Volendam 30I often respond to questions about Panama on the popular Internet cruise boards.  These questions are from people who are visiting Panama on cruise ships.

Confused About Which Trip

I’m confused on which cruise to take. I really want to see the Canal, so should I take the shorter cruises which appear to only see part of the Canal, or take the longer ones that go all the way through? Will I really get to see what I want to see on the shorter cruise?

You’re right, there are generally two types of Canal cruises.

The roundtrip, mostly Fort Lauderdale, trips go through the first set of locks into Gatun Lake and disembark guests for Panama shore excursions, and then those guests are picked up in Colon after the ship makes its way back through Gatun Locks.  You experience Gatun Locks, and frankly, the locks on the Pacific side are pretty much the same process.  You will miss sailing through the entire Canal and sailing through Gaillard Cut and under the Centennial Bridge and Bridge of the Americas.  BUT, you will have the opportunity to get off the ship at Gatun Lake and explore part of Panama.  I recommend doing that since the trip back through Gatun Locks is the same thing as you experience in the morning coming into the Canal.

Most of the transcanal, generally repositioning cruises, just barrel through the Canal without providing the opportunity to get off and see Panama. There are some exceptions.  So on the complete Canal cruise you see the entire Canal, but generally have no opportunity to see Panama.

On the partial transit there is a shore excursion offered on a ferry boat that does take you through the rest of the Canal including Gaillard Cut, under both bridges, and out along Amador Peninsula.  Then you take a bus back to the Caribbean side to rejoin your ship.

It really depends on what you want . . . ideally you’d take both!!

What to do with 12 hours in Amador?

 We are on a cruise that is spending an entire day in Amador.  We would love to see the authentic Embera Indian village, but that tour is not offered by the cruise line.  What do you think?  We would like to see the Miraflores visitor center and the old as well as the new city of Panama.  Do you know of any independent tour guides?  Is it safe to hire someone from the pier to take us around?  We have no idea how far Panama City is from Puerto Amador where we tender into.  Any suggestions would be appreciated.  Thanks. Cruzer

First, lucky you!  12 hours to explore Panama, and with a couple of “Zonians” to explore with you, it will be a great day. Amador is the causeway between the Canal and the Bay of Panama that was created with dirt dug out to make the Canal.  There were a couple of existing islands and the causeway connects them.  This used to be Fort Amador and when the US controlled the Canal Zone was strictly off limits.  At one time there was even a Hawk missile site near where the ships dock today.  They are working on making a full scale cruise port, but for now the big ships must use tenders.The Amador causeway is popular with locals.  It’s a great place to jog, bike, walk or just sit and take in the fantastic view of Panama City.  At night the view is spectacular.  There are restaurants and clubs and shops.  There are some major developments under construction and the new museum of biodiversity designed by Frank Gehry (who did the Seattle Music Project and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA) is also under construction.  There is a major conference center and, if you know where to look, the bombed out remains of Noriega’s headquarters.With 12 hours you can go to the Embera Village.  There are several “authentic” village and a “demonstration” village, so you need to ask tour operators which they use.  Anne Barrigon [http://www.emberavillagetours.com/] does conduct independent tours to the authentic Embera Indian village at Rio San Juan de Pequini. You can contact Anne directly for information.  It’s about a 2 hour drive from Amador with traffic to Nuevo Vijiga on Madden Lake, and then an hour ride by dug out canoe across the lake and up the river.

If there’s a ship . . . there are cab drivers.  The going rate in Panama City to hire a cab is $12-15 an hour.  Of course some guys will try and rip you off for more, but you should be able to negotiate down to $12-15.  Most gringos who live in Chiriqui do not drive when they go to Panama (In Panama “Panama” means Panama City).  They just hire a cab for $12 an hour, it’s like having your own driver.  So the cabs are used to that.

I’d go to Old Panama (the ruins of the original city that were destroyed during Morgan’s raid) and there is a nice craft market there to buy Embera and Kuna crafts.  I’d see Casco Viejo (the French city, now being restored and reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans) and the Opera House, the Golden Altar, and the Panama Canal Museum.  I’d go to Miraflores locks and the Miraflores Visitor Center.  Your driver can call and see when there will be big ships in the locks, and you can plan your day around that schedule.  On the way to Miraflores you will pass Fort Clayton, which is now the City of Knowledge.  Your friends might want to drive through since most of the other old forts aren’t open.  If you have time you might want to drive a little further to Pedro Miquel Lock and Gamboa.  And you might try for lunch or dinner at a place called “Jimmy’s” that’s inexpensive and popular with locals.

