A Slice of History: Visiting the Panama Canal
When it comes to places like the Panama Canal I’m such a nerd. I get a true thrill from visiting the places I read about as a child, never dreaming I’d see them in person (Easter Island is still my favorite).
So the one place I knew I wanted to visit on my mileage run to Panama City was the canal. And it didn’t disappoint, though I got the impression other tourists were a little let down.
And when I say visiting the canal, what I mean is going to the Miraflores Locks Tourist Center. The canal starts just south of Panama City and I think there’s even a footpath or bike trail, but if you want to see the locks in action, Miraflores is the best place to go.
Getting to Panama Canal
Not walking distance, but a cheap cab or Uber if you’re not going via a tour group. You don’t really need a tour to see the canal, transportation is easy and the museum, etc is self-explanatory.
And Uber is possible even without a data plan. The Miraflores Visitor Center has free wifi so you can pull up the app for the return trip. I took UberX on the way out from Casco Viejo for $5, Uber on the way back was roughly $10.
One thing to note if Ubering – you’ll type in Panama Canal Locks or Miraflores Visitor Center which it will recognize, and then the destination will show up as Colon.
And since all the guide books tell you not to go to Colon (which is on the other coast), this can cause some anxiety. Don’t worry, if you typed in one of the locations above, you’re fine. And if like me, you still worry, then type in Miraflores Restaurant or Atlantic Pacific Restaurant just so it won’t display Colon. 🙂
Experiencing the Canal
The Visitors Center offers 3 main outdoor viewing options for the locks.
There’s a place on the ground floor with picnic tables, the locks at eye level and someone narrating what is happening.
There are bleachers on the first floor with the same narration. Unfortunately, when I was there they were repainting or something so we were all crowded into a small area.
And on the top floor there’s a birds eye view of the locks with a lot of rail space.
The Atlantic Pacific Restaurant on the second floor also offers outdoor seating with a view of the locks. Reservations are recommended for prime viewing locations.
Miraflores Restaurant on the fourth floor supposedly did as well but it no longer seems to exist.
So, no matter where you are, it’s still pretty cool to watch the ship coming in to the lock and the water level being slowly raised until it’s at the level of the lake. It takes about 8-10 minutes to complete each of the two transitions, which still use the original gates and technology from the early 1900s.
I was fascinated and enthralled, but I geek out about this stuff. A teenage tourist standing near me commented that “I thought it would, you know, be more impressive.”
A fair point, as there’s nothing very dramatic about watching a boat slowly rise or fall in a confined space. So whether you’re captivated or disappointed will depend entirely on what you’re hoping for.
Note: you can’t always count on a boat coming through while you’re there. I’d assumed the canal was constantly busy, but I arrived just in time to see a big freighter coming through and then nothing else happened the two hours I was there.
Experiencing the Miraflores Visitor Center
Prioritize seeing the boats in the locks as you can’t count on it happening during your visit. If one is coming in to the lock, run to one of the viewing platforms. Well not run, but briskly make your way.
The rest of the offerings are good, but not essential.
There’s a 3D movie theater with Dolby surround sound that takes you through the history of the canal. The theme is that the US built it, but it wasn’t until the efforts of some true patriots freed the canal from US control and into Panamanian ownership that the canal became truly important. 20 minute showings in English are on the hour every hour, in Spanish every hour on the half hour.
It was interesting to find out they’re building another canal parallel to the existing structure (the gravel hill in the background) which will allow for significantly more traffic — wide enough for three giant ships across.
There’s also a museum that showcases the history of the canal with pictures, models, and interactive displays, including how it feels to pilot a ship through the locks.
Keep your ticket handy as you’ll need to scan it for admission. Unfortunately two of the museum levels were closed for renovation while I was there.
I’m seen posts on other blogs where people got to cross the bridges atop the canal gates. I would have loved to do that but didn’t see an option anywhere, though I would have gladly paid more.
Overall impression: the experience was not what I expected but still incredibly enjoyable, since I’m a bit of a history buff. Depending on the boat schedule and how thoroughly you like to peruse the exhibits, and hour and a half to two hours is more than enough time to fully enjoy the canal experience.
More from this trip
Why I Just Spent 28 Hours on a Plane
A Night in the Love Ouch
Don’t Pay for Lounge Access at the Crowne Plaza Panama Airport Hotel
Review of the Crowne Plaza Panama Airport Hotel
5 Reasons to Use Uber in Panama
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