On the sixth day of our 10-night Panama Canal cruise, we finally made it to the most important part of most Panama Canal cruisers’ journey: the canal transit itself. Once through the Agua Clara Locks, we visited the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve in Soberanía National Park.

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Now for us, the reason why we chose this cruise was to see baby sloths in Costa Rica, but I was also very excited about cruising part of the Panama Canal, as well as touring the jungle in Panama.

If you haven’t seen my first post in this series yet, be sure to read about how baby sloths (and my family) talked me into booking our Panama Canal cruise.

On this partial transit, we entered the canal from the Atlantic side, using the new Agua Clara locks that were built in 2016. The new locks were built to allow the larger “Neopanamax” cargo ships to pass through the canal from the Atlantic side into Gatún Lake. (On the Pacific side, another set of Neopanamax locks were also built.)

An added bonus for cruisers is that larger cruise ships can now pass through the canal. Our ship, Caribbean Princess, was the very first ship to carry more than 3000 passengers through the Agua Clara locks in late 2017!

Each new lock is 180 ft (55 m) wide and 1400 ft (427 m) long, and we would be traveling through three of them. Once inside the first lock, it takes a ship about 90 minutes to get to Gatún Lake.

A very early morning

We were scheduled to arrive at the entrance to the canal at 6AM, so I set a very early alarm. I wanted to be awake to watch us enter the canal! Just before dawn, I tiptoed onto the balcony, as my daughter and Mr. SBC were sound asleep. I couldn’t believe that they weren’t interested in getting up to see this, but I knew I would have pictures and videos for when they decided to get out of bed.

Out on the balcony, there were lots of other passengers eagerly anticipating what was about to happen. We weren’t in the canal yet, but we were very close! Our stateroom was on deck 9, and I didn’t have the greatest range of vision to see what was going on. I tiptoed back past the sleepers and made my way up to the highest deck to get a birds-eye view of the scene.

Up on the very top of the ship, I had a panoramic view of the ocean and the canal. Little tugboats were buzzing along, and huge container ships slowly made their way toward the canal.

We entered the first lock, and the slow process of filling it began. Our stateroom was pretty high compared to ground level, so I went down to deck five to get a better perspective of what was going on.

The first lock at its lowest level

It took about 30-40 minutes for each lock to fill, allowing us to sail into the next lock, and ultimately into Gatún Lake. Back in the room (the sleepyheads had finally awakened), we had our breakfast on the balcony and watched the workers on the shore as we made our way slowly through the canal.

The lock is full, and we’re on our way!

A chance to see the rainforest

We had booked a shore excursion through Princess for the day, as only Princess shore excursion ticket holders would be allowed to take a tender from our ship in Gatún Lake to shore. The rest of the passengers would remain on board as the ship turned around and headed to the pier at Colón, Panama.

Not wanting to miss the chance to set foot on land in Panama (a new country for all three of us), we booked the Panama’s Rainforest Aerial Tram for $109.95 per person.

On our 4.5 hour tour, we would visit the Gamboa Resort located in Soberanía National Park to take a zipline tour of the jungle, visit the nature center, and climb an observation tower.

A captive audience

We met our coach to take the 70-minute ride to the Gamboa Resort. Our guide was a friendly and talkative guy, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Panama. He shared stories and anecdotes about the culture and social history of his country as well. I was glad that he entertained and enlightened us during the long journey to the resort.

Arriving at the Gamboa resort, we were able to get out and stretch our legs, and inside the large reception area we were treated to rum punch or water, and had the opportunity to enjoy the view of the Chagres river valley below from the building’s massive windows.

We explore the local flora and fauna

Back on the coach again for a brief ride, our first stop was the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve. We visited the outdoor and outdoor Orchid Nursery to see various orchids as well as banana trees. I was thrilled to spot a small army of leaf-cutter ants, industriously carrying their green leaves to do whatever leaf cutter ants do (click on that link to find out exactly what they do – it’s pretty amazing).

Inside the orchid nursery

On to the sanctuary at the reserve, where we were treated to another visit with a sloth, as well as a porcupine and an adorable and very curious anteater!

