December 14th 2017


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Panama Canal Panama Canal Panama Canal Panama Canal


Continent: South America. Country: Colombia. City: Cartagena.

Panama Canal

By Daniel Essex

The six great milestones in cruising are said to be sailing around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn, through their man-made shortcuts the Suez and Panama canals, an Atlantic crossing between Europe and North America or a voyage around the world. Of all these only the Panama Canal gives you the sun-drenched delights of the Caribbean and the natural delights of Costa Rica and the Baha. It takes all day to sail the 80 kilometres of the Panama Canal. Still, that’s not a bad day’s travelling when it saves a 13,000-kilometre voyage around Cape Horn and it’s pretty special being on a cruise ship as it’s lifted 28 metres to cross a mountain range.

The day started early as we were entering the first lock at about 6.30am. The whole ship was awake and most of us were at the very front. It is quite a strange sight, to see a vast ship heading towards such a narrow opening. With inches to spare, the captain guided the ship in to the first lock. The ships are assisted through the locks by ‘Mules’ which are unusual looking small locomotive trains. They look like they have just been lifted off a Hornby train set. 

 With a hot coffee in hand, we transited the first couple of locks. Then came my biggest surprise. The Gatun Lake. I had always imagined the lake to be small, but it is quite the opposite.  A vast expanse of water with dozens of small islands. There was an air of silence only broken by the sounds of birds singing in the trees on the islands. Ships were dotted about waiting their turn to go through the locks and the waters were incredibly calm.

 Canal Fun Facts

Panama Hats are from Ecuador — they became known to the world when worn by Ecuadorians working on the Panama Canal.

 The Panama Canal runs north-south though it joins the Caribbean Sea in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west.

 The Panama Canal was owned and operated by the US until it was handed over to Panama at noon on December 31, 1999.

 The centenary of the Panama Canal, was in 2014.

 No transit through the Panama Canal is free, ever. The cheapest toll was paid by an American adventurer named Richard Halliburton who swam the canal in 1928. His body displacement was calculated, just as it is for a cruise ship, and he was invoiced US36¢.

Throughout my Panama Canal cruise, I was really looking forward to the whole experience of transiting the Panama Canal, but also the stop in Cartagena, Colombia.  I’ve always wanted to visit Colombia and this was an ideal opportunity.

The trip into the port was beautiful, passing old fortresses while enjoying great views of the newer part of the city. 

We decided not to book an excursion through the ship as none of them offered exactly what we wanted to see.  When we got off the ship, there was a free shuttle boat that took you to the port exit.  Upon exiting through the gift shop, there were many local guides standing there waiting offering tours.  The guides were charging per person for a walking tour of the city, we found a charming guide that took us privately on our tour. 

I really enjoyed the tour and was extremely impressed by the city.  The tour highlights included the Fort of San Felipe de Barajas, Plaza Bolivar, Plaza Santo Domingo and an element of free time. My favourite part was walking through the Walled City, the colours of the buildings were very vibrant and lively.  There were many ladies carrying fruit on their heads all in brightly coloured traditional dress. The street venders selling fresh fruit juice and iced smoothies, kept the kids happy too.   

We also visited Plaza de Bolivar which is surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings.  The small but extremely lush park has a statue of Simon Bolívar in the centre. We sat and watched the local children play whilst resting our feet.

As part of the tour, our guide took us to an emerald shop, not that this really interested us, but I guess the guide was just doing his job…and trying to earn a bit extra in commission.

To get back on the ship, you have to go through a store, which is pricey.  I was impressed by the quality of the souvenirs but if you want them at a better price, do your shopping in the city. 

Overall, I really enjoyed my day in Cartagena and was even stalling getting back on the cruise ship; I didn’t want the day to end.


Keywords: Panama Canal, Cartegena