While many dream of visiting Central America, very few ever get the chance to experience cruising through the very spot North and South America split. Many note that a vacation to Panama is too expensive or not safe. Well, let me tell you, the best way to see the Panama Canal and possibly get off your boat at an affordable price is through a Panama Canal cruise!
If you are bit wary to cruising, you are going to absolutely fall in love with what the Panama Canal has to offer! I had the chance to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on my Panama Canal cruise back in December 2019, and to this date, it is my favorite cruise that I have been on.
Plus, cruise ships offer an extra sense of security, as you will have a safe place to rest your head everyday. So, grab your free cruise planner, review our top cruise essentials, and buckle up, because we are going to go through everything you may need to know about Panama Canal cruises!
When is the Season for Panama Canal Cruises?
Most cruises through the Panama Canal consistently run from October to April. This means you have a lot of flexibility for when you want to enjoy your Panama Canal cruise, whether looking for a Christmas escape, Spring Break adventure, or planning a Transpacific back-to-back cruise.
If you are planning to cruise the Panama Canal and the surrounding Caribbean countries, the optimal time is after the rainy season ends in November for the best weather, wildlife, and viewing experience. This is truly when the temperatures are the most comfortable and enjoyable with sunnier days and breathtakingly scenic Panama Canal views.
For longer, repositioning Panama Canal cruises, you should stick to the earlier or later months of this window when the cruise ships are finding a new home.
There are some Panama cruises running year-round, which are typically shorter in length between 3-5 nights long.
How is the Weather on a Panama Canal Cruise?
Since the Panama Canal is nestled between the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, weather can vary greatly during Panama Canal cruises. With the varying climates of Panama and the mixing weather of two different oceans, it would be best to prepare for some rainy weather during the transit.
When I went on my Panama Canal cruise, there were plenty of clouds in the sky, however, it did not rain. That being said, make sure to bring your rain jacket as it could have just as easily gone the other way. It was also fairly humid, leading to fog during the morning hours of the Panama Canal transit.
Technically the Caribbean side of Panama Canal measures twice the amount of rain as Panama City, notable for short and unpredictable afternoon thunderstorms during the spring months.
Because of Panama's strategic location, it is safe to assume that you will be enjoying warm temperatures during your Panama Canal cruise. The Panama Canal area has a tropical climate, meaning temperatures will range between 75 and 85 degrees on your Panama cruising adventure.
How do I plan a Panama Canal Cruise?
First, you will want to get an idea of what your must-see attractions are. Most Panama Canal cruises will focus on either Caribbean islands, Central America, Mexican Rivera, or a combination of those destinations. Very few Panama Canal cruises are more than 14 days long, but if you are looking for a longer Panama Canal cruise, make sure to investigate repositioning cruises.
After you determine the itinerary you would like, then you need to focus on a specific cruise line for the best Panama Canal cruise ever. Each cruise line offers a unique experience for every type of cruiser. Then, you can select a date with that perfect cruise line and itinerary to book and mark in your calendar!
I highly recommend booking a balcony or higher stateroom on your cruise ship as you will not regret waking up to the breathtaking Panama Canal from your own private balcony. Just imagine waking up, stepping outside, and seeing all the fascinating locks and landscape surrounding the transit.
Also, it is important to make sure to avoid the loudest staterooms onboard to completely relax on your Panama Canal cruise.
Once booked, you will receive access to more booking options like onboard packages, shore excursions, and stateroom upgrades. I highly suggest taking advantage of these pre-travel opportunities to have your vacation planned out before you leave on your Panama cruise!
What are the Different Panama Canal Itineraries?
There are way more Panama Canal cruises than you probably thought possible! With that, you may be wondering what the best itinerary is for your specific cruising goals. From repositioning cruises to Mexican Riviera adventures, there are positives and negatives to every itinerary option in the cruising realm in regards to Panama Canal cruises.
With that being said, all Panama Canal cruises can be categorized into three categories-- Trans-Canal Crossing, Partial Crossing, and Faux Crossing.
Trans-Panama Canal Crossing
By far the most popular Panama Canal itinerary for cruises runs from Florida to the West Coast-- or vice versa. The most popular departure ports are Miami and Fort Lauderdale in Florida, with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego serving as the larger West Coast cities.
