Looking down on the huge torrents of water flowing through the locks, and the massive steel doors that slam shut to control the flow of water, it’s hard not to be impressed when you visit the Panama Canal.
The canal provides a handy shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This saves vessels around two weeks if they were to navigate all the way around the tip of South America, and avoids the perilous Cape Horn and Drake Passage. Synonymous with Panama, it’s an engineering feat that has to be seen in person to be believed.
Visiting the Panama Canal is one of the most popular things to do in Panama City. To help you plan your visit the Panama Canal, read on for my tips on the best way to see the Panama Canal.
This blog post may contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you!).
History of the Panama Canal
Let’s start with a brief history lesson on the Panama Canal. The idea of a canal was first floated (pun intended) in the early 1500s by Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the Spanish explorer. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the French made attempts to create a canal – all of which failed.
During those failed attempts, it’s estimated around 22,000 people died, mostly due to diseases like yellow fever. (A further 5,000 died during the later construction era.)
In 1904, the United States took control and construction was underway in earnest. The canal was officially opened in 1914, but it wasn’t actually handed over to Panama until 31 December 1999.
In 2007, the Panama Canal expansion project began, designed so the canal could handle today’s megaships. The project aimed to double the capacity of the canal by adding a new shipping lane, and increasing the width and depth of the locks so that larger ships could pass through. The first commercial operation through the expanded canal was in 2016.
How does the Panama Canal work?
So how does the Panama Canal work exactly? In very simple terms, ships enter into a lock and gates close around it, making a watertight chamber. Water flows in to fill the space, causing the ship to rise up to the water level of the next lock. Once the ship is at the right water level, the gates open and the ship transits to the next lock and the process begins again. When you visit the Panama Canal, you’ll have a chance to see all of this in action.
The canal’s three lock systems control the flow of water, lifting and lowering the water level to allow ships to pass through from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and vice versa. The locks are required because the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are at different levels.
The Miraflores Locks raise and lower ships 16 metres, the Pedro Miguel Locks 9 metres, and the Gatún Locks raise and lower vessels 26 metres.
As the ships pass through the locks, they must relinquish control to a pilot from the Panama Canal Transit Authority. This is one of the few times this ever happens on a ship!
The amount of fresh water that is flushed into the sea as each ship passes through is staggering: 100 million litres. Did I say per ship?
Ships are designed and built to fit through the canal – and with the now-completed expansion, larger ships are being built. It takes 8-10 hours for boats to transit through the 80-kilometre-long Panama Canal, and about 15 minutes to pass through each lock. Around 13,000 tankers, container ships and cruise ships pass through the canal every year. For the most part the Panama Canal is a two-way street, but there are sections that are too narrow for ships to pass each other, so there is a tight schedule to manage this. Ships pass from north to south for 12 hours a day and then the direction changes for the next 12 hours.
Every ship that passes through must pay a toll. These fees bring in around $2 billion a year. The largest toll ever paid was $829,468 by a container ship passing through the newly expanded locks. The lowest toll ever paid was a mere 36 cents in 1928 by adventurer Richard Halliburton who swam the canal.
Visit the Panama Canal
To see this incredible sight in action – one of the best things to do in Panama – you need to head to one of the three locks along the canal:
- Miraflores Locks – closest to Panama City, this is the busiest of the three locks and how most people tour the Panama Canal. On site is a modern visitor’s centre with videos showing the construction of the Panama Canal. This is the best and easiest way to visit the Panama Canal.
- Gatun Locks – located in Colón, about 80 kilometres from Panama City, these locks receive fewer tourists.
- Pedro Miguel Locks – while these locks can’t be visited, they can be seen from the highway.
You can even take a one-day boat tour along the Panama Canal – but bear in mind it’s a long day if you choose to traverse the entire canal. You can also look for partial transit options that go through only one or two locks. There are plenty of tour companies that offer these trips, just take a look online.
How to visit the Miraflores Lock
Most people head straight to the Miraflores Locks to visit the Panama Canal, the easiest of the locks to visit. It’s got a great museum with four exhibition halls that share a heap of Panama Canal facts, a theatre that shows a brief historical video (in both English and Spanish), a restaurant and three observation terraces that overlook the canal. Of course, with all these facilities and its proximity to Panama City, it is also the busiest of the three locks.
The best time to visit the Panama Canal is between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. and from 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. when ships are more frequent. Around 11 a.m. the Panama Canal changes direction, which takes some time, so there’ll be no ship sightings at this time. You can view the schedule online or call ahead to confirm.
While the thought of watching a ship pass through a lock may not sound exciting, trust me when I say that I was completely in awe of this incredible sight.
During our visit to the Panama Canal we joined the crowds along the windswept terrace and gazed down upon the gushing water and huge ships passing through. It was impressive, but it certainly wasn’t intimate. Read on for what I think is the best way to see the Panama Canal!
Miraflores Locks Cost
B/.15 for adults (US$15) and B/.10 for children aged 6 to 12 years. Free admission for children under 6.
The Miraflores Locks visitor centre is open daily (including holidays) from 8.00 a.m. until 6.00 p.m.
The on-site restaurant, Atlantic & Pacific Co., is open until 10.30 p.m.
