Where is the Panama Canal?
North America meets South America in Panama, the thinnest point between the two continents. That's why this spot was chosen for the state-of-the-art canal, completed in 1914 as a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It's a 50-mile-long waterway found near the exact center of its host country; it's anchored by Colon and Cristobal at its northern entrance, and Panama City, the capital found at its southern end.
How long does it take to get there?
This depends on your departure point. If you board a cruise ship in California, Florida or Mexico, it can take from five to nine days to reach the canal -- of course, that's taking into account the fascinating Caribbean or Pacific ports you'll visit on the way. If you're short on vacation time, consider sailing from Costa Rica or Panama itself, as these cruises head straight for the canal with fewer stops on the way.
When is the best time to take a Panama Canal cruise?
Cruises are available here between September and April, but the dry season (December to April) is the most popular time to vacation in this region. Temperatures hover around 80 degrees regardless of the season, but annual rains (about 10 inches per month between June and November) can add some unwelcome humidity.
How long do these cruises last?
Cruises of the Panama Canal typically range from nine to 15 nights, though some are longer. Choose a partial transit of the canal, which usually departs from Florida and enters the canal on the Caribbean side, and the cruise will last about 10 nights. Select a full transit of the canal and you'll probably enjoy a full two weeks on the water.
Will I need a passport or visa?
Passport requirements for U.S. citizens vary depending on the exact cruise itinerary and whether the cruise makes a full or partial transit of the canal. U.S. citizens do not need a visa to visit Panama but may need visas for other ports of call on a Panama Canal cruise itinerary. Passports and visas are required for most other international travelers. Always verify passport requirements with your Vacations To Go cruise counselor and visa requirements with the embassy of the countries you plan to visit.
Is English spoken?
It is spoken and understood by residents connected to the tourist trade, but Spanish is the official language of the region.
What is the local currency? Where can I exchange currency?
Panama uses the balboa for coins and the U.S. dollar for paper money, so balboas and dollars are valued equally. While there's no need for Americans to exchange currency in Panama, other destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean offer currency exchange stations at most local hotels and airports. Most tourist destinations also accept credit cards.
Is tipping a common practice?
Tipping is customary and a welcome reward for top-notch service. In fact, most servers and vendors in Latin America rely on gratuities for a large part of their income.
What should I wear?
Annual temperatures hover around 80 degrees, so dress accordingly. Visitors should opt for breezy, free-flowing clothes made from natural fibers -- shorts and T-shirts make great resort wear during the day, while casual slacks, polo shirts and sundresses are perfect for evening activities. And remember that you'll be cruising through some dense, misty jungles -- pack a poncho or rain jacket to guard against showers.
What should I pack?
Bring your summer essentials when visiting this region. Sunscreen, sunglasses and swimsuits are a must; so are protective hats, insect repellent, good walking shoes and a sturdy camera.
Is the water safe to drink?
Some resorts and restaurants filter their tap water, but it might be best to stick with bottled water here. It's sold almost everywhere on shore, but you can pick up a few bottles before disembarking your ship, too.
What sort of medical precautions do I need to take?
Shots aren't required for visitors from North America, but you should consult your health professional before boarding your cruise in case precautions are necessary to visit another port on your itinerary.
What types of electrical outlets are used?
Depending on your location, outlets can be either 110 or 220 volts. Ships are typically outfitted with standard U.S. plug fittings. Converters and adapters come in handy for international visitors.
How do I make a telephone call from this region?
Tourist resorts and public phone booths offer direct dialing for international calls. Calling cards also are available. U.S.-based cell phones might not work here.
What is the shopping like? What souvenirs should I buy?
Shoppers in Central America and the Caribbean are in for a treat, especially if they're in the market for homemade handicrafts. Panama, for instance, offers molas, the brightly colored cloth worn by the Kuna Indians, and the wood carvings and intricately woven baskets sold by the Wounaan and Embera Indians. Colon also boasts the second largest duty-free zone in the world, so plenty of cruise ship passengers head there for low-priced imported goods like electronics, jewelry and designer clothing.
How do I get around?
Tour guides throughout Central America and the Caribbean offer bus, boat and helicopter tours, while larger cities provide taxis, bicycle rentals and public buses and trains.
Can I rent a car?
Most of the countries visited on a Panama Canal cruise will allow you to rent a car if you're over 21 years old, carry a valid driver's license and can provide a major credit card to cover insurance costs. However, car rentals are rarely necessary for cruise ship passengers -- those not covered by group transportation included with their shore excursions can turn to public buses and taxis, a much cheaper (and largely safer) option here.
What can I do during a Panama Cruise?
Revel in the canal's technological advancements, for one. Watch in wonder as your ship rises and falls with the waterflow, carefully controlled by a series of locks and artificial lakes that move your cruise ship over 50 miles of formerly dry land. Otherwise, just enjoy your time in the tropics -- sample water sports from sailing and surfing to snorkeling and diving, or take in some historic and cultural attractions. There are plenty of beaches here, too, so you can commandeer a lounge chair by the waves and soak up some sun.
What is the diving like?
You'll find scuba and snorkeling spots in the Caribbean and Pacific, from the submerged shipwrecks surrounding Aruba to the Chileno Cove coral gardens near Cabo San Lucas. Check with your travel counselor when booking your cruise to hear a full list of sea and shore excursions.
Do you have any photography tips for travelers of the Panama Canal?
There's plenty of beauty to capture in this region, so be sure to bring plenty of gear. Users of "point-and-shoot" digital cameras should pack rechargeable batteries, a charger, electric adaptors and high-capacity memory cards (1 gigabyte is recommended). If you're bringing a digital video camera, don't forget the long-life batteries, charger, adaptors and converter. And double-check your "zoom" buttons before you board your ship -- you'll want some close-ups of the canal's fascinating lock system as it bears you across Central America.