How to Visit Panama Canal: Everything You Need to Know
One of the must-see places and the best things to do in Panama City is visiting the Panama Canal, one of the world's greatest engineering marvels. Here's our travel guide on how to visit the Panama Canal either independently by public transport or with a tour.
The logical association when you hear the word Panama is probably the Panama Canal.
No matter you've never planned on visiting Panama, and no matter you do not know anything about the country, the Panama Canal is a famous notion. Even when you think the technical landmark is so far away, and it does not have anything to do with you, you might be wrong. The Panama Canal is roughly speaking the short cut between the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean, and if you from time to time buy something from overseas, or if you eat exotic fruit back at home, chances are these items were shipped via this canal.
The Canal is one of the best man-made industrial feats of the 20th century, the result of engineering brilliance and one of the most significant accomplishments in our modern history, and although we are usually not into visiting technical attractions, we could not miss this world's wonder when we arrived in Panama City, where we not only could watch how it works, but we could also pay tribute to all the workers who died during the construction.
We visited the Panama Canal from Panama City independently by public transport, and we traveled to the most popular and the nearest place from where it is possible to see the ships and the canal, Miraflores Locks.
Here is our guide on how to get to the Panama Canal on own without a tour.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PANAMA CANAL
The idea to create a passageway via Panama between the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean is pretty old.
At the beginning of the 16th century the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa first crossed the isthmus and saw the immense potential the canal could have for ship transport, but at that time it was not impossible to build it, especially because constructing the canal is technologically advanced.
In the late 19th century French people tried to build the canal but were facing many difficulties like financing the project, political corruption either in Panama and France, they were dealing with the rough landscape, and last but not least the project suffered heavy personal losses as many workers died due to tropical diseases such as yellow fever. French were not able to complete the project, so the United States took over, and it was officially opened in 1914.
During years, the Panama Canal was a sensitive topic for Panamanians - not only thousands of them died altogether with foreign workers while working on the construction, but also the canal was administered by the USA until 1999, only then was the Panama Canal fully given to Panama's hands.
HOW THE PANAMA CANAL WORKS
Simply put, the Panama Canal works thanks to the system of three locks.
The system is very similar for every ship entering the Canal - it can be a small ship (although passing the Panama Canal is insanely expensive, so it is usually used by big vessels) or a ship carrying thousands of passengers or large cargo. A ship enters the lock, later the lock closes, and vaults are open to fill up the chamber with water.
It takes approximately 8 minutes to fill the chamber and to elevate the ship. Thanks to it the ship rises to the water level of the next lock and can safely pass through. It takes approximately eight to ten hours to get from one ocean to another.
When in the locks, the boat captain must relinquish control to one of Panama Canal's pilots.
WHERE IS IT POSSIBLE TO SEE THE PANAMA CANAL
The Panama Canal is 80 kilometers long, and of course, it is not possible to see the whole stretch, not mentioning that it would not have been that entertaining.
Generally, there are three main places where to see the Panama Canal - Miraflores Locks, Gatun Locks, and Pedro Miguel Locks.
These are the places where you can watch how the system works, and the way how's the ship either lowered or elevated.
The most popular place to visit for watching the Panama Canal is Miraflores Locks - the center is closest to Panama City, and you can also visit here museum and see a film. Pedro Miguel Locks are the least visited, as you can see the locks only from the highway, thus the least impressive.
Gatun Locks are 80 kilometers from Panama city in Colon, a city which has a questionable reputation because of the safety, but if you are traveling only to see the canal and back to the capital without much wandering around, you should be fine.
TRAVELING INDEPENDENTLY VS TRAVELING WITH A TOUR
We decided to visit independently Miraflores Locks, the closest place for watching the canal to Panama City.
We found the journey from the city center simple enough and did not have a feeling we need to take a tour with a guide as everything was pretty much explained in the museum.
However, if you want to be picked up in your hotel and not to get around Panama City by public transport, you can reserve this tour. Also, if you are looking for a more exceptional experience, there is an option to book a tour which includes the sailing the Panama Canal.
HOW TO GET FROM PANAMA CITY TO THE PANAMA CANAL (MIRAFLORES LOCKS) INDEPENDENTLY
Getting to the Panama Canal on own is fairly easy. Unless you want to take a taxi (regular cab or Uber normally cost between $10 - $15 one way), or unless you have a rental car, there is a public bus going from Panama City directly to Miraflores Locks.
To use public transport in Panama City, you need to buy a rechargeable plastic card for $3, and charge it. One ride in the city costs only $0.25. First, you need to get to the main bus terminal Albrook Station - we were staying in the city center, so we took the metro, but it seemed that every single bus is eventually heading to Albrook bus terminal, in case you do not have a metro entrance nearby your hotel.
On Albrook station you need to find a bus going to either Paraiso or Gamboa. It is better to ask around, but the bus was waiting on the ground floor on the left side to the bridge we had to cross from the metro to the bus terminal, and it stopped in the lane closest to the bus terminal building. In case you will have hard times to find it, the staff is happy to help. The bus dropped us off in front of the visitors center, and when we wanted to get back to Panama City, we only had to wait a couple of minutes at the same place.
WHAT TO DO IN MIRAFLORES LOCKS CENTER
Once you buy a ticket, you can enter the visitors center, where are several things to do.
The highlight is undoubtedly the viewing platform. Ask at the information center what time will be the next ship going through Miraflores Locks, and plan your time accordingly. You can either go to the platform straight away to find the best place for watching, or you can go to the museum, cinema or restaurant.
Well, we recommend you to avoid the restaurant on site as it is overpriced, rather bring your snack.
The four-floor museum is interesting. You can learn how the Panama Canal works, you can read more about history, the technical side of the canal and about people who were behind the construction. Do not forget to go to the cinema, to watch a 20 minutes long film about the Panama Canal.
ENTRANCE FEE FOR VISITING MIRAFLORES LOCKS
Honestly, we found the admission to the Miraflores Center pretty expensive.
The price has increased recently, and nowadays, foreign visitors must pay $20 for one ticket. Visiting Panama Canal is definitely not a budget-friendly thing to do in Panama, but on the other hand, it is an exceptional attraction not to be seen anywhere else in the world.
WHEN TO VISIT THE PANAMA CANAL
Although the visitor center in Miraflores Locks is open almost all day, from 8 AM to 5 PM, the best way how to enjoy your visit is to find out the exact times when the ships are passing by, because when the lock is empty the sight is not that entertaining.
Usually, this place on the Panama Canal is at its busiest between 9 AM to 11 AM and then after 3 PM, so try to schedule your trip accordingly. For the exact times, do not hesitate to contact the visitor center directly.
WHERE TO STAY IN PANAMA CITY
The most popular and also convenient place to stay in Panama City is within the historical center of Panama Viejo or in one of the modern chain hotels offering the sea view. If you are looking for something cheaper, look for a room in other areas.
Budget | Hotel Valencia - This budget-friendly hotel is located within walking distance to the historic center, metro station, and bus station. Staff is friendly, and the place is safe. We spent our stay there and can recommend it to all budget travelers.
Mid-range | Tryp by Wyndham Panama Centro - Beautifully appointed and air-conditioned rooms close to the city center offers the best value in Panama City. Among the best features belong outdoor pool, fitness center, and rooftop view.
Luxury | Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis - A stylish accommodation overlooking the city and oceanfront has everything you might think of including spa, sauna and steam bath.
You can also search for all hostel options using HostelWorld.
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