You should have a great time!!!  Let me know!

Panama City Taxi Rates

Taxi rates are regulated based on “zones” within Panama City.  Panama City is experimenting with taxi meters.  Taxis are a primary way of getting around Panama City and rates are probably lower than you would expect, even “Gringo” rates.  Taxi drivers are the same the world over.  Just accept that you will be paying more than locals and don’t let it bother you or ruin your day.  Agree on a price before getting into the cab and then pay that price.  Licensed cabs in Panama must be yellow with a checkered stripe.

How “grand” a Grand Tour?

Royal Caribbean offers a tour called “Grand Tour of Panama” which takes you to the Embera Indians and Gatun Locks. Apparently that takes 5.5 hours. They also offer another tour just to the Embera Indian village that takes 6 hours.  How can a tour that combines both Gatun Locks and the Embera Village take less time than the one that just goes to the Embera Village????  Confused

There are a number of Embera communities in the Canal area, some being more touristy and others being more “authentic”.  “Authentic” to tour operators means Embera Indians live there, but some are what I would call very touristy and feel more like the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii.  Others are genuinely authentic villages where tourism is obviously not the primary industry and focus of life.  Generally the villages closer in are more touristy.

I wish they would entitle some of these tours “The Embera Experience” or something similar. Yes, the people you meet, live there. They moved there and started this kind of demonstration village. They wear more clothing I guess cause someone told them they might “offend” the sensitivities of cruise passengers. So the trip that includes an “Embera” village with other activities usually uses this village. It is a nice experience, and better than never being exposed to this culture, one of the seven indigenous groups who were hear before Columbus. You can buy their baskets and crafts and it’s nice. The longer Embera tour use several other villages.  If you are lucky enough to go to the authentic village at San Juan de Piqueni you will see a genuine, authentic village.   To go to this one the boat ride is an hour long by dug out canoe across Madden Lake then on a river up through the jungle, sometimes with wildlife glimpses along the way. That in itself is quite an experience and a beautiful trip!!   They dress in traditional Embera dress – or lack of it – and it is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. BUT you have to check with the shore ex people to be sure you are going to this village and the likelyhood is they really don’t know.  Many shore ex people don’t really know that much about the tours they sell.   What you need to ask is the length of the boat ride. That’s why this one is long. They have baskets and crafts and will also take you on a walk through the jungle pointing out various medicinal plants . . . even Embera version of a certain little blue pill, in case you want to take some back to the ship! These are neat people who are struggling to maintain a lifestyle. Lunch is generally tilapia fish fried, bananas, rice, and fruit and is served in a traditional bowl made of banana leaves. They love to have their pictures taken as well. Erito is the head man of the village.It is my understanding that both Celebrity and RCCL use the “demonstration” village.  Although not my first choice, visiting the “demonstration” village is better than nothing at all.   Some ships like to use it because it is closer and they may perceive the hour-long dugout canoe ride to the “authentic” village as being more risky for elderly passengers.

What’s available at Gatun Lake?

We are taking a Panama Canal Cruise in March on the Volendam. The ship arrives at Gatun Lake  and stays there for a while and then goes on to Colon from 3-7 PM.  Holland America offers a number of tours from Gatun Lake including an 8 hour one to Panama City.  Know anything about these?  Are there independent tour operators available at Gatun Lake?  Thanks for your help!!  Damship Fan

I’d like some feedback on HAL excursions as well.   The “Canal experience to Colon” – is that the same as the ferry trip?  Is it the ferry boat that takes you through the docks?   Crusty Old Cruiser

See Panama!  The return through Gatun locks is exactly the same process and experience. This is a unique opportunity to get off the ship and see and experience some of Panama.  Folks who are lucky enough to go to the Rio San Juan di Pequini village are very enthusiastic about the experience. Panama has tons of traffic especially between Panama to Colon in the evening. I would stick with ship’s excursions. If a bus is delayed the ship will wait for you. If you are independent and delayed . . . see you in Costa Rica.

Riding the rails?

I booked the Panama train months ago and now they are telling me the train trip was is no longer available!  Anyone know anything about the train?  Blinky

Frankly, unless you are a train buff . . . and want to say you rode on the Panama Canal Railroad . . . there are a lot better ways to invest the short time you have in Panama. I’d take a look at the other excursions being offered and, again unless you are a railroad buff, you won’t miss a whole lot. The rail trip gets some glimpses of the Canal, but . . .

