A visit to the Panama Canal is at the top of most travelers’ bucket lists when visiting Panama City, Panama. And for a good reason! This engineering marvel is one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World facilitating more than $270 billion in goods through its waterways each year.
Whether you’re an engineering enthusiast eager to admire the Canal’s impressive lock system or just want to witness this iconic symbol of Panama, this guide shares everything you need for a memorable visit.
Table of Contents
- Quick facts about visiting the Panama Canal
- Where is the Panama Canal located?
- History of the Panama Canal
- The best time to visit the Panama Canal
- How to see the Panama Canal
- Cost to visit the Panama Canal
- What to expect at the Miraflores Visitor Center
- What to bring on a trip to Panama
- Check out my other Panama City travel guides
Quick facts about visiting the Panama Canal
- Closest city: Panama City, Panama in the south, and Colón, Panama in the north
- Ancestral Lands: Cueva
- Completed in: 1914
- Visitor Centers:
- Length of Canal: 50 miles (80 km)
- Cargo passing through annually: Around 14,200 ships or 40% of U.S. container traffic
- Can you ride through the Panama Canal? Yes, on approved cruise ships or passenger boats
- Cost to visit: DIY tour $7.22 – $17.22 (Children under 6 are free) | Guided Tours $125+ pp
Where is the Panama Canal located?
The Panama Canal is a 50-mile-long manmade Canal that connects the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. The Canal begins near Panama City in the south of Panama and winds through Gatun Lake until it reaches the Caribbean Sea near Colón.
History of the Panama Canal
The United States gets the credit for the construction and initial success of the Panama Canal, but many people don’t realize The French were the ones who came up with the idea. French engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, attempted construction on the Panama Canal in the 1880s after purchasing the rights from the Colombian government.
Life in Panama (Colombia) at that time was brutal. The workers faced immense challenges, including diseases from malaria and yellow fever along with harsh working conditions in the Colombian jungle.
They lost so many lives from disease that it led a scientist to discover the cure for malaria and tie these diseases to the mosquito! 🦟
An estimated 22,000 people died in the original construction by the French. Financial troubles, the continuous loss of workers, and engineering miscalculations led to the failure of the French project.
In 1903, the same year Panama became an independent country from Colombia, the United States negotiated a deal to take over the canal project. President Theodore Roosevelt created The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty which granted the U.S. control of a ten-mile-wide zone to construct the canal.
Construction on the Panama Canal began in 1904 and took 10 years to complete. Unsurprisingly, the conditions for the workers remained dismal, which made the successful completion of the Canal all the more remarkable.
There’s a lot of controversy around the construction of the Canal. Gatún Lake which connects the two waterways resulted in the removal and displacement of indigenous tribes and the decimation of the area’s ecosystem. You can learn more about the controversial construction in this video.
The engineering marvel of the Panama Canal lies in its system of locks, which allows ships to pass through the lake despite varying elevations. The Canal has three locks — Gatun, Pedro Miguel, and Miraflores. Each lock lowers and raises the water level to move vessels between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The U.S. maintained control over the canal until December 31, 1999, when the Panama Canal Authority assumed command transferring the ownership back to Panama. Since the transfer, Panama has expanded the Canal to meet the ever-growing need for larger vessels to pass through its waterways.
The best time to visit the Panama Canal
You can visit the Panama Canal year-round. Both visitor centers are open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
December to April is Panama’s dry season which is an ideal time to view the ships without rain interruptions. Panama’s wet season lasts from May to November making it a less favorable time to go.
We visited in July 2023. It was very hot and we had to plan our daily activities around the expected rain. However, the lower cost of travel during its low tourism season was worth it to us. Thankfully, it didn’t rain on us during our visit!
If you are planning a trip to Panama City, check out these other awesome things to do in the area.
How to see the Panama Canal
You can visit the Panama Canal on a ship. It’s common for cruise ships visiting Panama to pass through the Canal giving passengers a super unique viewing experience! If you’re not onboard a cruise ship or your cruise ship isn’t passing through the Canal you can:
- Visit one of the two visitor centers; or
- Book a Panama Canal Tour
For most visitors staying in Panama City, you can visit the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Visitor Center about a twenty-minute drive from Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama.
There is another visitor center in the north on Gatún Lake about 20 minutes from Colón City. Depending on where you are staying in Panama, you can choose the closest visitor center to you.
Panama Canal tours
Taking a Panama Canal tour is one of the most popular ways to experience the Panama Canal. Most tours offer you the unique vantage point of getting to pass through the canal and often visit other interesting places in Panama, too.
Tours are the more expensive option of the two, but it can be a memorable experience and an easy way to learn about the canal’s history without a lot of planning and effort.
Below are a few of the most popular Panama Canal Tours:
A Guided 6-Hour Cruise on the Pacific Queen Ship. This Panama Canal tour takes you on an informative and leisurely passage through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks. If you want to experience the Canal from onboard a ship without having to traverse the entire waterway, this tour is for you!
