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Panama Canal – Cruising The Panama Canal

One of the most popular cruise itineraries is the transit of the Panama Canal on a journey between Los Angeles or San Francisco, California and either Miami or Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For many a transit through the Panama Canal fulfills a lifetime dream, as there is no other canal on earth as famous or that symbolizes as much as does this man-made wonder, opened in 1914. Other cruise itineraries include a transit through the canal, especially on the route between the west coast of South America and Florida or as part of an around the world cruise. Some cruise lines also offer an end of season repositioning cruise between Vancouver, Canada and Florida at the start of the fall or spring seasons to prepare for the Caribbean or Alaska season.

A CRUISE THROUGH THE CANAL: Today the standard cruise between Florida and California takes around two weeks to 16 days depending on the specific itinerary. And for the majority of passengers the highlight or crown jewel of the voyage is the transit of the Panama Canal. It takes anywhere from seven to nine hours to cross between the two oceans, and for cruise ships it is always a daylight passage so that passengers can see close up the workings of the locks and enjoy the tropical scenery and activity of the man-made lake and cut through the Continental Divide. I have made the crossing four times and each transit was as exciting as the very first. It is hard for the Panama Canal to loose its magic.

The best time of the year to book such a cruise is between late November and the end of April. The weather is difficult to predict, but during the Northern Hemisphere winter, even in these tropical latitudes, temperatures are slightly lower, generally in the low to mid 80’s. And the humidity levels are also lower despite the chance for rain occurring on more than half of the days. But it is not likely that you will experience an entire day of rain, as the weather patterns are such that brief thundershowers are the norm. But during the Northern Hemisphere summer months, this area comes under the threat of hurricanes on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.

When you look at the physical geography of the Americas, the North American continent narrows down to only 60 miles at the Isthmus of Panama, yet building a canal was a difficult undertaking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tropical conditions and rough topography created what at the time were almost insurmountable problems. Prior to the building of a canal, there was only one alternative in traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. That alternative was a lengthy journey around the bottom of South America, adding over 8,000 miles to a journey between the east coast of the United States or Canada and the west coast. At the bottom of the continent, the Straits of Magellan became the safest passage, yet it has narrow spots and swift currents, necessitating the use of local pilots. The only open ocean passage is around the very tip of land’s end, which is Cape Horn. Here the prevailing westerly winds howl at speeds up to and sometimes in excess of 100 miles per hour. In the days of sailing vessels, it was virtually impossible to make the passage unscathed. Captain Bligh of the famous ship HMS Bounty tried sailing west for over a month before turning back and crossing the Atlantic to Cape Town where he had to put in for repairs. Even today’s modern vessels replete with sophisticated stabilizers and powerful engines find navigating through the Drake Passage a treacherous journey, undertaken only during the summer months and even then only when conditions are optimum. Many cruise itineraries that include rounding the cape often find it necessary to detour through the southerly Beagle Channel, missing the opportunity to see land’s end.

This traveler’s companion is designed for those visitors who are planning a cruise that will transit the Panama Canal. It will provide you with information regarding the major ports of call in both oceans as well as detailed descriptions of the Panama Canal and its workings. The material on the transit through the canal is presented twice, once for those who will experience the passage from the Caribbean to the Pacific and once for those traveling from the Pacific to the Caribbean, as the journeys are essentially different.

I trust that this traveler’s companion will be beneficial in helping you to become acquainted with the landscapes, history and cultures of the countries to be visited. And you come to gain an understanding of the building of the canal and its significance today along with its present limitations.

This is not a typical guidebook such as Fyodor’s or Frommer’s. You will not find restaurant or hotel recommendations, but rather brief descriptions of the ports of call, showing you their major highlights. The primary focus is to offer you an overall introduction to the lands and peoples you will be seeing. For the more detailed information on places to eat or specific shore itineraries, your cruise line’s shore excursion desk is the best place to ask. But you will have gained a very good working knowledge of the historic and cultural details of each place to be visited.

If you like this introduction, my entire book plus many other traveler’s companion books are all available here.

I would also invite you to join me in 2015 and 2016 during the summer months, as I will be cruising the Baltic Sea with Silversea Cruises.

For more information about joining Dr. Lew Deitch on one of these cruises, contact us.

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