Traveling to Panama without visiting the Panama Canal is like going to New York City without seeing the Statue of Liberty. There are many ways to explore the Panama Canal including dramatic canal-side observation facilities, a nearby fort reached via a bridge that lets your drive over the Panama Canal at Gatún Locks and, of course, you can cruise the canal. We did it all since one of us (guess which one) is certifiably canal obsessed.
First, here’s how the Panama Canal moves ships from ocean to ocean. The Panama canal consist of six lock chambers. Three are on the Pacific side (there are two locks at Miraflores and a third at Pedro Miguel) and three locks are on the Atlantic side (all of them at Gatún). Massive Lake Gatún lies in the middle.
Ships enter the first three locks and are raised a total of 87 feet to reach Lake Gatún which they slowly travel across. Then they enter the second set of three locks which lowers them back to sea level. Think of locks as water-powered escalators.
Our time-lapse video, below, shows two cruise ships passing through the Miraflores Locks and will demonstrate how this engineering wonder works.
Another time-lapse video, below, shows a container ship being lowered through the Miraflores Locks.
Panama Canal smack down: Miraflores vs Gatún Locks
The Miraflores Visitors Center (US$15 adult, US$10 children) includes a museum, snack bars and observation platforms that allow you to watch mega ships pass gracefully through the Miraflores Locks right in front of your very eyes.
The Miraflores Visitor Center is located just outside Panama City and is a popular stop for tourists. Their restaurant lunch buffet is said to be as terrific as the views. However, Miraflores isn’t the only way to get close to the action in the Panama Canal.
The Gatún Visitor Center (US$5, children free), located close to Colon on the Atlantic side, has an observation area over Gatún Lock which is the longest lock in the whole canal since all three lock chambers are together here. It’s a simpler facility but it’s also the cheapest observation point on the canal, you can get closer to the action here and it doesn’t get nearly as crowded as Miraflores which can be wall to wall at times.
There’s also a third observation option called the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center (US$15 adult, US$10 children). It’s the only place where you can get a good look at the work being done to build larger parallel locks. These locks will be the size of four football fields and able to accommodate larger so-called “New Panamax” ships which are so big they can carry 12,000 containers as opposed to the older “Panamax” ships which carry just 5,000 containers.
Even after seeing the enormous machinery and massive engineering challenges involved in the canal expansion project it was still difficult to comprehend the scale of the work.
The expansion project, which has cost US$6.5 billion so far, was started in 2007 and is expected to be done in 2015 (though it’s already blown through one completion deadline). When the expansion is complete, this observation facility, with its sleek design, restaurant and short nature loop trail, will serve as a third canal observation area.
Cruise the Panama Canal
If you’ve got the time and the money (at least half a day and around US$135 per adult and US$85 per child) you can experience the Panama Canal by traveling through the locks on a tourist boat. On board guides do a good job of explaining the engineering wonders of the canal and the process of moving safely through the locks.
The tourist boats are some of the smallest vessels that travel through the Panama Canal and it’s quite dramatic to be on board when the boat is squeezed into a lock along with massive cargo ships for the ride up (or down) inside the lock as water rushes in or is drained out.
One-way canal cruises depart from either Panama City or Colon with bus transport one way. Half day cruises take passengers through three locks while full day cruises include all six locks taking you from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or vice versa.
We, of course, did the full day cruise through all six locks. You can take the trip through the Panama Canal from ocean to ocean in under 11 minutes in our video, below, from on board our Pacific Queen canal cruise tourist boat.
A free way to travel through the canal is to volunteer to be a deck hand on a small boat scheduled to move through the locks. The Panama Canal authority requires a minimum number of line handlers on all vessels traveling through the Panama Canal and many small boats simply don’t have enough hands in their normal crew. Captains looking for volunteers through the canal post notices at area marinas.
Drive over the Panama Canal
The San Lorenzo Fort (US$5) is cool. The Spanish finished the fort in 1599 and its position at the mouth of the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean allowed the Spanish to stay vigilant against pirates who were on the hunt for the treasures the Spanish were hoarding. Today you can see massive stone walls, turrets and domes plus great views down the Chagres. The fort was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
Getting to San Lorenzo Fort is even cooler than the fort itself because it involves waiting for the massive, metal gates at Gatun Locks to close then watching as a metal swinging bridge rotates to create a roadway over the canal. Then you drive over the Panama Canal.
