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A Local’s Guide to Visiting the Panama Canal

Mention Panama and most people will immediately think of its famous canal. And no wonder, because it's one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and the country's top attraction. If you're in Panama City and you want to see it, here's a local's (my) Panama Canal guide to visiting, including the best places to view the ships and what to expect.

Great guide to visiting the Panama Canal, written by a frequent visitor.

Is it easy to see the Panama Canal?

Sure: I mean, the Panama Canal is 48 miles long. Clearly, this means that there are plenty of great places to see it.

However, if you want to watch a ship pass through its locks, you can only do it at:

  • Miraflores Locks – the most visited because it's closest to Panama City and has a beautiful visitor's center.
  • Pedro Miguel Locks – a single set of locks a few minutes north of Miraflores; it is not set up for visitors.
  • Gatun Locks – the three locks that are on the Caribbean side of the canal. They lie near the city of Colón, an hour's drive from Panama City.

Update June 2016: You can now visit Cocoli Locks, which opened for business on June 26, 2016. After visiting the Gatun Visitors Center (buy the entrance tickets there), head to the new Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center nearby.

Most of the Panama Canal was created in the early 1900s when they built a dam near Colón and dredged the canal. The dam created two lakes: Miraflores and Gatun. Both of them are above sea level. Traveling from the Pacific, two locks raise ships up to Miraflores Lake. Ships travel through Miraflores Lake and at the other end, a single lock at Pedro Miguel lifts ships to Gatun Lake. A triple flight of locks at Gatun lowers them to the Caribbean (Atlantic) side.

Control building at Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal
The locks at Miraflores, seen from the viewing platform

Canal limitations

When the Panama Canal opened in 1914 it set up a set of guidelines for the maximum size that would be allowed to enter and termed it “Panamax.” The size includes the width and length of the available lock chambers, the depth of water in the canal, and the height of the bridges that span the canal. The third set of locks, which opened in June of 2016, allows even larger, “New Panamax” ships.

Though its two “lanes” of canals make it look like the ships might be able to go in both directions at the same time, the Culebra Cut makes this impossible. This treacherous area is far too narrow for large ships to pass each other. (This area was the biggest challenge when they built the canal: They had to blast and cut their way through.) So for 12 hours a day ships pass from north to south, and for the other 12 they go from south to north.

Tip: Get a unique view of the Panama Canal entrance from the Chinese Monument, at the western end of Bridge of the Americas.

View of the Panama Canal from the Chinese Monument.

Visiting Gatun Locks

If we have the time we like to take our visitors to both Gatun and Miraflores. The canal locks at Gatun aren't very crowded, whereas Miraflores can be wall-to-wall people. Besides, what you lose from not having a Panama Canal museum to visit, you gain from being practically an arm's reach away from the ships. There is a small viewing platform and everyone there is extremely helpful.

This is where you buy tickets to the recently opened Panama Canal Expansion. This was the largest project since the canal was built. Thanks to the new lane of traffic and larger locks, it is wide enough for even the mega-sized New Panamax ships to pass through. Don't miss it.

Ship passing through Gatun Locks
Gatun Locks: You can't get much closer to ships passing through the Panama Canal than this!

A unique way to watch the ships pass through the Panama Canal

After the hour-long drive to Gatun, we extend our trip with a drive to Fort San Lorenzo, a UNESCO site which is on the other side of the canal.

Here's where the fun comes in: To get there, you can drive through the Panama Canal!

I have no idea how they came up with the idea but yes, there is actually a roadway over the canal, at water level. We exit the parking lot and turn left, stopping at a traffic signal. It seems a bit odd to see a stop light here.

Once the massive, metal gates at Gatun Locks have closed and begun to fill with water, a one-lane metal bridge rotates to create a roadway over the canal. Soon the light turns green, a guard waves us through and we descend the ramp to the bridge. The Caribbean is only a few feet beneath our tires.

The massive doors tower overhead as our car slowly crosses the narrow bridge, so close we might count every rivet. Rivulets of water drip and spew from cracks and crevices around the doors, reminding us that a wall of water lies just beyond. Please stay closed, our minds plead, and we avert our gazes in the other direction even though we know there's no risk at all.

There, we see a ship awaiting its turn. It looks monstrous from down here.

