PANAMA CANAL, PANAMA -- The Panama Canal is one of those things you learned about in grade school, perhaps found mildly interesting, then filed away -- very far away -- in the back of your mind, along with historical tidbits like Seward's Folly (what was that again?) and the Spanish-American War (Remember the Maine?).
But when you are sitting in a canal lock, marveling that your 780-foot-long cruise ship has just been lifted 28 feet in only eight minutes, you get a new perspective -- and admiration.
It took the United States about 10 years, 5,600 deaths and $375 million -- a good piece of change back in the early 1900s -- to dig and claw and blast across the roughly 50 miles that separate the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean at this link between North America and South America. Before that, the French had seen an estimated 22,000 die, mostly from yellow fever and malaria, in an abortive effort that lasted seven years.
This was down-and-dirty work, and certainly not what we would consider high-tech (though it no doubt was at the time). Yet since the canal's opening in 1914, the operation hasn't seen a lot of changes. Oh, sure there's been some deepening and widening of various parts of the channel. And little electric locomotives (at $2.2 million a pop) now help guide ships, which today are so huge they nearly touch the sides of the locks. But it's still the original 730-ton, 82-foot-high metal gates that seal the ships into each lock. Gravity is still the sole source that moves the 52 million gallons of freshwater used for each lockage. And at Gamboa, 24 miles into the 50-mile transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific, sits a huge black crane that was handling maintenance tasks when the canal opened, and still is today.
On this day, the last in April 2005, our ship -- Holland America's 1,400-passenger Zaandam -- was one of the nearly 40 that use the canal on an average day. Some, like the Celebrity Cruises ship that passed through the Gatun Locks ahead of us, make only a token transit, anchoring in Gatun Lake while passengers go ashore, then heading back into the Atlantic. Our ship and the tanker next to us in the dual "westbound" locks passed through Gatun's three locks, then crossed the lake before descending the 85 feet to the Pacific through the single lock at Pedro Miguel and two at Miraflores.
For a ship traveling from New York to San Francisco (not our itinerary) the canal crossing saves nearly 7,900 miles -- and a lot of time. (Canal transits, on the other hand, usually take eight to 12 hours -- ours on the low end.)
(A word about that "westbound" reference: Though the intent, in our case, is to get from east to west, ships entering the canal from the Atlantic are northwest of the Pacific entrance. Really!)
Canal cruises, of course, can originate from the Atlantic or Pacific, and the cruise length can vary greatly. Some shorter cruises hit mainly Caribbean ports before ducking into the canal for part of the day. I boarded the Zaandam in Ft. Lauderdale and ended my 13-night cruise in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The Zaandam was continuing to Los Angeles and eventually the Pacific Northwest to spend the summer doing Alaska / Inside Passage cruises.
Cruising vets know this as a repositioning cruise, where the goal is to get the ship from its winter season haunts to where it will spend the summer. Though a canal transit is always an attraction, the cost of a reposi
tioning cruise usually is a better bargain than regular season just because the cruise line needs to move the ship. My inside stateroom, including transfers at each end of the cruise and trip cancellation insurance, cost $1,612.29, single occupancy, or $124 a night -- a deal.
With the canal the highlight, our ports -- in a few countries not on the typical tourist track -- were the bonus: La Romana, Dominican Republic; Cartagena, Colombia; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, and Huatulco, Mexico.
Tell anyone you are going to Colombia, Nicaragua and Guatemala and they are apt to give you an "are you crazy?" look. But all-too-brief stops -- the curse of cruise and tour bus travel -- left me feeling unfulfilled, not unsafe.
You have to get up pretty early in the morning to become a canal vet. I stumbled on deck at the bow at 10 minutes till 7 and found a few hundred passengers already there and space at the rail at a premium. (Those seniors -- who were in the majority on this cruise -- or is it on all cruises? -- are the early risers.)
Panama Rolls -- a tradition -- were being served, along with juice and coffee. Slathering on sunscreen to combat the announced UV factor of 14 didn't add much to the flavor of the rolls.
Ships going through the canal are charged according to the type of vessel and its tonnage. Our transit cost? $200,000! But that's not a record. That honor goes to the Coral Princess, which was hit with a $226,194.25 bill in 2003.
On the other hand, Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928 (they won't let you do that anymore) paid just 36 cents.
Near the Gatun Locks, three pilots boarded and took command
of the ship. We also acquired a local who gave a running commentary. ("There's a crocodile by shore off the port side." "When you see daylight through the two gates, it means the water level is equal on both sides.")
At the mouth of the first lock, a rowboat approached from each side, and lines were thrown to them from the ship. The ship's lines were then attached to steel cables connected to the winches on the small electric locomotives.
