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Day by Day Itinerary

With its spectacular rain forests, legendary canal, and lively urban centers, Panama offers a unique blend of treasures both natural and cosmopolitan. Your 12-day journey through this unforgettable country will bring its fascinating contrasts, vibrant cultures, and historic significance to life. On our Panama Canal cruise, you’ll take three nights to complete a transit of this man-made marvel aboard Grand Circle's privately chartered, 24-passenger catamaran, the M/S Discovery. As you cruise the Panama Canal, the epic tale of its construction will unfold before you—and you’ll see how this massive, modern project has impacted everyday life and the surrounding landscape. While on land, you’ll visit local villages, where Panama's indigenous people will introduce you to their enchanting traditions; embark on a tour of Chitre and Panama City to discover the myriad excitements of the country’s metropolitan hubs; enjoy a visit to a sugarcane farm and butterfly garden; and more. From the bustling activity of the Canal Zone and the abundance of wildlife in the rainforest to the quiet beauty of the coasts, Panama beckons. Plus, you can enhance your Small Ship Cruise Tour with our Bocas Del Toro, Panama: Wild Archipelago and Colonial Cartagena, Colombia: The Emerald of the Caribbean optional extensions.

Panama City Panama City Expand All
  • hidden

    Discover Panama City before embarking on your Panama Canal cruise

    You depart from the U.S. today and fly to Panama City, Panama's capital and largest city. Or, join fellow travelers who took our optional pre-trip extension, Bocas del Toro, Panama: Wild Archipelago.

    Your Grand Circle Program Director or a member of our local staff will meet your flight at the airport and help you transfer to your hotel. Dinner is on your own this evening. Your Program Director will be happy to suggest a restaurant.

  • hidden

    After your morning briefing, you'll depart for San Felipe, Panama City's Old Quarter. Here you'll stroll through the famous San Felipe de Neri market before taking a walking tour of the Old Quarter. There you will visit historic sites such as Santo Domingo Convent and the San Jose Cathedral, known for its gold altar.

    Afterward, you'll have an included lunch in the Old Quarter, followed by free time to relax or explore more of modern Panama.

    This evening, you'll enjoy an included Welcome Dinner.

  • hidden

    • Meals included:
    • Accommodations:

    After breakfast, you'll depart Panama City for the Azuero region, stopping en route to explore the town of Chorrera. You'll arrive at Feuillet Park, a vibrant urban oasis where you'll meet local entrepreneurs, visit the town health center, and mingle with people as they shop, work, and socialize. Then enjoy lunch at a local restaurant.

    Later that afternoon, you'll depart to Chitre. One of Panama's oldest communities, Chitre is a charming modern city with vestiges of its colonial past, such as the ornate, red-tiled Spanish houses. Chitre has also been called "the gateway to the Azuero Peninsula," a less-touristed area of Panama known for its colonial traditions, festivals, and handcrafts.

    Upon arrival, you'll check in to your hotel and enjoy an orientation walk with your Program Director. That evening, enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.

  • hidden

    • Meals included:
    • Accommodations:

    This morning, enjoy breakfast at your hotel before departing for a city tour of Chitre. Once you arrive, get a taste of everyday life as you explore the town's central plaza, perhaps stopping at one of its enticing local food or juice cart vendors.

    Your next stop will be the town of Santo Domingo, where you will visit a pollera shop. The pollera is a lavish embroidered dress that was brought over by the Spanish, but adapted and embraced as the national costume of Panama. Traditionally, polleras are white, feature a full, two-tier skirt and are hand-embroidered with exquisite details that can increase the value of the garment from hundreds to thousands of dollars. During your visit, you'll learn all about the painstaking craftsmanship that goes into creating these adored Carnival costumes.

    Next, you will visit the city of Las Tablas, the capital of Carnival—as well as the capital of the Los Santos region. Here, you'll visit a Carnival artisan, who designs floats, gowns, and costumes for the annual celebration. You'll learn about the history and excitement of Carnival through his personal anecdotes and have a chance to marvel at some of his creations. Later you will depart for the coastal town of Guarare where you will enjoy lunch by the beach.
     
    Late that afternoon you will return to the hotel for an evening of leisure. Dinner will be on your own.

  • hidden

    • Meals included:
    • Accommodations:

    After breakfast this morning, depart for La Arena. A small village just north of Chitre, La Arena is famous for two things: its fine pottery and its fresh bread. Today, you will have the opportunity to find out why.

    Your first stop will be one of La Arena's many panaderias (bakeries). Most panaderias are family owned and operated, and offer bakery treats of all kinds—from pastries to cookies. But it is the bread that travelers come to sample, as you will get a chance to today.

    Next you will visit a traditional pottery workshop. Watch as a local sculptor transforms a humble ball of clay into a beautiful piece of art. Plates, bowls, and other tableware are highly sought after by local restaurants and hotels, while the more decorative items are embellished with folkloric designs.

    After the day's discoveries in La Arena, you may choose to take an optional tour to Varela Hermanos, one of Panama’s leaders in rum production. Your visit to the mill will take you from the sugar cane plantation into the distillery itself, where you will enjoy a tour and a tasting.

    Or, return to Chitre in time for lunch on your own. The balance of the day is free. Perhaps you will explore Herrera Museum, a treasure trove of well-preserved, indigenous pottery dating from 5000 BC to the Spanish conquest. Or visit the San Juan Bautista Cathedral, one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas.

    Meet your fellow travelers back at your hotel tonight for an included dinner, after which you will take part in a mask-making demonstration.

  • hidden

    This morning, you depart Chitre and visit a sugarcane farm. You'll meet a local family who continues the traditional business of growing sugarcane, followed by a lunch in a local restaurant.

    After your visit, you'll travel to Gamboa, your next destination. You begin by crossing the Gaillard Cut of the Panama Canal by way of the Centennial Bridge that carries the Pan-American Highway across the canal. When you arrive in the mid-afternoon, you'll check into your hotel.

    You'll have some free time to relax or explore before visiting a butterfly garden to observe their delicate fluttering and unique wing patterns. Dinner tonight is at the hotel.

