Explore the history and culture along the Panama Canal and beyond with Holland America Line.
By Kristy Tolley
As you cruise through the Panama Canal, one of the world’s greatest marvels, it’s hard not to be awed by this feat of engineering, ambition and determination. It’s one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World — and for good reason. Stretching 48 miles from Panama City to Colon, this manmade shortcut shaved about 8,000 miles off travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Sights and Sounds
Plying along the canal, you’ll hear howler monkeys screech in the distance as electric “mules” (locomotives) with ropes guide your ship through three sets of double locks: Miraflores and Pedro Miguel on the Pacific side and Gatun on the Atlantic. Between the locks, you’ll pass through the man-made Gatun Lake. The largest man-made lake at the time it was built, it’s fringed by a rainforest and islets. The lake is the most panoramic portion of your passage through the canal and one of the best locations to spot monkeys. It’s an incredible experience.
Panama Canal cruises continue to grow in popularity since the first cruise line carried guests through in 1967. Today travelers can ply the canal and marvel at this historic endeavor during varied itineraries offered by Holland America Line. The company earned the number one spot in Cruise Critic’s 2019 Cruisers’ Choice Destination Awards for their cruises to the Panama Canal and Central America, as well as Alaska and the Mexican Riviera. Whether you opt for a 10- or 11-day “Panama Canal Sunfarer” itinerary or the longer 14-day “Panama Canal Holiday” or 22-day “Panama Canal” sailings, there’s much to explore.
“You are looking at something built over 100 years ago and operating the exact same way today as it did on Day 1,” says Lance Schuler, a cruise and travel director for Holland America Line who has crossed the canal more than 100 times, most recently on the Zuiderdam. “It’s amazing to think that nothing has changed on the Panama Canal in over 100 years with the exception of the installation of lights. We could not build something to last this long today like we did then. As a matter of fact, when they were building the new, larger ‘Neo-Panamax’ locks that opened in 2016, they had to repour the concrete twice to get it right.”
Schuler says he never tires of the experience — which takes about eight to nine hours for a full crossing.
“I love being outside on deck, watching the operation, waving at the mule drivers,” Schuler says. “You’re at an amazing place, a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the top engineering feats ever constructed.”
A Panama Canal expert is on board the ship during each crossing narrating history and interesting facts over the ship’s PA system. As you travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific, you’ll pass colonial towns, historic fortresses and manmade lakes that are today home to sanctuaries for hundreds of different animal and plant species.
Itineraries on either side of the Panama Canal vary, but guests have opportunities to enjoy the diverse cultures of Central and South America as well as some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. For example, you might zipline through a rainforest while spotting sloths and other wildlife in Costa Rica. You can also take a dip at the base of a gushing waterfall, spy birds in sanctuaries and nature reserves or ride horseback along pristine Pacific beaches.
Stroll along the cobbled streets of Casco Viejo, Panama City’s historic quarter and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Soak in the city’s impressive 16th- and 17th-century architecture throughout this maze-like district. After infamous pirate Henry Morgan pillaged and destroyed the original Panama City in 1671, the residents sought to rebuild a more secure city in a new location with fortified walls that was easier to defend.
You can spend your time in Aruba relaxing on a white-sand beach under one of the island’s iconic swaying Divi Divi trees. Stay on land with a guided motor coach tour with stops to the California Lighthouse and the historic Alto Vista Chapel, built on the site of the first Catholic church built on the island, constructed in 1750 by a Spanish missionary. Go deeper and explore the robust marine life in Aruba’s waters with a scuba excursion or a catamaran snorkel.
You may visit colonial sights in Panama City at the Miraflores Locks visitor center with its museum displays and IMAX theater or the biodiversity-focused, Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute. During a Panama Canal sailing, guests can dig deeper with the line’s Explorations Central (EXC) program, which showcases the region’s cultural experiences, local traditions and regional dishes on the menus. Guests can attend an EXC Talk or join in on an EXC Port to Table cooking demonstration or wine pairing event for a more immersive experience.
Luxury and Value
Low-key days at sea provide ample time to decompress by the pool, pamper yourself in the Greenhouse Spa and Salon or savor an unforgettable meal at one of Holland America Line’s exceptional restaurants. Your exquisitely appointed stateroom may make it difficult for you to venture out, though. Most of the line’s spacious rooms are ocean-facing and many boast teak-lined verandahs for private sunbathing or alfresco dining. Additionally, guests enjoy complimentary 24-hour in-room dining, deluxe bathrobes, complimentary fresh fruit and other upscale amenities.
Cruising the Panama Canal is a bucket-list travel experience for many. The variety of sailings throughout 2020 and 2021 make it easy to choose one to suit your schedule. In addition, AAA Members receive exclusive amenities adding even more value. AAA Members receive Pinnacle Grill and Canaletto dinners for two, a $50 per person beverage card and other member perks.
Experience history first hand with a Panama Canal cruise! Call 800-750-5386 or visit AAA.com/Travel and book your adventure today!
For more about visiting Panama, read Panama: Perusing a Multi-Faceted Culture
(Traveler Summer 2020)