Planning a trip to the Panama Canal? We did a 10-day partial transit Panama Canal cruise on the Caribbean Princess. I’ll share our journey with you, along with my best travel tips for this review of a “bucket list” destination. And baby sloths.

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I just wanted a week on the beach

I was dreaming of a Caribbean getaway. By the time my daughter’s winter break started it would be frigid here in New Hampshire. All I wanted to do was laze around the islands on warm sand. A few seven-day cruise options looked good, so I ran them by the family. Mr. SBC, always easy-going, said he’d be fine with whatever I picked.

I texted my daughter, knowing that this would be the first of hundreds of texts about the potential trip. Within an hour, she had researched all the available cruises to the Caribbean. My phone rang.

There are no sloths on the beach

“Baby sloths, Mom, baby sloths. We’re going. I’m texting you the link.” She hung up.

Baby sloths? Is there some tropical island full of baby sloths that I hadn’t yet heard about?

Sloths have been an obsession for my daughter since she was a small child. She has stuffed sloths, sloth socks, sloth mugs, sloth Christmas ornaments, you name it. She has dragged me to every zoo that has a sloth or two so she can squeal and take a million pictures. But we’ve never seen a baby sloth up close.

I checked the link she texted me. It was for a ten-day Panama Canal partial transit leaving from Fort Lauderdale. The price was more than double what I wanted to spend. I didn’t see many islands in the itinerary. I called her right back.

“We’re not going to do that trip. It’s way over the budget for this vacation. We can’t do eleven days plus travel to and from Florida; that’s almost two weeks. The baby sloth excursion is two hundred fifty dollars per person! Pick one of the island cruises I sent you.”

I could tell she was pouting. “Mom. it goes to Colombia. That’s South America. I’ve never been to South America. And it’s the Panama Canal! You love history! Isn’t that better than beaches?”

I started to protest.

“It’s on Princess. You love Princess. You know you do!” she cajoled.

“No,” I said.

I’m outnumbered…

Mr. SBC came into the room, having heard part of the conversation. “What’s all this about?” he asked.

I started to explain, but he stopped me. “The Panama Canal?” he said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to see the Panama Canal.” A bit of wistfulness shone in his eyes. I reminded him that taking two weeks off of work would probably be impossible. He said he would see what he could work out.

And that, my friends, is how my family talked me out of a week on the beach and into a very long journey to see baby sloths.

Panama Canal Entrance
Yes, I got up at dawn to see the entrance to the canal.

Our itinerary

Our ten-day cruise on the Caribbean Princess was a round-trip out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (If you’re new to cruising, note that a ten-day cruise actually takes eleven days. They don’t count disembarkation day as a “day” because you’re off the ship by mid-morning)

  • Day One: Embarkation Day, Fort Lauderdale
  • Day Two: At sea
  • Day Three: Princess Cays (private beach on Eleuthera, Bahamas). This stop was actually changed due to bad weather, so we went to Ocho Rios, Jamaica instead. It looks like right now this itinerary has been changed to Ocho Rios going forward, but that can always change again.
  • Day Four: At sea
  • Day Five: Cartagena, Colombia
  • Day Six: Panama Canal
  • Morning: partial transit through the new locks, turn around in Gatun Lake.
  • Afternoon: Cristóbal, Panama
  • Day Seven: Limón, Costa Rica
  • Day Eight: At sea
  • Day Nine: Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
  • Day Ten: At Sea
  • Day Eleven: Fort Lauderdale and disembarkation

What did we think of the ship?

Before we got on the Caribbean Princess, I was a little wary because she’s one of Princess’ older ships. Built in 2004 and refurbished in 2017, she’s a Grand Class ship like the Star, Golden, and Grand Princess. But, Caribbean Princess carries almost as many passengers as the newer Royal Class ships.

Caribbean Princess was actually the first ship to have the Ocean Medallion program rolled out to all passengers and all staterooms. If you haven’t heard about it yet, Ocean Medallion is a wearable that replaces your cruise card for room entry, purchases, and more. From what I hear, it’s a bit like a fancier version of the Magic Band that Disney uses at its parks and hotels.