  • hidden

    This morning, you'll transfer to the pier and then board motorized dugout canoes to visit a village of the Embera people, one of Panama's seven indigenous tribes. While there, you will also visit the Embera's school, which is supported by Grand Circle Foundation's World Classroom initiative. You'll spend time with the children and their teacher, who will tell you about the school's plans and hopes for Panama's future generations.

    The Embera are often associated with the Wounan people, though the two cultures were effectively separated during the latter part of the last century. Since these two tribes have no written history, little is known of their early heritage. It is believed they originally were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers and fishermen, but the construction of the Pan-American Highway reduced their rain forest habitat, and they adopted a more agricultural lifestyle while still retaining their traditional ways.

    Among the most stunning of these is body painting. To facilitate their movement through the jungle, the Embera once wore minimal clothing, and would cover the top parts of their bodies with black dye from the jagua, an inedible jungle fruit. Still used today for ceremonies and celebrations, this custom can take the form of solid blocks of ink against contrasting patches of bare skin or intricate patterns etched on the skin with a bamboo stick. The indelible blue-black dye remains on the skin for up to two weeks, until it is naturally exfoliated. Your friendly hosts will introduce us to their unique way of life by demonstrating these techniques.

    Also skilled craftspeople, the villagers will explain the technique used to make their canastas, baskets so tightly woven that they can even hold water. We'll learn about the natural fibers and vegetable dyes of the rain forest used in their creation.

    Fish is an important protein among the Embera, and even youngsters are experts with the harpoon, spear, and hand line. The local diet also relies heavily on jungle plants, plantains, bananas, rice, beans, hearts of palm, and yucca root. You'll enjoy an authentic taste of local cuisine during a Home-Hosted Lunch, and also experience Embera dances and the music of flutes, drums, and turtle shells.

    You'll return to your hotel this afternoon, with some free time to relax and enjoy the lush scenery. Or, you may choose to join a nature walk on hotel grounds. Dinner tonight is at the hotel.

  • hidden

    After breakfast and morning at leisure, you'll depart for Panama City. You'll enjoy lunch on your own and then board the M/S Discovery. This 24-passenger catamaran will be your private home throughout your three-night Panama Canal cruise. After a short onboard orientation, your ship sets sail later this afternoon.

    Our first port of call is Taboga Island, known as the “Island of Flowers,” a title it lives up to with birds of paradise, orchids, and other tropical species. It's a colorful island with an equally colorful history. The birthplace of Santa Rosa de Lima, the Southern Hemisphere's first saint and a role model to Mother Teresa, the island also beckoned artist Paul Gauguin, who began incorporating bright colors into his work more often after his stay here. The island also played an important role in the construction of the canal, serving for more than three decades as a retreat for French and then American canal builders. Here you'll have time to either kayak in the bay or disembark to explore the island, a mostly pedestrian haven, with your Program Director.

    This evening, enjoy dinner onboard the ship and after-dinner activities on the Top Deck. Our overnight stay here allows us to be in prime position for the commencement of tomorrow's transit of this vital link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

  • hidden

    You'll wake up this morning to find yourself at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, where you'll begin your northbound canal passage. You'll witness a new chapter in the canal's 102-year-old history: a new set of locks that allow the world's largest cargo ships to pass for the first time in the canal's history.

    The notion of building a path between the seas here is as old as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, but it wasn't until 1879 that Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, made the first attempt. The scope of the effort proved too great, and the project languished until 1902, when Teddy Roosevelt brought the dream to life.

    In 1913—a full year ahead of schedule and nearly $23 million under budget—the Panama Canal was completed. It officially opened on August 15, 1914, and a dream became a reality. A journalist who witnessed its opening wrote, “This canal is both a first and a last … man will never again build with such scope, such imagination.” More than 40 ships a day, or more than 14,000 annually, traverse its 50-mile length—eliminating a 9,000-mile trip around the tip of Cape Horn.

    You begin your own transit by cruising beneath the soaring Bridge of the Americas, which connects the two land masses that were separated by the canal's construction, to join today's convoy of ships from around the world for your northbound canal passage. As you cruise, you'll take in the full spectrum of everyday life on the canal's banks, from the bustling activity at the commercial port of Balboa to crocodiles lounging in the sun.

    You'll pass through the Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Locks, experiencing for yourself the thrill of these engineering marvels. Then, you'll navigate the Gaillard Cut; the narrowest section of the canal that bisects the Continental Divide, it is named for the American who oversaw its construction and then died just before it opened. You'll see up close the dramatic landscape 6,000 canal laborers toiled to cut. At the peak of construction, up to 600 holes daily were drilled and then blasted with as much as 50,000 pounds of dynamite. Steam shovels dug out the rubble, which was loaded onto 160 trains a day for the twelve-mile trip to the dumps. Your Program Director will describe how, nearly a century later, this section of the canal requires continuous maintenance due to its susceptibility to landslides.

    After a leisurely lunch onboard, experience the highlight of the day's cruise when the Discovery is raised 85 feet above sea level to Gatun Lake. This man-made lake was created during the construction of the canal by damming the Chagres River, which supplies the Gatun Locks with more than 52 million gallons of fresh water per ship that passes through. You may explore the lake by kayak today, if you wish.

    The Discovery will anchor for the night in Gatun Lake, where you'll enjoy dinner together followed by a discussion that will prepare you for the rest of your cruise: The Expansion of the Panama Canal & History of the Chagres River. You'll spend the night moored at the lake, listening to the lullaby of the rain forest as you drift off to sleep.

  • hidden

    This morning you'll see Gatun Dam and its hydroelectric generation station, responsible for generating electricity to operate and light the locks and light canal villages. At the time of its completion in 1913, it was the largest earthen dam in the world, and the resulting Lake Gatun was the largest artificial lake on the planet.

    Later this morning, you will enjoy a nature walk at San Lorenzo National Park to view its diverse flora and fauna, some of its twelve miles of picturesque coastline, and have opportunities to spot some of the park's several hundred bird species.

    You'll return to our ship for lunch onboard and some time for a short rest, or siesta.

