7 Ways to Experience the Panama Canal

February 2, 2024 • Todd Smith
Transit the Panama Canal on a small ship, or visit its locks by land, on our curated trips. Want luxury? Active? Cultural? Let our Panama experts match you with the ideal option.
View from bow of the national geographic quest small ship about to go into the panama canal on a partly sunny day.
Group 3 Created with Sketch. Photo by: David Vargas/Lindblad Expeditions

The Panama Canal is a living monument stretching over historical lands and has connected the seas for over 100 years. We’ve curated a selection of ways to experience this engineering marvel. Choose from expedition cruises and land-based tours that are focused on the 48-mile Panama Canal.

IN THIS POST – Ways to Experience the Panama Canal:
Cruise on a Luxury Ship
Cruise with National Geographic:
Costa Rica & Panama
Colombia & Panama
Panama only
Go by Land:
Rainforest & Culture
Volcanoes & Coastline
Family Focus

On a variety of itineraries, learn the history of overcoming hardships endured from 1881 when work on the canal first began, only to be aborted and started again when the United States in 1904 put its resources behind this engineering miracle that began changing the course of commerce—and world history—in 1914, the same year that World War I began. Today some 14,000 ships pass annually through the canal, and you could be on one of them.

Following are our curated, fully guided cruises and land tours to experience the Panama Canal:

Small modern expedition ship with blue hull & white upper decks sits offshore from white-sand beach with palm trees in Panama.

1) Cruise on a Luxury Ship

The Secrets of Central America cruise makes a complete transit in style. Aboard a luxury French ship, travel between Colón, Panama and Puntarenas, Costa Rica, enjoying white-glove service along the way. When not out exploring dream islands, spotting for wildlife in nature reserves and meeting local indigenous communities, relax on board in a variety of upscale lounges, or take in performances, tastings and lectures provided by expedition staff and the ship’s crew. Select departures feature onboard, world-class experts from Smithsonian Journeys.

Photo by: David Vargas

2) Cruise with Nat Geo to Costa Rica & Panama

Lindblad Expeditions‘ 8-day Costa Rica & the Panama Canal cruise aboard 100-guest National Geographic Quest offers a 2-day canal transit with a visit to Barro Colorado and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Alongside experts from National Geographic, explore exuberant, colorful and diverse nature in national parks, wildlife reserves and a privately owned tropical garden. In addition, swim and snorkel Panama’s famed Isla Coiba, kayak along remote coastlines and horseback ride on the beach—a truly unforgettable experience.

2 women sit & smile among brightly colored, woven textiles, seen on a Panama & Colombia small ship cruise.
Photo by: David Vargas

3) Cruise with Nat Geo to Colombia & Panama

Another 8-day cruise aboard 100-guest National Geographic Quest, Panama & Colombia: Exploring the Caribbean Coast either begins or ends with a transit of the Panama Canal, uniquely spending a special overnight at anchor in Gatún Lake, a vast artificial lake that forms a major part of the Panama Canal. By focusing only on Panama and Colombia, this itinerary offers more time to explore the Caribbean side of Panama, as well as a well-rounded 4 days in Colombia. Cultural and active opportunities abound, with kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, skiff tours and onboard wellness routines.

Guests on an expedition hike through the jungle of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Barro Colorado, Panama, as guide points.
Photo by: David Vargas

4) Cruise with Nat Geo Solely in Panama

The Nat Geo Quest also offers an 8-day Panama-focused itinerary: The Panama Canal, Pearl Islands & Darién Jungle. Conveniently operating round-trip from Panama City, this small ship expedition cruise highlights Panama’s indigenous and colonial history, local communities and UNESCO World Heritage sites. Enjoy daily opportunities to get off the ship kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, snorkeling, hiking and Zodiac cruising. National Geographic guides provide expert enriching insights into every experience, and special permits allow for uncommon visits such as an exclusive stop at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Barro Colorado Island.

a traveler goes on a zip line with the jungle canopy below him on the panama adventure land tour

5) Go by Land: Rainforest & Culture Focus 

The 8-day, land-based Panama Discovery Tour highlights Panama’s rainforests, wildlife and rich cultural heritage. This tour includes a visit to the Panama Canal via the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center. Beyond the canal, excursions include meeting indigenous cultures on the Gatun and Chagres Rivers, riding the Panama Railway, observing wildlife, ziplining through the highlands, tasting local coffee, hiking in the cloud forests of the Chiriqui Highlands, searching for the elusive Resplendent Quetzal and exploring more of the over- and underwater world of the Caribbean Sea in Bocas del Toro.

a large dugout canoe is tied to a small pier on a river while adventure travelers step out of it to start the best of panama land tour

6) Go by Land: Volcanoes & Coastline

The 9-day Best of Panama trip explores the Panama Canal, volcanic highlands and the Caribbean Coast, en route meeting some of Panama’s indigenous people. From coast to coast and past to present, glean the history and workings of the canal and the original Panama railway while on a private guided tour and jungle boat adventure in the canal. Thriving indigenous villages and Spanish colonial forts are just some stops made during moderate daily hikes. Others include the tropical cloud forest, rich in flora and fauna. There are opportunities for zip lining, paddling a dugout canoe and touring a coffee plantation as well. 

7) Go by Land: Take the Family

The 9-day Panama Family Adventure embraces nature, culture and wildlife. It’s an enriching family trip that covers the most iconic things to do in Panama, including kayaking, zip lining in the Chiriqui highlands, historic and cultural explorations, and a visit to the Panama Canal lock system. Travelers of all ages experience Panama’s finest from coastal snorkeling to venturing to the western highlands of the Caribbean coast and white water rafting the Chagres River. This is a perfect dose of family travel with plenty of optional activities to keep everyone entertained.


See the full list of itinerary options, including cruise add-on’s.

For more Panama vacations and Costa Rica vacations, contact the experts at AdventureSmith Explorations. Our team can help you choose from the many options available and tailor the trip to your travel needs. For the most up-to-date listing of Panama Canal experiences, view all our Panama trips.


You have questions.
We have answers.

This post detailing ways to experience the Panama Canal is among AdventureSmith Explorations’ extensive collection of travel guides. Learn more about Panama small ship cruises and Panama vacations, contact us for a personalized recommendation, or ask us your questions about the best way to experience the Panama Canal right in the comments.

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