The first ships sailed through the Panama Canal in 1914, shaving nearly 9,000 miles off what was otherwise a very long sailing trip around South America. The engineering marvel transformed global trade, and today, 100 years after it was first installed, the canal has once again been expanded with new locks and widened existing ones, modernizing Panama Canal transit by allowing larger ships to pass from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean side to Colon on the Atlantic Ocean side.
The best way for Panama visitors to see the canal is to literally get in the middle of it—on a transit or partial transit tour at sea level, travelers can experience the sensation of cruising directly through the canal, watching as the locks fill with water and your ship passes steadily through the three sets of double locks: the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks on the Pacific side, plus the Gatún locks on the Atlantic side. Between the locks is the artificial Gatún Lake (Lago Gatún), created by the Gatún Dam across the Chagres River (Rio Chagres), and the Culebra Cut, the narrowest section of the canal, hewn out of the mountains. It's also possible to see the locks by train, as you pass by the banks and through pristine rain forest en route to Gatún.
Most full- and half-day tours include roundtrip transportation and a visit to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, a museum that tells the story of this incredible engineering feat through exhibits. The center's restaurant, theater, and terraced decks also provide comfortable vantage points for watching ships pass through. It's also possible to visit the Gatún locks (about an hour from Panama City) to learn about the Panama Canal expansion.
Things to Know Before You Go
- By booking ahead with a guided tour, there's a much higher likelihood of actually seeing the famous Panama Canal in action.
- Travelers can make self-guided visits to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center in Panama City and the Canal Expansion Observation Center in Colon on the Caribbean Sea.
- Stop in for a meal at the Miraflores Restaurant at the Panama Canal to dine while viewing the ships cruise by.
How To Get There
Arrive at the canal via boat, train, bus, or car. The Miraflores Locks Visitor Center has parking, but most visitors arrive as part of a group sightseeing tour with a tour guide.
When To Get There
The morning hours and late afternoon are the best times for actually watching a ship pass through the canal.
A few tours depart from the town of Gamboa, situated at the end of the Gaillard Cut on the Chagres River in the Gamboa Rainforest. Neighboring SoberanÌa National Park, home to diverse bird species, sloths, and jaguars, is often visited along with a native Embera village. The Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador) is also worth a trip; this narrow strip of land is a popular spot for recreation.