Visiting Panama and Transiting the Panama Canal

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East Meets West: Transiting the Panama Canal

Transiting the Panama Canal: Entering Gamboa Locks

Entering Gamboa Locks

Transiting the Panama Canal: Mira Flores Locks:

I am sitting on the lower back deck of our ship as we make our way through the second set of locks along the Panama Canal.  We are just now exiting Pedro Miguel lock, which starts our 85’ descent to sea level, entering the Pacific Ocean.  The process is slow.  We began about 8 am this morning when the canal pilot joined our ship to help us slowly maneuver through the entire length of the canal.  We entered the Gatun Locks, which is a series of three locks on the east side near Colon that raise us 85’, depositing us into the Gatun Lake, which we traversed for several hours until we arrived at the Miraflores locks, which started our descent.

Mule pulling our ship into the first lock in the Panama CanalWhen we enter each lock, we are secured by cable to four heavy rail trolleys called mules.  These mules keep us positioned perfectly in the lock so we do not hit the sides of the lock, which could cause damage to both the ship’s hull and the lock itself.  As we reach the correct depth in the lock, the gates open, and the mules pull us through the lock; then, at the right moment, the cables are loosened and released by our deck crew.  The mules ree,l in the wires, and we begin to make our way out of the lock.  We are now going through a small lake area to the next set of locks, called the Miraflores Locks, which will drop us to sea level.  Learn more about the construction and locks of Wikipedia.

During this entire time, we are being escorted by two to three tug boats, ready to help if we have any issues.  A problem with one ship transiting the locks is a problem for all ships going in the same direction, so they ensure there are no problems.

Water Shortage in the Lakes that Feed the Canal:

Central America has not been getting the normal amount of rain, making the water levels in the lakes and rivers that feed the canal very low.  As a result, Panama is limiting the number of ships that can transit the canal daily to about 25, almost half of the normal 45-50 ships that normally transit the canal.  The low lake water is not an issue in the depth of the water but in the depth of the lake water.  Each time a ship exits a lock, all the water used to raise the lock is dumped into the water downstream, flushing millions of gallons of water into either ocean with each ship that goes through the locks.  Without plentiful rain, the lake levels get lower, limiting the water available to flood the locks.  The new, larger canal that opened in 2016 uses a series of large pumps to push the water from one lock to the other, limiting the water wasted to 1/3 the amount.

It has taken us about twenty minutes to arrive at the first Miraflores lock.  Happily, it has started to rain, helping to replenish the lake water.  A new muleMira Flores Locks with Mule pulling the Neptune has feed cables for our crew to attach, and we are now secure to the mule.  With a few clangs of the bells from the mule, we are now being pulled into the lock by this mule.  Two locks in this system lower us a total of about 54 feet.

 Finished Transiting the Panama Canal:

With a rumble and a clang, the water in our fourth lock was drained, and our mules were pulling us out of the lock about 20-30 minutes after we entered.  It still rains as we transit, which is a good sign for this area.


Pamama Canal Visitor Center - Panama CityAs we pulled into the second chamber and, I believe, our last lock, a large Canal Authority was building on our starboard and the visitors’ center we had visited seven years ago on land.  I remember thinking back then how cool it would be to be on a ship going through the canal.  I was right. It has been very cool and has given me an even greater appreciation for the history and working of this canal and locks.  It is too bad it took such an enormous human toll to build.  Back then, I never imagined we would take a trip around the world like this.  It just goes to show you almost anything is possible.

The gates are closing behind us; for some reason, there are double gates here.  When we exit this lock, we will be headed toward and out of the Port of Balboa.  As we descend to the next level, the crowd watches us; how cool.

Colon Panama and Gamboa Rain forest and Wildlife Reserve

Colon Panama is a shipping town.  It grew during the Panama Canal’s building in the late 1800s and early 1900s as the canal was being constructed first by the French and then eventually completed by the Americans. The Americans held this area as an American territory until December 31, 1999, when the US turned it over to the Panamanians.  Unfortunately, the city of Colon is not a city where tourists want to spend any time in.  Most ship excursions bus passengers out of Colon to various attractions through the Peninsula.