Ok, thanks very much.  So, what would you recommend?  PACruisers

Recommend:  I’d do the Embera Indian village tour, especially if it is one of the longer tours.  There are no guarantees which village you will go to, but you may get lucky and go to the authentic village at Rio San Juan de Pequini.  Unfortunately, the shore ex people really don’t know much about which village the tour will go to.  It depends on things like the amount of water in the rivers, the season of the year and which village the Embera chiefs have decided should receive the visitors and revenue for that day.  Even the demonstration village offers an interesting introduction to this unique culture. The day bus tour they usually offer that goes to Casco Viejo (the old French section), Old Panama (the original city until sacked by Morgan), and the new tower-city gives you at least a glimpse of Panama, if requiring a long bus ride, but the bus ride is through the jungle and somewhat parallels the train route.There are usually a couple of rain forest trips around the Lake Gatun area. One goes and has lunch on a house boat docked off the rain forest. I haven’t done, but it looks interesting.Portobello is interesting if you are familiar with the history of Portobello and like old Spanish remains. The town itself is very poor and “Caribbean” (somewhat dirty), but if you get a good guide it is interesting from a historical perspective.

The ferry boat through the other locks gave a different perspective on the Canal and allows people doing a partial transit to see the entire Canal, the Pacific locks, and from a distance,  Panama City.  The ferry boats aren’t fancy and the lunch is very basic, but it is a nice day without a lot of walking.   The best way to see the entire Canal is to book a repositioning cruise with the onboard cruise consultant for next year and do it right!

The way things are set up you really can’t go off on your own. Traffic between Colon and Panama (here “Panama City” is always just “Panama”) can be terrible especially during the time you’d be trying to get back to the ship, so it’s best to stay with the ship tours . . . or come back to Panama and spend some time!!

Best time?

What is the best time of the year to go through the Panama Canal? We are thinking about late April of 2008.  CAkings

April is great!  April early May is still in the “dry” season – this doesn’t mean it won’t rain at all, but generally there is very little rain and you will have a great trip.

I assume from the timing that you are looking at a repositioning cruise which lets you go from sea to sea but doesn’t allow the opportunity to get off and explore Panama, but does give you the complete Canal experience.

Where to have a beer at Cristobal?

We are 4 couples on Celebrity’s Constellation, stopping at Cristobal Pier. What can we do other than a shore excursion off the ship? Canal tour? Good shopping? Place to have a beer? Ideas? Freespirits

The pier itself has places to eat and drink and is nicely done with lots of Kuna and Embera selling their crafts. I would strongly suggest booking a tour through the ship. Reasons: 1) Make the most of your time in Panama and see something; 2) There is nothing outside the pier area itself that is worth seeing, and like most pier areas, it’s not the best place to wander around; 3) Traffic in Panama can be unbelievable especially on the only 2 lane road between Colon and Panama City which is currently under construction. People who live in Colon generally work in Panama City and people who live in Panama City generally work in Colon: go figure! But the result is nightmare traffic. If you book through the cruise line the ship is not going to sail until all the buses are back. If you book on your own . . . good luck. If you get stuck in traffic, or the cab has a flat tire (since many of the tires are bald anyway) . . . you’ll get a really great shot of the ship as it sails away!

Embera Indian Village tour?

Has anyone done the Embera Indian Village? Is it worth it? When do you get back to the ship (Jeez, we can’t miss a meal, can we?)? We booked on line and I need to know if I should keep it or change it. Maywest

