The Panama Canal - A Rite of Passage


Transiting the Panama Canal with a ship the likes of the Regent Seven Seas Mariner makes me think of seeing one man-made wonder from the decks of another. I’ve been lucky enough to sample many different types of Panama Canal journeys and while there’s a lot to be said for sailing 10 days for a “a taste” of the Panama Canal, I much prefer the leisurely coast-to-coast voyage that, say, a 16-day cruise provides. It’s not only that it delivers the full transit of the locks, Gatun Lake, Culebra Cut and 50 miles of untouched jungle; but that it combines intriguing landfalls in the Caribbean, South America, Central America and Mexico.

This is the kind of adventure that every traveler should experience at least once in a lifetime—a true “rite of passage” colored by the drama of epic human achievement. The effortless workings of the monumental engineering marvel that carries your ship from ocean to ocean and raises and lowers it 85 feet using nothing but the force of gravity, is nothing short of miraculous.

An Iconic Travel Experience The complete transit requires about 8 hours and except for the locks the entire route is bordered by dense jungle. Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake of its time, is one of the most serene places you could imagine. The only sounds are the gentle purr of your ship’s engines and the trill and call of tropical birds. I love to take in the emerald-green waters with my camera clicking non-stop and then retire for quiet reflection to the privacy of my suite’s balcony. The ideal time to do that is while gliding through Culebra Cut. Here the hillsides press in close, covered in a camouflage of mysterious rainforest. The creation of the “The Big Ditch” (circa 1904) was one of the most massive undertakings the world had yet seen. Six thousand men gathered in a spot just eight miles long in a scene of epic engineering. They virtually broke the back of the Cordillera Mountains and breached the Continental Divide, lowering the floor of the excavation to within 40 feet of sea level.    

To put the journey in its proper order when entering from the Caribbean Sea: you first encounter the massive Gatun Locks, stepping up three times to reach the 85-foot-level of Gatun Lake. After a leisurely 21-mile cruise you enter the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks which lower you back down to sea level at the Pacific Ocean. It’s a miraculous journey using much of the equipment that opened the Canal in 1914. This legendary “Path Between The Seas” bridges continents and worlds. Beginning in Miami, The Regent Seven Seas Mariner drops anchor in Nassau for its pirate museum, tranquil beaches and the largest of the Bahamian Junkanoo parades. We shop for emeralds along the ancient walls of Cartagena, pride of the Spanish Main and arrive in Puntarenas, on the rich Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Like most people dreaming of retiring in paradise, I try to learn something new about the country every time I come. This is one of the most ecologically-minded countries I know and, as a nature lover, it’s dear to my heart. And there are so many ways to experience nature—via horseback, kayak or even zip-line! Other favorite ports include: Puerto Quetzal for the Mayan ruins of Tikal; Huatulco for its sparkling bays and charming, laid-back spirit; Cabo San Lucas for a delicious lunch of whole snapper grilled outdoors as you sip on frosty margaritas—yummm! And, of course, San Diego for Seaport Village, my favorite place to sun, sightsee and shop in Southern California. Recommended Reading: “The Path Between The Seas—The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914” by David McCullough   Click here for more information on our Coast to Coast cruise via the Panama Canal.