Most cruisers head to Central America for one of two reasons: to see or transit the Panama Canal, or as part of a larger Western Caribbean cruise that also includes Central American ports on the itinerary.
Without a doubt, the Panama Canal is best visited by cruise ship, especially for those who want a full transit experience. A cruise allows visitors to experience the entire transit process from start to finish. If visiting by land, chances are you'll only get to experience going into the canal and then boating around on Lake Gatun, but you'll exit the same way you came in. (Some cruises do the same thing, so check carefully when booking.)
A cruise also offers the chance to visit more of the Central America region than just either side of the canal. Lace up your hiking boots for a trek up an active volcano in Costa Rica or Guatemala or slip into a pair of fins in Belize or Honduras for some of the best snorkelling and diving around. And with so many departure port options, particularly for the Western Caribbean sailings that include Central American stops, a trip to Central America might be easier than you think.
For many, the main appeal of a Central American cruise is the Panama Canal, and there are many ways to experience the canal, whether on a full or partial (or even faux) transit. Faux Panama Canal cruises offer entry to the canal via a shore excursion but the cruise ship never actually enters any part of the canal system.
The region is also a sun-and-sand lover's paradise, with plenty of snorkelling, swimming and diving opportunities to be had, particularly in Belize and Honduras, where large coral reefs attract an abundance of colorful fish.
You'll also have plenty of opportunities to get up close with nature. Visit an active volcano in Costa Rica or Guatemala or see monkeys in the wild at one of Costa Rica's lush rainforest national parks.
Those seeking culture can find that as well, whether in Colon, Panama or Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, which provides access to the charming colonial city of Antigua.
The Panama Canal cruise season runs from October to April, though the best time to go is after the rainy season ends in November.
You can cruise to destinations in Central America on a Western Caribbean cruise year-round, as temperatures remain warm most of the year with lows in the 70s and highs in the upper 80s Fahrenheit. The best time to visit is December through May, after hurricane season has passed (June through November) and before it starts to hit high season.
If you're doing an expedition cruise that sticks primarily to Costa Rica and Panama, the best time to visit is between December and April, which are the countries' dry seasons. However, expect high temperatures and high humidity year-round.
The most popular ports in Central America are those visited on some Western Caribbean cruise itineraries: Roatan in Honduras and Belize City in Belize. Cruisers on Norwegian Cruise Line ships in the region might also stop at the line's private island, Harvest Caye, in Belize.
Panama Canal cruises (whether full transit or partial) will often stop in Costa Rica, either Limon (on the Atlantic side) or Puntarenas (on the Pacific side), along with Cartagena, Columbia. Ships might also stop in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, which is the gateway port for Antigua, Guatemala.
Small ships sailing in the region might also stop at Quepos, Costa Rica, which is the gateway to the Manuel Antonio National Park.
Expedition cruises sailing in Central America (usually just Costa Rica and Panama) will not visit any actual ports, but will use small boats to get to and from shore. Typical stops on these cruises include Manuel Antonio National Park, the Osa Peninsula, Golfo Dulce, the Gulf of Panama Islets, along with several other wildlife refuges and even Native American villages.
Western Caribbean cruises that stop at Central American ports depart primarily from the major Florida ports (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Port Canaveral near Orlando), as well Galveston, Mobile, New Orleans and even, occasionally, from New York City.
The most common Panama Canal itinerary is some version of the Florida-to -West Coast route, usually Miami or Fort Lauderdale on the East Coast and San Diego, Los Angeles or San Francisco on the West Coast. Full transit itineraries tend to be long: two weeks or more in some cases. Partial transits are shorter, generally last from a week to 12 days or so.
Smaller ships might depart from within Central America for a Panama Canal transit sailing, usually from Puerto Caldera (Puntarenas) in Costa Rica or Colon in Panama.
Expedition cruises in Costa Rica and Panama sail from either Puntarenas or Colon.
Here are our best tips for finding a cheap cruise or cruise deal to Central America. If you book a “guaranteed cabin” (they select for you), a cabin on a lower deck or sail on an older ship from a brand you like, then you can get the best price for a specific cruise to Central America. Last minute cruises deals to Central America appear as you get closer to the sail date, usually 1-2 weeks in advance. Taking a cruise to Central America in the shoulder season (before or after the peak season) can also be a great way to find a cruise deal.