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Destination guides

Cruising through the Panama Canal

17th October, 2018

Every year Saga holds an online survey to discover customers’ favourite cruising experiences, and the Panama Canal consistently makes the top 10. But why? Ben Gibson takes a look at this marvel of human ingenuity…

The history of the Panama Canal

First begun by the French in 1880, then later completed by American labourers, the 50-mile long Panama Canal connects the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans. One of the most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, its completion meant that ships no longer had to make the journey around Cape Horn – the headland at the tip of South America.

But it’s so much more than just a sailing shortcut. Cruising along this huge expanse of water is a spectacular experience for those on board. The scenery from either side of the waterway is a slideshow of changing scenes – from the industrial to beautiful mountains, serene lakes and even sandy beaches. But the standout sight has to be passing by mile after mile lush-green rainforests, where the sound of capuchin and howler monkeys can often be heard, while glimpses of the other inhabitants such as sloths and toucans are also common as you sail by.

Amazing engineering

As part of the journey, every ship will negotiate three locks at either end of the canal – on a crossing that usually takes around nine hours. Ships will be gradually lifted and lowered a total of 170 feet as they pass from the Caribbean to the Pacific – which even by today’s standards is a truly remarkable feat of engineering. Even more so when you consider this has been happening every day for over a century.

Our ships have sailed through the canal many times, taking excited passengers on cruises down to Chile and the Falklands.

Panama Canal facts

  • The first trench was dug on New Year’s Day 1880 – taking another 34 years until the canal was complete.
  • Approximately thirty million pounds of explosives were used to help clear the way for the canal
  • A ship sailing from New York to San Francisco saves 7,872 miles by using the Panama Canal instead of going around Cape Horn
  • Each lock can hold up an astonishing 52 million gallons of water!
  • Around 40 ships make the crossing each and every day.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.