The world-famous Panama Canal is a must-see for visitors to Panama City, but to fully appreciate it, head to the Miraflores Locks. The engineering marvel in action is a mesmerizing scene, with some 700 tons (635 tonnes) of machinery, reinforced against the mighty Pacific, and cargo-laden ships squeezing through with just inches to spare.
There are several locks in the Panama City area, including the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, Gatun, and Cocoli locks. Closest to the city, the Miraflores Locks are the only site set up for visitors. Explore the state-of-the-art 4-story Visitors Center, where fascinating exhibitions, video and 3D film presentations, and interactive displays chronicle the building of the Panama Canal, its history, how it operates, and the passage of ships through the locks. Tickets include access to the two viewing terraces with a prime view over the locks.
A stop at the Miraflores Visitors Center is a popular inclusion on Panama City tours, often in combination with a drive through the Panama Canal Zone, a photo stop at the Bridge of the Americas, or a walking tour of Old Town (Casco Viejo), a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Things to Know Before You Go
- On-site facilities include restrooms, a gift shop, and a restaurant with a view over the locks.
- Allow up to two hours for your visit, including time to watch the ships pass through the locks.
- Exhibitions are in both English and Spanish, and films alternate between English and Spanish language screenings.
- The Miraflores Visitor Center is fully wheelchair accessible.
How to Get to There
The Miraflores Locks are located about 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from downtown Panama City. Buses to Paraíso or Gamboa from the Albrook Bus Terminal will drop you off along the highway, an around 15-minute signposted walk to the locks. Alternatively, taxis are easy to find and will often agree on a round-trip price, depending on how long you want to spend at the locks.
When to Get There
The locks are most exciting when the big ships arrive—typically between 9am–11:30am, and 3pm–5pm—and an early start is the best way to avoid the crowds.
Built in 1914, the 51-mile-long (82 kilometer) waterway of the Panama Canal allows maritime traffic to pass along the narrow Isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans—saving ships an impressive 8,000 nautical miles (15,000 kilometers) of travel around South America. More than 14,000 ships pass through the canal each year, and many are purpose-built to fit through the narrow locks—just 110 feet (34 meters) wide.