The Panama Canal in a Day (or Two)
Some save for years to afford a Panama Canal cruise. But those already in Panama can make a day transit of the canal for a tiny fraction of what the luxury liners charge. Two companies on the Pacific-side of the isthmus offer passenger service. (The adventurous, especially those short of cash, can sometimes get a free transit by working as a line-handler on a yacht.)
From January to March, day transits are offered only on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. They’re offered only on Saturday the rest of the year. Most are partial transits, although even these take nearly a full day. Plan accordingly. The partial transit takes 4–5 hours and costs US$115 for adults, US$60–65 for children, including transfers. Full transits are offered one Saturday a month (US$165 for adults, US$75 for children).
One of the companies also offers a partial Friday-night transit, which gives a very different perspective on the canal. The locks are brightly lit by high-mast lighting, turning night into day.
Nearly as storied as the Panama Canal is the Panama Railroad, which ferried Forty-Niners across the isthmus during the California gold rush. Its descendent is the Panama Railway, which offers passengers an incredibly scenic early-morning ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic along the banks of the canal. The coast-to-coast ride lasts only an hour, but creates memories that will last a lifetime.
Once on the Caribbean side, you can hire a taxi to explore the Spanish ruins. Portobelo and Fuerte San Lorenzo transport visitors back to the days of pirates and conquistadors, and the mile-long Gatún Locks bring them back to the high-tech present.
If time allows, squeeze in a wildlife-viewing tour, by boat or kayak, down the lower reaches of the Río Chagres, a storied river where one can spot the occasional caiman or crocodile. Finish up in time to catch the train back to Panama City, or take one of the frequent buses.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition