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Panama is a small country with a population of some 3 million people, yet its culture and local traditions are entirely unique. Panamanian customs can vary from the local ‘gran diablo’ dance, alluding to the struggle between god and the underworld, the traditional pollera, a large skirt embroidered with colorful patterns, to the national dish, sancocho de gallina, made with chicken, corn and cassava. Panama’s tropical environment is the home to the most diverse wildlife in Central America with some 9,915 known species of plant, 218 known species of mammal and 302 known species of bird inhabiting the country. Examples include jaguars, parrots, sloths and the harpy eagle, Panama’s national bird.
We've done the hard work for you by selecting the best Panama canal cruise option, with an itinerary that covers just about everything: Panama City & Canal, Gatun Lake, Darien Jungle, Tropical Pearl Islands, and more. Remember that Panama Cruise departures are limited, the vessel typically fills up fast, well-ahead of time. Cruises often sell out 6 to 9 months in advance, so book ahead to avoid disappointment.
Panama City & Canal
The capital and largest city in Panama with a population of more than 880,000, the city is located on the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. The city was initially founded in 1519 by the Spanish and was used as a base for conquests into the Incan empire. However, in 1671 the city was burnt to the ground after Henry Morgan, a Welsh pirate sacked the city and then set it ablaze. The city was then reconstructed 2 years later in 1673, 5 miles Southwest of the original settlement. The site of this previously destroyed city is still in ruins and is a popular tourist destination locally known as Panama Viejo.
The Panama Canal is a 48-mile long shipping lane that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic. Constructed by the Americans in 1914, it can take between 8-30 hours to cross and it is estimated that around 15,000 ships use it each year. Considered an architectural wonder, the canal saves ships from having to travel across Cape Horn at the very tip of South America. Although it can cost a large ship some 3,000 dollars to pass, this is a mere fraction in comparison to the money saved from having to travel up and down the coasts of South America.
Gatun lake: This is an essential part of the Panama Canal, which forms a water passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean. Gatun Lake also provides the millions of gallons of water necessary to operate the Canal locks each time a ship has to pass through. The canal also provides drinking water for the residents of Panama City.
Darien National Park
The Darien jungle is found inside Darien National Park, a UNESCO world heritage sight. It is the largest national park in Central America covering some 3,500 square miles and it is commonly known as a natural bridge between North and South America. Darien national park consists of a variety of different terrains and habitats varying from rocky coastlines to sandy beaches, swampland to the tropical rainforest. This rainforest is commonly known as the Darien Gap and it acts as the only break in the 30,0000 mile long Pan American highway that stretches from Patagonia up to northern Alaska.
The rainforest is not only home to a vast diversity of wildlife including the endangered Spotted Paca, the American crocodile and the Black-headed Spider Monkey but it is also the home to two different indigenous tribes, the Embera and Kuna Indians who have inhabited the area since before Spanish colonization. We will see these villages emerge from the dense jungle landscape as we travel upstream through the rainforest in motorized crafts. When we pause to see these villages, the unique lifestyle and complete self-dependence of the people is overwhelmingly apparent. These indigenous tribesmen are master crafters in Cocobolo woodcarvings and basketry and we will be able to see them make such treasures. The Darien Jungle is one of the last remaining places in the world in which people inhabit a protected ecosystem.
The Pearl Islands consist of a group of around 200 islands and islets (most of which are uninhabited) that lie some 30 miles west of Panama. It was the Spanish who gave the name ‘the Pearl Islands’ in 1513 due to the abundance of pearls that were found.
The Pearl Islands are simply spectacular. Crystal clear waters with white sand beaches and lush vegetation combine to give this island the aesthetically pleasing landscape that beach-dwellers and Scuba Diving enthusiasts can only dream of. We will have the chance to swim, snorkel and kayak in the precious waters as well as have the opportunity to view the remains of ‘The Explorer’ submarine, which was built in 1865 during the Civil War and sunk off the coasts of San Telmo. We will also have the chance to join divers on their search for pearls.
The islands also hold some of the finest marine and bird reservations in the world. Humpback whales use the surrounding water as a breeding ground and dolphins are also commonly seen. The famous ‘blue footed booby’ bird is also an inhabitant of the island. This spectacular species of bird, as probably inferred from the name, has a very distinguishable feature - its bright blue feet. The male birds use their blue feet as part of an elegant mating ritual by lifting their feet up and down in front of the female bird whilst strutting around. Essentially, the best ‘dance’ wins.