It wasn’t yet installed when we sailed, but we have a cruise booked for this summer on the Regal Princess. Ocean Medallion should be up and running on the Regal by then, and I’m looking forward to reviewing this highly anticipated technology!

How Does the Caribbean Princess compare to new ships?

There were definitely some differences between the Caribbean Princess and Princess’ newer ships. Despite the recent refurb, the ship didn’t feel quite as modern as the newer vessels. There were some areas that either showed their age, or just didn’t have that “wow” factor.

I always like to try the buffet at least a few times, and it was a little smaller than the Royal Class buffets. There was a bit less of a selection, and it also didn’t have the dessert room in the middle!

On the plus side, there were a few things that I loved about this ship compared to the new Royal Class. I will find any excuse to dance at any time, and the huge Skywalkers nightclub has an enormous dancefloor. It’s way up on Deck 19, and it has tons of seating all around the window-lined perimeter. I liked this spacious club much more than the tiny, crowded Club 6 concept on the newer ships.

Those of you who are regular readers will know that Mr. SBC enjoys the occasional cigar, especially while on vacation. He loved that the Churchill’s cigar bar onboard had an actual bar, with bartenders. The Royal Class ships have Churchill’s, but it’s a tiny version without drink service.

We both appreciated that there are more pools on these older ships. Caribbean Princess has four. Newer builds have sadly cut down on the number of pools in lieu of more revenue-producing space. We didn’t feel crowded in the pool areas, and we *gasp* actually found unoccupied hot tubs several times!

I’d definitely take another cruise on the Caribbean Princess. Even though she’s not quite as fancy, she has a lot of charm and some unique features.

Panama Canal Balcony View
Watching one of the locks fill from the lowest deck

What did we do in port?

I’ll be posting reviews of all our shore excursion adventures, starting with the baby sloth tour that was the reason for this whole trip! But for now I’ll give a quick breakdown of what we did in each place.

  • Ocho Rios, Jamaica: Originally we were having a beach day at Princess Cays. We were very surprised when the captain announced that we were going to Jamaica instead! We climbed Dunn’s River Falls, relaxed at the Bamboo Beach Club, and had some time for souvenir shopping.
  • Cartagena, Columbia: A coach and walking tour of the Old City, a performance by a local dance troupe, and time for shopping.
  • Panama Canal & Colón, Panama: Coach to Gamboa Rainforest Resort for refreshments, guided aerial tram through the rainforest.
  • Limón, Costa Rica: BABY SLOTHS!! We visited the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, and Mr. SBC did his own excursion on a banana train.
  • Grand Cayman: Swimming with the stingrays at Stingray City, snorkeling, then lunch and beach time at Rum Point Beach.

So…What did I think?

The Canal transit

Overall, I enjoyed experiencing the Panama Canal itself. If time and money were no object, I would have enjoyed doing a full transit ocean-to-ocean cruise. Those cruises are 15+ days, but you get the full experience of going through the entire canal and coming out the other side. Maybe one day.

The Panama Canal is an astounding feat of engineering that took over thirty years to complete. It’s often cited as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The finished canal allowed ships to cross to the Pacific in a drastically shorter amount of time. Right now, the average ship takes 8-10 hours to traverse the canal. It would take two weeks to go around South America. Before the construction of the Panama Canal, the long route was the only option. It’s no wonder that seeing the canal is on many travelers’ bucket lists.

I woke up at the crack of dawn so I could experience our approach and entrance to the canal. Our stateroom was on Deck 9, so we had a decent view from our balcony. But, I went up to the Sports Deck as well as down to Deck 5 to really get a panoramic view and then a closeup of the lock.

If you’re doing the morning transit, I’d recommend setting a very early alarm so you don’t miss the experience. By the time our room service breakfast arrived, I was ready to sip my coffee on the balcony and just watch as we navigated the narrow lock system.