First, I live in Panama, in Boquete, up in the mountains, about 6 hours driving time from Panama City.Second, I lecture on several major cruise lines, sometimes about Panama and the Canal.Third, I’m good friends with a group of the Embera Puru who frequently sell their items at the pier in Colon.Fourth, I wouldn’t BE in Panama if it weren’t for this tour. I was Chaplain, not lecturer on a cruise, and my wife wanted to take the tour. It was $150! I said, “It will be hokey, touristy, and costs too much, but if you want to do it . . . fine.” She did it and loved it. I on the other hand opted to go ashore to the “Gatun Lake Yacht Club” (a real laugh!). The cruise line charged to go ashore and basically get your photo op (Men: bare-breasted Embera Indians – Gals: Embera guy in a loin cloth), they sold baskets, and did some dancing. Somehow I got talking with one of the Embera guys who turned out the be the “chief” of their little village. The cruise line, I guess because this was such a lame “excursion”, began giving away free beer, which I generously shared with my new Embera friends. 5 hours later we were all old friends. I’d given away my 24 Hour Fitness gym bag and T-shirt (They would have got the shorts too but I didn’t think the cruise line would appreciate the Chaplain coming back on board in a loin cloth!). My wife arrived back to find me and my new Embera friends. They wanted me to visit their village (3 hour drive from Panama City, then dug out canoe across Madden Lake and up into the Chagres National Park for 1.5 hours). In trying to research the Embera I accidentally “discovered” Panama and the benefits of living here, and here we are.I have visited and stayed at their village, and they have visited and stayed several times at my very “gringo” US-style home in Valle Escondido, Boquete.

I always recommend the tour!  There are numerous Embera villages in the area of Panama City, and some are more “authentic” than others.  Typically the companies that provide shore excursions to the cruise lines will use one of four or five villages.  Most of these go to “authentic” villages in the sense that, as defined by the tour operators, the people actually live there and are Embera.  The determination is made in part by the Embera village chiefs, who like to spread the “wealth” and in part by accessibility considerations.  Some of the “most authentic” villages can only be reached when the water in the rivers is deep enough and are unreachable, except by hiking on dried up river beds,  sometimes in the dry season.  Usually the people selling shore excursions on the ship have no idea which village a tour will visit, and probably don’t understand the differences between villages.  “Authentic” to them, and the tour operators, means real Embera who live there.

The villages each have their own organization and differ.  In the more genuinely authentic villages the traditional dress is men in loin clothes and women bare breasted.   Perhaps at the suggestion of tour operators in deference to what they perceive are cruise passengers sensibilities, in some of the less authentic villages women wear some kind of halter, with an interesting story that has been made up to make these have at least an aura of authenticity, and the guys wear beaded skirts probably made in China, although the one tour operator assures me that although the beads are made in China the guys – or maybe the women – make the designs.  You can decide.  These villages to me feel a little like the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, and my friends from one of the “authentic” villages laugh and say, “We are REAL Embera!”  So you will need to judge.

So it’s not that you have a choice.  But, I’d still recommend taking the Embera tour.  Even if the village is a little touristy it does give you a feel of this unique culture.

At Rio San Juan de Pequini in real daily life, when tourists are not visiting, the men wear shorts. Loin clothes are highly overrated! But the women dress the same way, mostly bare breasted. When Zueleka, wife of the chief at Rio San Juan was visiting our home and cooking with my wife in the kitchen, she asked, “Nikki, how do you stand all these bras and shirts and stuff so tightly wrapped around you?” It’s all a matter of cultural perspective.

Whatever, if you are in panama, and if you have the opportunity, TAKE A TOUR IN PANAMA! (I know that’s “shouting” but it is important advice.) And if possible, visit the Embera. You will meet some wonderful people who are struggling to preserve a lifestyle that goes back to the days before Columbus arrived!You will have opportunity to purchase their crafts. Because the area in which these people live has become a National Park they are not allowed to farm or have animals so their only source of income is from tourist activities and sales of crafts. A word about “bargaining.” It is not done in Panama the way it is in some other countries, maybe like Mexico. It IS appropriate to ask, “Is this your best price?” or something similar. It is NOT appropriate to make some dumb low ball offer. You will feel MUCH better paying 90% of the asking price, or even the full price, and then not contributing so much money to the casino on board when you get back to the ship!

What I would call a “demonstration” Embera Village (left) – although yes the people do live there and are Embera and get 6 or 7 groups a week in the tourist season, and the “authentic” Embera Village (right) – that may get two ship groups a month:

“Demonstration” Embera Village Tour Embera

Authenic Embera Indian Village Tour or on your own?

We have a day in Amador and the ship is not offering the Embera tour. Is there any way we can do it on our own?

We are on a cruise line that does not offer the authentic Embera Indian Village Tour, but only goes to the “demonstration” village. Is there a way that we can book the authentic tour on our own?

Understand that the tour is a full day tour. You can only do it on your own if you are spending a full day on the Pacific side at Amador, or on the Caribbean side at Cristobal or Colon. If you are on a ship that lets passengers off in Gatun Lake you must book a shore excursion through the ship.

