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The Panama Canal, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is one of the seven modern wonders of the world. Over the years, the canal has seen more than 850,000 ships and 250 million tons of cargo since its American-funded completion in 1914. Visitors to the Panama Canal most frequently arrive in winter or spring to see the historic waterway that President Theodore Roosevelt called "the most important action" he took in foreign relations. The "best time" to go really depends upon your priorities.
Starting in 1513, when Spain's Vasco Nunez de Balboa became the first person to navigate the Isthmus of Panama and see the Pacific Ocean from the area, different countries began looking for a way to connect the two seas. It took nearly 400 years and the efforts of the Spanish, Dutch, French, British and Americans to make it happen, but the Panama Canal eventually became a reality that served this purpose. Despite many drawbacks and conflicts throughout the process, this marvel of modern construction now makes it possible for even the largest ships to pass through this narrow channel. It was more than 34 years after the French first broke ground in 1880, on Aug. 15, 1914, that the first vessel passed through the Panama Canal after the official opening of the 51-mile route between the seas.

It was more than 34 years after the French first broke ground in 1880, on Aug. 15, 1914, that the first vessel passed through the Panama Canal after the official opening of the 51-mile route between the seas. At 77 km, the Panama Canal links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans together. The canal revolutionized trade by saving traders from making the arduous journey around the tip of South America. More than 60 million pounds of dynamite was used in the initial construction of the channel, and over 26,000 workers lost their lives during a manic  production process.
Mileage Saved - The Panama Canal is one of the major shipping lanes in the world because it saves so much time and distance over the route previously required. A ship traveling from New York to San Francisco before the canal opening had to sail all the way beyond the tip of the South America, rounding. Cape Horn, and then travel the entire distance back north to the Northern California coast, despite the fact that the two cities are on similar latitudinal lines. By using the Panama Canal, ships save 7,872 miles by bypassing the trip around South America.
Central America and transit Panama Cruise vacations  is the warm region between Mexico and South America offering spectacular scenery, tropical rain forests and abundant wildlife. Repositioning transit voyages between the Atlantic and Caribbean waters and the Repositioning Pacific and Alaska cruise vacations also usually go through the Panama Canal and include Central America visits, as do many world cruise itineraries.
Best time to Cruise Panama in February, March, September and October for the least chance of rain, although any month from mid-December to the beginning of May is fairly dry. The Panama Canal Zone has a tropical climate ranging from 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with high humidity year-round. The Caribbean side of the canal receives twice the amount of rain as Panama City and is infamous for having short, sudden afternoon thunderstorms from April through July.
Come September, early December or during the summer months to avoid shutdowns. Frommer's reminds us of a saying that goes, "The only thing Panamanians take seriously are their holidays." If you plan to visit Panama City, you may be surprised to find a ghost town with all banks, offices, stores and restaurants closed during the holidays. Even if the official holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, expect everything to be closed on Monday. Avoid early January, February, Easter month and November, when Panamanians traditionally celebrate the most observances.
Look for last-minute Panama Canal vacations during July and August for the sweetest deals. The Toronto Star cites a September Panama City deal that includes round-trip airfare from Toronto, a seven-night stay at all-inclusive four-star Playa Blanca Beach Resort, all meals and all drinks for just over $100 a day, as of August 2010. Budget Travel recommends taking a cruise from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, through the Panama Canal aboard Celebrity Cruises in October or November. If you're thinking about booking a Panama Canal cruise, look during spring or fall months when ships reposition from the Caribbean to Alaska, says Fodors. Keep in mind that prices are highest from mid-December through mid-April.
Best Time To Go
The Panama Canal cruise season runs from October to April.
The "best time" to travel to the Panama Canal depends on how you'll spend your time, Lonely Planet concedes. Hike during the dry season from mid-December until May and bring warm clothes if you're going to high altitudes in Boquete, El Valle or Cerro Punta. December to May is also a great time for surfing big waves and diving in clear waters.