    Late in the afternoon, your ship will continue your transit of the canal, as you pass through the Gatun Locks—the largest of the Panama Canal locks. The ship will begin its descent back to sea level here, a process that takes about two hours. You'll enjoy a Farewell Dinner onboard.

  • hidden

    Disembark the Discovery this morning before arriving at Expansion Project Visitor Center to learn about modern-day expansion of the canal. Later, your discoveries continue with a visit to the Panama Canal Administration Building, inaugurated exactly one month before the canal itself.

    After lunch on your own, you'll visit Reprosa jewelry shop, famous for its reproductions of pre-Columbian art and jewelry. Tour the shop and admire how artisans bring these ancient "treasures of Panama" to life in finely wrought silver and gold.

    This evening, check into your hotel before gathering with your fellow travelers to reminisce over dinner.

  • hidden

    • Meals included:

    After breakfast, transfer to the airport for your flight to the U.S. Or begin your post-trip extension in Colonial Cartagena, Colombia: The Emerald of the Caribbean.

Panama City Panama City Expand All
  • hidden

    Discover Panama City before embarking on your Panama Canal cruise

    Depart from the U.S. today and fly to Panama City, Panama's capital and largest city.

    Your Grand Circle Program Director or a member of our local staff will meet your flight at the airport and help you transfer to your hotel, where you will meet fellow travelers who took our optional pre-trip extension, Bocas del Toro, Panama: Wild Archipelago. Dinner is on your own this evening. Your Program Director will be happy to suggest a restaurant.

  • hidden

    After your morning briefing, you'll depart for San Felipe, Panama City's Old Quarter. Here we'll stroll through the famous San Felipe de Neri market before taking a walking tour of the Old Quarter. There we will visit historic sites such as Santo Domingo Convent and the San Jose Cathedral, known for its gold altar.

    Enjoy lunch at a local restaurant in the Old Quarter before taking a dynamic panoramic tour of modern Panama.

    This evening, you'll enjoy an included Welcome Dinner.

  • hidden

    • Meals included:
    • Accommodations:

    After breakfast, explore the town of Chorrera. You'll arrive at Feuillet Park, a vibrant urban oasis where you'll meet local entrepreneurs, visit the town health center, and mingle with people as they shop, work, and socialize. Then enjoy lunch at a local restaurant.

    Later that afternoon, you'll depart to Chitre. One of Panama's oldest communities, Chitre is a charming modern city with vestiges of its colonial past, such as the ornate, red-tiled Spanish houses. Chitre has also been called "the gateway to the Azuero Peninsula," a less-touristed area of Panama known for its colonial traditions, festivals, and handicrafts.

    Upon arrival, you'll check in to your hotel and enjoy an orientation walk with your Program Director. That evening, enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.

  • hidden

    • Meals included:
    • Accommodations:

    This morning, enjoy breakfast at your hotel before departing for a city tour of Chitre. Once you arrive, get a taste of everyday life as you explore the town's central plaza, perhaps stopping at one of its enticing local food or juice cart vendors.

    Your next stop will be the town of Santo Domingo where you will visit a pollera shop. The pollera is a lavish embroidered dress that was brought over by the Spanish, but adapted and embraced as the national costume of Panama. Traditionally, polleras are white, feature a full, two-tier skirt and are hand-embroidered with exquisite details that can increase the value of the garment from hundreds to thousands of dollars. During your visit, you'll learn all about the painstaking craftsmanship that goes into creating these adored Carnival costumes.

    Next, you will visit the city of Las Tablas, the capital of Carnival—as well as the capital of the Los Santos region. Here, you'll visit one of Las Tablas's Carnival artisans, who designs floats, gowns, and costumes for the annual celebration. You'll learn about the history and excitement of Carnival through his personal anecdotes and have a chance to marvel at some of his creations. Later you will depart for the coastal town of Guarare where you will enjoy lunch by the beach.
     
    Late that afternoon you will return to the hotel for an evening of leisure. Dinner will be on your own.

  • hidden

    After breakfast this morning, depart for La Arena. A small village just north of Chitre, La Arena is famous for two things: its fine pottery and its fresh bread. Today, you will have the opportunity to find out why.

    Your first stop will be one of La Arena's many panaderias (bakeries). Most panaderias are family owned and operated, and offer bakery treats of all kinds—from pastries to cookies. But it is the bread that travelers come to sample, as you will get a chance to today.

    Next you will visit a traditional pottery workshop. Watch as a local sculptor transforms a humble ball of clay into a beautiful piece of art. Plates, bowls, and other tableware are highly sought after by local restaurants and hotels, while the more decorative items are embellished with folkloric designs.

    After the day's discoveries in La Arena, you may choose to take an optional tour to Varela Hermanos, one of Panama’s leaders in rum production. Your visit to the mill will take you from the sugar cane plantation into the distillery itself, where you will enjoy a tour and a tasting.

    Or, return to Chitre in time for lunch at a local restaurant. The balance of the day will be on your own. Perhaps you will explore Herrera Museum, a treasure trove of well-preserved, indigenous pottery dating from 5000 BC to the Spanish conquest. Or visit the San Juan Bautista Cathedral, one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas.

    Meet your fellow travelers back at your hotel tonight for an included dinner, after which you will take part in a mask-making demonstration.

  • hidden

    This morning, you depart Chitre and visit a sugarcane farm. You'll meet a local family who continues the traditional business of growing sugarcane, followed by a lunch in a local restaurant.

    After your visit, you'll travel to Gamboa, your next destination. You begin by crossing the Gaillard Cut of the Panama Canal by way of the Centennial Bridge that carries the Pan-American Highway across the canal. When you arrive in the mid-afternoon, you'll check into your hotel.

    You'll have some free time to relax or explore before visiting a butterfly garden to observe their delicate fluttering and unique wing patterns. Dinner tonight is at the hotel.

  • hidden

    This morning, you'll transfer to the pier and then board motorized dugout canoes to visit a village of the Embera people, one of Panama's seven indigenous tribes. The Embera are often associated with the Wounan people, though the two cultures were effectively separated during the latter part of the last century.

    While there, you will also visit the Embera's school which is supported by Grand Circle Foundation's World Classroom initiative. You'll spend time with the children and their teacher, who will tell you about the school's plans and hopes for Panama's future generations.

