I cannot imagine a better way to see the locks of the Panama Canal than by ship, as it was always intended. A cruise is definitely a plush option. The day we got to the locks we were up before the sun, claiming a good spot to stand among everyone hanging over the railing. The humidity was terrible and small showers were toying with our visibility, but all-in-all, we got pretty lucky with the weather. From 6:15-10 a.m. we traveled about a mile from the world’s largest bridge to Gatun Lake through the series of locks. Princess Cruises could be seen parallel to us, going through the new lock a short distance away. It turned out they had missed their canal appointment by 30 minutes, were turned away from their intended passage before us, and received a heavy fine. In terms of money, a typical container ship costs about $25,000- $85,000 to pass through and is likely planned 6 months in advance.
Early in the morning, a former American director of the canal had jumped aboard the ship to help guide us through the locks. (Literally. A tender pulled up as we were floating and booted him inside the ship.) He had worked at the canal for 30 years and had photos with Ted Kennedy, George Foreman, and Jane Fonda. Throughout the morning voyage, he narrated the entire passage to the guests over the loudspeaker. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend taking an excursion at this location as this few hours is typically the highlight of the entire cruise and the cruise line does a great job with making it an informational experience for all.
When the ship approaches the first lock, small trains on tracks attach cables to the ship in order to pull it through the tight space from both sides of the canal without bumping. These cables are $40,000 a piece and will kill anyone in their path if they snap. Which is important because the canal is TIGHT. When looking over the rail, it is impossible to see any space between the side of the ship and the concrete wall. If you are in your lower level state room when the water level is at its lowest point, the concrete slab is just inches away from the window.
What people may not realize who have never been to the locks is the absurdity of a cruise ship going through. To the Panamanians, it must be a real spectacle of rich people paying money to pass through the canal, just to turn right back around and do it again with no real business to conduct. By scale, it’s actually quite rare for cruise ships to come through compared to cargo. As much as we were all taking pictures of the locks, canal staff and other passing ships were taking photos of us. They loved to wave and wave, with big smiles on their faces, phones held up for a picture. We were just as much a spectacle to those involved on the ground as the canal was to us.
Panama is in panic mode when it comes to water conservation. It takes 26 million gallons of water for a ship to go one way through the locks. The rainfall has not been ideal in Panama so they are experimenting with alternate water sources, including desalinization. One last thing: did you know the Panama Canal runs north and south, not east and west?