Anne Barrigon [http://www.emberavillagetours.com/] does conduct independent tours to the authentic Embera Indian village at Rio San Juan de Pequini. You can contact Anne directly for information. Hers is an interesting story. In 1956 five missionaries were killed in Ecuador and their story was immortalized in a book written by the wife of one of the martyred missionaries called, “THROUGH GATES OF SPENDOR.” In 2004 a Christian movie company decided to make a movie about that story and used the Embera village of Rio San Juan de Pequini as a setting for filming, using the Embera to play the role of the Ecuadorian Indians. The movie was eventually released in 2006 as “THE END OF THE SPEAR.”   Anne Barrigon worked on the film . . . and ended up falling in love with and later marrying one of the Embera men.

And and her husband live in Panama City and she conducts tours to the village.  Prices depend on the number of participants, but for 6 to 8 people run around $75-80 per person.

Finally, some “insider” advice . . . .

Tourism is relatively new in Panama and is a very small part of the economy.  When you go to Costa Rica, where tourism is the major industry, you will see a well-developed tourist “machine” at work.  But tourism is their major industry and they have been working on it for twenty years.  Tourism is growing in Panama, but has a long way to go.  Generally we don’t have the newest or fanciest tourist buses.  Guides and tour operators are learning.  The infrastructure around Colon is under construction.  The road between Panama and Colon is “the road from hell” with construction and traffic.  And Colon’s primary business is being the second largest free port in the world, not cruise ships or tourism. Colon is hardly the most “beautiful” or “typical” Panamanian area.   So if you are on a ship stopping in Colon understand that tourism in Panama is a “work in progress.”

I get lots of questions about the difference between the two ports.  He’s a primer:

The ports of  Colon (Caribbean side):

There are two ports in Colon:  “Home Port” mostly used by Royal Caribbean, and “Colon 2000” which is mostly used by ships of the Carnival family.

A few shops with the same stuff you see everywhere, no indigenous folks selling crafts - the highlight of Colon 2000 is that it has a Super 99 grocery store where you can stock up on the junk food you're missing and inexpensive (compared to the ship) soda.
A few shops with the same stuff you see everywhere, no indigenous folks selling crafts – the highlight of Colon 2000 is that it has a Super 99 grocery store where you can stock up on the junk food you’re missing and inexpensive (compared to the ship) soda.

The thing to do in Colon is take a tour and the easiest and most efficient way is to take a ship’s tour. Colon is not designed for cruise tourism and even Panamanians don’t consider it a safe city in which to wander. Ships advise that you remain within the confines of the Pier either at Cristobal or Colon 2000. If the government had it’s 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. The Ports of Amador and Balboa (Pacific side):

Amador also known as Fuerte Amador. Ships call at the island in the foreground. Causeway links to rest of Panama City in the background.
Amador also known as Fuerte Amador. Ships call at the island in the foreground. Causeway links to rest of Panama City in the background.

Passenger ships can be accommodated on the Pacific side at either Balboa or Amador (sometimes called “Fuerte Amador”] both areas of Panama City. Balboa is a commercial port and there is rarely berthing available for passenger ships so most ships will call at Amador.   Amador is a tender port.

Amador is the long causeway running between the Bay of Panama and the Panama Canal. The several islands here were linked during the construction of the Canal with dirt and rock removed to make the Canal. During the US days it was all forts and military installations. Today it is a popular area for Panamanians to stroll, jog, bike, walk dogs, and just sit and enjoy spectacular views of the city. There are bars, clubs, and restaurants and it is a very safe and pleasant area. You’ll also frequently see the yachts of the beautiful people and rich and famous at Amador.

Port At Balboa
Port At Balboa

Amador is a brief cab ride from the old Casco Viejo (the old section of Panama City going back to the French days) and the towers, malls and casinos of the current Panama City. It’s just a little longer ride to the Canal, Miraflores Locks and the Visitor Center at Miraflores. Also worthwhile is the Old City of Panama, a UNESCO heritage site, where you can see the remains of the city as it was when the pirate Morgan attacked. There is also a great Embera, Wounaan and Kuna craft market at Old Panama.

“Get off the ship!”

My recommendation when I lecture on cruise ships visiting Panama or going through the Canal is, if at all possible, get off the ship! See some of Panama! If you just go through the Canal you really don’t see any of Panama. It would be a little like sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, never getting off the ship, and saying you’ve seen San Francisco!

