I would like to make it very clear that I have never taken a cruise through the Panama Canal, but that is my desire and it is on my bucket list of things to do before I kick the proverbial bucket; however in 1990 I did deploy for 90 days with a cadre of 120 air force civil engineers to Howard Air Base in Balboa, about four miles from Panama City and the Pacific port to the Panama Canal, then over to Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean side. My exciting adventures and miss adventures there in 1990 are posted in part two of my travelogue at Panama City to Nombre de Dios. From my time there in 1990 I can tell you that it is well worth going to Panama, or cruising the Panama Canal. I can also say the following which will give you some insight to cursing the Panama Canal or visiting Panama and taking the path less traveled. I think I have covered everything below that is important and what you need to know most of all, and for sure I must reiterate, that in all cases use common sense, and for sure do not leave home without it, caution is the watch word or word of the day, now head for Panama and be amazed and have a thrill of a life time:
Take the world’s greatest shortcut with a Panama Canal cruise: Traversing the 40-mile Panama Canal is a rite of passage and something you’ll remember for a lifetime. Add in compelling ports like Cartagena, Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas on your Panama Canal vacation, and you’re in for a unique adventure. Depart from Miami or Los Angeles and cruise to some of the most exotic and beautiful destinations on earth such as awe-inspiring Cartagena, Colombia. Most Panama Canal cruises combine an up-close look at an engineering marvel with visits to magnificent destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico and/or Latin America. Sail through three sets of locks that float your cruise ship from sea level up to 85 feet and back down again, often with just inches to spare on either side. Panama Canal cruises are available as round-trip partial transits or one-way complete transits. Partial transits usually sail round-trip from Florida. Ships typically go through the first set of locks, then turn around in Gatun Lake and exit the canal the way they entered. Full transits sail from coast to coast, beginning in Florida and ending in one of several ports on the West Coast, such as Los Angeles or San Diego (or the reverse). Most cruises of the Panama Canal are available between September and April and typically range from nine to 15 nights, though some are longer.
Cruise to Cartagena: Privateers loved Cartagena, the chief Spanish port in New Granada (today’s Colombia). Sir John Hawkins besieged the city in 1568 and his nephew, Sir Francis Drake, sacked it 18 years later. In response, Spain poured millions into the port’s defense, building the fortifications that are today a UNESCO World historical Heritage Site. The town the walls protected is also part of that World Heritage designation site. Cruise visitors can walk those deeply textured alleyways today through some of the best-preserved colonial neighborhoods of the Americas. When you’re ready for a change, there are beaches ready to hand you a fantastic experience. Bocagrande is busy and close to the city. Playa Blanca is south across the bay and quieter. Both are lovely.
Shore Excursion Highlights:
•Medieval Cartagena By Horse Carriage: A relaxing trip through the Old Town.
•Cartagena City Highlights: Fort of San Felipe de Barajas, the Minor Basilica, shopping at the Dungeons, and more.
Cruise to Fuerte Amador: Fort Amador was one of the U.S. installations that guarded the southern end of the Panama Canal, just below the Bridge of the Americas. The other was Fort Grant, which covered several small islands just offshore. Today, the Amador area is a southern suburb of Panama City, gateway to the canal, and a travel destination in its own right. Cruise visitors shouldn’t miss the shopping and dining on Flamengo Island, the Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Biodiversity (once its complete), and Panama City’s UNESCO World Heritage site, which includes Panama Viejo and Casco Viejo.
Shore Excursion Highlights:
•Miraflores Locks by Night: Watch the big ships pass through and explore the visitors center’s four exhibition halls.
•Aerial Tram and Ecological Encounter: Travel into the upper forest canopy of Soberania National Park.
•Monkey Watch & Canal Nature Cruise: Take a high-speed ride to Gatun Lake, then slow down to look for capuchins, howler monkeys, sloths, and other animals.