If you are lucky, you may be able to find some longer sailings departing from Seattle, Washington or Vancouver, Canada. However, if you prefer to plan a back to back cruise, I highly suggest heading out of and to one of the most popular ports, as these will typically have more options to extend your cruising vacation.
Most trans-Canal itineraries will call in many ports found in the Western Caribbean. These include Puerto Limon and Puntarenas in Costa Rica, and Cartagena, Colombia. Other Panama Canal itineraries include stops along Mexico's west coast and in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala.
Panama Canal Experience
With this trans-Panama Canal itinerary, you can expect to spend a full day on the canal, crossing the beautiful Panama Canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific, or vice versa.
If you have been dreaming about cruising the Panama Canal for a while, this cruise itinerary is definitely for you! Plus, you will more than likely receive an in-depth history of Panama and the lock system involved with the Canal. Therefore, if you are an engineering geek and don't mind not getting off the ship within Panama, this itinerary is for you.
If you are wanting to get the "Panama Canal Experience" but are looking for a round-trip itinerary, I highly suggest looking into the Panama Canal Partial Crossing cruises.
This is also a great option for those who want to see a bit of the canal, but also want to get out and explore the country of Panama. Most partial crossing itineraries will stop in Colon and Gamboa, perfect towns to get a taste of Panamanian culture.
Most of the partial crossing Panama Canal cruises will depart from Florida, and therefore, you will also enjoy some of the other fabulous Caribbean ports during your adventure. These include islands in the Southern and Western Caribbean, and occasionally Cartagena, Colombia.
Panama Canal Experience
On partial crossings, the cruise ships do not actually cross the entire Panama Canal. Instead, the ship will typically pass through one lock, and let passengers of in a town along the canal to explore.
Passengers on their Panama Canal cruise with partial crossing will discover the town of Gamboa, taking in sights that they would not otherwise get to experience and see during the full crossing itineraries. From Gamboa, passengers can expect to enjoy a variety of shore excursions that they otherwise would not get a chance to experience.
Alternatively, for those who were hoping to see the full canal, you can book a shore excursion on a smaller boat to the Centennial Bridge, Gaillard Cut, and the Bridge of the Americas.
The last form of Panama Canal cruise is the Faux Crossing itinerary. Many cruise lines will offer all the proper shore excursions of Panama Canal cruises without actually entering the canal at all!
Instead, these cruise ships dock at Colon, Panama (the entrance to the canal), and spend a day on the Caribbean side in port. From here, passengers can see the canal however their heart desires, whether stopping for a few minutes on a city tour, or booking a longer shore excursion through a private boat tour crossing the Panama Canal.
The best way to find this type of Panama Canal cruise is through searching for Caribbean and Central American itineraries that stop in Colon. From there, look into the shore excursions carefully to fully plan your Panama Canal adventure.
Types of Panama Canal Cruise Lines
No matter what type of Panama cruising experience you are looking for, I guarantee you will find it through one of these main and not-so-main-stream cruise lines.
From 3-day weekend trips to 180-day world cruises, these Panama Canal cruises are worth every penny. There are plenty of Panama cruise deals available for eager cruisers booking through a travel agent or directly with the cruise line.
Make sure to research diligently to find the best Panama Canal cruise for you!
Mainstream Cruise Lines for Panama Canal Cruises
Just about all the main cruise lines offer sailings to and through the Panama Canal:
- Royal Caribbean International -- Royal Caribbean offers spectacular itineraries up through the Panama Canal and to the Caribbean's most popular cruise ports at extraordinarily low prices. With this cruise line offering countless amenities for all types of cruisers, Royal Caribbean offers dozens of Panama Canal cruises every year.
- Norwegian Cruise Line -- Norwegian (NCL) offers plenty of unique itineraries visiting the Panama Canal, boasting new discoveries around every turn. NCL prides themselves on offering exhilarating wildlife and cultural shore excursions during their NCL Panama Canal cruises. (NOTE: this is the cruise line I sailed with through the Panama Canal)
- Celebrity Cruises -- Celebrity Cruises offer their passengers a slightly more luxurious experience tailored to each guests' dream Panama Canal cruise. This cruise line is popular for it's over-the-top vacation experience traveling to the diverse Caribbean and Central American cruise ports!
