It’s still dark as people begin arriving on deck. They want to see the entire process from the moment the pilots come on board. The VOLENDAM serves coffee on deck and “Panama Rolls”, something which I’ve never been able to find in Panama but are never-the-less delicious with their lemon filling. People are jockeying for space to capture the best shot. As the sun comes up everyone is up on deck and we are entering into Gatun Locks.
There is no one best place on board from which to view the process. My best advice is to move around the ship so you get all the perspectives. People are always asking on Cruise Critic which side of the ship is the best side to book a balcony stateroom. My answer: why would you want to stay on your balcony? Move around and get the total experience. If you are on the promenade deck for example you can almost reach out and touch the sides of the Canal or tell if the driver of the engine or “mule” had garlic for breakfast!
The ship will cruise around Gatun Lake and then when the Canal authority can squeeze it in the schedule return through Gatun Locks to dock in Colon (somewhat like the “armpit” of Panama in terms of ambiance – sorry, Colon). About half of the passengers will disembark the ship in Gatun Lake to take advantage of the opportunity to see some part of Panama. Of those who remain, few will show much interest in the locking process on the return. Those who were jockeying for the best spot in the morning will be jockeying for position in the buffet line!
My advice: take a shore excursion! It is a unique opportunity to see a small slice of life in Panama. And I always recommend that folks, if possible, take the Embera Village tour, but be forewarned, there are two villages. One is best described as an “Embera Experience” that gives you a taste of Embera culture in a village created to cater to tourists. The other, and the one I recommend, goes to the authentic Embera village on Rio San Juan de Pequini. It is an experience out of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and well worth the hour long boat ride. [If the tour is billed as having an hour plus long boat ride it probably goes to the authentic village, but ask . . . not that the shore excursion folks will know the difference, but . . .]
Embera “demonstration” village: someone has determined that bare male buttocks and female breasts are not tourist appropriate.
Authentic Embera village at Rio San Juan de Pequini.