Small Ship Cruises in Panama

Explore the azure waters and pristine beaches of the Pearl Islands, then experience amazing biodiversity when visiting the Coiba National Park.

Panama cruises feature some of this beautiful country’s greatest sites, taking full advantage of its coasts on two oceans and the famed waterway connecting them. Encompassing one of the narrowest points in Central America, Panama is perhaps best known for the Panama Canal, a world-changing feat of engineering that made it possible to cross from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in a single day, rather than sailing around South America’s deadly Cape Horn.

The Panama Canal, however, is only the beginning when cruising Panama. From the bustling markets and charming cafés of Panama City to cultural encounters with the indigenous people of Guna Yala and the Darién Jungle, from the stunning nature and spectacular wildlife of Coiba National Park to the pristine beaches and untouched jungles of the Pearl Islands, cruises of Panama offer living history, rich traditions and unforgettable adventures.

Best Panama cruises and areas to visit

Panama boat cruises feature many or all of the locations and stops listed below.

Panama City will be the point of arrival for many visitors to Panama before transferring to their cruise ship. A cosmopolitan blend of old and new, Panama City has become a financial hub in Central America and the site of a growing restaurant and arts scene. A perfect place to enjoy a stroll through its markets or a drink at one of its many cafés, Panama City is much more than a simple gateway to this beautiful country.

Panama Canal cruises typically begin with the Chagres River. The Chagres has been called the world’s most valuable river, having been used by Spanish colonialists to transport Incan gold. Today, it serves as an important artery of the Panama Canal and a bird-watcher’s paradise, home to crested eagles and toucans. Forty-eight miles long and allowing transit from the Caribbean Sea to Pacific Ocean, the Panama Canal stands as one of humanity’s greatest engineering feats and is traversed by 14,000 ships a year.

Guna Yala is an autonomous region of Panama and home to the Guna (or Kuna), one of the the Americas’ most enduring Native cultures. Consisting of 360 largely untouched islands off the Caribbean coast, Guna Yala features white-sand beaches fringed with palm trees and the Guna peoples’ thatched-roof huts. After snorkeling, swimming or kayaking the crystal clear waters, visitors can trek through mangroves to a Guna village to purchase one of their famous molas, a form of traditional textile art.

The Gulf of Panama, in the Pacific Ocean off the southern coast of Panama, is connected to the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean via the Panama Canal, and the location of hundreds of islands, including the Pearl Islands. Mangroves fringing the gulf provide shelter and nourishment for a variety of birds, including pelicans, egrets, terns, ibises, herons, booby birds and frigate birds, while the waters are frequented by humpback whales, dolphins, sharks and rays.

The Pearl Islands Archipelago includes over 250 islands located in the Gulf of Panama. An especially popular stop on Panama adventure cruises, the islands are almost entirely uninhabited, their lush interiors ringed with golden beaches and azure waters perfect for snorkeling and brimming with wildlife, including dolphins and humpback whales.

Coiba National Park, Panama’s most remote national park, is known for its staggering biodiversity, top-rate snorkeling and untouched islands, including Isla Coiba, the largest island in Central America and a former prison camp with a fearsome reputation. Hikes through the lush mangrove forests of the park bring visitors into contact with several species of monkey, many of them endemic to the islands, as well as large colonies of scarlet macaws. Underwater, snorkelers can explore a region that scientists have dubbed the best place to discover new marine species, and see more familiar—but no less fascinating—animals as well, such as a variety of sharks, including the spectacular whale shark.

The Darién Jungle is a wild and untamed region that has remained largely unchanged for the past 500 years. Exploring the Mogue River in a dugout canoe will have visitors feeling like a Victorian explorer or a (friendly version of a) conquistador. The region served as an important migration route for indigenous peoples and as a Spanish transport route. Today, it is home to seven groups of indigenous people, including the Emberá. A hike through the jungle takes visitors to an Emberá village to learn of their customs and history and admire or purchase some of their traditional handicrafts.

Best time to cruise in Panama

The dry season is generally viewed as the best time to visit Panama.

Panama in mid-December to mid-April is the dry season, when the weather is hot and clear but crowds are larger and prices may be higher.

Mid-March to mid-December is Panama’s wet, or so-called green season. Prices are lower and crowds smaller during this period, but rains come almost daily and some Panama cruise options may not be available.

Prices are especially high in Panama during Christmas, New Year, Carnival (on February 28, in 2017), and Easter Week, all of which fall within the dry season.

Note that trade winds in December to mid-February may make outlying islands of Guna Yala inaccessible due to rough waters.

The best time to see humpback whales in the Gulf of Panama is from February to May.

How to get to Panama

The majority of flights to Panama will land at Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport, served by most major airlines. Most flights from North America or Europe to Panama will include a connection.

Where do Panama cruises depart from?

Typically, Panama small ship cruises depart from Colón or from Panama City’s Flamenco Marina. Visitors leaving from either departure point will fly into Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport and transfer to Colón or Flamenco Marina.

Note that Panama to Costa Rica cruises may include other departure points, particularly if departing from Costa Rica.

Panama Cruise Tips

  • Plan ahead if booking a Panama cruise during the dry season, as the period is popular and availability may be limited.
  • Arrive a day or two before your cruise’s scheduled departure as Panama cruises typically include an overnight in Panama City.
  • Choose the right trip, based on your interests and preferences. Ensure the Panama Canal is included on your chosen itinerary to see this marvel of human ingenuity; for cultural encounters, be sure your cruise includes Guna Yala and the Darién Jungle, while those looking to snorkel clear waters and relax on pristine beaches must visit the Pearl Islands.
  • Pack sunscreen and sunglasses, as well as a good hat during the dry season. A rainproof shell is highly recommended for the green season.
  • If taking a Panama cruise in December to February, it is recommended to pack extra seasickness medication as trade winds can lead to rough waters in certain areas.
  • Snorkeling Gear is typically provided onboard, but bring your own to ensure availability and proper fit.
  • The local currency in Panama is the Balboa and, while ATMs are common and credit cards accepted in more traveled areas, they are less so in more remote regions of the country.
  • Visitors to Panama require a valid passport and onward ticket. A tourist card may be required but is typically included in the price of airfare. A 90-day visa is usually given upon arrival.

Contact our reservations team today to arrange your next adventure cruise to Panama.