Our Fascinating/Terrifying Day Exploring the Panama Canal

  • Crossing the Panama Canal with Kids on Holland America Eurodam 

  • Our Fascinating/Terrifying Day Exploring the Panama Canal

  • The idea of crossing the Panama Canal has always intrigued me. I would put it on the same list as visiting Machu Picchu or exploring the Great Wall (both have eluded me so far, but someday!)

    My husband felt the same way. His grandfather, who died when he was just three months old, used to be in the navy and was stationed in the Panama Canal before WWII, while serving on USS Pennsylvania. So, naturally, the idea of being the second person in his family to ever cross the Panama Canal had a certain appeal to my husband.

    Fortunately, since we are Florida residents, this type of experience was relatively attainable. What has stopped us until now was the cost. I knew that I wanted to do it via cruise and take the kids with us. That meant double the price, since we absolutely refuse to share one cabin. In an ideal world, I would also love to do a full transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. However, these types of cruises usually last at least two weeks, and normally are not compatible with the school schedule.

    So, when I saw a 10-day sailing on Holland America (our favorite cruise line) with the partial canal transit, I figured it would be good enough. My kids would only need to miss three days of school, and my husband was able to use up his expiring flex time at work. Most importantly, the price was cheaper than I’ve ever seen it in the past. To be clear, this cruise was still very expensive. But how often do you get to see the 8th wonder of the world, right?

    The actual process of crossing the Panama Canal 

    Our captain had notified us the previous night that our crossing would take place around 8 AM and would last about an hour. Apparently, ships have to get their timing reserved up to a year ahead. It’s also quite expensive, and we were told that each passenger had to pay $300 for the privilege.

    When I woke up at 7 AM, I went to our balcony and saw this amazing sight:

    A bunch of cargo ships were anchored in the water, waiting for their turn to cross the Panama Canal. Before long, we would pass under Panama bridge, led by the local pilot boat:

    At the Q and A meeting with our ship captain later in the cruise, he was asked how challenging Panama Canal crossing is in reality. He said that the process isn’t as hard as people imagine if you are a seasoned captain. However, what is challenging is dealing with the crew of these pilot boats. I could tell he was looking for a diplomatic way to describe it, and had to hold back his real thoughts. I imagine that it’s quite tough for a captain of a large ship to be at the mercy of these guys and having to do as they say.

    Before long, we approached the artificially created Gatun lake. I didn’t realize that they have recently added a second set of locks, so larger ships could pass through.

    This photo was taken on a tour

    Our Holland America ship Eurodam is actually what they call a Panamax ship. They build those specifically so that they are small enough to cross the Panama Canal, and the size is determined principally by the dimensions of the canal’s original lock chambers.  These ships only get about two feet clearance on each side.

    It was neat to watch the “mules” :

    Just as the captain predicted, the whole crossing process took a bit over an hour from start to finish, but my kids got bored long before we made it to the other side (Gatun lake). Nevertheless, I’m very glad we got to do this as a family.

    Crazy monkey-watching jungle cruise

    While in Gatun lake, the ship set anchor for a few hours, in order to let passengers go on various land-based tours. Originally, we didn’t actually plan to leave the ship. However, our previous stop in the port of Limon (Costa Rica) got canceled and with it our booked excursion of touring Tortuguero canal. Fortunately, I booked it via cruise line, so the refund process was automatic.

    I booked this tour with the idea of spotting monkeys, so as soon as the cancellation was announced, I looked at whether something similar was available in Panama. There was. I saw an excursion via Holland America app, called “Monkey cruise” for $99 per person, and booked it right away. I didn’t even check any reviews, as this was my kids’ last shot at seeing monkeys on that particular cruise. I figured many folks would be in the same boat and sure enough, most of the tours were sold out by the end of the day.

    Originally, my husband was planning to come with us. However, right before we were supposed to leave, he said he wasn’t feeling too well. He does have serious health issues and in retrospect, booking this 6-hour tour for him wasn’t the best idea. I told him to just stay on the ship, and that I would take the kids by myself. Reluctantly, he agreed. Unfortunately, we lost $99, but oh well.

    First, let me say that this tour wasn’t accurately described in the app. It mentioned a cruise via boat, and that’s it. In reality, we first had to drive 1.5 hours to a national park. Oh, and for some unknown reason we  had to wait almost 45 minutes on the bus. We did get to stop at a gas station, along with many other tour buses. As you can imagine, the line for bathrooms was quite long.

    Anyway, we finally got to the park, ready for our jungle cruise. We were put on a relatively small boat and off we went.

    Our tour guide told us how fortunate we were to get good weather during our cruise. Five minutes later a torrential rain starting pouring and there was thunder, too. And as they say, where there is thunder, there is lightning. At one point, lightning struck only 100 feet from us. On top of it, our boat started to fill with water. I couldn’t tell if it was from the rain or if we had a leak. I was praying it was the former. In fact, my backpack was floating at this point. Fortunately, I had good sense to put our passports in a ziplock bag.

    Calm before the storm

    Nevertheless, we kept on sailing. When in Panama… and you know the rest. Later on I was talking to someone from the other boat, and she said they had a passenger who kept screaming that they needed to turn around and go back. I wasn’t that brave, but I was definitely screaming on the inside.

    Eventually, the storm subsided somewhat, and we were able to see some amazing wildlife. At one point we even had a capuchin monkey jump onto our boat:

    He was a curious little guy:

    We also got to spot a toucan, though the bird flew away before I got a chance to take a photo. However, I did manage to take a picture of the species that is a close relative of toucans:

    Our guide told us that it’s very rare to see this type of bird in that area, so I’ll have to take his word for it

    As you can imagine, my kids were absolutely thrilled to see exotic wildlife in its natural habitat. My son kept screaming for joy when the monkey started to explore our boat. He couldn’t believe it. So, I’ll reluctantly admit that the tour was worth it. Especially since we survived. This was probably more adventure than what I bargained for, though.

    Apologies for my low-quality photos

    Being in the middle of a rainforest and watching monkeys isn’t something we get to do everyday. Definitely a memorable experience. After the boat tour was over, we loaded into a bus and had to drive (completely wet from the rain) about an hour to meet our ship in the port of Colon. This is a depressing-looking city, so I didn’t bother to take any photos. Our guide was proudly showing us the local McDonald’s, so that should tell you something.

    We then had to wait one hour by the port terminal because our ship was late. Naturally, we used that time to buy some tacky souvenirs sold by local old ladies. One refused to give me $10 in change and just kept smiling. I decided to let it go, reasoning that she likely needs that $10 more than me. Some fights are just not worth pursuing. The kids enjoyed shopping for souvenirs, but I hate this sort of thing with a passion. Normally, my husband handles it, but he wasn’t around this time.

    It was a super long day, and I was so happy to be back on the ship. Still, out of all the stops on this cruise, this one was definitely the most memorable, hands down.

    How does my family travel so much? We use miles and points from credit card bonuses. See my Travel Hacking 101 post as well as current credit card offers here.

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