When you plan a Panama vacation, of course you’ll visit the Panama Canal Miraflores Locks. If you’re like me, it’s really the only tourist attraction you knew about Panama before you started planning.
There is a lot to do in Panama City, and of course, a visit to the Panama Canal Miraflores Locks should be on your list. You really can’t go on a Panama vacation without seeing it (and being scorned and ridiculed). I will say I was pleasantly surprised. I knew I wanted to see the canal but I didn’t realize how massive it is, how amazing it is, and how interesting it would be to learn more about it. Here’s all you need to know to visit.
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What is the Panama Canal?
The Panama Canal (Canal de Panama) is a 50-mile (80 km) man-made waterway that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean. The canal runs through the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow point in Central America. It was a massive engineering project, and one of the largest ever undertaken. A man-made lake was built between the oceans in order to decrease the excavation effort.
Panama Canal Miraflores Locks
Gatun Lake, the man-made lake created by damming the Chagres River between the oceans is 85 feet (26 meters) above sea level. As a result, engineers needed to figure out a way to raise the ships passing through from sea level where the oceans are to the level of Gatun Lake, and then back down again. Said another way, the locks were needed to bring the boat to a higher level when moving inland from the ocean in either direction.
Once the ship enters the locks, the massive gates close and water fills the container until the ship is high enough to pass to the next lock. The system used to fill or empty the locks uses the force of gravity so you don’t see any water pouring into the container, just the water level slowly rising.
There are three locks on each end, by the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. The process to pass through these locks and Gatun Lake takes around 11 hours. The time it takes to pass through the locks will vary by ship size, but the two that we saw pass through took between 45 minutes and an hour. It’s a lengthy process but still worth seeing (this said from an uber-impatient New Englander)!
How Big of a Ship Can Pass Through the Panama Canal
The Miraflores Locks are 110-feet wide, 1,000-feet long, and around three feet thick. (This translates to 33.5 meters wide, 304.8 meters long, and almost a meter thick). The maximum ship dimensions are slightly smaller, of course, at are feet wide by 294.1 feet long and 29 feet depth (89.6 meters and 8.8 deep).
Gates are 700 tons or the weight of 300 elephants! It takes 5-10 minutes for them to open and close, allowing the ship to enter or to exit.
History of the Panama Canal
The most recent Panama Canal project was not the first. There were early efforts by the Spanish and Scottish to build a canal as it would be advantageous for trade and commerce. In 1881, the French began a project with funds raised by Ferdinand de Lesseps. He was responsible for building the Suez Canal. Though that Canal was much longer, the Panama Canal was much more complex due to the thick rainforest, prevalent rainy seasons, and the sea level difference between the oceans and the land in between.
The project halted almost 15 years later due to the high mortality rate and engineering problems. These issues were caused by more than 8 months of rain a year the area gets and the thick tropical rainforest. In 1904, There were more than 20,000 deaths due in large part to mosquito-borne diseases like yellow fever and malaria.
United States Involvement with the Panama Canal
Panama was under Colombian control and the leadership was not in support of the United States building the Panama Canal. President Teddy Roosevelt supported Panama independence from Colombia and the revolution lasted just one day.
In 1904, the United States took over the project and worked with Panama to complete it. Chief Engineer John Stevens decided to use the natural waterways to the benefit of the project. The Chagres River was dammed to create Gatun Lake. And to everyone’s benefit, scientists learned that it was the mosquito causing malaria and yellow fever. With that understanding, both were largely eradicated within a couple of years.
The Panama Canal Project
The Panama Railway was overhauled and used to haul dirt away from the site. The dirt and rock removed from the construction site were used to create a lovely boardwalk called the Amador Causeway connecting Panama City to some islands just off the coast in the Pacific Ocean.
People came from all around to help with the project including many of the Caribbean islands, Costa Rica, Colombia, Armenia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Panama, and the United States. The canal was opened on August 15, 1914, just after World War I began.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter of the United States signed into law a plan to pass control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian people. A period of joint control was concluded in 1999 and the Panama Canal was turned over to the government of Panama. The administration of the Panama Canal is now run by the government-owned Panama Canal Authority.