    Because these two tribes have no written history, little is known of their early heritage. It is believed they originally were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers and fishermen, but the construction of the Pan-American Highway reduced their rain forest habitat, and they adopted a more agricultural lifestyle while still retaining their traditional ways.

    Among the most stunning of these is body painting. To facilitate their movement through the jungle, the Embera once wore minimal clothing, and would cover the top parts of their bodies with black dye from the jagua, an inedible jungle fruit. Still used today for ceremonies and celebrations, this custom can take the form of solid blocks of ink against contrasting patches of bare skin or intricate patterns etched on the skin with a bamboo stick. The indelible blue-black dye remains on the skin for up to two weeks, until it is naturally exfoliated. Your friendly hosts will introduce us to their unique way of life by demonstrating these techniques.

    Also skilled craftspeople, the villagers will explain the technique used to make their canastas, baskets so tightly woven that they can even hold water. We'll learn about the natural fibers and vegetable dyes of the rain forest used in their creation.

    Fish is an important protein among the Embera, and even youngsters are experts with the harpoon, spear, and hand line. The local diet also relies heavily on jungle plants, plantains, bananas, rice, beans, hearts of palm, and yucca root. You'll enjoy an authentic taste of local cuisine during your Home-Hosted Lunch at one the villager's homes, and also experience Embera dances and the music of flutes, drums, and turtle shells.

    You'll return to your hotel this afternoon, where you will enjoy a nature walk on the hotel's tropical grounds. Dinner tonight is at the hotel.

  • hidden

    After breakfast this morning, take part in a guided nature walk of the lush rain forest surroundings. Then you'll tour the Expansion Project Visitor Center and learn about canal expansion projects.

    After lunch on your own, you'll embark the M/S Discovery, a 24-passenger catamaran that will be your private home for the next three nights as we transit the Panama Canal. After a short onboard orientation, you'll experience the highlight of the day's cruise when the Discovery is raised 85 feet above sea level to Gatun Lake. This man-made lake was created during the construction of the canal by damming the Chagres River, which supplies the Gatun Locks with more than 52 million gallons of fresh water per ship that passes through.

    The Discovery will anchor for the night in Gatun Lake, where you'll enjoy dinner together. You'll spend the night moored at the lake, listening to the lullaby of the rainforest as you drift off to sleep.

  • hidden

    This morning you'll see Gatun Dam and its hydro-electric generation station, responsible for generating electricity to operate and light the locks and light canal villages. At the time of its completion in 1913, it was the largest earthen dam in the world, and the resulting Lake Gatun was the largest artificial lake on the planet.

    Later this morning, you will enjoy an exclusive Discovery Series event—a nature walk at San Lorenzo National Park to view its diverse flora and fauna, some of its twelve miles of picturesque coastline, and have opportunities to spot some of the park's several hundred bird species.

    You'll return to your ship for lunch onboard as you continue on your course across Gatun Lake. Here you will have the opportunity to tour the lake by kayak. Following dinner, gather in the lounge for another exclusive Discovery Series event. This discussion that will prepare you for the rest of your cruise: The Expansion of the Panama Canal & History of the Chagres River.

  • hidden

    This morning, you'll navigate the Gaillard Cut; the narrowest section of the canal that bisects the Continental Divide, it is named for the American who oversaw its construction and then died just before it opened. You'll see up close the dramatic landscape 6,000 canal laborers toiled to cut. At the peak of construction, up to 600 holes daily were drilled and then blasted with as much as 50,000 pounds of dynamite. Steam shovels dug out the rubble, which was loaded onto 160 trains a day for the twelve-mile trip to the dumps. Your Program Director will describe how nearly a century later this section of the canal requires continuous maintenance due to its susceptibility to landslides.

    Then you'll make your descent back to sea level as you pass through the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Miraflores Locks. You'll witness a new chapter in the canal's 102-year-old history: a new set of locks that allow the world's largest cargo ships to pass for the first time in the canal's history.

    After a leisurely lunch onboard, you'll sail triumphantly into the Pacific Ocean, passing beneath the soaring Bridge of the Americas, which connects the two land masses that were separated by the canal's construction. Enjoy views of the full spectrum of everyday life on the canal's banks, like the bustling activity at the commercial port of Balboa.

    Your final port of call is Taboga Island, known as the "Island of Flowers," a title it lives up to with birds of paradise, orchids, and other tropical species, not to mention pineapples and mangoes. It's a colorful island with an equally colorful history. The birthplace of Santa Rosa de Lima, the Southern Hemisphere's first saint and a role model to Mother Teresa, the island also beckoned artist Paul Gauguin, who began incorporating bright colors into his work more often after his stay here. The island also played an important role in the construction of the canal, serving for more than three decades as a retreat for French and then American canal builders. Here you'll have time to either kayak in the bay or disembark to explore the island—a mostly pedestrian haven—with your Program Director. You'll enjoy a Farewell Dinner onboard tonight.

  • hidden

    Disembark the Discovery this morning before arriving at Expansion Project Visitor Center to learn about modern-day expansion of the canal. Later, your discoveries continue with a visit to the Panama Canal Administration Building, inaugurated exactly one month before the canal itself.

    After lunch on your own, you'll visit Reprosa jewelry shop, famous for its reproductions of pre-Columbian art and jewelry. Tour the shop and admire how artisans bring these ancient "treasures of Panama" to life in finely wrought silver and gold.

    This evening, check into your hotel before gathering with your fellow travelers to reminisce over dinner.

  • hidden

    • Meals included:

    After breakfast, transfer to the airport for your flight to the U.S. Or begin your post-trip extension in Colonial Cartagena, Colombia: The Emerald of the Caribbean.

Extensions

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Questions and Answers

Want to know more about one of our vacations? Now, when you post a question, travelers who have been on that trip can provide you with an honest, unbiased answer based on their experience—providing you with a true insider’s perspective.

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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.

Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect

Travel considerations for you and your small group of no more than 24, on Panama Canal Cruise & Panama: A Continent Divided, Oceans United.