From this point it was the locomotives that did the work, guiding the ship farther into the lock until the gates at the stern clanged shut. The "mules," as the locomotives are called, effortlessly zipped up a steep incline to the top of the first lock, and water began to surge into the chamber. The Zaandam began to rise, accompanied by the music of winch motors whirring away to adjust the cables and keep them tight.
In eight minutes we were level with the water in the second lock, and the gates began to open.
I leaned over the rail and looked down. Our ship, much larger than those the canal was built for, cleared the lock wall by only 2 or 3 feet.
All around the bow there was excited chatter. Film and digital and video cameras clicked and whirred, capturing visual images to complement the mental images that would last a lifetime. A few hundred feet to our left, crew members of the Iver Example, the tanker that was also locking through, not jaded in the least by their world travels, waved to us, snapped pictures and excitedly took in the show just like us.
One more lock lay ahead here at Gatun, then the sail across Gatun Lake would follow, accompanied by rainy views of bright green jungle, more locks and then the Pacific. And exotic ports to come.
But for now, we were just a bunch of schoolkids, watching the history books come to life.
Phil Marty writes for the Chicago Tribune.
If you go
PANAMA CANAL CRUISES
Most Panama Canal cruises are from September or October through April and may include complete or partial transits of the canal. This year the line I sailed on, Holland America (hollandamerica.com; 877-932-4259), is offering 30 canal cruises.
In April, the line will have seven complete transits, ranging from 14 to 22 days, aboard seven ships as they reposition from the Caribbean to the Pacific. And in September there will be four cruises from the West Coast offering complete transits. Brochure rates for the complete transits start at $1,749 per person, double occupancy.
Holland America also has 10-day round-trip cruises from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., that go through only the Gatun Locks. Those cruises are offered each year from January through March, and then again from late October through December. Prices start at $1,149 per person double.
I booked my 13-night Panama Canal cruise (Ft. Lauderdale to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, though I could have gone as far as Vancouver) through CruisesOnly (cruisesonly.com; 800-278-4737). Cost for an inside cabin, single occupancy, was $1,612, including all port charges and taxes, transfers and trip-cancellation insurance. While an inside cabin is cheaper and certainly fine for a short cruise, for a cruise this long an outside cabin would have been preferable, if for no other reason than to have an idea of what the weather's like before going on deck.
Using CruisesOnly you can book online or by phone, which I would recommend after you browse the site and narrow your choices. The agent I dealt with was very knowledgeable and made booking a painless experience.
Among other cruise lines offering Panama Canal cruises are:
Celebrity Cruises, celebrity.com, 800-647-2251.
Crystal Cruises, crystalcruises.com, 866-446-6625.
Norwegian Cruise Line, ncl.com, 800-327-7030.
Oceania Cruises, oceaniacruises.com, 800-531-5619.
Princess Cruises, princess.com; 800-774-6237.
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, rssc.com, 877-505-5370.
Royal Caribbean International, royalcaribbean.com, 866-562-7625.
The Yachts of Seabourn, seabourn.com, 800-929-9391.
Silversea, silversea.com, 877-760-9052.
Windstar Cruises, windstarcruises.com, 877-827-7245.
There's something to be said for the organized tours cruise companies sell, particularly in countries such as Colombia and Nicaragua, where it's hard to dig up much information in advance. I sampled Holland America tours in five of our six ports, from a city tour of Cartagena, Colombia, for $39 to a $74 "Sky Walk in the Forest" in Costa Rica. Other options included mountain biking in Huatulco, Mexico, and a boat tour around Cartagena.
If comfort level is high on your list of vacation priorities, this is probably the best, though not necessarily most fulfilling, way to see a new country in your six to 10 hours on shore.
That said, Holland America did a terrific job of prepping us before we hit ports, with knowledgeable staff to answer questions and a handout on each port with information on sights, history, food, shopping and maps. So, with taxis available at every port, it's not a real challenge to do it yourself, in the process saving some money (cab-sharing with shipboard friends, for example) and freeing yourself from the tyranny of the group tour. I didn't find any passengers who did this who had any regrets. Costa Rica might be the one port where a formal tour would be preferable, only because most of the interest here is in wildlife, and hunting down wildlife on your own with little time to do it could be a challenge.
We had a couple of excellent guides, some average and one pretty poor. But the most memorable times were those on my own, poking around the sweaty streets of Cartagena's Old Town or downing a cold one while sweating through a spicy lunch on the beach in Huatulco.
AND FINALLY ...
You'll be spending a lot of time at sea - five out of 12 days on my cruise, not counting the day in the canal - so bring a lot of books if you don't enjoy shipboard life (nothing against Holland America, but I didn't), or spend a lot of time in the excellent and comfy Explorations Cafe, offering Internet access (bring lots of money) and tons of books.