- Holland America -- Holland America offers cruises through the Panama Canal during the Southern Caribbean cruising season. Whether cruising around the Caribbean first or exploring the western coast of Mexico, you are guaranteed to enjoy their luxurious experience on your Panama Canal cruise!
Smaller Lines Cruising through the Panama Canal
Active travelers may be looking for expedition-style voyages or cruises on a smaller ship to enjoy more time exploring the Panama Canal.
- Silversea -- Silversea offers stylish and intimate Panama Canal cruises. Their smaller ships visit plenty of the cruise spots in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean on their journey. They pride themselves on their crew to guest ratio of almost 1:1 creating a personalized Panama Canal trip for every passenger.
- Seabourn -- Seabourn offers a couple of Panama Canal sailings every Southern Caribbean cruising season. Their stunning cruise ships bring passengers to the sweeping landscapes of Panama. They also bring intelligent historians onboard to explain the history and importance of the Panama Canal.
- Regent Seven Seas -- Regent Seven Seas explores the Panama Canal through immersive experiences on their Panama Canal cruises. This cruise line balances cultural, active, and foodie activities as they navigate through the warm climate of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and Panama.
- Oceania -- This small and luxurious cruise line offers a variety of intimate Panama Canal expeditions on their cruise ships. Their ships visit plenty of other Caribbean and Pacific Ocean destinations on their Panama Canal sailings. That, paired with the personalized cruising experience curated by Oceania, offers some of the best experiences at sea.
Popular Ports for Panama Canal Cruises
No matter which cruise line and itinerary you ultimately decide on, you will likely visit a mix of these fantastic Panama, Caribbean, and Central American cruise ports.
Many cruises through the Panama Canal offer trips to these popular ports of call that are consistent with most itineraries. Like mainstream Caribbean cruise ports, these ports cater to the tropical cruise market. If you are looking for more than touristy attractions and activities, make sure to get out of the main port area and explore.
The city of Colón is most frequently referred to as the gateway to the Caribbean for the country of Panama. Therefore, if you are cruising through the Panama Canal, there is a high chance this port will be on your cruise itinerary.
If you are looking to learn about the history of the Panama Canal before you embark on your transit, make sure to spend two to three hours at the Agua Clara Visitor Center. Here, you will learn about one of the world's greatest engineering feats; the Panama Canal. For more history of Panama, check out Fort San Lorenzo; another must-do attraction in Colón. This fort is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers no official tours, but you can walk around the area with a handy map.
If you prefer to hit up the Panamanian shopping scene on your Panama cruise, check out Avenida Central-- a six-block-long pedestrian mall that is filled with tasty, local restaurants with boutique shops and unique finds alike.
Fuerte Amador (Balboa), Panama
Another popular Panama port found on the Caribbean coast near the canal is Fuerte Amador. The main marina found at the tender pier for Panama Canal cruises offers numerous tasty restaurants and souvenir shops.
The top attraction to explore during your time in Fuerte Amador is the Biomuseum. This modern, brightly-colored building is found just across the causeway and illustrates the story of the Panama isthmus formation. Another popular excursion is Casco Viejo, the older area of the city famous for its narrow streets surrounded by flower-lined balconies. Here, you can explore historic cathedrals and sites while browsing the local shops for souvenirs.
If you prefer to learn more about the locks you will see on your Panama Canal cruise, check out the Miraflores Locks Museum and Visitor Center.
If you get the opportunity to stop part-way through the Panama Canal, you are more than likely going to stop at the Gamboa cruise port on your Panama Canal cruise.
By far the most popular and worthwhile attraction in the Gamboa cruise port is the Gamboa Rainforest. One area that offers a unique experience is the Sloth Sanctuary. There is also a aerial tram that will bring you through the vast rainforest and the surrounding landscape. Another nice Gamboa shore excursion is a boat trip on the Chagres River to Gatun Lake.
Another exciting outdoor adventure spot is the Soberania National Park. This has been noted as one of the best places in the world to observe flora and fauna.
Another popular Panama Canal cruise port is Cartagena, Colombia. This beautiful South American city is filled with colorful buildings, fresh seafood, and tropical fruits-- all of which will leave you wanting more!
