Cruising through History on the Panama Canal
By LARRY ANTHONY PANNELL
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another frequent stop for cruise ships making this journey is 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.
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.
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.
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.
LARRY ANTHONY PANNELL is a professional photojournalist originally from southern California who is also a licensed acupuncture physician with a degree in traditional Chinese medicine. Since 2010, he has served as an “acupuncturist at sea,” offering his services on several international cruise lines while traveling the Seven Seas. He specializes in landscape, travel, nature and wildlife photography, and more samples of his work can be seen on his webpage. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.