Single channel and whole cell recordings were used to study ion permeation through Ca channels in isolated ventricular heart cells of guinea pigs. We evaluated the permeability to various divalent and monovalent cations in two ways, by measuring either unitary current amplitude or reversal potential (Erev). According to whole cell measurements of Erev, the relative permeability sequence is Ca2+ greater than Sr2+ greater than Ba2+ for divalent ions; Mg2+ is not measurably permeant. Monovalent ions follow the sequence Li+ greater than Na+ greater than K+ greater than Cs+, and are much less permeant than the divalents. These whole cell measurements were supported by single channel recordings, which showed clear outward currents through single Ca channels at strong depolarizations, similar values of Erev, and similar inflections in the current-voltage relation near Erev. Information from Erev measurements stands in contrast to estimates of open channel flux or single channel conductance, which give the sequence Na+ (85 pS) greater than Li+ (45 pS) greater than Ba2+ (20 pS) greater than Ca2+ (9 pS) near 0 mV with 110-150 mM charge carrier. Thus, ions with a higher permeability, judged by Erev, have lower ion transfer rates. In another comparison, whole cell Na currents through Ca channels are halved by less than 2 microM [Ca]o, but greater than 10 mM [Ca]o is required to produce half-maximal unitary Ca current. All of these observations seem consistent with a recent hypothesis for the mechanism of Ca channel permeation, which proposes that: ions pass through the pore in single file, interacting with multiple binding sites along the way; selectivity is largely determined by ion affinity to the binding sites rather than by exclusion by a selectivity filter; occupancy by only one Ca ion is sufficient to block the pore's high conductance for monovalent ions like Na+; rapid permeation by Ca ions depends upon double occupancy, which only becomes significant at millimolar [Ca]o, because of electrostatic repulsion or some other interaction between ions; and once double occupancy occurs, the ion-ion interaction helps promote a quick exit of Ca ions from the pore into the cell.