Best Panama Canal cruise excursions from Colon and Panama City

While the actual crossing is the true highlight of any Panama Canal cruise, cruisers should not forget about the fascinating things to see and do in Colon and Panama City. These Panamanian ports might be stops on your itinerary or embarkation/debarkation ports, depending on the length of your sailing and which direction your ship travels through the canal. No matter which you visit, either will give you access to active, cultural and outdoor pursuits.

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Don’t miss out on all Central America has to offer cruisers. Here are some of the best Panama Canal excursions to book during your journey.

Things to know about Panama Canal excursions

Coral Princess in the Panama Canal. PRINCESS CRUISES

Keep in mind that prices vary among tour operators and cruise lines. For this story, here is a price key to give you a general idea of the expected cost for these itineraries:

  • $ = less than $75
  • $$ = $75-$150
  • $$$ = $150-$200
  • $$$$ = over $200

Also, here are a few tips to follow while preparing for your Panama outing:

  • Wear comfortable shoes, clothing and a hat, and carry a small backpack with necessities for the day, including a refillable water bottle and snacks if food isn’t included in the tour.
  • If you’re doing an excursion in the jungle or around any foliage, be sure to wear insect repellent.
  • Wear sunscreen for any tours that are outside; even if you’re not going to be in the water, Panama’s close proximity to the equator makes the sun intense. If you’re snorkeling or swimming, use reef-safe sunscreen, which won’t harm coral or marine life.
  • Take cash for tips for your guide and to purchase souvenirs and handmade items from indigenous peoples. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere.
  • Before taking pictures of any indigenous people, ask them or your guide if it’s permitted.

Panama City

The streets of Casco Viejo. EDUARDO VIERO/GETTY IMAGES

Aerial tram tour at Gamboa Rainforest Reserve
Price: $

About 45 minutes from Panama City lies the lush tropical paradise of the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, where visitors can book various eco-focused experiences. The reserve is part of Soberania National Park, which encompasses 55,000 acres on the shores of the Panama Canal.

On a 90-minute aerial tram tour, visitors can get a peek at the local wildlife from a unique perspective. Board a gondola for the 2,000-foot-long, 400-foot-high ride above the rainforest canopy, during which you’ll feel like you can almost touch the trees. Spot sloths, nesting birds and various species of monkeys.

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Once you arrive at the top station, you’ll disembark for a five- to 10-minute walk to a 100-foot-tall observation tower that offers a scenic 360-degree-view of Gamboa, Soberania National Park, the Chagres River and the Panama Canal.

Native peoples tour at Gamboa Rainforest Reserve
Price: $$

During this two- to three-hour cultural tour, you’ll learn about the Wounaan, one of the country’s seven Indigenous groups. For centuries, the Wounaan people have lived in the Darien, a geographic region with a watershed, forest and mountains close to Colombia. Over time, however, some members of the Wounaan have migrated to other regions close to the Chagres River, giving visitors to the region a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture.

Related: Top Panama Canal cruise tips and tricks to get the most out of this unique crossing

The Wounaan community is known for its artistic and warrior skills. As you walk through their settlements, you’ll get to experience some of their traditions and purchase authentic tribal souvenirs.

Driving/walking tour of Old Panama City
Price: $$

Old Panama City, or Panama Viejo, is what remains of the original city, which dates back to 1519 and was destroyed in 1671 by Welsh privateer Henry Morgan. Sitauted in the suburbs of Panama, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Getting here requires an hour-long drive from Colon or a half-hour drive from the Panama City cruise port. When you arrive, you can explore the Old Panama Cathedral and other ruins on foot, climb up the bell tower for a view of the skyline and shop at the artisan market.

The tour continues to the old colonial city of Casco Antiguo (also called Casco Viejo), a hip neighborhood with lots of architectural variety that gives it an eclectic vibe. Wander the city’s cobblestone streets, and take in the colonial mansions, the Metropolitan Cathedral, art galleries and the Interoceanic Canal Museum. The final stop is Las Bóvedas in Casco Viejo, the sea wall on the Spanish fort, where you’ll stroll along the top for a view of Panama City across the bay.

Free time is built into the tour, so branch off to try some local cuisine or shop for souvenirs.

