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Panama Canal Travel Tips: What You Need To Know Before You Go

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

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A trip to Panama is incomplete without visiting the Panama Canal.

You can explore the museum in Cosco Viejo and witness the canal’s operations in person at the visitor center in Miraflores. There, you can also watch an IMAX documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman detailing the canal’s history and witness ships in transit.

Ranked as one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World, the Panama Canal was built to shorten the travel time for ships between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. With over 900,000 vessels having passed through it, each ship takes 8-10 hours to transit through the canal.

For a different perspective, visit the Agua Clara Visitor’s Center in Colón on the Atlantic side of the Canal. It’s home to the new and larger locks, providing a view of both the canal and the ships.

The Panama Canal’s backstory is fascinating. Once known as the “Panama Canal Zone,” the strategic waterway was officially handed over to Panamanian control on December 31, 1999, after over one million ships had used it.

The original idea dates back to Spanish explorers who dreamed of a faster way to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The 50-mile canal was finally built in 1914 as a lock canal, with ships lifted up to 85 feet using a system of locks to cross a man-made lake.

Workers faced challenges like mosquito-borne diseases and downpours, causing delays until the US took over in the early 1900s.

If you’re planning to visit the Canal, the Miraflores Visitor Center is just a quick 15-minute drive from downtown Panama City, while the Agua Clara Locks are located an hour away.

You can also opt for public transportation or ride-share services to reach Miraflores, where taxi drivers are available on-site to take you back to your hotel or the nearest bus stop.

During my visit, I took a taxi from Miraflores to Casco Viejo and the fare was around $20.

My mother and I were unable to spot a passing ship during our tour, but we thoroughly enjoyed learning about the canal’s history and observing the operations team from above. It was truly fascinating!

If you have some time, it’s worth staying on the observation decks for a while to watch the line of ships queuing up to pass through the lock, which can take up to 30 minutes per ship.

The fourth-floor deck offers the best views and experience.

I highly recommend taking in the sights and sounds of the canal from this viewpoint.

The Panama Canal museum is a four-level interactive experience filled with fascinating exhibitions and movies that showcase the rich history behind the Canal. I captured this photo at the end of the tour, where you’ll find an elevator that takes you up to the observation deck for a breathtaking view.

If you’re short on time, don’t worry! The tour covers a lot of information, so a brisk overview is sufficient. I recommend setting aside 30 minutes to an hour for the self-guided tour inside. Best of all, admission to the museum is included in your ticket to the observation deck, so you’re getting two experiences for the price of one.

During my 2022 visit, the IMAX movie about the Panama Canal’s history and future was closed to the public due to safety and health concerns.

However, I plan to return to catch the film, as I’m sure it’s an incredibly informative and engaging experience worth watching.

In my guide to exploring Casco Viejo, I suggest the optimal time of year to visit Panama, and according to the Panama Canal staff, the best times to observe passing ships are between 8:00 am and 11:00 am and in the evening from 3:00 pm until the closing time of 6:00 pm.

Should you become hungry during your visit, there’s a snack shop on the ground level that faces the canal, offering tasty empanadas, coffee, and bakery items for purchase.

For a more upscale dining experience, head up to the third level of the visitor center, where you’ll find the Atlantic and Pacific Co. restaurant, providing delectable food options as you wait for ships to pass by.

While at the iMax movie, you can grab some snacks at the bar, including popcorn, soda, and candy.

Visiting hours for the Miraflores Visitor Center are from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm every day. Admission to the observation deck and museum is priced around $20, while the iMax experience costs $10.

For Panama residents, the admission fee for the observation deck and museum is approximately $3.

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