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Our Panama Canal Cruise Experience

Cruising the Panama Canal What You Can Expect

If you follow our blog, you already know we love cruising. So, of course, we jumped at the chance to take a Panama Canal cruise over the Christmas holiday last year!

Cruising through the Panama Canal

We weren’t sure what to expect on the Panama Canal day, but it turned out to be a fun, albeit early, day at sea!

Married with Wanderlust Travel Bloggers in the Panama Canal

Taking a Panama Canal Cruise

Our Panama Canal cruise traveled from the Atlantic Ocean through the Gatun Locks. Depending on where you are coming from and whether you are doing the entire canal, you could also travel through the Miraflores Locks.

Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal

We visited on a 10-day Panama Canal cruise aboard Holland America’s Zuiderdam ship that also stopped in Curacao, Aruba, Costa Rica, and the Bahamas. It was only a partial transit through the Canal.

Holland America's Zuiderdam ship

What To Expect

The day started REALLY early. Our first wake-up call from the ship’s overhead speaker came around 5:00 am. We got dressed quickly and made our way to the viewing deck at the front of the ship, and were lucky to grab a front row spot. You’ll definitely want to get to the front quickly if you want prime viewing of the canal. (The front viewing deck on the Zuiderdam was the same level as the gym/spa and that’s how we accessed it)

TIP: We liked this spot for the view, but you couldn’t hear the loud speaker from this spot. If you want to hear the information they are giving you, you might want to choose a different spot.

If you don’t get a great viewing spot right away, don’t worry. There will probably be people who get tired of standing and you’ll be able to move into their spot.

Get a great view of the Panama Canal from a cruise ship

The process is honestly fairly slow, so expect to be standing for awhile. For the next couple hours, you’ll watch as the cruise ship moves through each chamber, a total of three locks to get into Gatun Lake.

Going through the Gatun Locks in the Panama Canal

The lake sits 85 feet above sea level so the locks have to fill with water until they’re able to lift the ship to the level of the lake. (On the way back out later in the day, the locks have to empty so that the ship can be lowered back to the level of the bay)

Traveling through the Panama Canal is a bucket list experience

You’ll also see some heavy equipment on tracks running along both sides of the locks. These trucks are called “mules” and they have wires attached to the ship to help guide it through the locks and keep it centered.

Panama Canal "mules" that help guide the ship through the locks

You’ll also see tugboats at the entrance and exit of the locks that help guide the ships.

Tugboats help guide ships through the Panama Canal

What You’ll Learn

As mentioned, a crew member will likely provide information over the loud speaker on the process of traveling through the Panama Canal. Depending on where you’re standing, it might be difficult to hear the information they’re providing.

Panama Canal: What You Need to Know About the Gatun Locks

Our ship offered a variety of learning opportunities prior to the day we visited the Panama Canal. There were several on-demand television programs available in the stateroom. We checked them out while getting ready and at night before bed. The programs were great at explaining the history, including the difficulties that were faced during the building of the canal (thousands of workers died due to yellow fever and malaria). Your ship will also likely offer some in-person lectures regarding the Canal and its history.

Panama flag at the Panama Canal Gatun Locks

Colon, Panama

After traveling through the Gatun Locks, the Zuiderdam docks for a few hours in Colon, Panama. Once you get off the ship, you’ll notice this colorful welcome sign to your right. Take a seat and grab a fun photo!

Take Your Photo in the Sign in Colon, Panama!

There isn’t really a whole lot of options walking distance in the Colon port. However, we did find this colorful mural for photos and grabbed a local beer. If you want to see some of Panama, we’d suggest booking an excursion through the cruise ship.

Mural in Colon, Panama

Try a Panama lager in Colon, Panama

Overall, the Panama Canal cruise experience is definitely worth checking off your bucket list. Just be prepared to start your day early and have a good camera in hand!

Married with Wanderlust Travel Blog

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Guide to Cruising the Panama Canal