Selecting a vacation is hard with so many great destinations, but transiting the Panama Canal is high on the bucket list of most world travelers. Our transit started yesterday afternoon when we left the northern entrance of Cristobal Port. As a country, Panama runs east to west; the canal runs north to south.

Approaching a lock chamber of the Panama Canal for the first time is always a moment of astonishment. The Gatun locks are particularly amazing. It is the only set of locks with three chambers, which elevates visitors from sea level to lake level at 85 feet. It is hard to know where to look with so much going on. Panamanian naturalist Mauricio narrated the processes taking place and shared facts about the historical engineering of a canal built over 100 years ago. Everyone walked away impressed. We anchored on the lake for a peaceful and starlit evening.

After waking up at dawn on Gatun Lake, National Geographic Quest navigated to the world-renowned Barro Colorado Island. Barro Colorado is the largest island in the 164 square mile lake, and it is home to the oldest rainforest reserve in the Western Hemisphere. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute currently operates the reserve, established in 1923. With special arrangements, we visited the scientific reserve. It was a biologist’s dream location!

Some guests enjoyed Zodiac expeditions, while others went on hefty trail walks. This virgin rainforest island on a hilltop lived up to our expectations. Our scientific team of naturalists and guests alike raved about how much they saw during both excursions. Wildlife sightings included reports of sloths, white-faced capuchins, howler monkeys and anteaters. We also spotted several birds, like crested guans, slaty-tailed trogons, black-hooded antshrikes, toucans, snail kites, flycatchers and honeycreepers.

During the afternoon, we proceeded with the second half of the day’s journey. We transited the Canal to the Pacific, a total journey of eight hours, to stepdown through the two-lock systems of Pedro Miguel and Miraflores. We enjoyed watching the ship traffic with a new appreciation for the magnitude and importance of this critical waterway. It was an amazing first day and a great way to start the trip.