Beyond the Canal
Panama is brimming with extraordinary experiences beyond the canal, itself.
Travelers may disagree on which sites deserve to be considered modern wonders of the world, but the Panama Canal would surely make most short lists. The shipping channel—which took 33 years to complete and cost 25,000 workers their lives—is arguably the greatest engineering project ever. Today, a journey through the canal will take you from the port of Colón on the Atlantic to bustling Panama City on the Pacific. Along the way, you'll find Gatun Lake, once the largest manmade lake in the world, which has proved a boon for Central American species that thrive here, undisturbed by the ships passing by.
Feel your ship rise 85 feet as water fills the locks on the Panama Canal, then listen as your Canal historian shares tales of the incredible engineering feat that divided two continents. Explore the intriguing lands, cultures and peoples of this amazing region. From engineering marvels to exotic wildlife, there's so much to discover.
Its official name is Cartagena de Indias—or "Cartagena of the Indies"—but call it Cartagena for short. The formal name hints at this Colombian city's colonial relationship with Spain; it was founded in 1533 and named after the mother country's Cartagena. Colombia declared independence in 1810, but there's plenty about its fifth-largest city that evokes old Spain, including the impressive fort of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, and the wall that encloses the old town, one of the few intact structures of its kind in the Americas. Both were considered important enough to inscribe on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1984.
Located west of Panama City at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, Fuerte Amador is a gateway to exploring the many faces of this unique Central American country. The impressive engineering of the canal itself is a wonder to behold; a quick trip to the Miraflores Locks' visitor center with its panoramic observation decks offers the chance to watch behemoth barges thread their way through the legendary manmade waterway. Just minutes from the cruise port, the recently opened Biomuseo is a Frank Gehry–designed natural-history museum dedicated to Panama's ecological marvels. And Fuerte Amador sits within easy taxi distance of Panama City.
One of the stops along the Panama Canal route, Puerto Caldera isn't your ordinary port of call, positioned as it is within easy day-trip distance of the country's multiple national parks. The town itself is small, but makes for an ideal base from which travelers can venture out to explore a variety of outdoor attractions and activities. These include visiting gushing waterfalls and active volcanoes, bird-watching in nature reserves and horseback riding on Pacific beaches. Visitors to the region also enjoy shopping for handicrafts, as well as sampling traditional Tico cuisine, especially gallo pinto—a combination of rice and beans.
The southernmost port on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Puerto Chiapas is named for the state in which it is located. It is relatively new, built in 1975, and is the primary hub from which the region’s agricultural goods, including coffee, are sent abroad. For travelers arriving by cruise ship, the town of Puerto Chiapas is a jumping-off point to explore surrounding areas, including Tapachula, the second-largest city in the state of Chiapas. In addition to visiting the coffee estates and banana and cacao plantations of the area, day trips include excursions to Maya sites such as Izapa.
Unlike some of Mexico’s beach resorts, Puerto Vallarta, on the Pacific Ocean, retains its colonial-era charm. Its town square, Plaza de Armas, and the gorgeous parish church topped with an ornate crown serve as the loveliest representations of bygone ages. Alongside them are an ambitious public art project along the seaside walkway (the malecón) and trendy restaurants. Round these out with outdoor activities on Banderas Bay (whale-watching! snorkeling! jet-skiing!) and a side trip to one of Mexico's pueblos mágicos (magical towns, a designation recognizing smaller towns that possess historical and cultural value), and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more pleasant port.
The ultimate journey between two continents and two mighty oceans, a Panama Canal cruise encompasses Spanish colonial architecture, verdant rainforest and an engineering marvel. Learn more about our ports in the region with articles on Cartagena’s graceful Old City and Costa Rica’s exotic Pura Vida Gardens; Antigua, Guatemala, including La Merced, the city’s 250-year-old cathedral; and the storied past of Panama Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And be sure to explore the complex and fascinating history of the Panama Canal.