- Cost: $145 per person
- Time: 6 hours
- Food and drink included
- Hotel pickup service
Panama Canal Tour and a Visit to Monkey Island. This scenic boat ride takes you to the Miraflores Visitor Center and continues to Gatún Lake where you’ll visit Monkey Island. This island is home to hundreds of native monkeys! If you want the most bang for your buck (two trips in one experience) then this is the tour for you!
- Cost: $129 per person
- Time: Half day
- Visit Miraflores Locks and Monkey Island
- Downtown Panama City pickup and dropoff
Panama Canal Partial Transit Tour. This tour picks you up in Panama City and takes you through the Pacific Ocean before reaching the Miraflores Locks. You’ll take a leisurely passage seeing major icons of the city, like the Bridge of the Americas.
- Cost: $150 per person
- Time: 6 hours
- Visit Miraflores Locks and pass through the locks
- Food and drink included
- Panama City Hotel pick up and drop off (not in Casco Viejo)
A DIY Panama Canal tour
The other option is to visit one of the two visitor centers solo on a DIY Panama Canal Tour. If you want to see ships passing through the canal during your visit, call the visitor center beforehand to confirm the passage time for that day.
❗The Panama Canal Visitor Center website shares estimated times to view ships passing through the canal. However, these times can’t always be trusted. Since there are so few captains who can drive the ships through these waterways, delays and unexpected changes can cause ships to delay their passage.
We visited at 9:00 am based on the schedule on the site, but once we arrived were told no ships would be passing through until 5 hours later. You can visit when ships aren’t passing through, but it definitely adds to the experience.
Cost to visit the Panama Canal
Most tourists who are visiting the Panama Canal will go to the Miraflores Visitor Center from Panama City. It’s a short 20-minute drive if you have a rental car. You can also take a taxi for around $5 or an Uber, which is slightly more economical at $3.50 one way.
💵 The Visitor Centers charge $17.22 per adult aged 18+ or $7.20 for children aged 6 to 17 (cash or card is accepted). Children under 6 years old are free to enter. (Pricing as of December 2023, you check updated pricing here).
Your ticket includes a 3-D iMax movie about the Canal that is narrated by Morgan Freeman. We absolutely loved the movie. We learned so much about the canal’s history, the construction, and the challenges of building this modern marvel.
There are set times for viewing recommend viewing the movie before you go to see the ships to have a deeper appreciation.
Keep in mind, your ticket is good for only one visit. You cannot leave and come back with that same ticket in case there is a delay in ship crossing. Make sure you ask when a ship will cross through before buying or that you time your visit appropriately for any ship passages that day.
What to expect at the Miraflores Visitor Center
The Miraflores Visitor Center has two sections of bleacher seating and a platform that overlooks the lock so you can see the ships pass through. However, this place gets packed when ships pass through. Unless you elbow your way to the front, it can be hard to see what’s happening.
We’ve witnessed lock systems like this in Canada and were blown away by ships of this size and magnitude that can traverse these narrow waterways.
🤓 Fun fact: It takes 8 minutes for a lock to fill up with water and it takes a ship 8 to 10 hours to get fully through the canal!
It’s really cool getting to see a ship pass through the canal. We couldn’t believe how little margin of error there was with just a few inches of space on each side of the ship. Captaining a boat through the canal is only done by a few select people. To help move the ships along they are connected to steel ropes that are pulled by trains called “Mules”.
Additionally, there are bathrooms, and a movie theatre refreshment stand selling things like candy, sodas, and popcorn if you get hungry.
A visit to the Panama Canal is a must on a Panama City trip. Even if you are here for a short time, it’s worth squeezing into your itinerary. Hopefully, this guide helps you plan your visit to the Panama Canal including your options and what to expect from each. If it did help, let me know in the comments below. And don’t forget to include these things for your big trip.
What to bring on a trip to Panama
Here are a few things you should bring on a trip to Panama.
- Travel Insurance: We always recommend having travel insurance to cover the “what-ifs”. While visiting Panama is safe, it’s nice to know you would be covered if there were any major medical emergencies or trip interruptions. Our go-to travel insurance is Safety Wing. You can get a free quote for coverage by clicking here.
- 💳 Travel credit card with no international fees: Most places in Panama City (Panama Canal included) will take credit cards and debit cards. However, your bank likely charges an international fee! We always use this travel credit card when abroad because we earn points that we can redeem for future travel and it has no international fees.
Check out my other Panama City travel guides
- The Perfect 1 – 2 Day Casco Viejo Itinerary – Most tourists will stay in Casco Viejo. This guide shares the top things to do here, the best places to eat, and where to stay in a 1 to 2-day itinerary.
- Ancon Hill – Hiking Cerro Ancon – If your goal is to see wildlife or capture an epic shot of Panama City Ancon Hill is the place to do it. This guide shares everything you need to know about hiking here.
- 10 Very Best Things to Do in Panama City – Take a look at the top 10 things to do on a trip to Panama City, Panama.