Panama Canal Upgrade and Expansion
As amazing as the Panama Canal is, it still has some challenges. Demand has continued rising for efficient global shipping of goods and the Panama Canal does have some competition for certain trade routes. Also, container ships have grown larger in size and an increasing amount of ships were too large for the canal.
The Panama government approved an expansion project estimated at $5.25 billion USD to double the capacity of the canal and to allow for wider and longer boats. The level of Gatun Lake was also raised.
The project began in 2007 and was completed in 2016. It added two new groups of larger locks built parallel to the existing locks. This would help with the traffic passing through the canal as well as the larger size of the ships.
Cost and Process to Pass Through the Panama Canal
When Panama took over the administration of the canal, it was a break-even venture. Ships pay a toll to pass through based on vessel type, size, and type of cargo. They increased and changed the toll structure and profits raised go to the country.
The process for a ship to pass through the canal is really interesting. The ship captain cedes control of the vessel to a Panama Canal Specialist. This person (or persons for a very large ship) maintain control of the ship until it leaves the last set of locks. At this time, control of the vessel is granted back to the ship captain.
Ships sail through under their own power and they are maneuvered by small locomotive vessels on either side attached by thick metal cables. They pretty much look like you might picture an ant hauling an elephant. The size difference between those small vessels and the ships are pretty amazing. Tugboats are used to lead the vessels from the ocean to the locks and back out.
Impact of the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal was built to facilitate commerce by sea. it cut the trip from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean by three weeks and more than 8,000 miles (12,875 km). It was a really significant feat building the canal. Additionally, it is much safer a journey than trying to go around the southernmost tip of either South America or Africa.
Over 15,000 ships pass through the canal every year, and that number continues increasing. In total, more than a million ships have passed through the canal including vessels from over 1,000 countries. More than 300 million tons of goods move through the canal annually on ships that carry up to 13,000 containers.
The Panama Canal also significantly impacted the Panamanian people in a very positive way. Panama has the strongest economy in Centra America and one of the strongest in all of Latin America. Much of this overall wealth and stability is due to the canal.
Tours of the Panama Canal
Do you need to take a tour to see the canal? No. I did see a lot of tours and some suggestions that tours are required to see it or make it a lot easier to see the canal. When in fact, it’s so easy to go on your own. You just head to the Miraflores Visitor Center to see the Miraflores Locks.
Though it might be fun to go on a boat through the canal, I didn’t think it was worth the time to do so. And, considering that we went on a Gatun Lake boat ride and Gatun Lake represents a significant part of the canal, we decided to skip it.
The movie at the Miraflores Visitor Center offers great information about the history and engineering of the canal. I usually like going on a walking tour as I love getting the history and the details about what I’m seeing. With the movie, I didn’t feel I was lacking in any knowledge I might get with a tour. So, it’s up to you! You can’t go wrong either way and it’s a matter of personal preference.
Why You Should Visit the Canal
I’ve shared all of the reasons and don’t want to belabor the point. But truly, if you go to Panama City, go to the Panama Canal. Learn about the incredible engineering feat that it is, watch monstrous ships pass through with precision. and learn about all that it took to build it from a concept hundreds of years ago, to the reality.
Miraflores Visitor Center
The Miraflores Locks is one of the three sets of locks in the Panama Canal and it is the name for the Pacific gate. There is a building that houses the ticket office, museum, and viewing areas and it also has a restaurant, two cafes, and a gift shop.
The Gatun locks are on the Atlantic side. We were told you can tour those as well, though the Miraflores Locks are much more popular and they are much close to Panama City.
You will notice on the way to the Miraflores Locks that there is a lot of housing in the area that has the feel of military housing. This is where the Americans live who were stationed in the area to work on the canal.
Miraflores Restaurant — Atlantic & Pacific Co. Restaurant
The Atlantic & Pacific Co. Restaurant is located on the 2nd floor of the Miraflores facility. The restaurant is well-rated though it’s a little pricy given its premier location. You’re paying for the food as well as the view when you go here
This restaurant offers prime views of the canal and you can watch ships pass through as you dine. You can dine outside or inside and can’t beat this view! The menu offerings are local fare with some international dishes and lots of seafood. It’s worth dining here if you’re able to in order to enjoy the uncrowded views of the Panama Canal.