What type of cruise to take?  Here are the choices of types of cruises visiting Panama:

1. Southern Caribbean Cruises that call at Colon or Cristobal, but do not enter the Canal. Sometimes ships do this that are too large to fit through the Canal.

2. Southern Caribbean Cruises that enter the Canal, generally roundtrip 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.

3.  Royal Caribbean homeports a ship in Panama that sails roundtrip from Colon to Cartagena, Colombia; Santa Marta, Columbia; Oranjestad, Aruba; Willemstad, Curacao; and Kralendijk, Bonaire.  My suggestion is to book a pre or post cruise stay in Panama, either through the cruise line or on your own, and see some of Panama!

4. Ships that transit 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.

5. Ships that stop on the Pacific side of Panama visiting Panama City at the cruise port of Amador. Amador is a relatively short cab ride from Panama City and the Miraflores locks and visitor center for the Canal. You can conveniently visit Old Panama (the original city), Casco Viejo (from the French Canal days), or the new booming Panama City with all it’s high rise towers.

6. There’s also a small ship cruise experience with Cruise West: a 10 day cruise between Costa Rica and Panama which includes Portobello, 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.

IT’S ALL HERE … Everything You Need to Know

It’s 4:30 a.m. – When I am on the bridge giving commentary as we make a passage through the Canal this is when and how the day begins. You’ll get inside information on what’s happening on the bridge of a ship passing through the Canal and pictures on the bridge showing perspectives that guests never get to see.

The Bridge of Life – Millions of years ago there was no Panama! The waters of the oceans flowed freely between the continents before the “bridge of life” liking the continents was created.

New Granada – Eventually the Spanish arrived and conquered, and then as the Spanish Empire dissolved, Panama struggled to find it’s place in the New Word.

The Dream – Columbus, King Charles V of Spain, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Simon Bolivar all shared the same dream.

At work: bridge commentary during Canal passage.
At work: bridge commentary during Canal passage.

A Century of Expansion – Voyages and expeditions of discovery opened up new areas of the world, and the fledgling United States of America began expanding to the west.

The Panama Railroad – Although many cruise passengers will take the excursion on today’s Panama Railroad, few realize how important the original Panama Railroad was not only to Panama but also to the United States. This was the “little railroad that could” and carried billions of dollars of gold across the Isthmus.

The French Effort – Riding high on the success of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps came declaring that a canal across Panama would be easier than building the Suez Canal.

Banana Republic – The term “Banana Republic” was coined to describe the Republic of Panama created with the assistance of the United States, who in return got a path cross the Isthmus dividing the new country in two.

Let The Dirt Fly – Theodore Roosevelt, like Caesar, came, saw and conquered. The United States undertook the greatest project the modern world had ever seen and finished the Panama Canal ahead of schedule and under budget.

Dr Richard DetrichaHow It Works – In theory quite simple: up, over, and down, but achieving that was and is quite a marvel! Here’s what you need to know about how and why the Canal functions.

A Complicated Marriage – Panama’s relationship with the United States was complicated from the start. Many people read David Mc Cullough’s wonderful history, The Path Between The Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, failing to realize that it covers only PART of the history. A lot has happened since 1914, in the world, in Panama, with the Canal, and with Panama’s relationship with the United States.

Moving Forward – Time moves on, and so has the Canal and Panama. What about the future role of the Canal? Nicaragua? The Northwest Passage? The Canal expansion project?

Panama 101 – What is in Panama and why are people so excited about visiting the country itself?

Booking Passage – The questions everyone ask … What is the best time? How to find the best price? Which side of the ship is best? What about shots, passports, etc.?

I do change my shirts! This is just my traditional Panama Canal day shirt! It's more fun if there is another ship in the locks next to you.
I do change my shirts! This is just my traditional Panama Canal day shirt! It’s more fun if there is another ship in the locks next to you.

Seeing Panama – If you are lucky enough to actually stop in Panama and not just barrel through the Canal, what are the shore excursion options? Which one is best? How do you choose? Should you book through the cruise line or go independently? What are the independent options? Included are actual photos from most of the tours.

Your Voyage – Mile by mile guide of your cruise through the Panama Canal. What to expect and what to look for? Facts that you should know along the way.

Questions & Answers – Probably half of these are the same questions that you’ve been asking?

Our Ship & Our Bill – Everybody’s question: how much? A hypothetical ship and how the toll and fees are charged.