We were close enough to clearly see the workers who run the lock system and make sure the ships are safe. Some of the workers smiled and energetically waved to us as we passed by. Ship’s photographers had gone ashore to take pictures of us crossing through the locks, and lots of passengers held handmade signs for their photo opportunity. There was an onboard event where you could make a sign, and I also noticed people bringing posterboard signs that they had made at home.

The atmosphere on board

I always enjoy cruising on Princess. I’d happily take a cruise to nowhere with them. I like that their level of service is fairly high, and it’s a nice middle ground between the mass-market lines and the luxury brands.

However, even with great service, sometimes it’s the new friends you meet who really make the journey special. This time, we didn’t really have an active, friendly, fun-loving bunch of passengers on board with us.

We’re not exactly party animals (we’re in our forties, so we’re not that young anymore) but we like to have fun and chat with people on vacation. I think most passengers on this cruise were in bed by 8:30 each night, with the exception of the casino-goers.

We did make friends with quite a few of the bartenders, because we were often their only patrons after 8PM! We also went swimming and hot tubbing after dinner a few times on a completely empty pool deck. It almost felt surreal at times.

There was a nearly-empty dancefloor most nights at Skywalkers. I actually knew the DJ from a previous cruise I had taken! She would play whatever I wanted (which was fun), but I prefer the energy when there are more people on the dance floor.

Longer and more expensive cruises tend to attract a much older crowd. So if you’re looking for nightlife, don’t pick this kind of cruise.

In the ports

We definitely had a mix of shore excursions on this cruise, from city walking tours, to swimming with stingrays, to visiting the adorable baby sloths. We hiked a waterfall, rode an aerial tram through the jungle, and climbed to the top of a 100-foot observation tower to catch an amazing view.

I made sure that a couple of the shore excursions had beach and/or snorkeling time, but it always feels very rushed when you’re on a strict schedule. I would have enjoyed a full day on the beach (which we would have had if Princess Cays wasn’t changed to Ocho Rios). But we all enjoyed our busy excursions.

Read about our trip to one of the world’s most beautiful beaches

I’ll be posting reviews in the coming weeks of each of the ports we visited and our shore excursions. Be sure to subscribe to Should Be Cruising so you won’t miss any of our adventures. While you’re at it, have you followed us on Pinterest? I pin helpful cruise tips and travel content every day.

Read about our visit with the baby sloths here!

Oh! I almost forgot. I promised you a baby sloth. Here you go!

Baby Bradypus sloth with cuddly toys
Maya the rescued baby Bradypus sloth relaxing with her cuddly toys

Have you done a Panama Canal cruise? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!


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About the Author

Carrie Ann is the founder of Should Be Cruising and a lifelong travel fanatic. A former flight attendant, she now prefers cruise ships over airplanes and spends several months each year cruising and exploring cruise ports. Facebook | Instagram

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32 Comments

  1. And aren’t you glad you got cajoled into going? Haha, I love Princess Cruises too and honestly, I love cruising in general. Panama Canal cruise does sound pretty cool to me also, as does the idea of seeing baby sloths!

  2. I too love sloths. I did not know there was a sloth sanctuary. I have been to the Panama Canal whilst visiting Panama and have always wanted to sail through it. Great article on cruising. Thanks.

    1. There are actually two sanctuaries that I know of in Costa Rica, and we also visited another smaller one in Panama, in Gamboa. That one only had adults when we went. I hope you get to visit one of them if you ever do the canal transit!

  3. Your daughter is cute and very smart. My niece also loved sloths for quite some time. (haha!) and I wonder what’s with them.

    Anyway, glad to know that you took the trip. Thanks for the heads-up on what to expect.

    1. Thanks, Clarice! Yes, she’s definitely become a master at getting me to do what she wants to do. This time I’m glad that she (and the sloths) talked me into doing this cruise!

  4. I haven’t heard of Panama canal cruise and didn’t know Panama canal is cited as one of the wonders of modern world. I would certainly love to experience this cruise, but specifically the one from ocean to ocean. That would be costly though as you have mentioned. Plus the sloths are super cute.

