Many of us may have learned about the Panama Canal in terms of its vital role in trade and commerce, not to mention its strategic importance to the United States, but it is hard to truly comprehend the effect it has had on the industrial world. It was only when I saw it in person that I really understood the magnitude. Its impact can’t be underestimated. There is something about managing to cut through a whole swath of land, a 51-mile waterway, and to do so between 1904 and the beginning of World War I, which remains awe-inspiring. The passageway shortened the journey between the Atlantic and Pacific by 8,000 miles; previously, ships used to have to traverse the entire tip of South America to arrive at the Pacific. Eighth wonder? You bet. And it can only be truly appreciated when you cruise through the massive locks on a Panama Canal cruise, highlighting the region's spectacular engineering feats. Near the Canal, for example, the Gatun locks show the technical feat of raising ships up 85-feet by gravity alone before they continue on their journey west.
The Princess Italia sailed through the canal in 1967, and Princess Cruises has been offering "ocean-to-ocean" sailings between the mighty Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as partial transits from Florida, ever since. Today a passage between the two sides of the coast provides not only context of the gateway's monumental scope, but also the opportunity to explore some of Central and South America's other most fascinating sites, from man-made marvels to native cultures, old-world treasures, and breathtaking natural wonders.
Close to the Canal, for example, one can access the Soberania National Park with its excellent bird-watching and hiking, visit an Emberá Indian village to understand some of the indigenous cultures that make this region so culturally rich, and take a tour of Gatun Lake, which was the world's largest man-made lake at the time it was made. A highlight of an itinerary into this region, of course, is an exploration of Old Panama City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a magnet for retirees from North America. The town’s former cathedral and crumbling convents mixed with new bars and restaurants make Panamá Viejo a must.
Another UNESCO-designated old town on this itinerary that knocked my socks off is the Caribbean gem of Cartagena. Romantic doesn't begin to describe it. A few years ago I fell in love with its old-world colonial atmosphere, mixed with a mood that can only be described as caliente (hot!). Vintage carriages transported couples along the cobblestoned streets as Afro-Cuban music floated out the windows of centuries-old haciendas. Small landmark buildings (some of which had been settings for the country's most famous writer, Gabriel García Márquez) had been transformed into art galleries and one-of-a-kind shops. The food was truly showstopping: ceviche laced with tangy lime, and just-caught seafood, served on bougainvillea-covered restaurant terraces that magically transformed into stages for impromptu dance parties lasting well into the night. From the city's monumental fortress, I could see why the spot was so important as a strategic lookout for enemy ships, with 360-degrees views of the surrounding water, and could understand why lovers used to meet here for illicit rendezvous beneath the moonlight.
Numerous attractions close to the Canal are also a naturalist’s dream. Costa Rica's Veragua Rainforest, for example, a gem within the country's well-known eco diversity, teems with brightly colored butterflies and a network of viewing stations set throughout the verdant jungle. Going there transports you right into a 3-D nature flick. Exotic birds like the beloved toucan and tiny emerald hummingbirds flit magically by, seemingly only an arm’s distance away. Zip-lining and canopy tours are a must for adrenaline junkies. And well-curated nature tours give insight into this country's rich eco-tourism background with its huge biodiversity of wildlife—like the quickly disappearing puma. The Poás Volcano is also one of Costa Rica's natural treasures with its almost otherworldly setting—a green blue lake sits at the bottom of the mile-long crater while mist and clouds dance above, parting periodically to provide the perfect photo-op.