Rain Forest and Aerial Tram:

Bob and I have visited Panama City seven years earlier, visiting the Canal Museum and touring around the city. So, we opted for a nature-centric excursion, taking the Rain Forest and Aerial Tram Tour.

We disembarked from the ship, walked into the cruise port terminal, and through the duty-free shops to our waiting bus and guide for the day, Roxanne, who was a local with a larger-than-life personality and highly knowledgeable about the area, the canal, and the tours.

We headed west from Colon, eventually taking a one-lane, rough road into the rainforest towards a unique 5-star hotel called the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve and Hotel.

Roxanne allowed us to stop at the hotel for a bathroom break, where they offered us a fruit punch drink and encouraged us to look around and, of course, visit the gift shop, which I did to pick up a magnet for our collection.

Sloth Sanctuary

Sloth in a treeWe reboarded our bus for a short 5-minute drive down to the nature sanctuary.  Roxanne pointed out flora and fauna along the way, including a wayward crocodile.  Exiting the bus, our first stop was the Sloth Rescue Center.  When we left the bus, the resident guide pointed a Sloth way up in the tree above the road.  It’s hard to pick them out in the foliage as they don’t move much.  After a quick stop at another souvenir shop and restrooms, we assembled in the sloth sanctuary, where a staff person talked about the sloths, their ages, 7 and 14, their habitats, lifespans, and more.  See more about the Gamboa Reserve here.  They looked pretty cute with their light beige coats and little faces.

 Butterflies Everywhere:

Next up was the butterfly pavilion, where over 200 species of butterflies, including a rare blue species that IBrown spotted butterfly should have noted the name of.  Because of the fast lifecycle of butterflies, there may be 20-30 species available to see at any given time, depending on the time of the year.

Onto the Orchid pavilion, which was underwhelming due to the time of year.  We have many orchids in Florida, so this wasn’t that interesting, but no worries because the poisonous miniature frogs were next.

Deadly Mini Frogs Exhibit:

Poisonous Orange FrogThis exhibit was a large planter about 30 feet in diameter and about two feet high on our side.  There were logs and various low-growing foliage in this round planter.  The guide described the miniature red, blue, and green frogs among the foliage as very small and extremely lethal to humans.  Contact with one of these little guys can kill a human within minutes.  There was no top on the exhibit and no nets, so I guess they were pretty sure they weren’t going to jump on us.

It’s time to head to the aerial tram portion of the tour.  We were back on the bus and headed further up the mountain to another structure, sans the gift shop, the base for the aerial tram.  As we got out of the bus, it began to rain.  I had checked the weather and brought our rain jackets; others were not so lucky.  It began to rain harder as we boarded the four and sometimes six-person open-air trams.  Luckily, a canopy over our heads protected us from the bulk of the rain.  It took about 30 minutes to get to the top, as it stopped every time people were loaded or unloaded into the cars.  By the time we reached the top, it was pouring, with a bit of thunder mixed in for good measure.  At the top, we were supposed to get off and hike up higher to the summit for what was promised to be a fabulous view of the lake.  However, only a few got off as the rest of us opted to head straight back down to the dry bus.  We waited quite a while for everyone to return, which put us a little behind schedule.  No worries, we weren’t leaving port until midnight.

With everyone back on the bus, our driver headed back towards the port.  The road construction down the mountain road slowed us down, but it was worse for the people coming up the road away from Colon.

Excursions Available when visiting Colon and Panama City Panama

The Panama Canal Railway: Connecting Two Oceans Duration: 6.50 Hours

Date: December 29, 2023 09:00 AM

Travel Between the Seas On One of the World’s Great Rail Journeys — Relive the golden age of rail travel on a historic coast-to-coast journey flanking the Panama Canal. Traveling between Colón and Panama City in air-conditioned, vintage-style rail coaches, follow the Canal through lush rain forests, alongside the locks, past the historic Gaillard Cut and over Gatun Lake along narrow causeways. Learn the history of the railroad, the construction of which began in 1850 and was the most expensive (per mile) ever built. The cost was human as well—tens of thousands of workers died from yellow fever, malaria and many other hardships. Their work made it possible for the Panama Canal to be built 31 years later. The rail trip is one-way, so you will either return to or depart from your ship via motor coach. You will also enjoy a panoramic drive through the modern section of Panama City, free time to browse for handicrafts in the neighborhood of Amador and lunch at a local restaurant.

