In 1914, when the first ships sailed through the Panama Canal and directly into the history books, a route for ships that united two oceans was unlocked, shaving nearly 9,000 miles off of the long sailing trip around South America. The engineering triumph forever transformed global trade.
The best way for Panama visitors to see the canal is to literally get in the middle of it—on a transit cruise tour, travelers can experience the sensation of passing directly through the canal, watching as locks are filled with water and your ship passes steadily through. It's also possible to see the locks by train, as you pass by the banks and through pristine rain forest en route to Gatun Lake. Or, to learn the fascinating history behind this marvel of modern engineering, visit Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, a museum that tells the story of the incredible engineering feat through its exhibits. The center's restaurant, theater and terraced decks also provide a comfortable vantage point for watching ships pass through.
Today, over a century after the grand public works project was installed, the Panama Canal has once again been expanded with new locks and widened existing ones to accommodate much larger ships that can carry three times as much cargo—expanding from roughly 4,000 containers to about 13,000.
Insider's Tip: By booking ahead with a guided tour, there's a much higher likelihood of actually seeing the Panama Canal in action.
The morning hours and late afternoon are the best times for actually watching a ship pass through the canal. You can also visit the Gatun locks about an hour from Panama City, where a Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center helps detail the steps involved in working to expand the canal.
Did You Know? Depending on a ship's size, the toll to pass through the Panama Canal can be up to half a million dollars.