Visiting the Panama Canal is, quite simply, a must when in Panama.
Indeed, apart from its eponymous hats, the most famous thing people know about Panama is its canal. This enormous feat of human engineering allows ships to pass from one ocean to another at a rate of 14,500 per year.
Stretching all the way across Panama, from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, the project to make trade easier in this part of the world has been centuries in the making.
Today it remains an integral part of global trade, and aside from being a shipping route, also draws visitors to marvel at the enormous ships (and smaller ones, too) gliding slowly along the water, and miraculously being lifted by a system of locks through a once impassable and treacherous mountain range.
Visiting the Panama Canal was certainly the highlight of my time in Panama City, and since it is a very easy day trip from there you simply can’t miss it! Curious to find out more? Continue reading, as in this post I share some interesting facts and tell you everything you need to know to plan your visit.
The History Of The Panama Canal
Construction on today’s Panama Canal started 118 years ago, but its history goes back much further than that. The idea to create a sea route that cut through the narrow isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, actually arose in 1534.
It was King Charles I of Spain (who was also Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor) who gave the all clear to survey a potential route to shortcut the route between Europe and the western side of South America (Chile and Peru today), as well as Spain’s colonies in East Asia, namely the Philippines.
The only option at the time for ships en route to Peru and Chile, and across the Pacific Ocean, was to sail all the way around the South American continent, but this wasn’t easy: it meant a dangerous ride through the treacherous Strait of Magellan.
But forming this new passage across the Panamanian isthmus was unachievable at the time, as dense jungle as well as mountains lay in the way.
Sir Thomas Browne, an English scientist and all-round polymath, wrote in his 1668 encyclopedia, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, that a shipping route across Panama would “open a shorter cut unto the East Indies and China.” Even Scotland — an independent kingdom at the time — attempted to colonize the jungle-clad area in 1698, in a project known as the Darien Scheme, but it failed pretty badly.
Fast-forward a century or so, and still the Panama Canal has not materialized. In 1788, future US president Thomas Jefferson attempted to convince the Spanish to construct the canal, with various plans put forward for the scheme. However, this did not come to pass.
But it seemed to be possible. This was evidenced in the following decades when a number of successful canal projects were successfully undertaken internationally; the Erie Canal was one of them, passing through the middle of New York.
In 1843, Great Britain got involved, and plans were made (and funding secured) to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama, but the scheme never even got off the ground. A stop gap in the form of the Panama Railway was built by the Americans in 1850, which went from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast across the isthmus, but it still wasn’t a canal.
It wasn’t until the French got involved in 1880 that the Panama Canal as it appears today began to take shape. The project was led by Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, the engineer behind the Suez Canal, which had already been completed in 1869.
The French team originally planned a canal that would cut through the land, just like the Suez (i.e. at sea level), but the construction workers were underprepared for the challenge. It was rainy season when they broke ground, and the constant downpours severely waylaid the plans, causing landslides and flooding.
They also had to connect with the thick jungle landscape and its spiders, snakes, and malaria-spreading mosquitoes. Around 22,000 workers are estimated to have died, at a rate of over 200 per month, before the French gave up. They had spent a hair-raising amount of money, went bankrupt, and there was a scandal back in France (and internationally) that became known as “the Panama Affair” (or “the Panama Scandal”).
However, this wasn’t to be the end of French involvement in the Panama isthmus. In 1894 another company from France got involved, and settled on the idea of a canal which would move with the contours of the land rather than one that sliced through it. This would be carried out using a system of locks to move ships through the canal instead, raising them up and down as it went.
The Americans then became very interested in the project. Under Theodore Roosevelt, the US purchased the French project for USD $40 million. However, there was a problem. At the time, the area that is now Panama was part of Colombia, and dealing with the sovereign state proved to be tricky.
In order to gain control of the Panama Canal, the US backed Panama’s bid for independence and agreed a deal with the new government instead. The two countries signed a treaty in 1903 giving the US permanent ownership of the canal.
Sovereignty wasn’t the only problem, however. For some reason, the US-owned project went ahead with the old plans for a sea-level canal (not the lock system), which proved disastrous. Yellow fever and malaria spread through the workforce, they struggled to get enough people to actually work on the project, and finally the head engineer resigned.
In 1905 a specialist of railway construction, John Stevens, was drafted in. His answer to the dwindling labor supply was to enlist West Indian workers. New equipment was purchased, they thought of new ways to speed up the process, and most importantly, Stevens convinced Roosevelt that the lock system was the way to go.
The success of this project was in part due to Colonel William Gorgas, the chief sanitary officer of the canal project, who believed that the mosquitoes were causing much of the disease in the area. Upon this realization, efforts were made to fumigate large swathes of the canal zone, including bodies of water and private homes. It was largely successful — the last reported case of yellow fever in the region was in 1905, with cases of malaria also falling dramatically.