Taboga Island catamaran tour
Price : $$

This island in the Gulf of Panama was discovered in the 16th century by Balboa, who called it Isla de San Pedro; its current name derives from an indigenous word “aboga,” meaning “many fish.” Taboga Island’s beaches, hiking trails, and fishing and snorkeling opportunities (not to mention its proximity to Panama City) make it a popular destination for tourists.

A six-hour catamaran tour lets you experience some of what Taboga Island has to offer. The tour departs from the Panama City cruise terminal, where you’ll board a large catamaran equipped with everything you’ll need for the day.

Related: 12 best Panama Canal cruises for a bucket-list trip

The first stop is a bay on the back side of the island, where you can swim or lounge on the boat’s nets. Next, you’ll sail to the beach side, where you’ll have the opportunity to visit the village of San Pedro, home to the town church of the same name (said to be the second-oldest church in Latin America). You can also grab some snorkeling equipment on board and take to the water. The tour concludes with lunch and drinks on the ride back to Panama City.

Miraflores Visitor Center
Price: $

If you fully transit the canal to the Pacific side, you’ll pass through the Miraflores Locks, where you’ll no doubt see visitors waving and cheering from a platform at the visitor center. It’s worth a trip to come back here, where you can learn more about the process of ships passing during a self-guided tour. The center is about a 30-minute drive from the Panama City cruise port.

Currently, the four exhibition halls that portray the canal’s history, construction, biodiversity and importance are temporarily closed for renovations. A trip is still worth it for the excellent 3D IMAX film narrated by Morgan Freeman, which does a great job explaining the trials, tribulations and perils of building this awe-inspiring feat.

You can also stand on the ground-level terrace or grab a seat in the bleachers on the first level to watch ships pass through; often, a staff member is on hand to provide commentary as the cargo and cruise vessels navigate the final set of locks in the Canal before reaching the Pacific. Before leaving, pick up all kinds of souvenirs, from hats to shirts and books, at the on-site gift shop.


Taboga Island is in the Pacific near Panama City, Panama. MARIUSZ_PRUSACZYK/GETTY IMAGES

Embera tribe village
Price: $$

The Embera people, also called the Choco or Katio Indians, are indigenous to Panama and Colombia; today, about 33,000 people living in Panama identify as Embera. A tour of an Embera tribe village is immersive but also long (generally six to seven hours).

The tour starts with a 45-minute drive to Chagres National Park, followed by a ride in a traditional Embera dugout canoe on the Chagres River in an area full of flora and fauna; you might even spot a toucan. Once at the village, the chief welcomes your group, and the Embera people perform a series of traditional dances. Guests will have time to explore the village independently and listen to locals talk about their lives, including how they use the medicinal plants they source from the jungle.

Lunch is usually included and often consists of a traditional meal of fried fish or chicken, yuca and fried plantains. Visitors can shop for handwoven baskets, plates and masks made from palm leaf fibers, cocobolo wood and tagua seeds, before heading back to the ship.

Related: What to pack for a Panama Canal cruise

Kayaking in the Agua Clara Locks
Price: $$

This tour is perfect for active travelers who will get to see Gatun Lake from a kayak. The roughly five-hour tour starts with a 75-minute drive to Gamboa Resort, where you’ll get your kayak and get on the lake. While you paddle, keep an eye out for wildlife; the area is home to more than 300 species of birds, along with capuchin monkeys.

The tour continues to the Agua Clara Visitor Center to see ships passing through the canal and learn more about the canal’s construction, expansion and operations through interactive displays and a rainforest trail.

Price: $-$$

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Portobelo boasts sea views and ruins from its former life as a Spanish colonial town. After a 1 1/2-hour ride from Colon, you’ll embark on a guided walk around town, dotted with houses in brightly painted colors, workshops and galleries housing Congo art installations. Congo dancers performing in the streets and restaurants serving Afro-Caribbean cuisine.

The tour stops at Iglesia de San Felipe, a Roman Catholic church that’s also known as the Black Christ Church. Here, Christo Negro is on display, a life-size wooden statue of Black Christ that was found on the shores of the harbor and is celebrated with a festival every October. You’ll also see the ruins of Fort San Jeronimo and Santiago Battery, two of the five Spanish ports in the area. You’ll also notice the Royal Customs House of Portobelo, which was used in the 16th century to stash Peruvian gold and other loot that was seized in Latin America.

Depending on the tour, there may be time to take a short speedboat ride to Playa Huertas or Isla Mamey to snorkel or relax on the beach.

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