View Driving Through The Panama Canal
Drive through the Panama Canal? Yes! At Gatun Lakes, you drive where the ships travel … and are rewarded with this view.

The drive to San Lorenzo is picturesque, with alternating views of the azure sea and dense rainforest. It is worth the time, but that's a story for another day. With no other route back we'll be returning this way later and driving back over that bridge a second time.

Visiting Miraflores Visitor Center

Make time to visit the Miraflores Visitor Center, a fascinating place that will help you understand how the entire canal operates. They have informative films, an interesting museum that even kids will enjoy (fish! bugs!), and viewing platforms where you can watch the ships pass through.

Film showings alternate between Spanish and English, so ask when the next English showing is and plan your schedule around that. If you have any questions, all the staff are bilingual and incredibly helpful and informative.

I still enjoy watching the enormous ships rise skyward as the locks fill with lake water and the 7-foot-thick gates open and close. Sometimes while they wait, the ships’ crews and passengers will wave to everyone, and the platform full of people will wave back. It’s a bit too far away for the crew to hear anyone shout “Hola!” or “Bienvenidos!” (welcome) – assuming that they'd understand the words – but a smile and a wave will always express what words can’t.

Visitors watch ships transit Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal

Understanding how the canal operates

I could have a ho-hum, been there-done that attitude but I always enjoy visiting. The Canal has an announcer who narrates details about the current ship that's passing through – its nationality, size, cargo and other particulars – and explains how the canal system operate. He/she does it bit-by-bit, back and forth between Spanish and English. It's fun to try to understand the Spanish words.

Some of these ships are so wide that only a few inches separate them from the concrete sides of the locks. Others are small enough that more than one can fit at a time. In either case it’s vitally important to protect the locks from accidental damage, so pleasure boats and small fishing boats usually transit next to a canal tug boat and they just get tied to the tug boat as they go.

A lock master on each side of the locks has ready communication with both the pilot and the control tower for the entire operation.

Avoiding accidents in the canal

Yes, you heard me right. I said pilot. The ship's captain is required to yield control of the ship while it's transiting. The Panama Canal has people who are specially trained to guide ships through safely, mainly because of the Culebra Cut. It is so narrow that only one ship can go through at a time.

What if a ship's captain, who is used to navigating the open seas, misjudged and ran aground in the canal! Imagine the havoc that would happen – not to mention how it would affect world trade! Fortunately, the pilot gives him a break.

Mini towing locomotives, called mules, will use cables to safely guide the larger ships through. Up to eight towing locomotives and sixteen cables will guide them through the canal. Line handlers are trained to be accurate in getting those wires on board the ship as fast as possible to provide a safe transit.

mini locomotive mules at the panama canal

Inside Miraflores Visitor Center

Your ticket allows access to more than just the viewing platform: The Visitor Center also features:

  • an ample, fully equipped theater
  • the observation terraces
  • two snack bars
  • a white tablecloth-type restaurant with panoramic view, and
  • the ubiquitous gift shop.

I confess I once succumbed to its lure and bought a cool ceramic Panama Canal tea mug, complete with a lid and basket that holds the tea leaves as they steep….

But I digress.

The Panama Canal History Museum

Even if you're not normally a history buff, there's a lot of cool stuff in the museum. The museum has historic pieces, models of ships and construction equipment, a navigation simulator, video presentations, a topographical model of the Panama Canal itself, and objects used in Canal operations.

inside the panama canal museum's ground floor

How the four-level exhibit is laid out, floor-by-floor:

  1. The History Hall portrays the background, technological innovations, and sanitary initiatives during the construction of the Canal.
  2. The Hall of Water: Source of Life – the importance of water, environmental conservation and biodiversity, and protecting the Canal Watershed.
  3. The Canal in Action – how the Canal operates, Canal improvement, modernization, and maintenance projects. You can also experience being inside one of the lock culverts and pretend you're piloting a ship through a lock.
  4. The Canal in the World – the importance of the Canal to world trade, the trade routes it serves, its main users, the various types of vessels that what go through, and what they carry.

View of the lock from atop a ship's bridge

 

Inspired?