The next year, John Stevens quit. He was replaced by George Goethals, who was particularly known for his role in getting through the Culebra Cut, a 9-mile mountainous portion of the canal plan. This dangerous part of the project saw injuries and deaths from dynamite use and landslides, but work continued here virtually around the clock.
Eventually, in 1909 the locks — three systems of multiple locks in total — began to be put into the canal cuts, and the project was finally completed in 1913, with steam-operated diggers meeting in the mid-section of the Culebra Cut. The final dam keeping water from the last section to be flooded was finally dismantled, and the canal was complete.
On August 15th, 1914, the Panama Canal was declared open for business. It had cost a total of USD $350,000,000. At that point in time, it was the most costly project ever undertaken by the US. An estimated 5,600 of the 56,000-strong workforce perished during the canal’s construction between 1904 and 1913, but it’s believed to have been much higher.
The impact of the Panama Canal cannot be understated. It was at the time, and remains today, an integral trade route. It didn’t remain in US hands, being gradually signed over to Panamanian authorities; management granted in 1977 and full ownership handed over in 1999. But US sea traffic still makes up the bulk of ships passing through the canal, with the majority of them serving US ports.
In 1994 the Panama Canal was voted as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. As of 2010, over a million ships have passed through the canal and its three gargantuan locks.
More modern history has seen an expansion project take place along the Panama Canal. Traditionally, ships around the world have been built to fit the dimensions of the canal’s first locks — 330 meters (1,083 feet) long and 33.5 meters (110 feet) wide.
The onset of modern trade and demand for larger ships that can carry more goods led to a decade-long expansion project of the locks. Ending in 2016, this project saw the addition of two extra locks, each with three levels, that are big enough to allow huge Panamax ships to pass through.
How Does The Panama Canal Work?
At a total length of around 80 kilometers (50 miles), the Panama Canal is a network of artificial lakes, channels and three large lock systems. There’s also an additional artificial lake that acts as a reservoir for the canal.
It needs a lot of water to work. In fact, for every ship that completes the passage along the Panama Canal, freshwater at a rate of 52 million gallons (197 million liters) gushes into the ocean.
Basically, it works with the locks essentially lifting the ships up over the mountain range and then back down over the other side. The lock systems allow the canal to travel to 26 meters (85 feet) above sea level, meeting at the highest point — the man-made Gatun Lake.
Gatun Lake is the main water source for the canal, flowing down both towards the Atlantic and the Pacific. Not only that, but Gatun Lake also provides drinking water to the cities of Colon and Panama City.
When it opened in 1914, it was the largest man-made lake in the world. It’s also the main power supply for the electric locks and locomotives of the canal, thanks to a hydroelectric dam (Gatun Dam).
Ships that traverse the canal have to pay a toll — much like you would do when using a toll road. This varies depending on the type of ship and what sort of goods they’re carrying. Again, depending on the type of ship and traffic on the canal, it can take anywhere between 20 and 30 hours to get through the canal. The canal handles many more ships than it was ever planned to, resulting in many improvements and additions made to the canals and lock systems.
Another integral part of the Panama Canal are the small but powerful trains found at the sides of the locks. These are called mulas (mules) — a nod to the pack animals that once traversed the trade route over the isthmus of Panama. Ships are tethered to these locomotives, one on either bank of the lock, guiding them through and ensuring that the vessels are able to pass through the locks safely without hitting the sides.
Practical Information For Visiting The Panama Canal
Best places to see the Panama Canal
Apart from being on a ship that travels through the Panama Canal (I haven’t personally done this, but a friend of mine actually crossed the Panama Canal on a sailboat and saw it from a unique perspective), there are several places where you can get a good glimpse of this man-made wonder. Namely, that would be at one of the various locks that make it all work.
The first – and possibly best – place for visiting the Panama Canal would be Miraflores Locks – they are very close to Panama City and easy to get to. At this point ships are raised or lowered 16.5 meters (54 feet) over two levels, from or towards the port district of Balboa in Panama City, on the Pacific coast.
The visitor center at Miraflores Locks provides an ideal vantage point to see it all happen. There’s an observation gallery and outdoor terraces, from where you can see the ships pass through the giant locks.
You can even find a souvenir shop here, an IMAX room that tells the story of the canal, and even a restaurant where you can have dinner and drinks while watching the locks at work. I will be going over more details about visiting the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks in a bit.
Ten kilometers (6.2 miles) to the southwest of Colon is Gatun Locks. This is the biggest lock system of the Panama Canal. Measuring in at 1.5 kilometers (one mile) long, the locks move ships 26 meters (85 feet) to or from Gatun Lake.
