisfy history buffs, ship nerds, rail fans and those just looking for a new adventure and ports to explore.
Panama Canal cruise season is typically between October to April each year and cruise lines offer both “Full Transit” and “Partial Transit” itineraries of the historic 77 kilometre waterway. “Full Transit” cruises will traverse the canal the full length, from ocean to ocean and typically run at least 14 days. “Partial Transit” cruises will enter the canal, travel through the first few set of locks, and then return back out, running at least 10 days. There are also options to travel through the original locks, dating back to 1914 or the new locks, which opened recently in 2016.
Last year, we sailed with the Coral Princess of Princess Cruises on the 10 day “Partial Transit” from Fort Lauderdale. The itinerary also included stops in Aruba, Cartagena Colombia, Limon Costa Rica and Ocho Rios Jamaica.
The Coral Princess, along with her sister ship Island Princess, were specifically designed to travel through the original locks.
Departing Fort Lauderdale and after two days at sea, our ship arrived at Oranjestad, Aruba. The stop in Aruba was only from 7am until 12:00 noon, not much time to explore the island, however a good chance to walk around close to port and pick up some souvenirs. Aruba is a beautiful island, and we would highly recommend visiting, however on a different itinerary which allows more time in port.
After Aruba, our next stop was in Cartagena in Colombia. An interesting one for us, as it was the first time we both had stepped foot in the continent of South America, another item off the bucket list! We opted for the “hop on/hop off” bus tour of the city, which allowed for some great views and time to explore the historic “Walled City”. The downside was the traffic in Cartagena was horrendous which gave us less time to enjoy and experience some of the tour stops. After hearing so many negative things about Colombia, I’ll admit we were a bit nervous to wander off on our own, however we felt completely safe the entire time, and even found the locals to be friendly and helpful. The “Walled City” was filled with shops and cafes and many narrow streets with beautiful historic buildings, well worth taking a look at! For those less adventurous, there was a lovely bird sanctuary close to port.
After a fun day in Cartagena, we boarded Coral Princess and next headed to what everyone on board was waiting for; the Panama Canal.
It was announced the previous evening, that depending on other traffic waiting to enter the canal, that we would know the time we would enter the locks by morning. Not wanting to miss a minute of the action, we woke at 6am to enjoy a breakfast at the restaurant, and at about 8am we arrived at the Gatun Locks. The whole experience was narrated by a canal historian and expert, via the ship’s public address system. The ship’s photographers were alongside the canal as we passed through the locks, and captured images of the passengers on the balconies.
Close to the wall, in the Panama Canal
The sign for the ship’s photographers
After exiting the Gatun Locks, the ship anchored in the Gatun Lake. Any passengers who booked an excursion were tendered to shore. We opted to take a trip on the Panama Canal Railroad; the shortest transcontinental train ride in the world!
We were picked up by motorcoach, brought to the Panama Canal Visitor Centre and treated to an up close and personal view of the Gatun Locks. A cargo ship was transiting through, giving us a unique perspective of how the locks work. Then it was time to head to the City of Colon, where we boarded the Panama Canal Railway at the Atlantic Station. The journey to the Pacific Station in Panama City, provided for some excellent views of the canal and the rainforest. Upon arriving at Panama City, after some souvenir and duty free shopping, we were taken back to Colon via motorcoach, where the Coral Princess was waiting for us at the cruise passenger terminal. Those choosing to stay on board the ship, got to experience Coral Princess returning back out of the locks for the short journey to Colon.
Our next port was Limon, in Costa Rica, where we opted for an excursion to the rainforest by “Aerial Tram”. It was a long motorcoach ride to the tram, but along the way we were treated to views of banana plantations and the beautiful Costa Rican countryside. The Aerial Tram ride was interesting, however we weren’t able to see much wildlife at all, perhaps just the time of year.
After a day at sea, the Coral Princess visited Ocho Rios, Jamaica. We spent the day relaxing at the private Bamboo Beach Club which spoiled us with plenty of food, booze, sun and swimming. We couldn’t ask for a better way to end the cruise, as Fort Lauderdale and eventually home in Toronto, Canada was our next stop.
Overall this was a fantastic cruise experience and we would highly recommend it to anyone considering it. Take a look at the video below, to see for yourself!