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Visiting the Panama Canal was definitely a highlight of my time in Panama. This post will cover exactly how to visit the Panama Canal and what you should know before you go!
What is the Panama Canal?
Okay, so we’ve all heard of the Panama Canal. It’s kind of a big deal, after all! But spending some time at the canal showed me that I actually knew very little about its history.
Most of the information in this section comes from the very informative iMax movie you can watch about the canal, narrated by Morgan Freeman. But more on that later.
The original idea for a canal through Panama dates back hundreds of years. Spanish explorers dreamed of a canal that would make travel between the two oceans much faster.
Without the canal, the only options were to sail all the way around South America or to unload the ships on one side of Panama, carry the cargo on foot through dense jungle, and load them onto another ship waiting on the other side.
So yeah, there weren’t many good options.
It wasn’t until the 1880s that the dream of a canal through Panama was actually put into action. The man responsible for the Suez Canal, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, was in charge and planned to dig a sea-level canal across 50 miles of jungle.
It didn’t go well. Many workers died due to mosquito-borne diseases and torrential rains repeatedly slowed down progress. The project was dropped for several years.
It was picked up again by the United States in the early 1900s. This time, they build a lock canal instead of a sea-level canal.
To do this, a man-made lake was built in the place that they had once tried to dig out for the canal. Ships would be 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 was opened in 1914.
Now, there is also a Panama Canal extension with bigger locks that allow larger ships to pass through. When you visit the Panama Canal, you’ll be able to see the larger extended locks in the distance.
Where is the Panama Canal?
One Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal is just outside Panama City. The Atlantic Ocean entrance is in Colon.
The Panama Canal isn’t one long skinny waterway. It is actually a system of locks that raise and lower ships into a lake that spans 50 miles across the isthmus of Panama.
When most people talk about visiting the Panama canal, they are likely referring to visiting the locks at each entry point that raise and lower the ships up to that lake for passage.
Visiting the Panama Canal from Panama City
When you visit Panama City, you definitely need to visit the Panama Canal Locks. We were able to see ships out on the Pacific Ocean waiting in line for passage, but it was nothing like seeing the lock system up close.
The best way to get to the Panama Canal from Panama City
Getting to the Panama Canal from Panama City is pretty easy! From Panama City, take the metro to the Albrook Mall Bus Station.
You’ll exit the metro outside the bus station. Walk across the street to the taxi/Uber pick-up area. Either take a taxi or call an uber and ask them to take you to the Miraflores Locks.
When it’s time to go home, you can either have an uber or taxi take you back to the Albrook Mall Bus Station and take the subway into town, or you can catch a ride back to the city directly.
What can I expect to see at the Panama Canal?
There are three main attractions to see at the Panama Canal: the museum, the iMax movie, and of course, the Canal itself.
At back of the visitor center, you’ll see a series of observation platforms that face the locks. From here, you can see the original Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal.
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.
When you see a ship coming, head up to the 4th-floor deck for the best view. It takes about 30 minutes for a ship to go all the way through the lock and several ships pass through each day.
Occasionally, there will be a lull between ships so there won’t be much to see on the observation deck. When this happens, head inside to the Panama Canal Museum.
The museum is four levels of interactive exhibitions, displays, and movies about everything Panama Canal. It would probably take hours to read everything, but you can get a good sense of the museum in about 30 minutes to an hour.
The Museum is included with your ticket to the observation decks.
The iMax Film
When you purchase your ticket, you’ll have the option to add on an iMax movie about the history and future of the Panama Canal. I’d highly recommend you do this since the film was very informative and helped us better appreciate what we were seeing.
The film lasts 45 minutes and it’s narrated by the fabulous Morgan Freeman, so you know it’s gonna be good. It will take you through the history of the canal in great detail with reenactments and impressive areal footage.
When is the best time to go to the Panama Canal?
According to the gentleman working at the information desk, the best times to see ships are in the morning from 8:00 am until 11:00 am and in the evening from 3:00 pm until closing at 6:00 pm.
If you happen to arrive in the middle of the day when there are fewer ships traveling through, ask one of the information desk workers when the next ship is supposed to come through and explore the museum in the meantime.
Is there anywhere to eat or drink at the Panama Canal?
Yep, there are a few options for food and drinks at the canal. On the ground floor outside, facing the canal, there is a snack shop with empanadas, coffee, and bakery items.
On the third level of the visitor center, there is a higher-end restaurant called the Atlantic and Pacific Co. We ordered a few beers here and sat outside on the patio while we waited for the ships to come through.
If you go to the iMax movie, there is also a snack bar there serving popcorn, soda, candy, and other movie snacks.
How much does it cost to visit the Panama Canal?
The Miraflores Visitor Center is open from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm every day. If you’re a traveler, admission to the observation deck and museum costs $20. The iMax costs $10.
If you’re a resident of Panama, the observation deck and museum cost $3.
Is visiting the Panama Canal worth it?
Visiting the Panama Canal is absolutely worth it! We spent nearly the whole day at the Panama Canal and honestly, I would go back again if I had the chance. Between the museum, iMax, observation decks, and comfortable restaurant, we felt well taken care of.
The Panama Canal is a piece of history that’s more complex and impressive than I imagined. It’s one of those things you have to see for yourself and it definitely lived up to the hype.