The Colón Free Trade Zone: The Colon Free Zone is a large entity near the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal, dedicated to re-exporting a wide variety of merchandise to Latin America and the Caribbean. It is a free port, the largest such port in the Americas and second largest in the world. It started operations in 1948 and occupies about 600 acres. It is divided in two large areas, one located in Colón, segregated from the city by a wall, and the other relatively new, in the harbor area, which is designated for warehouses, covering 130 acres and 400 yards from Colón’s commercial sector. Today, the Colón Free Zone receives over 250,000 visitors a year and is home to 1,751 companies. It generated exports and re-exports valued at over US$6.5 billion in 2005, which are able to harness the services and facilities offered by the free zone for importing, storing, assembling, repacking, and re-exporting products from all over the world, including electrical appliances, pharmaceutical products, liquor, cigarettes, office and home furniture, clothing, shoes, jewelry, and toys. It is considered the “trading showcase” of Central and South America, as well as of the Caribbean region. The Colon Free Zone is served by three ports in the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal, Manzanillo International Terminal “MIT”, one of the most modern and competitive ports in the area; The Colon Container Terminal, and the Panama Ports Company, S. A. On the Pacific side, there is another port run by Panama Ports Company. In terms of air transportation, the Airport of Tocumen is 80 miles from the Free Zone where international carriers have a hub. As part of anyone’s travel in the Republic of Panama, the Colon Free Zone is a must see place. If you wish to take a guided tour of the Free Zone the items to bring are Camera, sunglasses, hat, sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes. The tour INCLUDES Transportation ( round – trip ) and the Tour Operator’s Guide, lunch and Dinner. The price for the guided tour is : $ 80.00 per person (minimum 2 persons )
How to get to the Colon free trade zone: Once you arrive in the Republic of Panama, you can travel by train, air, or highway to get to the Colon Free Zone. The tourists or Passengers that arrive at the Tocumen International Airport, or the cruise port in Panama City have different land and air alternatives to travel to the Colon Free Trade Zone. For Caribbean cruise ship passengers that dock at either of the Colon 2000 or Cristobal ports there is transportation available to the Free Trade Zone as well as to other tourist attractions in the Colon area.
Railroad Panama – Colon: Besides cargo transport, the Panama Railway offers passenger service between Panama City and Colon Monday through Friday departing from the Corozal Train Terminal in Panama City at 7:15 a.m. Departure from Colon to Panama City is at 5:15 p.m. The trip lasts 50 minutes and the cost of a round-trip ticket is US$ 35.00. The railroad follows a picturesque path across the Isthmus of Panama. The line flanks the Panama Canal passing through lush rainforests, cruising alongside the Canal’s locks, through the historic Gaillard Cut and gliding over slender causeways in Gatun Lake.
By Air: Albrook is an area right next to the Panama Canal / port where cargo is unloaded. Albrook has a mall and adequate shopping in the area. It even has an airport (Marcos Gelabert) which most Panamanians call Albrook airport. This airport can only support small aircrafts which fly to others provinces and now to others countries as well.
The airline Aeroperlas offers a morning flight from the Marcos Gelabert Airport in Albrook, Panama City to the Enrique Adolfo Jimenez Airport of the Colon Free Trade Zone at 8:00 a.m. Monday through Friday.
By Land: Rental car is always a good way to travel from Panama City to the Colon Free Trade Zone. There are a variety of rental car companies that offer 24 hour service in the Tocumen International Airport. In the cities of Panama and Colon the majority of companies are open Monday through Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and some offer service Sundays and holidays. By means of the tollway Corredor Norte (average toll fare US$ 2.50 one way Panama-Colon and viceversa) or by the Transistmica Highway one can arrive at the Free Trade Zone in 1 hour and 15 minutes, there also the new Don Alberto Motta Cardoze Highway from Panama City to Colon. If you decide to venture the trip by car or are already familiar with Panama it is highly recommended that you visit Budget Car and Truck Rental and make your reservation online. Another option for travel from Panama City to Colon: It is a good choice to travel by the comfortable, nice air-conditioned express buses that depart from the regional very new and very modern Albrook Transportation Terminal of Panama City. Departures are every 15 minutes in the mornings and every 30 minutes throughout the rest of the day until 10:00 p.m. The bus terminal in Colon is located at the intersection of Calle 14 and Avenida Bolivar with departures from Colon to Panama City every 30 minutes throughout the day, with the exception of Sundays. The ticket price is US$ 2.50 round-trip with a one-way trip duration of 1 hour and 15 minutes. There also are non-express buses without air-conditioning with a round-trip ticket price of US$ 1.25. Although the Colon bus terminal is located relatively close to the Colon Free Zone it is not recommended to walk. It is preferable to take a readily available taxi from the Bus Terminal to the Free Trade Zone. Private transport companies (taxis, mini-buses, etc.) offer round-trip transfers from Panama City to the Colon Free Trade Zone starting at US$ 50.00 and up.