Key Dates in Panama History

U. S. Military Installations in Panama 1904 to 1999

The Panama Canal By The Numbers


Veendam 129

23 thoughts on “Panama Canal Cruise Q&A

  1. Richard,
    We are sailing on Jewel of the Seas, RCL 4/13/09 on a partial transit in Panama. We are considering a bass fishing trip in Gatun Lake, a ships excursion. Do you know anything about this, is it worth while. Will we be able to see some of Panama when they return us to the Cristobal Pier?
    Thanks so much!
    Jan C.

    Unfortunately I don’t know a lot about this trip. I’m not a fisherman, but I have heard that there are some great spots for bass in Gatun Lake. It’s catch and release, so it should be a fun day on a beautiful lake, maybe less fun if it rains a lot, and right now is the rainy season . . . but it’s warm rain.

    I doubt if you will see anything much of Panama, other than the scenic beauty of Gatun Lake. There is some good shopping for Indian crafts on the Cristobal pier. If you see my Embera friends from Rio San Juan de Pequini, say “hello” for me.
    Regards, Richard

  2. We plan on taking the Embera excursion from the Zuiderdam November 25. Do you recommend any special innoculations since we’ll be going up the river into the jungle?

    You’ll be on the ship at that time? Perhaps we’ll run into you.

    Hi Brenda! Look forward to meeting you! No innoculations are necessary. We never know which Embera Village will be used. It depends on the amount of water in the river, although there should be lots since this is the height of our rainy season, and the Embera chiefs divide up the business to share the income and also not to overwhelm any one village. So the time on the river varies greatly. All I suggest is maybe take some OFF! along and leave the bright tropical clothing to the Embera. If you’re interested in baskets and craft items take along some cash since they don’t take credit cards! Baskets run from $20 to $500 for the large ones that are works of art. Carvings run from $15 up . . . and I’m hoping Fernando still has my cocobolo dolphins that are spectacular and run about $200. I fell in love with this carving the first time I saw it, but didn’t have the cash with me, and he promised to save it, but we just haven’t connected. Since he lives in the jungle I asked him, “How did you know what dolphins looked like to make this so realistic?” He saw a Wyland painting in a Panama City store and remembered the image. If I manage to get it, I’ll definitely have it at my desk on the ship. Regards, Richard

  3. Thanks for your prompt answer. I was concerned about needing yellow fever shots. Where might we find your desk aboard ship? We are anticipating this Embera excursion being the highlight of our cruise! And what better way to spend Thanksgiving – on a HAL cruise.

    I don’t know where my desk is . . . other than they promised me one! It will be in the Daily Program. If you find it first, let me know! Probably behind the laundry on Jules Verne Deck. Regards, Richard

  4. Richard,

    Another comment – we will look forward to chatting with you on the Zuiderdam. My husband worked in Ventura County and lived in Oxnard for thirty-four years.

    Also, I was in David thirty-seven years ago when the only access was by boat or plane, no roads! Or perhaps David was the closest town at the time. We were at a banana processing plant/village on the coast.

    Six weeks and our cruise starts!


  5. Hi, Richard…

    Welcome to HAL! We’re looking forward to meeting you at our Meet ‘n’ Greet on November 21st.

    We will probably not be able to leave the ship in Panama, so we are planning to watch the transit from our suite balcony. Can you tell me if you’re going to be broadcasting a narration during the transit, either over the public address system or cabin TV?

    Typically the Canal sends a narrator on board to do the commentary from the bridge, but I will be out and about on deck. Look forward to meeting you Candy! Regards, Richard

  6. Richard, reading about your house in Panama is like reading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. Great fun! I have a comment to make about the shore excursions. Why in God’s name don’t they offer the longer authentic Embera Village AND the Gatun Locks. We would gladly pay the extra fee and how much longer would it take? We would gladly sacrifice the time we would have spent in the port of Colon which leaves a lot to be desired (at this time) anyway. The Embera Indian Village Tour offerred by HAL does not offer the Locks.

  7. Richard: I will be on HAL for 2 wks Panama Canal starting 3/9/09. We arrive in Fuerte Amador at 6:00 p.m. and leave at 4:00 a.m. Not much time. The ship offers 3 excursions – Colonial Panama by Night, Miraflores Locks by Night and Panama’s History in Dance. Can you advise what else we can do in the evening on our own that would be more exciting to see or do. Thanks in advance.