November to April is the most popular season for canal cruising. During off-season from May to December, you'll find the best whitewater rafting in the Chiriquí Province.
January brings the Flower and Coffee Festival in Boquete and the Jazz Festival in Panama City. Lonely Planet recommends structuring your travel around Carnaval Mardi Gras parties the four days before Ash Wednesday in February for town parades, dancing and music. March Holy Week is a big event full of processions and parades. Forty days after Easter, the quaint Festival Corpus Christi in La Villa de Los Santos is a two-week religious event marked by devil-mask-wearing dancers. Independence day celebrations come in November.
Biggest Toll Paid by Cruise Sips
The Panama Canal is a money-generating facility that was in American control until it was handed over to the country of Panama at the end of the 20th century. For boats to pass through the canal, they must pay a toll. The amount of the toll depends on various factors, including the size of the ship and the cargo aboard. The highest toll paid as of July 2011 to cross the Panama Canal was set in 2010 when the cruise ship the Norwegian Pearl eclipsed the previous record set by the cruise ship Disney Magic. The luxurious Pearl had to shell out $375,600 to make the pass through the canal. The Disney Magic had held the record since 2008 for its toll of $331,200. The smallest toll ever charged at the canal, incidentally, was 36 cents to a swimmer, Richard Halliburton, in 1928.
Find Out How long is the Panama Canal, History and Construction:
Panama Canal cruise season runs from October to April is the most popular season for these itineraries. The best time to go is after the rainy season ends in November. Experience the Panama Canal, and the port cities of Central America including Puntarenas, Cartagena, Puerto Limon, San Blas Islands, and Roatan. Some lines operate Central America/Panama Canal cruises throughout the year, but October through April is the most popular season for these itineraries. Many Panama Canal cruises last from 10 days to 14 days or more, though some are as short as 7 days, current cruise lengths can be anywhere from 7-9 days (Regent Seven Seas, NCL) to 10-11 days (Princess, Costa, Holland America, Crystal), or 14-16 days (Princess, Carnival, Celebrity, Silversea). Several lines, such as Princess, Holland America and Cunard, also offer a few cruises per season in the 18-21 day ranges.
Most of the major lines (and some smaller ones, such as Windstar and Clipper) offer at least a few Panama Canal sailings each season. Princess leads the pack as far as number of departures, with 40 scheduled this season. Princess' 10-day Panama Canal itinerary roundtrip from Ft. Lauderdale allows plenty of time for a partial transit of the Panama Canal and a visit to the eco-pleasures of Costa Rica.
Panama is opening up for tourism and the opportunities are diverse. Like neighboring Costa Rica, Panama offers outstanding nature tours in addition to its prime attraction: viewing the Canal operations from shoreside. Passengers who sign up for tours experience the morning passage through the Gatun Locks, then join their excursions by tender from the ship in Gatun Lake. After the tours, they rejoin the ship in Cristobal.
The Panama Canal, also known as the eighth wonder of the world is located in the narrowest part of Central America. It was constructed by the U.S. and opened in 1914. This Panama & Central America cruise guide will offer you what there is to do on a Panama Canal cruise, as well as the background information about the Panama Canal and Panama itself.
The Panama Canal separates two oceans and has played a large role in Panama's history and its people. Panama is covered by large areas of rainforest within the tropics. There are several places where it spans less than a hundred miles from the Atlantic coastline to its Pacific shores. This cruise destination offers a climate that is warm and humid. The Panama Canal consists of the Canal Locks; an experience of being lifted and then lowered through the canal's complex system of locks.
Gatun Lake; Sail for 23 miles through the calm waters of Gatun Lake, where you will be surrounded by lush rain forest and many small islands. This occurs after the first sets of locks. Gaillard Cut; this is the narrowest portion of the Panama Canal. An 8 1/2 mile section of the canal, that was blasted out of solid rock. It was the most difficult section to dig when the canal was built. Limon Bay; Cruise ships that transit the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific will enter the canal from Limon Bay at the Cristobal breakwater. A 6 mile long and 450 feet wide area that permits you to view some of the most magnificent sea level mangroves.
