Destination Report: On a Cruise Through the Panama Canal

Panama Canal
Photo by onlymehdi/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Several years ago we took a Caribbean cruise on the Crystal Harmony, which was then in service with Crystal Cruises. The itinerary took us through the Panama Canal, visiting Curacao, St, Lucia, Tortola, and disembarking in New Orleans. This is my favorite route for that part of the world. This is also one of the most popular cruise destinations, and more than 150,000 passengers transit the canal each year. Panama is situated 600 miles above the equator so it is hot and humid. The canal is considered one of the world’s greatest engineering feats of all time. Ships save 7,872 miles by not having to go around Cape Horn.

Vicomte Ferdinand de Lesseps was the mastermind behind building the Suez Canal and thought building the Panama Canal would be easier. The history of the canal is worth reading. Building the 50 mile short cut took a lot of lives. The French started the project attempting to dig a sea level canal in 1882, and 25,000 died from smallpox, cholera, malaria, and yellow fever before the company went bankrupt in 1889.

When the Americans took over the project it was decided that the best plan was for three locks to be built, and ships would be raised and lowered 85 feet in a series of steps. The locks were the largest structures of their kind ever attempted. Each lock is 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide.

The canal was completed in 1914, and over 1,500 ships a year use it. More than 1,500 electric motors are used in the operation of the locks. No pumps are used; instead, the force of gravity flowing from one level to another moves the water. It is fascinating to be sitting in the dining room looking at the rain forest and before you have finished your meal, you are facing a brick wall. Our ship paid $142,000 for the nine hour transit.

Those who have never visited the canal tend to picture it as a great ditch. Only Gaillard Cut, not the locks, might fit that description. A better analogy would be the world’s largest water elevator, lifting ships 85 feet above sea level at one end and lowering them back down to the sea at the other.

Of the close to 100 cruises I have been on, I have never seen passengers so interested or camera happy as when they go through the canal watching the parade of vessels. If the dirt and rock removed from the canal during its construction were made into a wall, it would be eight feet high and would circle the Earth at the equator four times.

The lock chambers are comparable to the height of a six story building. It takes 52 million gallons of water to transit a ship through the locks. This is fresh water from rainfall that is harnessed by locks and dams to transit the ships before it flows out to sea. Gatun Lake, the largest water reservoir for the canal, contains 1.5 trillion gallons of water.

The cruise was wonderful -- great food, outstanding entertainment, interesting ports of call, and it deserves the title of the No. 1 cruise line in the world. The canal is a must see. Have a few extra days in New Orleans at the end of the trip. Great destination if you have never been there.