Here are the choices of types of cruises visiting Panama:
1. Cruises that only call at a Panamanian port, either on the Pacific side at Amador, or on the Atlantic/Caribbean side at Colon or Cristobal. These ships do not go through the Canal or into Canal waters. There are options for a variety of shore excursions that will allow you to get off the ship and experience some of Panama.
2. Southern Caribbean Cruises that enter and turn around in the Canal, generally round trip from Florida. These enter from the Caribbean through Gatun Locks, discharge guests in Miraflores Lake for shore excursions, then retrace their route through Gatun Locks to the port at Colon or Cristobal to pick up guests on shore excursions and allow guests who remained on board a brief stop at the port. Holland America’s ZUIDERDAM is a good example.
3. Ships that homeport in Panama, that is you embark and disembark the ship in Panama. Royal Caribbean’s ENCHANTMENT OF THE SEAS is the first to do this, sailing roundtrip from Colon to Cartagena, Colombia; Santa Marta, Columbia; Oranjestad, Aruba; Willemstad, Curacao; and Kralendijk, Bonaire. I predict that additional cruise lines will offer this option in the future. RCCL guests can book pre or post cruise stays in Panama to see some of the country.
4. Ships transiting the Panama Canal generally just go through the Canal but do not actually stop in Panama allowing their guests to get off and experience Panama. Most of the Spring and Fall repositioning cruises that move ships from Alaska to the Caribbean just transit the Canal. Most of the big cruise lines operating in Alaska and the Caribbean have ships doing this itinerary.
One additional and very different cruise experience: Cruise West offers a 10 day cruise between Costa Rica and Panama which includes Portobelo, the San Blas Islands, the Canal, Coiba National Park as well as destinations in Costa Rica on a small ship called PACIFIC EXPLORER. A small ship cruise is a totally different experience focused on natural history. The ship holds 100 guests compared to the 2000 plus on most major cruise ships.
The dreaded “Which is best?” question . . .
The question I used to dread on the ZUIDERDAM, where I was Travel Guide for the ’08-’09 Panama/Southern Caribbean season, was “Which is the best . . . ” tour, whatever. And generally there is no “best” . . . it all depends on you and what you want out of your experience. Here are some general thoughts in no particular order. Royal Caribbean right now is the only company offering a ship that homeports in Panama. However, as you might expect, this ship is going to be predominantly Spanish-speaking guests, mostly Latin Americans. The Cruise West option is a very small ship experience which is totally different from anything else and offers a unique opportunity to get more “up close and personal” with wildlife and the rain forest in both Panama and Costa Rica. The ships transiting the Canal are transiting . . . whipping through in 8 hours . . . and what you see of Panama is just what you see from the deck of the ship. I guess I’m more than a little biased toward the ZUIDERDAM. I like people being able to “get off the Dam ship” and see some of Panama! You can still book a shore excursion that will take you through the entire Canal if that is your main interest, but you do have the opportunity to see something else of what Panama has to offer. Ideally I guess you’d take a cruise on a ship like the ZUIDERDAM and another cruise transiting the Canal!
I wouldn’t make the decision on cruise line loyalty alone. I’d look carefully at the itinerary and, as regards Panama and the Canal, what kind of support do they have to enhance your voyage and provide you with information that will help you to get the most out of your experience. That was my role as Travel Guide on Holland America. I didn’t do talks about shopping – someone else did that – but in 10 days I gave 8 talks about the history, culture and background of where we were going, including the Panama Canal. And yes, we had a local Canal lecturer who came about and gave a rather cursory narrative, most of which guests on the ZUIDERDAM already knew!
And I wouldn’t make the decision based on price alone. For most folks this is the “trip of a lifetime” and an investment of 2 to 3 weeks . . . so although price is obviously a factor, it shouldn’t be the determining factor.
The Panama Ports:
Amador - Amador is the causeway created at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, a long strip of land created by joining together a number of small islands. Although a dock is in the plan, at the present time the ship anchors out and you tender to shore. The causeway divides the Bay of Panama from the Canal so offers fantastic views of the new Panama City across the Bay. A military installation during the US Canal Zone days, today the Amador Causeway is a favorite place for locals to jog, ride bikes, walk dogs, or just sit and enjoy the views. There are shops, restaurants, discos, a big new convention center, marinas, an outpost of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and under construction the new Bridge of Life Museum of Biodiversity designed by Frank Gehry. It is about a 20 minute cab ride from Amador to downtown Panama City or the old French part of the city, Casco Veijo.
Balboa- Primarily a commercial container port on the Pacific side. Only occasionally a cruise ship will dock here.
Colon/Cristobal- During the days of the US Canal Zone Colon (Columbus) was the Panamanian section and Cristobal (Christopher) was the US Canal Zone section. Today it’s all Colon. There are two piers used by cruise ships: Colon 2000, and a new very functional pier created by Royal Caribbean just to home port their ship, called Home Port. The Royal Caribbean pier is designed to embark and disembark several thousand passengers at once and is located near Colon 2000. Colon 2000, was a joint project with Carnival opened in 2000, and offers some local shops and souvenir stores. In the same complex is a very nice Radisson hotel and Super 99, a big Panamanian grocery store chain owned by the current President of Panama.