Pacing

  • 12 days, with 3 nights aboard the M/S Discovery, and 5 hotel stays, including a single 1-night stay

Physical Requirements

  • You must be able to walk 2 miles unassisted and participate in 3 hours of physical activities each day, including several sets of stairs
  • Not accessible for travelers using wheelchairs or scooters
  • Travelers using walkers, crutches, or other mobility aids must travel with a companion who can assist them throughout the trip
  • Agility and balance are required for boarding dugout canoes and kayaks

Climate

  • Daytime temperatures range from 85-90°F, and high levels of humidity are common during cruising season
  • March and April are the warmest months

Terrain

  • Travel over uneven walking surfaces, including rain forest, unpaved paths, hills, and stairs

Transportation

  • Travel by 45-seat coach, school bus, motorized dugout canoe, kayak, and 24-passenger catamaran

Accommodation

  • The M/S Discovery does not have an elevator onboard

Cuisine

  • Meals will be a mix of local specialties and familiar American standards
  • Meals onboard feature a variety of entrée options, including vegetarian

Travel Documents

Passport

Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.

Visas

U.S. citizens do not need a visa for this trip.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your vacation, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Program Directors and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips

Accommodations

Main Trip

  • M/S Discovery

    During our Panama Canal transit cruise, we’ll stay aboard the 108-foot M/S Discovery, a 24-passenger catamaran launched in 2004, designed specifically for small group exploration and chartered exclusively for our group. In the dining area, bar, and lounge, floor-to-ceiling glass walls offer spectacular views. The ship is also equipped with Zodiacs and kayaks and a unique platform that lowers kayakers gently into the water and retrieves them just as gently for safety and comfort. The ship has 12 cabins, 8 with queen beds and 4 with twin beds. All cabins have individual climate control, a hair dryer, closet, writing desk, and private bath.

Main Trip

  • Tryp Panama Centro

    Panama City, Panama

    Tryp Panama Centro is ideally located in the center of Panama City, within walking distance of the capital's many restaurants and shopping centers. The hotel has an on-site gastropub, health center, hot tubs and a swimming pool. Each of its 92 air-conditioned rooms features city views, cable TV, coffee- and tea-making facilities, telephone, private bath, and wireless Internet.

  • Hotel Cubita

    Chitre, Panama

    Hotel Cubita is a boutique resort and spa just steps from downtown Chitre. The hotel has an on-site gourmet restaurant, bar, and swimming pool, as well as a full-service spa. Each of its 90 air-conditioned rooms features 24-hour room service, cable TV, coffee- and tea-making facilities, telephone, private bath, a hairdryer, and wireless Internet.

  • Radisson Summit Hotel & Golf Panama

    Paraiso, Panama | Rating: Superior First Class

    Located just minutes from the Panama Canal, amidst the splendor of the rain forest, the Superior First Class Radisson Summit Hotel & Golf offers a peaceful alternative to busier downtown accommodations. Amenities include an on-site, professional 18-hole golf course, two outdoor pools, and a nature trail with a butterfly exhibit. Each of the 103 air-conditioned rooms features coffee- and tea-making facilities, high-speed, wireless Internet access, hairdryer, and private bath.

Extensions

  • Tryp Panama Centro

    Panama City, Panama

    Tryp Panama Centro is ideally located in the center of Panama City, within walking distance of the capital's many restaurants and shopping centers. The hotel has an on-site gastropub, health center, hot tubs and a swimming pool. Each of its 92 air-conditioned rooms features city views, cable TV, coffee- and tea-making facilities, telephone, private bath, and wireless Internet.

  • Playa Tortuga Hotel & Beach Resort

    Bocas del Toro, Panama | Rating: Moderate First Class

    Located on Colon Island, a ten-minute walk from the center of the area’s main town, this Moderate First-Class resort is surrounded by tropical natural beauty and coral reefs in calm waters. A restaurant and a bar are on-site. Each of the 117 air-conditioned rooms has a balcony with an ocean view, cable TV, telephone, minibar, safe, free wireless Internet access, and private bath.

  • Armeria Real Luxury Hotel & Spa

    Cartagena, Colombia | Rating: Superior First Class

    The 40-room, Superior First-Class Armeria Real Luxury Hotel & Spa is situated just steps from Cartagena’s convention center. The charming, colonial-style building was originally a garrison constructed to defend the city against pirates in the 18th century. Features include a restaurant, full-service spa, outdoor pool, and a poolside bar.

Flight Information

Flight Options to Personalize Your Trip

You can choose to stay longer before or after your trip on your own, or combine two vacations to maximize your value.

  • Extend your vacation and lower your per day cost with our optional pre- and post-trip excursions
  • Choose our standard air routing, or work with us to select the airline and routing you prefer
  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline, applying frequent flyer miles if available
  • International airport transfers to and from your ship or hotel, including meet and greet service, are available for purchase
  • Stay overnight in a connecting city before or after your trip
  • Request to arrive a few days early to get a fresh start on your vacation
  • Choose to "break away" before or after your trip, spending additional days or weeks on your own
  • Combine your choice of Grand Circle Cruise Line vacations to maximize your value
  • Upgrade to business or premium class

The air options listed above may involve additional airfare costs based on your specific choices.

Or, when you make your reservation, you can choose our standard air routing, for which approximate travel times are shown below.

Gateway Travel Time*
Miami 3 hrs
Atlanta 5 hrs
Orlando 6 hrs
Baltimore, Philadelphia 7 hrs
Chicago, Minneapolis, Newark, New York (JFK), Washington, DC (Dulles) 8 hrs
Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego 9 hrs
San Francisco 10 hrs
Seattle 12 hrs

*Estimated total time including connections and layovers. Actual travel time may vary.

The above information is your approximate flight time to Panama City, Panama. Routing is based on availability and subject to change. You will receive your final air itinerary approximately 14 days prior to departure.

Partner since: 2012
Total donated: $16,057

Supporting a World Classroom: Panama

By seeing how children are educated all over the world, we gain a rare understanding of different cultural values—as well as the common values that unite us all. That’s why your Panama trip features the opportunity to visit a local school supported by Grand Circle Foundation. You’ll visit the school featured below, providing school is in session.

