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Panama Canal

Written by  Lillian Africano

As a Panama Canal cruise is on many bucket lists, and as this iconic link between two oceans celebrated its hundred-year anniversary in 2014, a number of ports offer a variety of memorable shore excursions that highlight natural and man-made wonders.

Port stops vary, depending on the length of the cruise, which may range from 7 days to 18 days and longer. With so many itineraries, stops may include ports in Mexico and the Caribbean. Here,we have a few  popular ports.

Colon: Cruise ships may stop either at Panama’s Colon 2000 or Cristobal Pier. The Gatun locks, the biggest in the canal, are open to visitors and can be reached by taxi.  If passengers are on a partial canal crossing, one option is the shore excursion that begins in Gamboa (along the canal) on a smaller boat, cruises through the remaining locks to the Pacific Ocean and returns passengers (by coach) back to Colon.

An excursion on the refurbished Panama Railway from the Pacific to the Atlantic, travels parallel to the Canal. Nature is revealed in the excursion that treks through the rainforest, while the visit to the Embera Indian Village on the Chagres River may authentically be accomplished by canoe.

One of the longer shore excursions includes a cruise around Gatun Lake, a visit to the Gatun locks and a visit to the Indian village. For active passengers, some lines offer the Gatun Lake Kayak and Eco Adventure excursion, which starts with a kayak tour around the islands of Gatun Lake and a bus trip to the Gatun locks to view the operation of the Panama Canal. The half-day Gamboa Aerial Tram tour begins with a scenic ride to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort and includes a ride through the rainforest canopy on an aerial tram and the option to visit a butterfly farm, orchid garden and serpentarium.

Puntarenas, Costa Rica: Nature is the star on this island, and from this port, passengers can zip-line in lush rainforests, visit a cloud forest, marvel at the active volcano at Poas Volcano or commune with crocodiles, howler monkeys, sloths and armadillos at Carara National Park. Other options include the day trip to the capital city of San Jose; the full-day tour to the Arenal Volcano and Tabacon Resort Hot Springs; the jungle boat ride on the Tarcoles River.

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica: Here, too, shore options include zip-lining through rainforests and communing with wildlife at Tortuguero National Park, as well as white-water rafting on the Revantazon River, or soaring above the trees on the aerial tramway adjoining the Braulion Carillo National Park, viewing the Panama Canal by helicopter.

Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala:  From here, sightseeing options take passengers through sugar cane and coffee plantations and across mountain ridges overlooking Lake Atitlan. Tours to the colonial capital of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site, reveal period Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, views of the volcanoes that tower over the city - and shopping opportunities at the Mercado.

From the port, it’s possible to sightsee by boat or go sailing and fishing. In nearby Monterrico, the Monterrico Nature Reserve and Hawaii National Park are wildlife areas that protect mangroves, sea turtles and other creatures. In neighboring Retalhuleu, the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology displays native art and archeological exhibits.

Cartagena, Colombia: This beautiful and picturesque city has something for everyone, from lush beaches, to excellent snorkeling and scuba diving, fine food, superb shopping - all wrapped in a rich (and occasionally scary history).

Photo ops begin at Plaza de Bolivar in the heart of Old Town and continue through the districts of El Centro and San Diego, with colonial churches, palaces and wrought iron-adorned and flower-bedecked houses.

History buffs visit the scary Palacio de la Inquisicion to view torture implements like the rack and pillories, a gallows and chopping block - and other testaments to the less attractive side of human nature.

Lots more history is revealed during the “Land and Sea” tours that include tales of pirates and raids on the Spanish Main. More benign tours feature a folkloric show and sightseeing at La Popa Monastery and the Fort of San Felipe. Most cruise ships run tours to the various beaches -- and for passengers who’d like to drink their way through the city’s attractions, there’s a party bus tour that hits such sites as Pie de la Popa, Boca Grande and Castillo Grande.

Belize City, Belize: Since Belize’s coastline has a line of reefs and cayes extending for 150 miles, it follows that diving and snorkeling are principal attractions. A popular shore excursion is a two-tank dive at Ambergris Caye or other sites. And since Belize has the highest concentration of Mayan sites in Central America, day trips to such sites as Altun Ha and Xunantunich are offered by most lines.

Cave tubing explorations in various combinations (zip-lining, etc.) are offered, as are shark and ray enounters, wildlife encounters, beach trips and sightseeing tours.

Roatan, Honduras: A mecca for snorkelers and divers, this port offers a number of excursions, both above and below the water: snorkel and scuba trips to discover shipwrecks, coral reefs and marine life; glass-bottom boat/village tours; dolphin encounters; fishing expeditions (tuna, barracuda, mahi-mahi and more).

Gumbalimba Park is a complete destination, where it’s possible to meet and greet monkeys and parrots, to kayak along the shore, zipline through the jungle canopy, tour the botanic garden and Coxen’s Cave, where murals depict Honduras’s history, as well as takes pirate captain John Coxen. Day trips to beaches are generally offered, as well as horseback-riding trips.

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