Panoramic Colón & Panama City by Foot Duration: 5.50 Hours Price: Included

Date: December 29, 2023 09:00 AM Available, 09:30 AM Available, 11:30 AM Available, 12:00 PM Available

Experience Central America’s Most Cosmopolitan Capital — Discover Panama’s most exciting city on this excursion to the capital, Panama City. A 90-minute drive from Colón brings you across the isthmus to the gleaming waterfront of Panama City, lined with modern glass skyscrapers that are reminiscent of Miami. Enjoy the sights of this vibrant cosmopolitan capital, which has been likened to Singapore for its booming city skyline, and Dubai for its aspirations of becoming an economic powerhouse. Next, you will travel to Casco Viejo (Old Town), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After a brief orientation, follow old cobblestone lanes past pastel-colored colonial buildings, stopping to admire the stately cathedral. Join the elderly men chatting amicably, and relax on the shaded benches in the main square. Along with the antique charm, the Casco offers some of the city’s most stylish hotels, bars and boutiques.

Historic Railway by Domed Train Duration: 8.00 hrs

Date: December 29, 2023 09:00 AM Available

Picturesque Views of the Panama Canal and an Up-Close Visit to the Locks — Construction of the Panama Canal Railway began in 1850 and came at a great cost—tens of thousands of workers died completing it. Traveling between Colón and Panama City in a deluxe 1938 air-conditioned rail coach equipped with upper-deck observation windows, follow the canal through rain forests, alongside the locks, past the Culebra Cut and over Gatun Lake. Learn the history of this trailblazing transcontinental railroad, Panama and its people. Upon arrival in Panama City, embark on a scenic drive through the city and get an up-close look at the Miraflores locks. Head to the IMAX theater to watch a documentary about the canal, then visit the terrace overlooking the Miraflores lock. Afterward, savor a delicious meal at a nearby restaurant before returning to your ship.

Embera Indian Village Visit Duration: 6.00 Hours

Date: December 29, 2023 09:15 AM Available

An Authentic Encounter with Panama’s Indigenous Tribal Culture — Meet the keepers of the Panamanian rain forest, the Emberá tribe, who share their vivid culture warmly and openly. Travel by motor coach to the Chagres National Park, and then onward by traditional dugout canoes to the Emberá Village, where you will be welcomed by the Chief and treated to some ceremonial dancing. The Emberá are one of seven indigenous Panamanian groups, living much as they did in pre-Columbian times. Most Emberá live in round huts on stilts with extended family; peek inside and share a typical lunch of fish and plantains. The Emberá wear little clothing, but paint elaborate patterns on their bodies using the black dye of the jagua plant. You might even be invited to have one of these temporary tattoos painted on your skin. You will also have the chance to see Emberá craftspeople at work and buy perfectly coiled baskets, bright uhua sarongs, instruments, or jewelry.

Fort San Lorenzo & Panama Canal Locks Duration: 6.50 Hours

Date: December 29, 2023 09:15 AM Available

Sixteenth-Century Citadel and Modern Marvel — You will visit the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo, a 16th-century Spanish citadel that sits at the mouth of the Chagres River, overlooking the Caribbean Sea and surrounded by 30,000 acres of protected rainforest. Learn about the fortress’s turbulent history from your guide as you explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site and admire striking views of your surroundings. After lunch, you will head to the Aqua Clara Visitors Center to learn more about this engineering marvel and the massive Panama Canal Expansion Project, which doubled the waterway’s capacity and was completed in June 2016. Here, you might have the opportunity to observe massive cargo ships transiting the canal from mere feet away as they pass through the 1.7 miles of lock structures along this stretch of water.