  5. This is just so adorable!! I love sloths too, not yet an obsession, and I’d love to see them in Panama. I’ve also never taken a cruise before, so this would be something I’d like to try in the future. You managed to see a lot during your time there, hope to visit myself one day.

    1. We definitely packed a lot in on this trip! I think that’s one reason why I love cruising…you can visit several ports in a short period of time. You have to hustle to see everything in port, but then you can relax on your way to the next destination! I hope you get the chance to try one 🙂

  6. Haha I like how your husband showed the same excitement to see the panama canal as your daughter, and took you by surprise. But you did have a great time finally, so it all worked well! Now I’m interested to see this engineering marvel too.

  7. OMG! Baby sloths! Yeah, it can definitely make a deal, and automatically everything will fall in place! Hahaha. I love sloths too!
    Panama Canal has been in my wishlist too since long, every since I studied about it in school days!
    Thanks for this travelogue. Will keep this in mind, if I head to the American continent.

  8. i was intrigued to read your post after reading the title. I have never been to the Panama Canal. While I am not much a cruise person but I love sloths. They are so adorable. Just for them, I’d love to take this trip.

  9. I transited the Panama Canal on my own boat in 2016. It was an amazing experience – something I’ll never forget. We did see sloths while hiking near the canal in Colon Panama, but not nearly as close or as adorable as the babies. Many people don’t know that you can hitchhike the Panama Canal – boats are always looking for crew. We did one of the locks with a small chip cruise ship, and we saw several of the big ones, and I wondered what the experience was like from that perspective. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Wow, transiting the canal on your own boat does sound like an amazing experience!! I had no idea people hitchhike the canal, wow. That would definitely save a lot of money for people who want to do a full transit!

  10. Hahah I love everything about this post, from you getting conned into going on this cruise to actually getting to cruise the Panama Canal – um, super cool! Unlike your daughter, I don’t have an obsession with sloths, but I would still love to go on this cruise and see baby sloths in person. I am pretty much sold if you say “baby + [insert name of any animal]” to me. This is a cruise I’d consider taking – thanks for sharing!

    1. I’m so glad that I got conned into going (my daughter says she doesn’t read my posts, so I think I can say that safely)! It was such an amazing experience. I too am a sucker for baby anythings…

  11. This sounds like a great cruise – shame that you didn’t have a fun group of people to hang out with though. Anyway I’m off to read about Baby Sloths now!!

  12. Good your daughter convinced you to take this cruise. What a wonderful opportunity to see the sloths! The itinerary for 11 days is exciting.

  13. I haven’t done a Panama Canal Cruise. and have not cruised with this cruise line yet. I haven’t even considered looking for sloths. But thanks to your daughter and her excitement, I can’t wait to see sloths! I think 10 days is too much for me. We did 7 days with Norwegian, I couldn’t wait to dock already. lol. I agree with you, the longer cruises are more appealing for older folks.

    1. I’m glad we were able to pique your interest in seeing sloths! All of the Panama Canal cruises on the major lines are long – I think 10 days is about the shortest. But I did find a one-day cruise here that goes from Panama City to Gamboa. If you don’t want a long cruise, but still want the canal experience, it could be a good option!

  14. It was great that your daughter managed to convince you to take this cruise with Caribbean Princess. All to see baby sloths! The baby slot excursion did sound expensive. But I am sure it was worth it. Will need to check out that post. We have travelled beside the Panama Canal but never did the transit. That is definitely on our wish list.

  15. Thank you for the article. We are doing the full transit, leaving Fort Lauderdale this Monday. We are sailing on the Emerald Princess, and she is about the same age, and I have heard good things. We are also spending a Day with the Sloths, I played your daughters role in our scenario ?.
    Hopefully I will will find some fun people to dance with, as I am very much looking forward to seeing Skywalkers. We have been in the Regal, and the “disco” was small, albeit, very nice.

    1. Hi Cathie, you’re going to have so much fun! Skywalkers is great, especially if you’re used to the tiny Club 6 on the Royal Class ships. That’s so funny that you were the sloth-influencer in your family 😀 Have a great time, and I hope you find lots of fun dancing buddies!!

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