Unlike the Miraflores Locks, there’s no souvenir shop or restaurant at Gatun Locks. But there is an observation deck where visitors can take in amazing views out over the lock and the lake itself. There are way fewer people here than at Miraflores Locks, plus it seems as if you can get much closer to all the action.
The viewing platform has a live audio description of all the ships that are passing through at that time (available in English and Spanish). There are also employees on hand to give further information to visitors.
If you have your own set of wheels, you can even drive over the canal itself. A road was constructed here that passes over the water; make sure to slow as you do so (but don’t stop!) as the view from here of the passing vessels is incredible.
For a guided tour that goes to the Gatun Locks, click here.
Agua Clara Locks
Another good place for visiting the Panama Canal is the Agua Clara Locks. Over the years expansion projects have been undertaken on the canal, and the Agua Clara Locks visitor center allows you to see the sheer scale of it. Set on the Atlantic side of the canal, not far from Colon, it’s big enough to accommodate enormous Panamax ships.
The shiny new visitor center at Agua Clara Locks provides visitors with an amazing vantage point over the project. Here you can learn about the history of the route, the technology behind it (there’s a projection room, for example), and catch a glimpse of the vessels moving through the locks.
There’s a large lawn here that overlooks Gatun Lake, along with picnic benches and tables. Elsewhere the covered viewpoint gives a bird’s eye view out over the locks and the sprawling lake itself.
Pedro Miguel and Cocoli Locks
The least popular places for visiting the Panama Canal are also the least crowded – here you can only see the locks from the highway, there is no visitors’ center, so it’s not that great of an experience, unless you join a cruise that goes through the locks.
For a cruise along the Panama Canal that goes through the Pedro Miguel Locks, click here.
Guide To Visiting The Panama Canal / Miraflores Locks
Miraflores Locks is the most popular place for visiting the Panama Canal and see it in action, thanks to its location close to Panama City. This makes it easy to get to (but also often quite busy with other visitors).
How to get to Miraflores Locks
One of the best ways to get to the Miraflores Locks is to self-drive from Panama City. It’s pretty straightforward, and takes around 20 minutes, but requires renting a car.
If you don’t feel like driving, it can be done independently either by taxi or by bus. Taxis are definitely more expensive, and again the drive takes around 20 minutes. You will have to agree on a price for the ride before you actually get in the taxi.
Traveling to the Miraflores locks by bus is the cheapest option, but perhaps not the best one as it can be time consuming. Buses from Albrook Terminal in Panama City are not that frequent; you need a MetroBus card to travel by bus; and it drops you a 15-minute walk away from the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center itself.
Guided tours from Panama City
Another – easier – way of visiting the Panama Canal Miraflores Locks is to join one of the many guided tours that depart regularly from Panama City.
There are all sorts of tours, ranging from half-day jaunts that show visitors the highlights of the canal, including Miraflores Locks, to full day tours that also include a guided tour of Panama City or other attractions in the area.
For a guided tour of the Panama Canal and Monkey Island, click here.
You can also take a tour from Panama City that is an actual cruise, allowing you to transit through the Miraflores Locks and see it all first-hand – I wish this had been available when I visited!
For a cruise along the Panama Canal, southbound, click here.
For a northbound cruise, click here.
Opening hours of the Miraflores Locks
You can visit the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks every day from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm – the ticket office closes at 5:00 pm.
Best time for visiting the Panama Canal
It’s not a good idea to visit Miraflores Locks in the middle of the day. That’s because there are no ships that pass through between 10:30 am to 2:00 pm; this is the time when the Panama Canal changes directions. Time your visit either for early morning or later in the afternoon.
Miraflores Locks admission fee
Visiting the Panama Canal is actually not cheap. Expect to pay $22 – the fee includes the Panama Canal movie at the IMAX Theater.
Panama Canal History Museum
In order to get a better understanding of the Panama Canal for Panama as a country, and also for global trade as a whole, you should also visit the Panama Canal History Museum. Located in Panama City, the museum opened its doors in 1997. Here you can learn about the various stages of construction, including the French efforts, the United States project and the transferal of the canal over to Panamanian control.
Situated in the Casco Viejo, the museum itself (a non-profit organization) is located inside an attractive building dating to 1874, and was once the original headquarters for both the French and US companies that attempted to build the canal over the years.
For more guidance in planning your trip to Panama, make sure to read the following posts:
- A Guide To Sailing San Blas Islands, Panama
- A Guide To Bocas Del Toro, Panama: 12 Best Things To Do
- A Guide To Portobelo, Panama
- Where To Stay In Panama City
- 22 Things To Know Before Visiting Panama