Gatun Locks, the serenity of the canal's first stretch was broken by the sound of electric locomotives called mules, which were specially designed to pull ships through the lock system. They are enormously powerful and hummed loudly as they performed their duty. Once the vessel was centered in the first lock, the 700-ton lock doors closed behind us. Water rushed around us and the ship gradually rose to the level of the next lock. The front gates then opened, allowing the mules to pull us forward.
Ships that navigate the Panama Canal go through a series of locks that control the amount of water in the canal and connected reservoirs. The locks slow down the passage through the canal, but it's a necessary part of the journey. Each of the movable lock doors weighs 750 tons. There are 12 pairs of locks in the canal. Each of the locks fills with 52 million gallons of water to accommodate the nearly 15,000 ships that cross the canal each year.
There are three locks at Gatun that raise ships a total of 85 feet, to the height of Gatun Lake. At 262 square miles, this is the largest manmade lake in the world. Vessels from around the globe were at anchor, waiting their turn to descend through Gatun Locks. In the distance, you can see the Gatun Dam on the Chagres River--the source of the electrical power to operate the canal. Lush rainforests cover the islands that dot the lake.
After the ship passes through the Gatun Lake, the end of the Canal is near; the ship must be lined up and gently glide alongside the Gatun Locks, where four electric "mules" will be attached by wires to guide the ship into the lock. (The number of mules depends on the size of the ship--the QE2 will use eight mules, for instance.)
As the ships enters the Gatun Locks, ships bow is slightly canted towards the pier and the stern is swung away from the pier, and the captain employs various maneuvers to align the ship with the pier. On a conventional putting the starboard engine astern will literally "walk the stern" to the port side; using the rudder and coming ahead on the port engine helps the swing. Finally, the captain can employ a tug standing by off the stern. (The number of tugs required again is determined by size--a ship with an 80-foot beam needs one tug, and a ship with a beam of 91 feet needs two or more tugs.)
With the ship now aligned, the lines are attached from the mules, and the pilot keeps the ship in the middle of the lock by asking for more or less tension on each line, pulling the ship into the lock. Engines are rarely used in the locks--the mules act as the ship's propulsion and brakes. This can be especially tricky when the locks open ahead of the ship and water rushes into the ship's lock--a current of up to 4 knots can sometimes be felt, trying to push the ship out of position. (Current can have tremendous effects on ships; as a general rule of thumb, a1-knot current affects a ship the same as 30 knots of wind.)
You could be forgiven for thinking that the iconic Panama City is all Panama has to offer to tourists. However, located a 5-hour drive to the west of Panama City are the beautiful Bocas del Toro islands.Picture azure waters lapping over perfect white sands; accommodation ranging from rustic beach huts to luxury resorts; with activities such as snorkelling or surfing to keep you busy. The diverse ecosystem and beautiful landscape make the islands a haven for walking and nature enthusiasts while the crystal clear waters make it ideal for divers ranging from the amateur snorkeler to the experienced diver.
The Bocas del Toro islands are an unspoiled, quiet paradise just a car rental drive away from the capital city.
In Panama, you can see the sunrise and set on two different oceans
Because of Panama’s unique geographical position, it is possible to see the sunrise on the Pacific Ocean and set on the Atlantic Ocean. The narrowest part of Panama, which is 80km, separates the two oceans from one another.
Panama is the only place on the planet where you can experience this unique phenomenon, so it is certainly worth visiting!
It has more beaches than you might think. Panama has 5,637 km / 3502 miles of coastline and is made up of 1,518 islands. So, as you might expect, Panama has a lot of beaches to choose from. From the tropical, deserted beaches in the west of the country, to the built up, busy beaches of Panama City, Panama has you covered on the beach front, whatever kind of beach-dweller you are.
