panama canal tours

One of many locks in the Panama Canal. (Photo: Eric Mohl)

Panama City

Panama Canal 101: How to Cruise through the Canal

If you’ve got the time, you can experience the Panama Canal by cruising through the locks on a tourist boat. Here are a few options for you to consider:

The Pacific Queen Panama Cruise tourist boat offers a partial transit of the Panama Canal (6+ hours) and a full transit of the Panama Canal. Budget about 12 hours for the full trip.

panama canal tours
The Pacific Queen offers partial and complete tours of the Panama Canal. (Photo: Eric Mohl)

Canal & Bay Tours offers partial transits, and its cruises pass through the Miraflores lock and the San Miguel lock and include an area called the Culebra Cut, where some of the most amazing engineering took place. When passengers disembark, they return to Panama City by bus.

A full transit cruise takes you from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean through all six of the locks on the original Panama Canal, including the Culebra Cut and Gatún Lake. If you’re a hardcore canal fan or a lover of engineering, the full transit is for you. Otherwise, a half-day transit is enough for most travelers to grasp the scope and scale of the Panama Canal.

Whichever transit you choose, your cruise will include an onboard guide who will explain the canal’s history, the engineering wonders of the canal, and the process of moving vessels safely through the locks. Your cruise will also include meals (breakfast and lunch on full transits and lunch on partial transits) plus non-alcoholic drinks and snacks.

The tourist boats are some of the smallest vessels that travel through the Panama Canal and it’s quite dramatic to be onboard when your boat is squeezed into a lock along with massive cargo ships. Even more dramatic is the simple yet awe-inspiring way the locks work by simply taking in water to raise vessels and draining water to lower vessels.

Panama Canal Cruising Tips

panama canal tours
A visit to Panama isn’t complete without a float along the canal. (Photo: Eric Mohl)

Add at least an hour to your overall estimated trip time. There are often delays at the locks, so if you’re in a rush, these excursions probably aren’t ideal for you.

Wear a hat and bring plenty of sunscreen. Though the tourist boats have a comfortable indoor space with seating and air conditioning, the real action takes place outside and you’re likely to be on deck in the sun a lot.

Don’t worry about seasickness. Waters in the Panama Canal are calm and vessels travel very slowly.

Bring binoculars if you have them. An array of birds and monkeys live in jungled areas along sections of the canal, particularly near Gatún Lake.