Miraflores Locks & Panama Canal Expansion

Observation Center

Date: December 29, 2023 09:30 AM

The Engineering Wonder That Connects the Atlantic and Pacific — Since opening more than 100 years ago, over a million vessels have traveled through the famous waterway, connecting culture and commerce from around the world. The locks were one of the greatest engineering feats ever undertaken when they opened in 1914. No other concrete construction of comparable size was carried out until the Hoover Dam. At the Miraflores Visitor Center, watch an IMAX movie about the canal and see the Miraflores locks from a unique perspective while visiting the operational area with a private guide from the Panama Canal Authority. After lunch, visit the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center to learn more about this engineering marvel and the massive Panama Canal Expansion Project, which doubled the waterway’s capacity when completed in June 2016.

Rainforest & Aerial Tram Duration: 5.50 Hours

Date: December 29, 2023 09:30 AM

world’s most complex ecosystems. You will experience nature up close as your tram climbs from the shadowy forest floor, through the dense undergrowth, up to the sun-drenched canopy approximately 280 feet above the ground. A knowledgeable guide will describe the tropical plants and local wildlife as you travel through the treetops. Keep watch for the colorful birds and butterflies, white-faced capuchin monkeys and sloths that call the jungle home. Climb the stairs to the top of the Gamboa Observation Tower, where you will enjoy phenomenal views of the Chagres River, Gatun Lake and the Panama Canal. Back on the ground, you may even hear the distant call of howler monkeys as you enjoy a light refreshment prior to returning to port.

Flora & Fauna of the Panama Canal Duration: 5.00 Hours

Date: December 29, 2023 09:30 AM

Learn About the Canal Ecosystem and Watch for Local Wildlife — Discover expansive rain forest jungle during an invigorating boat ride through the Panama Canal. Speed through the heart of this manmade wonder, one of the most difficult engineering projects in human history. Your vessel will reduce its speed as you reach your destination, Gatun Lake—a large artificial lake created when the Gatun Dam was built during the early 20th century. Its verdant islands and surrounding waters are habitats for an array of flora and fauna. Your trained naturalist guide will talk about this delicate ecosystem and point out wildlife. Sail past stumps of mahogany trees peeking out above water teeming with fish, caimans, crocodiles and turtles. Keep watch for capuchin and howler monkeys cavorting above you in the trees. The jungle is also home to three-toed sloths, butterflies and many species of birds, such as toucans. At the end of your tour, you will transfer back to your ship.

Gatun Lake Kayak & Canal Locks Duration: 5.00 Hours

Date: December 29, 2023 09:45 AM

Canal Ecosystem and Agua Clara Visitors Center — At your launch point, meet your guide and receive your equipment and a short safety briefing. Then, board your two-person kayak and set out through the heart of the canal for Gatun Lake—a large artificial lake created when the Gatun Dam was built during the early 20th century. The lake and its islands are habitats for an array of flora and fauna. Your naturalist guide will talk about this delicate ecosystem as you glide past stumps of mahogany trees peeking out above water teeming with fish, caimans, crocodiles and turtles. Keep watch for possible glimpses of capuchin and howler monkeys cavorting in the trees. Afterward, visit the Agua Clara Visitors Center to learn more about this ecosystem and the massive Panama Canal Expansion Project before returning to your ship.

Gatun Lake & Locks

Date: December 29, 2023 09:45 AM

Lush Rainforest Jungle and Feat of Engineering — Transfer to the Rainforest Lodge and Marina, where you will board your catamaran-style boat for a cruise on Gatun Lake—a large, man-made freshwater lake created when the Gatun Dam was built during the early 20th century. Its jungle-covered islands and the surrounding waters are home to numerous flora and fauna. Your knowledgeable guide will offer insight into this delicate ecosystem and point out wildlife. Sail past the stumps of old mahogany trees that stick out above the water and keep watch for capuchin and howler monkeys jumping through the trees; you may also see exotic birds, sloths and crocodiles in their natural surroundings. Afterward, continue to the Agua Clara Visitor Center for panoramic views of the Panama Canal and an opportunity to see the locks operate.