"As a former teacher, I was impressed by the folk dance performance and the willingness of the students to take us by the hand to show us their school …"

Anne & Don Loy, 14-time travelers
Knoxville, Tennesee

Embera Quera School

Partner since: 2014

Engage with students during a local primary school visit in San Carlos, Panama.

We’re thrilled to have recently begun our partnership with the Embera Quera School in the Embera Indian Village. We look forward to working with the school principal and teachers to identify the school’s needs and supporting them in the most meaningful and sustainable way. Our first goals are to renovate the septic tank and bathrooms, thereby improving sanitary conditions for the school as well as the entire village.

If we’re here while school is in session, we’ll meet teachers and students and learn about the Panamanian school system, while being entertained by songs and dances performed by the children.

Gifts to bring if you're visiting:

  • Pencils
  • Crayons
  • Construction paper
  • Maps
Alan and Harriet Lewis founded Grand Circle Foundation in 1992 as a means of giving back to the world we travel. Because they donate an annually determined amount of revenue from our trips, we consider each one of our travelers as a partner in the Foundation’s work around the world. To date, the Foundation has pledged or donated more than $97 million in support of 300 different organizations—including 60 villages and nearly 100 schools that lie in the paths of our journeys.

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The Lowest Price & the Best Value

You can explore {{data.Title}} from only $2626 per person—that’s only $219 per person, per day!

GOOD BUY PLAN

The earlier you reserve and pay in full by check or electronic funds transfer, the more you can save with our exclusive Good Buy Plan.

FREQUENT TRAVELER CREDITS

When you return from a trip, you receive a credit worth 5% of that total trip cost that you can apply to your next trip. On average, that’s $230 in savings.

VACATION AMBASSADOR REFERRAL PROGRAM

Earn $100 for your first referral—plus increasing CASH or credit rewards for each additional traveler you refer.

Refer more and earn more
Refer more travelers and see your rewards add up—earn up to $5900 or a FREE TRIP.

BEST PRICE GUARANTEE

We’re confident that our bottom line can’t be beat. If you think you’ve found a lower price on a comparable vacation, tell us: If you have, we’ll match it.

INNER CIRCLE BENEFITS

Our most loyal travelers—members of our Inner Circle—can now save even more:

  • Multiple Trip Credits
    Save up to $350 on your second trip reserved in a calendar year—and on any additional trips you take within the year.
  • 6% Frequent Traveler Credits
    You’ll begin to earn extra credit after you return from your fifth trip—and on every subsequent vacation.

See How Much You'll Save

Watch these savings add up using the tool below. Simply click the blue box on the scale below to drag to each month to see your potential savings. Remember, the earlier you pay in full prior to your final payment due date, the more you save:

Our Travel Counselors will help you find your savings.
Call toll-free at 1-800-221-2610. Or, start building the trip that’s right for you

Dates & Prices

*All figures and savings shown are examples only. Vacation Ambassador and Frequent Traveler savings shown are based on the average credits earned by Grand Circle Travelers. Good Buy Plan savings are calculated after Frequent Traveler Credits, Vacation Ambassador rewards, and multiple trip credits are deducted from your initial tour price; some benefits cannot be combined. For your specific savings, contact a Traveler Counselor. Every effort has been made to produce this information accurately. We reserve the right to correct errors.

Discover more of Panama with our FREE itinerary enhancements

When you travel on Panama Canal Cruise & Panama: A Continent Divided, Oceans United this year, not only will you witness one of mankind’s most astounding achievements, you’ll enjoy our newly enhanced itinerary at NO additional cost featuring:

Three nights in Chitre

We’ve added an extra day to your itinerary, which now includes a three-night stay in Chitre. One of Panama’s oldest communities, Chitre is a charming modern city with vestiges of its colonial past, such as ornate, red-tiled Spanish houses. Chitre has also been called the gateway to the Azuero Peninsula, a less-touristed area of Panama known for its colonial traditions, festivals, and handcrafts.

Meet a Carnival designer

Visit the city of Las Tablas, the capital of Carnival—as well as the capital of the Los Santos region. Here, you'll meet with a local Carnival artisan who designs floats and gowns for the annual celebration. His stories and insights will reveal the history of Carnival, and you'll have the chance to admire some of his handiwork.

Visit a Pollera workshop

Stop in the town of Santo Domingo and visit a Pollera workshop. The Pollera is a lavishly embroidered dress that was brought over by the Spanish, but adapted and embraced as the national costume of Panama. Traditionally, Polleras are white, feature a full, two-tier skirt, and are hand-embroidered with exquisite details that can increase the value of the garment from hundreds to thousands of dollars. During your visit, you’ll learn all about the painstaking craftsmanship that goes into creating these adored Carnival costumes.

Experience a pottery demonstration

A small village just north of Chitre, La Arena is famous for its fine pottery. Watch as a local sculptor transforms a humble ball of clay into a beautiful piece of art. Plates, bowls, and other tableware are highly sought after by local restaurants and hotels, while the more decorative items are embellished with folkloric designs, and valued by collectors.

History, Culture & More

Learn more about the history, art, culture, and more you’ll discover on this trip by reading the features below. These articles were collected from past newsletters, Harriet’s Corner, and special features created for Grand Circle by our team of writers.

Canal celebrates over 100 years of triumph

The Canal is both a first and a last. Man will never again build with such scope and imagination. Read more about it.

Read More »

From Sea to Shining Sea

When Roosevelt was elected, he dreamed of a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. See how his dream came to life.

Read More »

Coming Together: The Panamanian Identity

Panama embraces its cultural elements which interweave African, European, and indigenous traditions. Learn about it.

Read More »

History, Culture & More

Canal celebrates over 100 years of triumph

The waterway that united the world

by Rina Barba, Area Manager, Panama

Man has come a long way in 100 years. The advent of penicillin to cure debilitating diseases, the space shuttle reaching the moon, and genetic cloning are just some of the astounding scientific feats accomplished since the beginning of the 20th century. But another—the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914—was a culmination of toil, diplomacy, and engineering prowess unmatched in the modern world. And in 2014, this Central American republic celebrated the 100th anniversary of the triumph of these efforts.