Panama has a staggeringly diverse eco-system
Panama has the most diverse eco-system in Central America; the country is home to both North and South American species. Panama is also home to more species of birds than the United States and Canada combined, with 940 avian species native to the country. Given this staggering piece of information, it is perhaps of little surprise that Panama is considered one of the best bird watching locations in the world. Cana, considered the best bird watching site in the country, is located in the easterly most part of the country, at Parque Nacional Darien, where you can spot four different species of macaw, golden-headed quetzals and black-tipped cotinga.
In addition to Panama’s bird-watching accolades, the country also houses 218 different species of mammal, 226 species of reptile and 164 amphibian species. The country is also home to 125 species that cannot be found anywhere else on the planet, making it one of the most diverse and rich eco-systems in the world and a country not to be missed for nature enthusiasts!
All ships that pass through the canal must pay a toll based on their weight. The most expensive toll paid was $330,000 by a Disney Cruise ship in 2008.  Conversely, American explorer Richard Halliburton swam the length of the canal in 1928, and was made to pay 36 cents in toll.
Today, the canal transports 4% of worldwide trade and 16% of US trade. Between 12,000 and 15,000 ships pass through the canal annually, with the United States, Japan, Chile and North Korea using it the most.
There are several companies that run cruises up the Panama Canal, which offer a unique chance to learn more about this fascinating and unique testament to human engineering ingenuity.
It’s the best place in the world to retire
Aside from the tropical climate, unique Latin culture and sun-kissed beaches, the Panamanian government offers several extra incentives for the retired, which make it one of the best places in the world to retire.
Retirees with a pension of $1,000 a month or over can apply for the ‘Pensionado’ pension scheme. The benefits of this scheme include 50% off entertainment, 30% off bus, ferry and train fares and 25% off domestic airline fees. Pensioners can also expect 30-50% off hotel stays and 15-25% off at restaurants. In addition, 10-20% reduction of medical expenses and 50% of closing costs for home loans are part of ‘Pensionado.’
For all these reasons, and more, Panama has become a hotspot for expatriates to come and spend their twilight years.
Panama hats don’t actually come from Panama
Panama hats, as made famous by Teddy Roosevelt, don’t actually come from Panama. The former United States president was spotted by the Panama Canal wearing a straw hat that became synonymous with Panama, despite the fact it didn’t actually come from Panama.
So, if you’d like to bring back an authentic souvenir, skip the hat stalls and look at the crafts made my locals. Different tribes are known for creating a plethora of different souvenirs; The Ngobe-Bugle, in the north, make and sell beautiful jute bags and bead works. While the Embera people of the south are known for woodcarvings and baskets, made from palm and chunga.
It had its own Alcatraz
Operational from 1919 to 2004, Panama had a penal colony on Isla de Coiba. The prison housed some of the country’s most dangerous prisoners until the surrounding waters became a UNESCO World Heritage Site when the prison was disbanded in 2004.
It is still possible to stay at the ranger station on Coiba Island. The station has six air-conditioned bunks, with electricity and private baths. The shallow azure waters are perfect for snorkeling and are also home to rare Scarlet Macaw.
Choosing right Itinerary
At one time, Panama Canal cruises followed the same standard itinerary: 14 days from Florida to the West Coast, with stops in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico. In the past decade, cruise lines have expanded their offerings, eager to lure new passengers to the seas and snag cruisers who may have already traversed the canal once or twice in the past. Current cruise lengths can be anywhere from 7 to 9 days, 10 to 11 days or 14 to 16 days. Several lines, such as Princess, Crystal, Holland America, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas and Cunard, also offer a few cruises per season in the 18- to 21-day range, and cruises that transit all the way to the Pacific Northwest or Alaska can take up to a month.
Apart from length of sailing, the biggest decision you'll need to make on a Panama Canal cruise is whether to opt for a traditional trans-canal experience or take a partial crossing.
Trans-Canal Crossing: The most popular Panama Canal itinerary is still some version of the standard Florida to West Coast route. Miami and Ft. Lauderdale are the main departure cities in Florida. Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco are the key West Coast cities, although longer transits also depart from Seattle or Vancouver.