  8. Hi, Richard. Will we have the great luck to have you on the Zuiderdam for the April 8,2009 trip? Finally, someone on a cruise ship who knows the area and likes it!

  9. I am so looking forward to our cruise on the Zuiderdam on 2/27/09. Have learned a lot from your site. Would love to go to an Embara Indian village but have arthritis and am concerned about getting into and out of the dugout canoe. Can it be done with a fit but not so agile person??? Thank you!

  10. Will look forward to seeing you on board! It involves sitting up to 45 minutes in a dug out canoe going up to the Embera village. It is a stable, big canoe for about 20 people, but it does mean sitting low. They will help you in and out, if your knees can handle sitting low that long. You can talk about it with Shore Ex on board. Regards, Richard

  11. Thank you so much! Only 26 more days before we board the ship! You have made this trip so enticing and there are places now that we will go that I didn’t plan on before reading all of your info. Thanks so much for helping and for fantastic info for the young and old alike.

  12. We too, will be on the Zuiderdam April 8 cruise and am uncertain if we go on the Embara village excursion, where we experience the locks… on or off the ship?

  13. Richard, I’ll be on the Carnival Freedom, docking in Colon, and don’t see any shore excursions that are exactly what I’m looking for. I did find a private tour with Mario that sounds good. Would this be a safe thing to do, and do you think that the Embrera village he visits is authentic ?

  14. Hi, Richard. Looking forward to meeting you on the April 8 cruise on HAL. My question is that I am traveling with a 75 year old. She is concerned about the heat in Panama. Will it be very hot in April and if so which tour would be best. She would love to do the Embera tour if it is at all possible. Thanks so much.

  15. Hi Richard. Will you be on the Statendam the first week of April? Like to check out oyur lectures if possible. Great website, with lots of helpful info. Thanks. The Good: we are stopping in Amador. The Bad: we arrive at 6pm, and leave at 4am before starting through the canal. I think we will do the City At Night Tour. Is there anything you recommend arriving close to dark? Thanks. First timers!

  16. Thanks for all the info on the Panama Canal. Thinking of taking the cruise in 2010. What ships do you think have the best cruise there. No children; adults 60+

    Thanks, Betty

  17. Is the locks portion of the Princess Gatun locks eco tour worth doing if our main interest is seeing the locks? It is the only option available on our partial transit trip. We are leaving in a few days.

    Thank You for your help.

  18. Rob, The locks eco tour isn’t my favorite tour. You say you are doing a partial transit, so you will be going throiugh Gatun Locks, turning around in Gatun Lake, with the ship heading back through the locks. In my opinion the best view of the locks is from the deck of your ship during your passage through the locks. It’s a far better view than you can get on a land tour! If it were me, I’d choose another tour. Regards, Richard

  19. Great reading:
    My wife and I are taking the Nov 14, 2011 Panama Canal Cruise aboard the Zuiderdam. What tours would you avoid and which are musts to take?
    Where in Ft. Lauderdale wuld you suggest we stay the night before, somewhere where we can leave a car with a shuttle to the ship? If you can answer these questions you will save us lots of grief. Thank you
    Don and Judy

    Don and Judy: Not that familiar with area outside port in Lauderdale or what parking might be available. If you look in my CRUISING THE PANAMA CANAL book you will find a chapter on the tours and the ones I suggest. Enjoy! – Richard

  20. We will be in Fuerte Amador and are interested in seeing the canal up close, the history of the canal, the old city of Panama and the old French city. Can you recommend a guide for a private tour for our group?

  21. Hi Richard, we are planning to travel to Panama at the end of december. How is the weather? Thx

  22. Hi Richard,
    My friends and I would like to take one of the local tours which transit the Canal. I’ve seen several online sites where I can book a tour, but I’m skeptical about booking without knowing more about the company. Of the partial transit tours. Is there one you’d recommend for us to use? Thanks,

  23. My wife and I took The Legend of the Seas from San Diego to Ft. Lauderdale this April. We had a fantastic cruise. We took the RCCI tour to the Gatun Locks and the ecological boat trip on Gatun Lake. We were able to view the locks at the visitor center and see Howler monkeys, sloths, and caymens on the boat tour. We stopped at Super 99 on our way back to the ship, where we purchased whole bean coffee. Unfortunately, after putting the beans in a plastic sealed container, I threw away the package. What major brand of coffee is sold at the Super 99? I believe the whole beans were sold in yellow packaging.


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