Colon is NOT a city to walk around in and explore on your own. There is lots of poverty and the accompanying problem of crime. And there isn’t anything to see in Colon. All the interesting stuff in Panama is an hour to two-hour ride away from Colon. The easiest, safest and most efficient way is to take a ship’s tour. Colon is a commercial city, home to the world’s second largest free port, the Colon Free Zone which does $12 billion a year in trade and exchanging wholesale goods. Colon is not designed for cruise tourism and even Panamanians don’t consider it a safe city in which to wander about. Ships advise that you remain within the confines of the terminal facilities.
If the government had its tourist act together they would work to get jobs into Colon to raise the standard of living, and to use locals to clean up the place. Colon could be charming and a real tourist attraction if it were cleaned up. As it is, the new James Bond movie used it as a Haitian look-a-like. What kind of “recommendation” is that? Local government in Colon could start by providing its citizens with decent trash collection. The lasting memory most cruise visitors have is the horrible “road to hell” connection with Colon and the rest of the country, and heaps of trash along the way.
“Get off the Dam ship!”
This was my mantra and I even wanted Holland America to print up T-shirt with “Get off the Dam ship!” on them. You’ve come all this way, so why not see some of Panama?
There are three major tour companies, and a few smaller ones, that serve the cruise industry in Panama. The name of the tour may vary from cruise line to cruise line, but most ships offer a similar selection of tours in Panama. Unfortunately most ships do not remain in Panama overnight, so you have one day in which to choose from some fantastic tour opportunities. Folks always ask, “What is the best tour?” I generally answer that it depend on you and where your interests lie: unfortunately you can’t do them all.
Here are some of my favorites . . .
If you are interested in CULTURE . . . definitely the Authentic Embera Indian Villagetour. OK, this is hands-down my favorite tour. Why? Because it is so different and so unique and special to Panama. The Embera people inhabited a wide swath of what is today Panama, Columbia and Ecuador long before Europeans arrived. The groups of Embera living in the Chagres National Park were here long before Panama existed or the Canal began. These are very warm, friendly, intelligent people who are committed to preserving a traditional lifestyle in a “second world” country, rapidly moving toward “first world” status. After the Canal turnover much of the area that had been Canal Zone was turned into a National Park in order to preserve the rain forest which, among other things, is so essential to providing the water supply necessary to keep the Canal running. Suddenly the Embera people living in this area where no longer able to practice their traditional subsistence way of life since, now being a National Park, hunting and agriculture were outlawed within the park. Today they make their living by selling crafts to visitors and hosting visitors at their villages. Tour companies use about six different villages. This helps spread the “wealth” around while not overwhelming any one village. River levels vary depending on the season, so some villages up river are only available during the wet season. Each village has developed its own traditions, and some are more “authentic” than others, but this is not a “show.” These are real Embera people who live and work in the villages and are committed to preserving their culture. Usually the chief of the village will give a welcome, translated by your guide, and explain about their history and culture. There will be traditional dances and music and the opportunity to sample traditional food such as delicious, freshly caught fried tilapia fish, fried plantains, and incredibly fresh fruit. You can wander around the village and view each family’s selection of crafts for sale. The men carve a very hard tropical wood called cocobolo, and make beautiful animal carvings from a nut called a “tagua” or sometimes known as vegetable ivory. The women make beautiful baskets from palm fibers with all natural dies. I always hesitate to “oversell” this tour, but I can tell you that again and again on the ZUIDERDAM people would come back, sometimes wet and muddy, and say, “Richard, that was the best shore excursion ever.”
If you are interested in the HISTORY OF PANAMA . . . the Shaping of Panamaor similarly named tour. One of the challenges for cruise ship tourists in Panama coming from Colon is that it requires an hour to two hours to drive the 50 or so miles across the Isthmus. This will change later this year when the new four lane tollway is opened all the way to Colon. Of course the history of Panama goes back long before Europeans arrived. Columbus got here in 1502, and in 1510 Balboa founded the first settlement on mainland of the Americas at Darien in Panama. At the site of the original city of Panama, “Old Panama” or “Panama Viejo”, there is a bridge, still in use, that dates back to 1511. Typically this tour travels from Colon across the Isthmus to Amador Peninsula, the peninsula joining several little islands that was created with earth from the Canal excavations. On the one side of Amador Peninsula is the Canal and on the other side is the Bay of Panama and incredible views of the towering skyline of the current, modern Panama City. There is a nice lunch at a restaurant in Amador before venturing to “Casco Viejo”, the old French quarter of Panama City dating back to the French Canal days. Generally there is a 40 minute walking tour around Casco Viejo led by your tour guide. The tour then moves on to Balboa, the heart of the old US Canal Zone, and usually stops at an Indian craft market behind the old Balboa YMCA, before returning back to the ship in Colon.