The easiest excursion to enjoy in Cartagena is a free walking tour. This is the best way to see the Old City area on your Panama Canal cruise as you can easily spend hours meandering the streets boasting loads of fascinating Colombian history. To dive deeper into Cartagena's history, head over to San Felipe Castle-- the most famous landmark in Cartagena, built back in 1657.
Before you head back to your Panama Canal cruise, make sure to grab some fruit from the local palenqueras-- groups of women balancing bowls of fruit on their heads dressed in vibrant colors.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Puntarenas is most popular as the biggest beach town near Costa Rica's capital city. As a simple and laidback town, Puntarenas used to be to the largest fishing port in the country.
That being said, the top thing to do in Puntarenas on your Panama Canal cruise is heading over to the main beach-- Playa Puntarenas. If you prefer to get out of the port area, take the Puntarenas ferry to either Paquera or Naranjo. These are the best spots to experience the local Costa Rican life on your adventure.
If you can't decide what to do during your time in the Puntarenas cruise port, many shore excursions offer numerous stops at the city's top attractions during their tours. These typically stop at the nearby rainforest and Tarcoles Town.
Puerto Limón, Costa Rica
The more popular and larger Costa Rican cruise port is Puerto Limón. There are plenty of outdoor and historic activities to enjoy during your Panama Canal cruise stopping in Costa Rica.
The best outdoor area to explore is the nearby Veragua Rainforest Park. Here you will find hundreds of frogs, butterflies, and reptiles, in addition to monkeys, sloths, and birds up above. Just a few miles from Puerto Limón is the breathtaking Playa Bonita, the perfect tropical beach offering crystal-clear waters and soft sand. If you are an adrenalin-junkie, check out the rafting opportunities on the Reventazon River.
Finally, book a tour to the nearby banana plantations. During this enlightening tour you will come to understand how bananas grow, are cleaned, and ultimately selected.
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Another popular port for cruises through the Panama Canal is San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. This cruise port is not as common as other Central American cruise ports, so make sure to watch out for this unique city on your itinerary!
San Juan del Sur is home to one of the world's largest Jesus statues. In fact, hiking to the Jesus statue sitting atop a hill overlooking San Juan del Sur is the top thing to do when in this fabulous city. If you are looking for the best beaches during your Panama Canal cruise, you may want to venture a little out of town to the beautiful beaches Playa Maderas and Playa Hermosa. One of the most special things to do in this city is horseback riding on the beach, so make sure to ask your cruise line if there are any shore excursions like this on your Panama Canal cruise.
Finally, if you prefer to get back on the water, take a catamaran ride around the area. These tours will typically offer all you can drink and delicious snacks with your fare, stopping at beautiful private beaches for you to explore and enjoy.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
While Cabo San Lucas is most popular as a college Spring Break destination, there are also plenty of enjoyable attractions for cruisers of all ages during your Panama Canal cruise.
The most notable and photograph site in Cabo is Land's End. Most travelers will travel to this area for its breathtaking views-- strategically located right where Playa del Amor and Playa del Divorcio join. If you would like to explore some of the traditional Mexican culture, head over to San Jose del Cabo. This area is the official "Old Town" of Cabo San Lucas, offering plenty of tasty local eateries and artisanal shops. Later, tour the Church of Saint Luke, one of Cabo San Lucas' top historical landmarks.
If you prefer to head back onto the beautiful ocean, sign up for one of Cabo's deep-sea fishing adventures on the Sea of Cortez.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta is another one of Mexico's beautiful gems frequently visited on Panama Canal cruises. As a destination that has welcomed travelers from around the world for many years, there are plenty of fascinating activities and Puerto Vallarta shore excursions for every age.
If you are looking for one of the top beaches, head over to Las Caletas. This beautiful beach is one of the top private beaches in the world where you can find crystal-clear waters brushing up against the jungle-mountain backdrop. To learn about Puerto Vallarta's history, head over to San Sebastian Del Oeste. This Puerto Vallarta attraction dates all the way back to 1605 as one of Mexico's most well-preserved towns. Other historic towns include Talpa and Mascota, both colonial mining villages.
If you prefer to explore Puerto Vallarta's vast natural beauty, check out Islas Marietas, one of the area's protected state parks offering exotic marine wildlife and lush scenery.