You can’t leave Panama without seeing one of the most significant accomplishments in Panama’s history. The Panama Canal took the lives of over 30,000 people and allowed ships to quickly transverse the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, increasing world trade. To truly appreciate what the canal is and represents for Panama I recommend watching a documentary before your trip. The one below provides a good overview of the construction of the Panama Canal.
After watching a documentary, you are ready to see the actual canal. There are several ways to experience the Panama Canal and I’ve narrowed down all the possible ways you can do it. From visiting museums, having dinner, or actually going through the locks, here is how to visit the Panama Canal.
Visit The Miraflores Visitor Center
The most common way to visit the Panama Canal is going to the Miraflores Visitor Center, which is about a 20-minute drive or a $5 Uber ride (also accessible by Metro Bus) from Panama City. There is an interactive museum with a viewing deck where you can watch the locks operate in action as large cargo and cruise ships pass through the Miraflores Locks. I recommend getting there first thing in the morning because there is a period typically between 10 am and 2 pm where the boats do not go through. Operating hours are Monday – Sunday (holidays included) from 8 am to 6 pm and the museum has a $20 entrance fee.
Panama Canal Museum In Casco Viejo
There is actually another Panama Canal Museum in Casco Viejo. While you don’t actually get to see the locks here, I think this museum provides a better overview of the history of the canal than the one at the Miraflores Locks. My favorite part is the photo exhibit on the top floor that has 100’s of old photos of Casco Viejo. The museum is open Tuesday – Sunday from 9 am – 5 pm with a $10 entrance fee.
Have Dinner At Atlantic & Pacific Co.
My personal favorite way to see the Panama Canal is to skip the museum and have dinner at the canal instead. Make a dinner reservation at the Atlantic & Pacific Co. restaurant (this is at the Miraflores locks, same place as the museum) and request to sit on the balcony so you can see the boats. I recommend making a 5 pm reservation and you can watch the sunset over the canal or after 8 pm if you want to avoid weekday traffic. Just don’t go for lunch because it’s an overpriced buffet, but the dinner is excellent, and entrees are $20-$25 plus you don’t have to pay the $20 entrance fee when you are just eating at the restaurant.
Partially or Fully Transit The Canal
You can actually transit through the canal locks by booking a Partial Transit Tour. The tour lasts approximately 6 hours and includes hotel pickup and dropoff, lunch, and non-alcoholic drinks. You’ll also have a knowledgeable guide that will explain how the canal works and other fun facts.
Drive Over The Gatun Locks
If you have a car you can actually drive over the Gatun Locks on the Colón side of Panama. This is a great photo op and the closest you can get to the canal without actually going through it.
Agua Clara Visitor Center
The canal locks have recently been expanded and there is a new viewing center overlooking the Agua Clara Locks in Colón. However, the problem with the center is that it’s 1.5 hours from Panama City without any type of shuttle nor easily accessible via public transit for tourists so it requires renting a car or booking a tour to get there. The center is open from 8 am – 4 pm and has a $15 entrance fee.
Ocean To Ocean Canal Tour
The Ocean To Ocean Canal Tour is a unique way to fully experience all that the canal has to offer. The tour starts with hotel pick-up in Panama City where you will then take a boat in Gamboa to the famous Monkey Islands where you will see capuchins, howlers, and tamarin. From here you will head to the Caribbean side of Panama to visit the Agua Clara Visitor Center to see the newly expanded canal locks. The next stop is Fort San Lorenzo where you’ll have lunch and visit a 400-year-old Spanish fort on a scenic cliff overlooking the Caribbean. You’ll then head back to Panama City where you’ll be dropped off at your hotel.
What is your favorite way to visit the Panama Canal? Leave a comment below.