Know Before You Go | Visiting The Panama Canal
No trip to Panama is complete without a visit to the Panama Canal. You can visit the museum in Cosco Viejo and also see the canal in person at the visitor center at Miraflores; where you can watch an IMAX documentary that details the history of the canal narrated by Morgan Freeman and watch the ships in transit.
The Panama Canal is actually one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World, built to dramatically decrease the travel time for ships between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the Canal has seen over 900,000 vessels and counting and it takes 8-10 hours for each ship to make the transit through the canal.
For another vantage point, you can visit the Agua Clara Visitor’s Center on the Atlantic side of the Canal in Colón to see both the ships and the canal. Agua Clara is where the brand new, larger locks are housed.
Want the full Canal experience? Book a call with me and I would love to add to your personalized itinerary, a crossing of the Canal as a day trip for you to see the locks from a completely new perspective than most travel and tour.
The backstory of the Panama Canal is quite fascinating. Today we call it the Panama Canal, but many once remember it being the ‘Panama Canal Zone’. On December 31, 1999, the United States, in accordance with the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, officially handed over control of the Panama Canal, putting the strategic waterway into Panamanian hands for the first time. Since then, over one million ships have used the canal.
The original idea for a canal through Panama dates back to when Spanish explorers dreamed of a canal that would make travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans faster. Today, the 50-mile canal links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans respectively.
Without the canal, the only options were to sail around South America or to unload the ships on one side of Panama only to then carry the cargo by foot through a jungle environment and load them onto another ship awaiting on the other side.
It wasn’t until the 1880s that a plan of action for the canal was put into motion. The man behind it was Count Ferdinand de Lesseps who was planned to dig a sea-level canal across 50 miles of jungle.
It was no easy feat as one could imagine. In fact, several workers died due to mosquito-borne diseases and not to mention torrential downpours slowed down the progress, causing the project to be dropped for several years; until it was picked up again by the United States in the early 1900s to be built as a lock canal instead of a sea-level canal.
To achieve this, a man-made lake was built and ships were lifted up to 85 feet above sea level using a system of locks so they could sail across the lake and be lowered back down to the sea on the other side.
The original canal opened in 1914.
To visit the Canal, the Miraflores Visitor Center you are a short 15-minute drive from downtown Panama City. The Agua Clara Locks are a 1-hour drive away. If you decide to take public transport or ride share to Miraflores they have taxi drivers on location should you need one to get back to the bus stop, your hotel or such. I took a taxi back to Casco Viejo and it was roughly $20.
My mom and I didn’t get lucky enough to spot a passing ship during our tour, but we loved learning about the history of the canal and seeing the operations team in action from above. It’s fascinating!
Depending on the time of day, you’ll likely be able to see a line of ships qued up to pass through the lock. Hang out on the observation decks for a while to see them pass through.
Highly recommend taking in the sights and sounds from the 4th-floor deck for the best view. If you’re lucky to have a ship come through the canal, prepare for about 30 minutes for the ship to go through the lock.
The museum experience is comprised of four levels, filled with interactive exhibitions and movies to share the rich history behind the Panama Canal. I snapped this photo towards the end of the tour, where you are guided to an elevator that takes you up to the observation deck.
The tour is comprised of a lot of information, so no worries if you can’t get through it all, a brisk overview of everything is fine, I would allocate about 30 minutes to an hour for the self guided tour that’s a available indoors.
The Museum is included with your ticket to the observation deck so you’re only paying once.
I visited in 2022 and during this time the iMax movie about the history and future of the Panama Canal was closed to the public due to safety and health restrictions. I plan to go back and see the film, I think the IMAX experience is one to take in for sure as I imagine it is super informative and engaging.
In my Casco Viejo city guide I share the best time of year to visit Panama and after connecting with Panama Canal staff I am told that the best times to see ships coming are from 8:00 am until 11:00 am and in the evening from 3:00 pm until closing at 6:00 pm.
If you find yourself getting a bit hungry during your visit, not to worry, on the ground level facing the canal, there is a snack shop that serves empanadas, coffee, and bakery items for purchase.
On the third level of the visitor center, you’ll find a higher-end restaurant called the Atlantic and Pacific Co. where you can order a bite and wait for ships to come through.
If you go to the iMax movie, you’ll have access to the snack bar that serves popcorn, soda, and candy.
The Miraflores Visitor Center is open from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm each day and admission to the observation deck and museum costs around $20. The iMax experience costs $10.
If you’re a resident of Panama, the observation deck and museum cost roughly $3.