If you are interested in PIRACY AND SPANISH TREASURE FLEETS . . . Portobelo. Portobelo was founded in 1597 and was an important silver-exporting port and one of the ports on the route of the Spanish treasure fleets. In 1668 the pirate Henry Morgan captured and plundered Portobelo in spite of its fortifications, which you can still see to this day. Portobelo is also home to the statue of the Black Christ and its rich tradition which is celebrated annually by thousands of pilgrims.
Unfortunately the area around Portobelo is dominated by West Indian culture and there is a lot of poverty. It would be nice if everyone in the world could live the way people do who can afford to take cruises, but it just isn’t so. Sometimes cruise passengers complain when they “see poverty” or “trash in the streets” (not everyone in the world is so compulsive about trash as North Americans and Europeans!) So some cruise lines, including Holland America I’m sad to say, no longer offer the option of Portobelo tours.
If you are interested in the PANAMA CANAL and can’t get enough of the Canal . . . the Panama Canal Experience. This is particularly valuable for people who are just calling at Panama, either in Amador or Colon, and otherwise would not have any Canal experience. It is also good for folks on a cruise that is going to enter the Canal and turn around, like the ZUIDERDAM, if they want to see the entire Canal and just going through the Atlantic locks isn’t enough (although in my humble opinion there is not a great difference between the Pacific and Atlantic locks . . . kinda you’ve seen one . . .). You board a small ferry-boat at the midway point of the Canal and continue through Gaillard Cut, under the Centennial Bridge, through Pedro Miquel and Miraflores locks, under the Bridge of the Americas and out to Amador Peninsula. Going through the locks in a small boat is very different than on a giant cruise ship! You get a whole different perspective and really sense the immensity of the locks. You can actually reach out and touch the sides of the Canal from the ferry boat. The ferry is a ferry: it’s not a luxury cruise ship by any means! They have narration, soft drinks and water free, beer for purchase, and a simple, but good Panamanian lunch . . . definitely not the Lido buffet!
If you want to see WILDLIFE . . . the Gatun Lake Safari. This tour is operated by a “gringo” (not an offensive term in Panama, just descriptive of expats) who actually lives in a houseboat on Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake is the third largest man-made lake in the world with over 1,100 miles of shoreline. It is dotted with islands that were once the peaks of mountains before the lake was created. About 20 guests ride in small boats across Gatun Lake into some of the many little eddies and bays. This guy knows where the troops of monkeys hang out. When I did the tour we saw 5 of the 6 different types of monkeys and several places the monkeys came on the boat to eat grapes out of our hands. We saw caiman, iguana and sloths as well as monkeys. You stop at his houseboat for a delicious Panamanian lunch and to view some of his pets . . . toucans, snakes, baby caiman, etc. It is the one tour where I can almost guarantee that you will actually see some of the abundance of wildlife living in the protected area that surrounds Gatun Lake.
If you are a railroad buff . . . the Panama Canal Railroad. The original Panama Railroad was opened in 1855 primarily to meet the needs of folks crossing the Isthmus for the California Gold Rush. It cost $25 in gold to take the train across Panama, or, if you couldn’t afford that, $5 in gold to walk along the tracks. The railway pretty much followed along the Chagres River. When the Chagres was dammed to create Gatun Lake the original path of the railway of course ended up under water. What you have today is a lineal descendant of that original railway. Today’s railway exists solely to move cargo containers from one side of Panama to the other and is a joint venture between the Kansas City Southern Railroad and privately held Lanigan Holdings. Old Amtrack engines provide the power. There is one passenger train that makes on run a day for locals and when cruise ships are in port provides tours for the ships. Cars are restored 60s Pullman cars and there is one dome car from 1938. The run between Colon and Balboa takes about an hour, unless the tourist train is pulled over to allow freight trains priority, and does pass through stretches of rain forest (but forget seeing wildlife at 60 mph!) and catches glimpses of the Panama Canal and some of the old Canal Zone buildings. If you are a railroad buff, or just want a relaxing glimpse of a little of Panama this may be a good choice, although it would not be my first choice.
This is not to say the other tours aren’t good or worth your investment, but that these are the highlights and some of my favorites in various areas of interest. You will want to talk with the shore excursion people on your particular cruise for specific details applicable to your voyage. Please note outside of the US and Canada the concept of “accessibility” is virtually unknown. If you have specific mobility issues you will need to discuss those with the shore excursion folks on your ship. Most tours are not going to be suitable for wheelchairs or scooters.
CRUISING THE PANAMA CANAL
Richard says, “Lecturing on ships transiting the Canal I realized there was a need for a simpler, more readable book written for cruise passengers that included information about the Canal as well as information about Panama. I wanted to write a book that would be helpful to folks planning a Panama Canal trip as well as serve as a guide during the voyage.”
“CRUISING THE PANAMA CANAL is the essential companion for your cruise: what to expect,, the past, present and future of the Canal and insider information on shore excursions.”
“Richard’s commentary, history and background made our Canal trip come alive!”
“The ultimate authority on cruising the Canal . . . Easy-going writing style makes this a cinch for anyone to read.”
“This is the book you will want to buy for planning your cruise and to use as a guide during the Canal transit.”
“This is the best Panama Canal book for cruise ship passengers.”
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