Passengers often choose an Atlantic to Pacific or Pacific to Atlantic route, depending on where they live, although you'll gain hours if you choose the latter. (Some people prefer to have their longer one-way flight at the beginning of a trip, instead of the end.) With this trans-canal option, you spend a day on the canal, crossing from ocean to ocean and going through the complete lock experience. If having the full "canal experience" is part of your bucket list -- or if you're an engineering geek and don't care too much about shore excursions within Panama itself -- this trip is for you. Most full Panama Canal cruises do call in the Western Caribbean, the Costa Rican ports of Limon (on the Atlantic side) and Puntarenas (on the Pacific), and Cartagena, Colombia. Some also stop in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, and western Mexico.
Experience a full crossing with our slide show, Postcards from a Panama Canal Transit on Celebrity Infinity.
Partial Crossing: On partial crossings, the ship doesn't actually cross the entire canal. Instead, the ship crosses through one lock, then lets passengers off in the town of Gamboa, along the canal. From there, passengers can enjoy a myriad of shore excursions and take in sights they otherwise wouldn't see on a daylong crossing. For those who still want to see the full canal, including Gaillard Cut, the Centennial Bridge and the Bridge of the Americas, excursions are available that will take you out in a smaller boat. This option is good for cruisers who want a taste of the canal, but who also want to see part of Panama, as most partial transit itineraries also stop at Colon. Because most partial transit cruises leave from Florida, other ports usually include islands in the Southern or Western Caribbean and Cartagena, Colombia.
Faux Crossing: Some lines offer the same "partial crossing" shore excursions without entering the canal at all; instead, ships dock for a day at the Caribbean entrance to the canal, at Colon, Panama. Look for Caribbean or Central America itineraries that call on Colon, and check the shore excursion offerings closely.
Some Visited Ports
Puntarenas, Costa Rica: There are so many fabulous encounters with nature available from this port, you'll have a hard time deciding on a shore excursion. A visit to the Tabacon Resort Hot Springs takes you to the slopes of the active Arenal volcano. The Poas volcano features the amazing sight of a huge crater filled with iridescent blue water. Walk through a cloud forest at Villa Blanca, where you're surrounded by mist and water droplets clinging to the vegetation. See one of Costa Rica's renowned rain forests at Pura Vida Gardens, or climb a set of wooden steps up to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
Panama Canal: If you're on a trans-canal trip, enjoy the engineering marvels of your 50-mile journey. The highlights are Lake Gatun, the Gaillard Cut along the Continental Divide and three locks: Gatun on the Atlantic, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores on the Pacific.
Colon, Panama: Those on "partial crossings" or simply docked at Colon might consider completing the crossing in a smaller boat. This popular shore excursion begins at Gamboa, one of the towns along the Canal. It takes passengers through the remaining two Canal locks, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. A motorcoach ride delivers passengers back to their waiting ships at Colon.
Other great shore excursion options include taking the refurbished Panama Railway from the Pacific to the Atlantic. It rides parallel to the Canal and offers a great view in luxuriously paneled railway cars. Another exciting alternative is to take a trek through the rain forest at Gamboa, or visit an authentic Embera Indian Village on the Chagres River (which often takes place by canoe).
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala: This port on the western coast of Guatemala provides access to the colonial city of Antigua, which has earned status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its architecture and ruins. The port provides a jumping-off point for tours of working coffee plantations, the Pacaya Volcano (one of the country's many active mountains) and Lake Atitlan.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica: Tortuguero National Park offers close encounters with the green tortoise, crocodiles, monkeys and exotic birds, all seen at water level on the canals. Braulio Carillo National Park has the first aerial tramway in Central America; you'll be above the trees, at times 100 feet high, and close enough to touch tiny orchids, spectacularly colored birds, butterflies and, if you're lucky, a toucan or monkey. Heartier souls can try white-water rafting on the Revantazon River.
Panama Canal cruises often include stops in western Mexico, the Western Caribbean and Southern Caribbean. Read more about these ports in our destinations section.

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