The Panama Canal, completed in 1914, stretches 50 mi/80 km across the narrowest point of the isthmus between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean (because Panama is oriented east-west, the canal runs north-south). Everyone who visits Panama should see the canal. It's an incredible marvel of engineering, but it's also a liquid highway of commerce flanked by a fabulous rain forest.
You can see the Panama Canal from land, but we recommend making a trip through the waterway. Many people do so as part of a cruise-ship passage, but tour companies in Panama offer canal excursions on smaller boats, which give the best opportunities for seeing wildlife on the banks and of viewing the locks up close. (Tours are often scheduled only on weekends and take place more regularly December–April.) No matter the size of the vessel, traversing the entire canal is an extraordinary experience.
The most common way to enter the canal on a cruise ship is from the Caribbean, near the port of Colon. Ships coming from the Pacific enter the canal near the port of Balboa. Whichever side you enter, your ship will likely spend some time waiting in locks. At any one time, there may be as many as 50 ships waiting to transit, and several ships may be in transit in each direction at the same time; normally all transiting ships travel in one direction in the morning, while in the afternoon ships bound in the other direction transit. Each ship is steered through the canal by a pilot from the Panama Canal Authority (the canal has been operated by Panamanians since 1999). It's also interesting to watch the canal workers.
After passing through Gatun Locks, southbound ships enter man-made Gatun Lake, which covers more than 160 sq mi/415 sq km, making it one of the world's largest artificial lakes; it is also an integral part of the canal passage. Largely undeveloped, Gatun is rich in wildlife. As your ship sails around islands that were once hilltops, you're likely to see lots of birds. (Take good binoculars.) Crocodiles can sometimes be seen raising their snouts ever so slightly from the water.
Ships cross all 24 mi/39 km of Gatun Lake to Gaillard Cut, a V-shaped channel that was carved from rock. This section of the canal through the Continental Divide was the most difficult to construct—it required excavating hundreds of millions of cubic yards/meters of rock and dirt. Three separate lock systems (Gatun, on the Caribbean side; and Miraflores and Pedro Miguel, on the Pacific side) raise and lower ships 280 ft/85 m to the level of Gatun Lake and back again to sea level. Ships enter six chambers in all during their passage. Each chamber is 1,000 ft/310 m long and 100 ft/31 m wide and is paralleled by a twin lock (hence there are 12 chambers in all), permitting passage of two ships simultaneously. The chambers are filled and emptied by gravity, with 52 million gallons of fresh water being flushed out to sea with every ship's passage.
Most cruise ships pass through the canal during the day, when passengers can appreciate the natural beauty of the countryside and Gatun Lake. But a night crossing won't be disappointing. Lights reflecting in the water and the shadowy shapes of other ships gliding by lend an eerie, almost dreamlike quality to the experience.
The small town of Balboa, Panama, is at the Pacific end of the canal and adjacent to Panama City. Once part of the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone, its former military buildings, barracks and officers' quarters have been converted to shops, offices, schools and luxury homes. The big buildings, broad tree-lined streets and wide lawns of Balboa—all laid out in an orderly U.S.-tropical-company-town style—provide a stark contrast to the narrow streets of the old parts of nearby Panama City.
South of Balboa, Fort Amador, once a U.S. military installation, recently underwent a major transformation. It has become a marina, as well as the main cruise ship terminal in Panama, and many tours of the city and canal are offered from there. Flamenco Island, where the fort is located, is becoming a resort complex complete with restaurants, bars and shops, and bilingual staff and security guards. The Causeway stretches out from the end of Fort Amador to three small islands, affording great views of the canal, the Bridge of the Americas, which crosses the canal, and Panama City. Several rustic waterfront restaurants are found along the Causeway. On Isla Noas, the first of the three islands, there's a Marine Exhibition Center with ecological displays and an interpretive nature trail.
Just past Balboa are the impressive Miraflores Locks, the most convenient viewing point for the canal (with a nice visitors center). The long-awaited Museum of Biodiversity, designed by luminary architect Frank Gehry, is situated on a stunning spot along the Amador Causeway. The museum promises to be one of Panama's biggest draws.
This small family recreational area is used by residents of the Atlantic community and employees of the Panama Canal Commission. While ashore experience folk dances and entertainment, marvel at excellent handicrafts or just relax. Nature walks are available from the club every hour and last from 30 to 40 minutes. The small lagoon is reputed to be home to an alligator. A local expert who will point out the flora and fauna of the area will accompany you. Gatun Lake abounds with freshwater peacock bass—avid fisherman may wish to join the fishing excursion. Go on a wildlife watching expedition by boat and sail along the shore in search of the area's myriad species of birds, caiman, howler monkeys, and sloths. Visit Mono Island with its three capuchin monkeys. Another outstanding opportunity is to see Gatun Locks and the ships passing through. Visit Fort San Lorenzo, the Chagres River and surrounding rain forest.
Panama City is the country's capital and largest city. Whether arriving by air, land or sea, the first sight is of a sea of skyscrapers almost on the scale of Manhattan, and certainly the largest anywhere between Mexico City and Sao Paolo. But Panama City is highly varied, with settings that include the original 16th-century settlement of Panama la Vieja, the Spanish-colonial capital of Casco Viejo, the modern business district of Obarrio and the Latin downtown area of El Cangrejo. Built along the curve of the Bay of Panama on the Pacific coast, the city's waterfront continues to develop, with high-rises and a huge yacht marina—the newest arrivals along the seashore highway.
Linking the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Panama Canal provides one of cruising's most unforgettable experiences. Over 10 years were needed to complete the canal's 51 miles in 1914—so avoiding the lengthy and often dangerous voyage around Cape Horn. "The Big Ditch" lifts vessels by a fascinating feat of mechanics aided by on-shore "mule" locomotives through three great locks, traversing man-made lakes, channels blasted through rock and the dense jungle. Two other special highlights of the canal are Gatun Lake and the Gaillard Cut. Gatun Lake is one of the world's largest man-made lakes covering 163 square miles. Gaillard Cut is an 8-mile channel built through solid rock, which was the most difficult excavation in the canal construction.
In 2007, work began on construction on a new set of locks parallel to the existing ones, in a massive project called the Third Set of Locks, the most expensive initiative ever launched in Central America. The new locks permit passage of post-Panama ships (ships too large to fit through the existing locks). The project was completed in 2016.