The enclosed butterfly garden was next, where we spotted various colorful butterflies. We were fascinated to watch them eat overripe banana with their long proboscises, which function like straws.

Next was the frog enclosure, where we were able to see quite a few colorful poison dart frogs in a man-made habitat created for them.

Can you spot the little green frog? Wait…did I just make a pun? Spot? Never mind…

Please, no lightning!

On to the aerial tram. This was what we were waiting for! We entered the metal tram car with a couple from our group, along with a guide from the reserve who would be narrating and answering our questions during the 600 meter ride through the rainforest.

He assured us that we would be very safe, as all of the guides had extensive safety training after a scary incident had occurred. We all looked at each other, a bit alarmed. He went on to explain that the trams had stopped during a lightning storm, and that all of the passengers needed to be rescued. So he knew what to do in case of an emergency! He looked very proud of his training.

We weren’t so sure, but the skies were blue, and lightning didn’t seem imminent.

Once we started moving (and forgot about the possibility of getting stuck) our ride through the treetops was peaceful and relaxing. We didn’t see any animals up close, but we heard lots of howler monkeys in the distance.

Our guide taught us all about the various trees and plants we were passing, as well as the animals that were hiding from us!

Climbing up, up, up

Our last stop before leaving the reserve was to visit the observation tower. Thirty meters high, the wooden tower is constructed with ramps to allow wheelchair accessibility.

It takes several minutes to reach the top of the tower, because the ramp encircling it is not very steep. But the views from the top made it worth the time!

The view from the Observation Tower

The Port of Colón: Nothing to write home about…yet

Back on the coach, we settled in for another journey of a little over an hour, to meet our ship at its port in Colón. The cruise terminal, called Port Colón 2000, is a smaller port building, located in a run-down area. There is ongoing construction at the port and in the surrounding streets, as the city is working to revitalize and improve the location.

There was a duty-free shop open, and construction has begun on a shopping center in the port as well. As of right now, there’s not much to do in the area immediately surrounding the port, so we chose to get back on board and get ready to exit the canal.

What did we think?

  • The experience of going through part of the Panama Canal was incredible, and I’m happy that I was up early enough to experience the entire process.
  • Our tourism options were very limited on this stop, because in order to leave the ship in Panama we were required to choose one of Princess’ excursions.
  • I enjoyed our brief visit to Panama, although much of our time was spent on a bus. Our guide was so entertaining and engaging that the two-plus hours we spent traveling sped by in no time. We learned a lot from him about Panama and its people.
  • Although I enjoyed visiting the small nature exhibits, some might be underwhelmed. I enjoy looking at plants and flowers, and I’m fascinated by interesting insects. If that’s you, this could be the right shore excursion to choose. If not, maybe try a tour of Panama City. But be warned: the amount of time traveling is even longer for that tour.
  • We didn’t get to see any animals up close on our aerial tram ride, but it was still an enjoyable journey. Climbing the observation tower gave us incredible 360-degree views of the river valley below.

Have you visited the Panama Canal or Gamboa? Or would you like to? 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. That’s a great experience to get to try the panama canal. The place looks like a botanical garden. Disappointing that you didn’t get the animals up close, maybe next time 🙂

  2. It’s weird watching your ship going through locks, isn’t it? Overall, would you recommend a cruise on the Panama Canal? I never even realised they did cruises there. I remember on my visit to Costa Rica seeing the leaf cutter ants from my hotel patio – kept me amused for hours lol

  3. Crossing Panama must have been awesome!! I would love to traverse this world-famous canal one day and witness one of the most astonishing engineering endeavors of all times.

  4. Oh my gosh, that sloth is so cute!! I would totally be convinced to book a cruise if baby sloths were included in the itinerary 🙂 Also, a Panama cruise is on my bucket list and this post gave me so many ideas – thank you!

  5. The Canal cruise experience is something I shouldn’t miss doing If I get the chance to visit Panama soon. I tried Canal Cruise before in Bangkok, Thailand and this one is more interesting and seems really amazing. I can’t wait to traipse my feet here. Thank you so much for virtually touring me around.

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