Our truck gingerly entered the small bridge and we crept right past massive metal lock doors which were so close we could almost touch them as we passed. Water actually sprayed out from cracks and crevices in the doors which made the drive even more dramatic.
Locked up on the Panama Canal
You can’t actually visit it, but there’s a prison on the banks of the Panama Canal. It’s called El Renacer Prison and Manuel Noriega, former dictator of Panama and nemesis to the US, calls it home.Though Noriega was on the CIA’s payroll at one time, he ultimately became the first foreign head of state to be convicted in a US court. The US wanted him so bad we even launched a short-lived but bomb-filled invasion of Panama to get this guy which pretty much destroyed the Casco Viejo area which is now the hippest neighborhood in Central America.
Panamanians call Noriega la cara piña (pineapple face) because of his famously bad complexion. Given the nasty stuff Noriega was involved in and the bad things he did to his own people (murder, money laundering, corruption, drug trafficking) you’d think they could come up with something meaner.
Panama Canal fast facts
- More than 14,000 vessels a year use the 48 mile (80 km) long Panama Canal to cut 8,000 miles (13,000 km) and millions of dollars off their transport costs by short-cutting through the isthmus of Panama between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans instead of navigating the long and dangerous route through the Strait of Magellan or around Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America.
- More than one million vessels have gone through the Panama Canal so far.
- The existing Panama Canal locks can accommodate ships up to 106 feet (32 meters) wide by 950 feet (290 meters) long. Many ships are built exactly to these specifications and they are called “Panamax” ships. When the expanded parallel locks are finished they will be able to take ships up to 160 feet (49 meters) wide and 1,200 feet (365 meters) long. Those larger ships are called “New Panamax” ships.
- Average transit time is between 8 and 10 hours.
- 5% of the world’s maritime traffic goes through the Panama Canal.
- The countries that ship the most goods through the Panama Canal are the US and China.
- The concrete walls of the Panama Canal locks are 55 feet (17 meters) thick.
- In 2013, 12,045 ships traveled through the Panama Canal generating US$1.8 billion in tolls.
- Cruise ships pay US$134 per occupied berth which is over US$300,000 for a Panamax-size cruise ship. Container ships pay US$82 per full container and a Panamax ship can carry 5,000 containers. Vessels must also pay a myriad of additional charges and handling fees.
- It cost US$375 million to build the Panama Canal including US$10 million paid to Panama and US$40 million paid to the French Canal Company for the rights to the canal which they’d originally started and abandoned.
- The Panama Canal celebrated its 100th birthday on August 15, 2014. A lot of the original infrastructure, including the massive lock doors which hold back tons and tons of water, are still being used today.
- Scientists learned the hard way that malaria is caused by mosquitoes, not bad air (mal aire), during the building of the Panama Canal. More than 5,600 workers died during the US completion of the canal and as many as 22,000 died during the failed French attempt at the canal, many of them from malaria.
- In 2011 Gary Saavedra, a champion surfer from Panama, rode a static wave through the Panama Canal for more than five hours covering more than 40 miles (64 km) and setting a Guinness Book of World Records milestone for the longest wave surfed in open water.
- In 1928 Richard Halliburton, an adventurer from the United States, paid 36 cents for the right to swim through the Panama Canal. He’s still in the Guinness Book of World Records as having paid the lowest toll ever on the Panama Canal and it’s a record that’s likely to stand since swimming through the canal was promptly banned.
- The United States had jurisdiction over the Panama Canal until full control went to Panama on December 31, 1999.
- The Panama Canal, which employs more than 10,000 people, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Still want to know more about the Panama Canal? Read “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullough, you big geek.
Bonus: There are two ways to sleep next to or even on the Panama Canal including in an abandoned US Army Radar Tower turned into a hotel on the banks of the canal and in Panama’s only houseboat hotel, right on canal waters. We’ll tell you all about that in our next post.
Read more about travel in Panama