CRIME And SAFETY: Panama remains relatively safe compared to other Central American countries. However, 2009 statistics show a steady increase in crime from 2008 in nearly all categories. Panama province has a higher crime rate than all the other Panamanian provinces in the numbers of crimes, followed by Colon. Express kidnappings are also a source of concern for personnel moving about the city. This type of kidnapping involves armed robbers who approach a victim either on foot or when stopped in a car. The robbers then force the victim to accompany them to one ATM machine after another until the victim’s account is depleted. Historically victims are released a short time later, unharmed. In addition to violent crimes, various types of financial schemes have been reported. The most common scheme is unauthorized use of credit cards, either by a clerk who inflates the charge of sale or they may skim the information and record the number for later illegal use. Visitors in Panama should pay close attention to credit card receipts before signing them and be very observant when handing someone a credit card. In addition, the Regional Security Officer (RSO) receives reports of individuals being drugged while at a bar and then robbed of their belongings. Sometimes victims are led back to their hotel rooms so more property can be stolen. The best way to avoid this type of trap is to watch when drinks are poured, never except a drink from a stranger, and do not leave drinks unattended. Police continue to conduct vehicle checkpoints at key intersections in the city in an effort to raise visibility and hamper criminal’s movements. The high crime areas in and around Panama City are El Chorrillos, San Miguel, Santa Ana, Cabo Verde, Curundu, Veracruz Beach, Santa Librada, Rio Abajo, San Miguelito, Panama Viejo, and the Madden Dam Overlook. Despite improved policing and greater street visibility during business hours, crime continues to be a problem. The threat of kidnapping for ransom is an ongoing concern in Panama due to the presence of the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC primarily operates in the Darien Province, which is located along the Colombian border. However, the FARC has been known to run operations in other parts of Panama, including Panama City. The motives of FARC members are financial rather than ideological. Therefore, they target individuals who are wealthy or capable of paying a ransom. There are travel restrictions placed on U.S. government officials for the Darien and San Blas regions. American business travelers and tourists are encouraged to read the safety and security section of the U.S. Department of State’s Consular Information Sheet for Panama and, in particular, the portion regarding travel to the eastern border areas of the country. Driving is one of the most dangerous activities for U.S. citizens overseas, as it is often hazardous and difficult due to heavy traffic, undisciplined driving habits, poorly maintained streets, and a shortage of effective signs and traffic signals. Auto insurance is mandatory although many drivers are uninsured. Public transportation should be used with caution, especially the local city buses found in Panama City, called Diablo Rojo or “Red Devils”. Taxicabs are the preferred form of public transportation, especially radio dispatched taxis. Travelers are advised to never get into a cab that is already occupied, never let yourself be directed to a particular taxi or taxi stand by a helpful stranger, and instruct the driver to not stop and pick up other passengers along the way. SAFETY IN PANAMA, One More Time: Panama City is safer than most capital cities. As you would anywhere, use common sense and stick to well-traveled areas and keep alert for pickpockets, especially along the pedestrian-only Central Avenue. There have also been some incidents reported in the neighborhoods of Veracruz Beach, Chorrillo, Ancon, Curundu, Panama Viejo, San Miguelito, Rio Abajo and Madden Dam, and these areas should not be strolled around at night. The city of Colón has a major crime problem and shouldn’t be strolled around day or night. It’s wise to take a taxi wherever you go, unless you’re traveling with a guide or large group. Colon’s duty-free shopping compound is quite safe, however. The area of Darien Province between Yaviza and the Colombian border along the upper Tuira River is unsafe due to the presence of drug smugglers, bandits and Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary forces. However, the vast majority of Darien National Park is relatively safe, though it is advisable to visit the park with a guide due to the inherent risks of travel in remote jungle with ill-defined trails. Other areas are generally very safe. Now a word to the wise should be sufficient, never, ever leave home without commonsense, beware of your surrounding and use caution in all cases. Now, prepare for your trip to Panama and be amazed and thrilled.
2012 Panama Canal Cruise Video:
The traveler sees what he sees,
the tourist sees what he has come to see.
Gilbert K. Chesterton
Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights;
it is a change that goes on,
deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.