While the completion of the canal can be credited to the American effort led by President Theodore Roosevelt, the project was truly an international endeavor. The idea of building a passageway across Central America was first set forth by German scientist Alexander Van Humboldt, and in 1819, the Spanish authorized the canal’s construction. In 1876, the French—who had successfully built the Suez Canal—stepped up to the challenge but, plagued by tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever, had to abandon the task in 1904.

America's contribution to the Canal

At that time, the American effort began, with approximately 75,000 men and women contributing to the project. Engineers worked tirelessly to determine how to cross the steep Continental Divide more than 500 feet above sea level and how to create a series of locks that would literally take ships up the side of a hill and then down again. On the ground, determined workers battled heat, disease, and jungle conditions as they removed so much dirt that the flatbed railroad cars used to haul it away could have circled the Earth four times. While progress was made in battling the initially dismal sanitary conditions, the canal construction eventually took the lives of about 25,000 workers and engineers approximately 500 deaths per mile.

As work continued, it soon became clear that the central part of the lock surrounding Gatun Lake posed the biggest challenge. It was here that Major David du Bose Gaillard led 6,000 workers armed with drills, explosives, and steam shovels. In 1913, after many setbacks and great effort, they broke through to the other side of the cut, or valley. Sadly, they accomplished this feat just months after Major Gaillard passed away from a brain tumor. To honor the leader great service, the Culebra Cut, as it was originally called, was renamed the Gaillard Cut.

The Gaillard Cut paved the way for the completion of the canal, and in 1914—a full year ahead of schedule and nearly $23 million under budget—the canal’s official opening was celebrated around the world. Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the canal was no less than a bridge of water—a series of gravity-powered locks that raised ships to man-made Gatun Lake at the middle of the divide, then lowered them back down again at the other side of the isthmus. A journalist who witnessed its opening wrote, “This canal is both a first and a last … man will never again build with such scope, such imagination.” Seeing the magnificent canal in person, one cannot help but think that perhaps he was right.

History, Culture & More

From Sea to Shining Sea

American influence in the Panama Canal

by Alison Rohrs, for Grand Circle

When Theodore Roosevelt was elected president of the United States in 1901, he dreamed of a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would improve trade and send a message of American power to the world. The French had previously tried to construct a water passage on the Isthmus of Panama in the 1880s, but they abandoned the project after eight years and 20,000 casualties. Yet in an age of growing national confidence and engineering breakthroughs, Roosevelt believed Americans could accomplish what others considered impossible.

The Panama Canal is arguably the greatest engineering feat of the 20th century, but the legacy of its construction extends far beyond its man-made shores. The process of carving the 51-mile waterway catalyzed the formation of a new nation, launched a campaign to eradicate yellow fever, and introduced the U.S. as an international power for the first time in history.

For the Americans, political obstacles arose before engineering challenges. In the early 1900s, Panama was a small province of Colombia, which had strict sovereignty rules. Colombia rejected an American treaty for the isthmus because Roosevelt didn’t just want to create a canal—he wanted to control it. As Matthew Parker, author of Panama Fever, put it, “Roosevelt felt that the United States should be leading the way in improving the world, even if bits of the world didn’t necessarily want to be improved.”

To circumvent the Colombian government, Roosevelt offered support to a group of Panamanian elites who were eager to have their own nation. On November 3, 1903, Panama declared its independence. The presence of U.S. Navy ships and bribes to Colombian soldiers prevented a battle in Colon, and a country was born in a bloodless revolution. A few weeks later, the U.S. gave the new nation $10 million for the right to rule and manage a 500-square-mile “Canal Zone,” which bisected the country.

The next year, the Americans had to contend with nature. Original plans called for a sea-level canal to run from the Caribbean though dense jungle, the flood-prone Chagres River Valley, and the steep Culebra mountain range before reaching the Pacific. Roosevelt tasked the canal’s first chief engineer, John F. Wallace, with the famous order to “make the dirt fly.” Without adequate time for surveillance and testing, Wallace set to work with steam shovels and makeshift railways to remove rubble. Within a year, he was overwhelmed by the scale of the project, the high abandonment rates of workers, and the escalation of diseases like yellow fever and malaria.

The next chief engineer, John Stevens, demanded time to address underlying issues before digging. Declaring worker health his priority, Stevens called in Dr. William Gorgas, who had wiped out yellow fever in Havana, Cuba, by killing the mosquitos that carried it—despite widespread disbelief that insects spread illness. Gorgas drained swamps, treated still-water sources, and screened in hospital beds. By 1905, he had officially eradicated yellow fever in the Canal Zone, silencing the naysayers and saving countless lives.

Stevens recognized the difficulty of carving a sea-level canal through steep mountains. After months of lobbying Congress, he gained approval to create a revolutionary “lake and lock” canal. His design would dam the Chagres River to form Gatun Lake, while a series of locks (gated enclosures in the canal) would fill and drain to maneuver vessels over the mountains. The locks that Stevens envisioned were nearly three times longer than any that had come before.

Even with the locks, a staggering 100 million cubic yards of rock still needed to be removed from the Culebra Range. The ensuing dynamite blasts and frequent landslides made for incredibly dangerous working conditions. However, the mountain cut also required a huge amount of manpower: more than 20,000 employees.

Some 5,000 jobs were reserved for white Americans. For the harsh physical labor, Stevens turned to workers from the nearby West Indies, who would accept as little as ten cents an hour. By 1906, 70% of the Canal workers were West Indian, who largely handled the backbreaking and often deadly work. Of the 5,600 casualties during the American construction, 80% were black.

Stevens made tremendous advancements with digging and damming, and the visible progress helped to improve the workers’ morale. In 1906, Roosevelt further inspired workers and rallied American goodwill for the canal by personally visiting Panama. His trip marked the first time a U.S. president had traveled abroad while in office.

Nonetheless by 1907, Stevens was exhausted. When he resigned, Roosevelt appointed Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Goethals to finish the canal. Goethals offered a deep understanding of hydraulics and the rigid discipline of the U.S. Army. He initiated around-the-clock construction and mercilessly quashed worker strikes. Under his direction, laborers built the colossal locks, and in May 1913, steam shovels burst through the final barrier in the Culebra Range. After a decade of work, the Panama Canal officially opened on August 15, 1914.

