Cruising through History on the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal — which transverses two oceans through the deep tropical jungles of Central America — is one of the world’s most incredible feats of modern engineering, and the only way to truly appreciate its grandeur is on a cruise ship.

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Cruising through the Panama Canal approaching the Centennial Bridge

The Panama Canal system is considered to be one of the manmade wonders of the world.Construction of the 82-kilometer waterway was begun by France in 1881.

But due to a series of engineering and logistical problems, as well as a high mortality rate of workers as a result of heat exhaustion and malaria, the project was halted three years later.

In 1904, the United States picked up where the French engineers has left off, and the arduous effort to build the conduit began again in earnest.

Ten years later, the magnificent canal opened for business.

A massive levy system was incorporated that crossed the Isthmus of Panama to raise and lower ships 85 feet above sea level.

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One of the massive seven foot thick gates slowly opens

This allowed ships to take advantage of Gatun Lake, a manmade lake constructed to shorten the excavation of the jungle and the monetary costs and the deaths associated with construction.

For 93 years, the Panama Canal system carried thousands of ships through its waters.

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Cargo ship traveling through the “old” canal

And in September 2007, a new project began to widen the canal.

When this work was completed in May 2016, the new construction allowed today’s supertankers to take advantage of the canal, which beforehand would have been impossible.

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A super tanker waits it’s turn to travel through the “new” canal

When traveling through the Panama Canal on a cruise ship, you can experience the sights and sounds of passing through the locks and witness the beautiful landscape of Panama.

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Panama’s jungle landscape after passing through the Gutan Locks, the first gates after entering from the Pacific Ocean.

From the vast surrounding jungle to the expansive Gatun Lake and thrill of passing under the Bridge of the Americas and the Centennial Bridge, it is an unforgettable journey.

Your ship will navigate its way across the Continental Divide by waterway, and you will be able to witness the entire process from the deck of your ship.

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Traveling under the Centennial Bridge on the Panama Canal

Your cruise ship journey will  start in one of the ports in Florida or in California, depending on your direction of travel. Along the way you will visit a number of ports, including those in the Caribbean, South America, Central American and Mexico.

If your cruise sets sale from Los Angeles, your first port of call will be in Mexico, at Cabo San Lucas, Baja California..

This once sleepy fishing village located at the end of the Baja peninsula, known as Lands’ End, has developed into a busy city and tourist destination.

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Arch Rock at Lands’ End, Cabo San Lucas Baja Mexico

A key stop for many cruise ships, Cabo has become known for its mild weather, beautiful white sand beaches that stretch for miles, world-class golf courses, hotels and resorts, and its premier sportfishing destinations.

From the myriad of shops filled with trinkets to authentic Cuban cigars to expensive jewelry and activities like fishing, whale watching, horseback riding along the beach, camel rides in the desert, you will never be at a loss for something to do in Cabo. And that does not take into account swimming with dolphins, glass bottom boat rides or scuba diving and snorkeling in the warm crystal clear waters.

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Whale watching offshore Cabo San Lucas, Baja Mexico

Depending on your itinerary, you may stop at any one of the countries in Central America. It could be Guatemala, where you can take an excursion to the colorful city of Antigua, which sits at the foot of a volcano. The little town’s streets are lined with colorful buildings, shops and restaurants.

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The colorful streets of Antigua, Guatemala with the Pacaya Volcano in the background.

Or maybe your ship will make a stop in Punta Arenas, Costa Rica, where you may find yourself in a small wooden boat navigating the crocodile, filled waters of the Tarcoles River as you travel through the jungle.

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American crocodile on the shore of the Tarcoles River one;y feet away from the boat.
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Great Blue Heron along the Tarcoles River.

Another frequent stop for cruise ships making this journey is Cartagena, Columbia.

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Inside the Walled City aka Old Town Cartagena, Columbia

With its rich history, a trip to the old town known as the Walled City or to the colorful Barrio Getsemaní, you’ll find yourself surrounded by numerous cafés and shops.

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Shopping the crowded streets of the Walled City aka Old Town Cartagena, Columbia

For those looking for jewelry, Cartagena is known for its quality and reasonably priced emeralds.

If you are not into crowds and prefer nature, try visiting the National Aviary of Colombia outside Cartagena, where you will be treated to over 135 different species and thousands of birds.

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Scarlet Macaws on the grounds of the National Aviary of Colombia

Rounding out your Los Angeles embarkation, you will visit the Caribbean and, depending on which ship and itinerary you have, it could be Aruba, Grand Cayman, Curacao or a private island owned by the cruise line.

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One of the main beaches of Gran Turk, this one a stones through from the ship.
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A remote beach on Barbados
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The colorful waterfront of Curacao

It is important when deciding on what ship or cruise line to choose that you make sure to research the ship’s itinerary and accommodations.

Your accommodations can range from the basic inside cabin to a spacious luxury suite, depending on your budget. You will also find specialty restaurants, various shops and five-star spa facilities, replete with a beauty salon, massage options and acupuncture services.

And when you consider that your travel, cabin, entertainment and meals are usually all included, the cost of witnessing this extraordinary feat of engineering can be very reasonable.

Author: larry pannell

I started my career in photography as a professional photojournalist in 1978 at the time working with several newspapers and magazines in Southern California. What I loved most about photojournalism was its diversity and over my career I covered professional sports, concerts and travel. As life would have it mine took yet another turn and in 1988 I developed an interest in holistic medicine. I became a professional massage therapist specializing in sports medicine. In 1991 I decided to go to medical school and obtained a medical degree in Traditional Oriental Medicine and stared my career as a licensed acupuncture physician. After medical school I moved my practice to northern Idaho for a year before settling in the resort area of Sun Valley, Idaho. I’ve always been an outdoor person and hiking and backpacking the Rockies and fishing the pristine river waters and high altitude lakes offered me a wonderful photographic opportunity. In 2010 I left Sun Valley and I once again found myself on a cruise ship, this time working as an “Acupuncturist at Sea”. For the past seven years I have traveled to over 82 countries, which has allowed me to photograph much of the world.

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