How to get to the Miraflores Locks
A drive from downtown Panama City will take around 45 minutes, whether by private car, taxi or Uber.
Alternatively, you can take any Paraíso or Gamboa bus from the Albrook Bus Terminal. Get off at the Miraflores Locks sign. Bus rides in Panama City are very affordable and, since the crazy Diablos Rojos buses (red devils) were abolished, safe and easy to use.
The city’s hop on and hop off bus also has a stop at the Miraflores Locks.
How to visit the Gatún Locks
After visiting the Miraflores visitor centre, we decided to see another side of the canal, and boarded the Panama Canal Railway bound for Colón, located on the Atlantic Ocean. The glass-domed train is a two-hour round trip, and the journey to Colón is a picturesque journey along the canal.
Before I go on, it’s worth mentioning that Lonely Planet describes Colón as “best avoided” and capable of sending “shivers down the spines of hardened travellers and Panamanians alike”.
We had no problems while we were there, and I didn’t feel unsafe, but our driver did surreptitiously show us the gun he kept in his glove box (although he wouldn’t tell us if he’d ever had to use it before). He also cautioned us against travelling alone, and was very reluctant to drop my friend and me off at the bus stop by ourselves after we’d finished visiting the Panama Canal. While I had my suspicions about his motives, and guessed that he would have preferred to keep us scared so we’d continue to use (and pay for) his services throughout the day, I’m not going to argue with a big guy with a gun.
Having painted that wonderful picture, I would still strongly urge everyone to visit these locks.
The Gatún Locks – only about 10 minutes by car from the train station – were amazing. We were the only people there, and the viewing platform was so close we could almost reach out to touch the vessels inching past, each barely centimetres from touching the sides of the lock.
We got the full treatment from the man in charge – he told us the history of the canal, showed us the records of some of the ships that had passed through that day, and explained how the pilot system works (a ship captain has to hand over control to one of the Panama Canal pilots, who guides the vessel through the entire length of the canal – it’s the only place in the world where this happens). Quite good service, I say.
The Agua Clara Visitor Centre at the Gatún Locks (newly opened since I visited) has a projection room showing a historical video, a coffee shop, restaurant and a children’s area.
B/.15 for adults and B/.10 for children 6 to 12 years. Free for children under 6 years of age.
The Agua Clara Visitor’s Centre is open daily, including holidays, from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. The restaurant is open from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. and coffee shop from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
How to get to the Gatún Locks
The best way to get to the Gatún Locks is via the Panama Canal Railway, which runs between Panama City and Colón. Tickets are US$25 per adult. You’ll then need to take a taxi from the station to the locks. Negotiate to get the best price!
Note that the train runs Monday to Friday only.
Tour companies can organise day trips – look online for options. Alternatively, you can drive to the locks from Panama City.
How to visit the Pedro Miguel Locks
The Pedro Miguel Locks does not have a visitor’s centre, but you can get a good view of the activity at the locks from the car park and the highway. This is the cheapest way to see the Panama Canal, although you’re not going to have the same experience as you would at the other Panama Canal locks.
24 hours – there’s no visitor centre (see above)
How to get there
The Pedro Miguel Locks are a 10-minute drive from Miraflores.
The best time to visit Panama City
Located in the tropics, Panama City has a balmy year-round temperature of 24°C to 29°C (75°F to 85°F). Humidity is high. The best time to visit Panama City is from mid-December to mid-April during the summer dry season. Of course, this is also the high season.
How to get around Panama City
It’s fairly easy to get around Panama City, with plenty of transport options:
- Taxis are plentiful and cheap. Negotiate with the driver before you get in, as taxis don’t have metres.
- Uber is thriving in Panama City and just as simple to use as in any other major city in the world.
- Panama City has an extensive bus and metro system. This blog post outlines how to use both.
- The city also has a hop on hop off bus that makes stops at the major tourism attractions.
Where to stay in Panama City
By far the best area to stay in Panama City is Casco Viejo (also sometimes referred to as Casco Antiguo). It’s full of beautiful old buildings that transport visitors back in time and are a stark contrast to the skyscrapers and chaos of Panama City.
Recommended accommodation options include:
- W Panama brings the hotel’s usual hip luxury (Calle 50 and Aquilino de la Guardia). Check prices on Booking.com.
- The American Trade Hotel has the bonus of a swimming pool – perfect after wandering the streets all day (Plaza Herrera). Compare prices on Booking.com and HotelsCombined.
- Tantalo, a hip boutique hotel with a happening rooftop (Calle 8 Este con Avenida B). Check prices and book your room online with Booking.com or TripAdvisor.
Safety in Panama City
Considered the most modern city in Central America, you can stay safe in Panama City by following a few precautions:
- Only use the yellow licensed taxis.
- Don’t wander around at night, and don’t stroll into unknown neighbourhoods alone even during the daytime.
- Be careful with your cash and only carry with you what you need.
- Keep your eyes on your belongings at all times.
- Don’t flash around your expensive camera and phones.
- Don’t carry your passport around with you, take a copy instead.
- If something does happen, don’t fight back! Valuables can be replaced, your life cannot.
Have you visited Panama? Did you visit the Panama Canal when you were there? Leave your best tips for visiting the Panama Canal in the comments below!
This post was published in September 2010, and updated in November 2018.