Getting there:

  • It's easy to get to the Visitor Center by taxi (about $10) (don't have him wait; you can find another one outside when you're ready to leave).
  • It's also a stop on the Hop-on/Hop-off bus route.

Before you go:

  • Dress in layers. It can be hot outside on the platforms and cool inside. (Platforms are sheltered from the rain and sun.)
  • If you have long hair, you may want to bring a comb or tie it back. It can get windy outside.
  • If you want to eat at the restaurant at Miraflores it's best to call ahead so you can request a table with a view. You can dine in air conditioned comfort indoors or choose to dine al fresco. Just be aware that it can be breezy, so you may want to carry a light jacket.

Visiting hours for the locks:

  • Miraflores Visitor Center admission is B/.15.00 (B/.10.00 for children between 6 and 12). (Balboas are currently equivalent in value to USD.) Hours: open daily 9-4:30.
  • Expect to pay B/.5.00 to visit Gatun Locks (free for anyone under 12). Hours: open daily from 8:00-4:00, including holidays.
  • Avoid visiting the canal at midday (between about 10:30am-2pm). You won't see any ships in the locks during that time. This is when the canal changes directions, and it takes that long to clear the canal.

For additional information on the Panama Canal or to make a reservation at the full-service restaurant, call +507 276-8325 or -8449. You can also email cvm@pancanal.com.

On our blog:

Panama has so much more to offer than the Panama Canal alone, and not everything is in the guidebooks. We have written a number of articles about traveling around Panama for you to enjoy, based on our experience of living there for nearly three years.

On the bookshelf:

Want more?

We’ve partnered with the folks at Get Your Guide, a reputable source for booking local tours, attractions and activities. For more ideas of what you can do in Panama, click here

Have you seen it yet? If not, you need this helpful first-hand Guide to Visiting the Panama Canal.

Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries She has an insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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46 thoughts on “A Local’s Guide to Visiting the Panama Canal

  1. This is awesome, Linda! I lived in Panama City for four years when I was younger, and Panama is by far one of my favorite countries to visit. My apartment looked right over the Panama Canal – Something about it is so romantic to me… the merging or the Pacific and Atlantic oceans… the way it looks from up high… the way it looks from the inside of a boat as you’re passing through it. I love this, and I think a ton of people will get so much value from this information. Thanks for sharing.

    1. That’s so kind of you to say, Neysha. Have you been back? You’d be shocked at how much Panama has changed in the last few years. It’s certainly growing quickly and there’s a ton of money being infused into the country from multinational corporations.

  2. I remember once a school teacher that told us about visiting the Panama canal. I still remember how thrilled I was from the story. I would love to visit one day

  3. I loved visiting the Panama Canal! We went to the Miraflores locks, I found the museum to be especially interesting. Never knew you could drive across the canal though, that would be so cool!

  4. Great guide! We hit the Panama Canal last year and loved it – it was fun actually viewing it from above after we had hiked to the top of Ancon Hill – had brilliant views over the canal and watching the boats come through

    1. Cory, you can do it; there’s an elevator at Miraflores as well as a ramp to get in. I really hope you decide to go because it’s one of those things you’ll always treasure.

  5. Wow! This is a Bucket List experience we have yet to make. Such a comprehensive post with all sorts of aspects I never imagined. Loved the idea of driving across! Must seem surreal. We’ve wanted to see the Canal ever since we read David McCullough’s book. Thanks for putting it back on the radar.

  6. I’ve never visited Panama before, but your guide to the Canal looks amazing! I’ll save it for when I go there 🙂

    1. We’ve had a chance to boat on the canal and swim in it, but never sailed through the locks (not yet, anyway 🙂 ). Did you have a chance to visit Panama City too?

  7. The canal is quite fascinating, Linda. I found your post very interesting and quite enlightening. This narrow water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans always fascinated me. I would definitely like to go see it person. That picture that you took wile crossing it is not only beautiful, but it gave me a different perspective of the canal. Before I’ve got to the part where you explain how the ships travel through the Panama Canal, I was asking myself how in the world can these huge vessels travel through such a narrow space. It makes sense that the captains yield control of the ship while it’s transiting the canal.

    1. I think that having those special pilots is the smartest thing that the canal authority could do. Can you imagine how horrible it would be for shipping if a ship ran aground in that narrow area? The canal would have to shut down for weeks.

