To and Through (Partially) the Panama Canal

Since I talked about Cartagena I should probably write about the Panama Canal too.  After all, the canal was the reason we chose the cruise. After three and a half years and several booked cruises worth of trying we finally made it to the Panama Canal!   

One of Jim’s non-negotiables when we booked this cruise was that we would still get to actually go through at least part of the canal. Since our ship didn’t transit the canal we needed to find a way to do that, and we thought the safest bet was to take an excursion through the cruise line. We chose a Celebrity tour through the canal . The tour was expensive and we knew it would be a long day, but we thought it was worth it to actually go through some locks and have the comfort of knowing that if the tour ran over the ship would wait for us.

Originally, our tour was scheduled to leave at 8:00 in the morning the day we were in Panama, but it was delayed until 9:00. We went to the meeting place a little early, and were assigned to the second of six buses. Almost all the other Celebrity tours had left before they began filling the buses for our tour. We ended up very close to the beginning of the line for our bus and sat in the third or fourth row. Once the bus filled we were joined by our guide Ariel and we were off!


I was surprised by Colon. I expected some poverty, but I was shocked by the trash lining the streets. I thought Colon was one of the dirtiest cities I’ve ever seen. There was garbage and debris almost everywhere we looked. Please excuse the quality of these pictures because they were taken out of the window of a moving bus.


Before I go on, let me explain a little bit what the Panama Canal excursion is and what it is not. When we booked this excursion we were under the impression that we would go all the way through the canal on a ferry. That is not what happened. Our bus took us as far as the town of Gamboa which is about halfway across Panama. It was a little over a one hour drive to get to Gamboa. 

After a short wait, we boarded our ferry which took us through Gatun Lake and then through the Gatun Locks before exiting the canal on the Atlantic side. We stayed on the ferry back to Colon, and then had a very short bus ride back to the ship.

I believe at some point after we booked this excursion it was changed. There were quite a few complaints from cruises in the fall and early winter about the length of the tour and the amount of waiting they had to do. People from one cruise said they had to sit on their buses at Gamboa for over two hours before they could get on their ferry! They visited the locks that we didn’t see, but they did not see Gatun Lake or the Gatun Locks. Those tours went all the way to Panama City before they were bussed back to Colon, but they could see little of the Miraflores Locks or the Bridge of the Americas because it was already dark! The reviews I read from people on that tour said they didn’t get back to the ship until 9:00 — five hours after the scheduled return. I have to think that Celebrity reevaluated and changed the tour to make it shorter and try to eliminate some of the delays.

Something I didn’t realize before I took this excursion was that you really truly are at the mercy of the Panama Canal Authority for your schedule. Once you board the ferry, that’s it. The Panama Canal Authority determines what time you will go through the locks and who will accompany you through.

We were fortunate in that our excursion went off almost without a hitch and had minimal delays, but it was still a very long day. We were gone for almost 9 hours. I’m glad we did the excursion because we had never seen the canal, but I would probably not choose to do it again. We had a decent lunch provided, we had brought protein snacks with us, and there was plenty of bottled water available, but the ferry itself was just not very comfortable for the many hours that we were on it. At the end of the day I told Jim I would happily transit the Panama Canal again – from my balcony on a cruise ship with my air conditioned cabin behind me! 🙂

With that said let’s move on and see the canal!


We slowly made our way over to the locks and arrived just after 2:00. The Island Princess was making her way through, followed by a cargo ship, and we were told we had been assigned the next time slot in the right hand lane. Our ferry would share the trip through the locks with the Kobe Star.


While we were waiting, we learned a little more about how the canal operates. There are two shipping lanes at each set of locks, and even though the lanes operate independently, traffic only flows in one direction at a time. Every 12 hours the flow of traffic reverses direction, and it takes a ship 8-10 hours to completely transit the canal. Every ship is given a specific time slot, hence our slow cruising speed from Gamboa to the Gatun Locks…if we were early we couldn’t have gone through early. 

“Mules” are used to pull big ships through the locks. The “mules” are actually locomotives that are tethered to a ship to do the job. Our ferry didn’t use the mules…we went through under our own steam.

At 2:45 the China Shipping Line ship started her transit in the left lane. Some of their crew were excited to see us taking pictures of them!

By 3:00 the Kobe Star was tethered to the mules and in position behind us. We had to wait for the first lock to completely fill from the ship ahead of us, and then it would be our turn!

Finally at 3:10 the gates to the first lock chamber slowly slid open and we were on our way. We moved forward and tied up, and then the Kobe star was pulled in behind us by the mules. Once our ferry and the big ship were both inside the lock chamber the back gates closed and the draining process began.

This takes a long time because over 26,000 gallons of water have to be drained in order to lower the ships to the level of the next chamber. This process has to be repeated three times at the Gatun Locks in order to lower the ships a total of 85 feet.

Here’s the marker once the lock chamber was almost drained:


We repeated the same process for the second lock chamber and finally made our way through the third chamber and out of the canal at 4:45. I thought the process was very interesting when we were going through the first lock chamber, but by the third I was ready for the transit to be over and to get back to the ship.😳


We made our way back to Colon, passing ships that were waiting for their turn to transit the canal and those who had completed their transit and docked in Colon. About 15 minutes before we arrived back we caught a glimpse of the Equinox. It was so close yet so far away!

We were on the ferry for six hours, but much of that was what I would consider downtime. I take a LOT of pictures, but even with my camera to occupy myself I got a little bored. With the exception of the locks themselves and the periodic cargo ship passing by there really wasn’t a lot to see. I would have been very happy if I had brought something to amuse myself – a book, a magazine, or a deck of cards would all have been greatly appreciated. If I’d brought a bunch I probably could have sold them and paid for the excursion!!!

Once the ferry docked in Colon we had a short bus ride back to the port. 

We were the last tour to arrive, and we got back to the ship about 45 minutes after the published departure time. I know it probably sounds like I couldn’t wait to get off the ferry and to an extent that is true but I’m still glad but we chose that excursion. I would have really hated to go to the Panama Canal and not actually go in the Panama Canal!

Jim and I decided that we were in desperate need of replenishment, so we cleaned up as best we could and hightailed it to the Martini Bar. One of these went a long way towards making me feel rejuvenated after a long day outdoors!


After dinner we enjoyed the Almost Elton John show. I wonder if the performer works for a company that specializes in Elton John impersonators, because we have seen different “Almost Eltons” on other ships. It was a very lively and entertaining show, and we enjoyed it very much. Once it was over it was straight up to Deck 11 and to bed for us. It had been a long day and we were ready for sleep!

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