Nearly a century later, the canal remains an engineering marvel. It still transports about 16% of all trade bound for the U.S. Meanwhile, the political consequences of the construction continue to shape U.S. relations with Central America. Panamanians have long objected to continued American control of the Canal Zone. In 1977, Jimmy Carter signed a pair of treaties transitioning ownership of the Canal over a 22-year period. On December 31, 1999, the Canal Zone officially became part of Panama, finally uniting the country that connected the world’s largest oceans.

History, Culture & More

Coming Together: The Panamanian Identity

by David Valdes Greenwood, for Grand Circle

Creole. Mestizo. Afro-Antillean and Afro- Caribbean. In Panama, to be of a single ethnic origin is to be a minority in a land where people proudly embrace their mixed-heritage identities. Seventy percent of all Panamanians genetically reflect two, three, or even four cultures, with roots in Africa, Europe, and indigenous populations that were on the isthmus first. This diversity manifests itself not only in Panamanians’ physical profile, but linguistically, in how they sound. The descendants of African slaves brought to work in the Colonial era still favor Spanish, the dominant language, but Caribs whose forefathers helped build the Panama Canal and railroad may also speak English and French. Many of the interioranos, the indigenous populations who live inland away from the cities, still speak languages of their own, such as Ngabere.

With so many different points of cultural origin and so many variations on what it means to be Panamanian, can there be a national culture? The answer is a resounding, “Sí, cómo no!” (But of course!) What unites Panama most is its embrace of those cultural elements—from arts to foods to holidays—which interweave African, European, and indigenous traditions.

Tamborito: The national dance

One of the most iconic of Panamanian traditions is the tamborito, a folk dance with nods to nearly every facet of the nation’s identity. Within a circle of viewers, a pair of dancers in vivid costume take position between three male drummers and a female chorus. The woman is dressed in a pollera, a beautifully embroidered, full-length gathered skirt that she may twirl to show its peacock-like colors; the man wears a simpler montuno, a tunic with colorful trim, and a straw hat. Once she curtseys, the man kneels, their cues that the dance has begun.

A trio of drummers pound out the rhythms as the couple enacts a flirtatious courtship, while the chorus sings stanzas about love. The woman swirls her hem and leads the man, who spins toward her and away, as if torn in his desire, sometimes fanning her with his hat, other times falling to his knees in faux despair. As the dance reaches its peak, the crowd of onlookers chants to show approval. While the lady’s costume and the song lyrics are Spanish-influenced, the man’s outfit and the percussion come from the indigenous people, and the call-and-response chanting is Afro-Caribbean. This combination of influences, though, is pure Panamanian.

The fabric of life

The polleras and montunos worn in the tamborito are considered the national costume. But they are not the only definitive textile treasures. Travelers in Panama will likely encounter blouses boasting elaborately embroidered cloth panels in rich colors and intricate patterns. These are molas, which take a unique indigenous artform and filter it through European attire.

The first molas were body art: decorations painted directly onto the skin of indigenous Kuna women. In the Spanish colonial era, the Kuna retained much of their culture, but did make some adaptations, including more modest dress. The mola patterns were replicated in cloth, in a unique reverse-appliqué technique: Thick layers of bright cloth were stitched together loosely and then cut back to where the colors meet; the loose edges were finally hemmed under with near-invisible stitches. The traditional molas were geometric and abstract patterns, but have since come to include representations of the local flora and fauna as well. Today, molas are seen in the daily attire of the Kuna, but they’re also to be found worked into clothing in boutiques, sold as wall hangings, and used in furniture textiles, making molas truly the fabric of Panamanian life from coast to coast.

Bananas for plantains

With its dual coastlines, a tropical interior, and rich farmland, Panama’s cuisines vary from abundant seafood and fresh fruit to starchy roots and hearty meats. Yet across the country, one thing is sure to appear on almost every menu: plantains. The banana-like fruit can be prepared simply, grilled the Kuna way, or rendered into sweet desserts like tajadas and maduros, perhaps topped with sugar or cinnamon to reflect European influences. And they may also be chopped and stuffed inside empanadas, a common treat in so many former Spanish colonies.

But the most popular presentation is patacones (called tostones just about everywhere else). Green plantains are sliced, fried, smashed, and refried, then salted and served like chips or French fries. The presence of these mouthwatering morsels is pervasive: Sold by street vendors and fancy restaurants alike, they’re equally available as a breakfast side dish or a late-night snack after a night of dancing. In Panama, it’s always the right time for patacones.

Feliz Navidad!

You may have to wait a bit longer for the ultimate Panamanian feast—at least until December. There’s no question that the biggest holiday in the nation is Christmas, which blends Spanish religious elements, traditions imported by the Americans who worked on the canal, and even the influence of Chinese immigrants who helped build the railroads.

The festivities start off early with the celebration of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, the same day as Panamanian Mother’s Day. Little girls parade down the streets dressed in angel wings as statues of Mary are carried in procession, announcing the start of the season. That same weekend, in Panama City, the Christmas parade draws many thousands of revelers to cheer on hundreds of floats, costumed characters, and marching bands, including tamborito dancers. Tropical trees may still be in bloom and shirtsleeves are the order of the day, but red felt Santa hats and jingle bells are as plentiful as they are at the Macy’s parade in the United States. That night, the heavens above and the sea below light up: A fireworks display fills the sky while illuminated boats cruise the bay.

After several weeks of tending their nascimientos (nativity scenes, which are far more common than Christmas trees are in the U.S.), and it is finally Christmas Eve, Panamanians stay up late to await Christmas morning. At midnight, all over the nation, fireworks (not church bells) mark the hour, a tradition imported by the Chinese immigrants; and families celebrate by sitting down to meals of tamales, pavo y relleno (turkey and stuffing), and fruitcake. Eating such a heavy meal at so late an hour is no worry, for dancing is likely to follow, often in the city streets. The beaming smiles on the faces of the dancers might just be the most Panamanian thing of all.