  8. I didn’t realise they were expanding the Panama Canal. I think would be such a cool thing to experience and the museum really interesting – I love all the history of engineering feats.

  9. Linda, I have had the opportunity to visit both sets of locks and see the Pedro Miguel locks from afar. I loved the experienced. The most complicated part of passing through the canal is the locks. They are a bit more than 100 feet wide. When a Panamax ship enter the locks, I think there is only half a meter left on each side. That is why a captain with expertise on that maneuver is needed. I watched a Panamax ship crossing and it was impressive. I would love to go back and see the finished expansion.

    1. If I were a captain I would be thrilled to let a pilot take over taking the ship through the canal. I’ve been through locks in Europe and our cruise ship only fit by a few inches. Navigating is such a skill. So much more so with those bigger locks. I’m with you on seeing the finished expansion. Wouldn’t that be something!?

  10. you make this far more interesting than I ever thought something as functional as a canal could be. It must be interesting to be on one of the cruise ships that go through. Your photo of your car on the canal is fantastic! thanks for joining #wkendtravelinspiration

  11. This is so informative. I’ve considered going on a cruise through the Panama Canal, but it somehow never occurred to me to experience it as an observer on the land. You’ve enlightened me. That’s so cool that you can drive through the canal, although perhaps a bit nerve wracking.

    1. You are so right, Michele. You have to exercise your faith to cross a rickety steel mesh bridge, knowing there’s a wall of water on one side and seeing a close-up view of the Caribbean (along with a big ship) on the other.

  12. My in-laws are planning a trip to Panama (and we’re tagging along!) and transiting the canal is #1 on my mother-in-law’s wish list. I’m glad I remembered you guys have so much info on Panama! The canal sounds so interesting. Time to start planning!

    1. I hope you find some useful articles on our website, Ali. We try to be helpful so please let us know if there’s something special that we’ve missed. And please share your thoughts when you return. I hope you end up liking Panama as much as we do. Have a great time!

  13. Thanks so much. We are going in January for a transit with UnCruise Adventures. So excited. This is an awesome primer for our voyage. Cheers and happy travels!

    — JR

  14. Hi Linda,

    Your article is very informative. I am wife of seafarer and I would like to know that is there any rule or policy which states that no visitor should be on commercial (bulk carriers/ container carrier) ships while passing through panama canal. If any visitor found, authority charges heavy fine to shipping company. My husband and I, we both do not have any idea about this fact. However, we both tried to find out on internet about the same, but we have not found any relevant information. Can you please help me out if you know anything related to this information?

    Thanks

    1. We’ve never heard of anything like that. I would be inclined to believe that if any such fines exist they would apply to paying passengers rather than a spouse accompanying a crew member.

      That said, we’re not authorities on Canal rules. I’d suggest that you contact the Canal Authority’s Operations Information Office directly (https://www.pancanal.com/eng/contact/operations/ to ensure you’re obeying the rules. If there’s a fine they might offer a workaround solution, such as you could pay a small fee beforehand.

      If you are still a bit nervous, you might also want to keep a printout of their response during your journey to ensure your peace of mind.

  15. i was planning a visit to central America and would cross from Costa Rica to David ,Panama.Then when i looked at a map, i saw a thin strip of water cutting through Panama.On closer inspection, it seemed to be the Panama canal.Then i saw this article.Now i have to visit Panama city and the canal.And to think that I almost ended my trip in David then return to Costa Rica would have been a lost opportunity.Seems like a fun place to visit thanks to this article

  16. Hi Linda:
    If I wanted to go from Panama City to see the Gatun Locks and then drive on to Fort San Lorenzo and back to Panama City at the end of the day, would you still suggest taking a taxi for each leg of the journey?
    Thanks, John

    1. Hi John,
      Finding an available taxi at Gatun and/or San Lorenzo might be difficult. I think you’d be better off hiring a driver for the day and paying him by the hour. We did that before we bought a car and paid $10/hour back then. A lot of taxi drivers are happy to offer their services or your hotel concierge might have a recommendation.

      Alternatively, you can rent a car for the day or book a tour similar to this one. Your idea sounds great – hope you have a good time!
      Best, Linda

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