Visit the Panama Canal
Ships pass through the Miraflores Locks for an hour daily between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. and 3 pm. and 4 pm. Traffic may only go one way at a time so you will see ships enter from the Pacific Ocean in the morning, and from Gatun Lake in the afternoon. It’s best to get there by 8:30 to get a good view as it fills up quickly. Get your ticket (and I recommend the joint ticket that allows access to the viewing areas, the museum, and the movie) and head directly up to the fourth floor for the best views.
Our Visit Experience
The viewing area is large, though it does fill very quickly. We were the last people to get a spot at the railing for a front-row view. I was barely able to work my way. Thankfully my friend is much taller than I and was able to see over my head. And don’t think you’ll wait out people leaving. They really don’t for most of the time the ships pass through.
It’s a lengthy process. We were lucky to find a ship entering the locks as we arrived so we got to watch it pass all the way through. Another ship arrived not long after and we watched that go through as well. It was really fascinating to watch the process of the gates swinging open and closing, the lock filling with water, then the next lock opening and the process repeats. Especially when you consider how massive everything is and the engineering magic required to make it all work. All the while, the small locomotive vessels are guiding the ship through.
We were there for close to an hour and a half. I can’t imagine going on a boat tour through the locks! You’d just be sitting there for close to an hour with several hundred people staring at you. Speaking of which, the guys on the ship were very friends and gave us a wave.
There is a 3D IMAX movie narrated by Morgan Freeman that you can see at the Miraflores Visitor Center. It ran for maybe 30 minutes and it was really interesting and informative. I’d say it was worth the cost.
The Miraflores Locks Visitor Center is around 30 minutes from downtown Panama City. Tickets to visitor center including the viewing floors and access to the museum costs $20 USD, and a ticket to the IMAX Theater costs $15. A combined ticket is available for $30. (And we learned if you buy just the ticket to the center and the museum, just keep your receipt and you can add on the movie for $10 USD).
If you decide to not do a boat tour of the Panama Canal, I highly suggest you consider a boat ride on Gatun Lake. We decided to take a boat tour to Monkey Island through the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. We took an Uber there and it took around 30 minutes from Miraflores. Luck was with us we arrived very early for our tour. When we got there we learned that the Panama Canal Association shut down afternoon traffic on the lake. We arrived just in time to start the earlier tour.
You can go on your own as well and negotiate for a ride on one of the boats on the lake if you know some Spanish. I didn’t feel like I know enough Spanish and I had read that the price is generally about the same. (Unless you can negotiate well in Spanish and get lucky). The ride was very pretty and the most interesting part was that we passed one of the massive ships we saw pass through the canal! It was pretty cool, I’ll admit it, and a highlight of our Panama vacation.
Monkey Island was a bit of a let-down. Perhaps the timing wasn’t right or they were hunkered down due to the upcoming storm. We were told we could see three kinds of monkeys, howler, white-faced, and Tamarin.
We ended up seeing only one white-faced and one Tamarin. They were not very close and our boat driver tried to move closer to provide a better view. However, we were sitting in the back of the boat so we couldn’t really see them at all. We did get to see a crocodile fairly close up and a sloth that was at a distance high in the trees.
A little tip: sit towards the front of the boat.
It dumped rain on our way back and we were soaked completely through, even with raincoats. (They gave us rain ponchos that would fit over our lifejackets but they weren’t very good).
There is a slot habitat near where you pick up the vehicle to go back to the resort. It is part of a conservation effort that the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve is working with to support the sloth. You can learn about their habitat and get close to them.
The exhibition area also has an Orchid Nursery, a Butterfly Farm, and a Frog Farm. There is also the Gamboa Wildlife Rescue Center where you can learn all about how it works.
Unfortunately, it was raining so hard without any break in sight so we escaped back to the resort. Be prepared to get rained on a lot on a Panama vacation, especially during the rainy season. The resort is quite lovely so it’s worth stopping for a break or a snack.
Gamboa Rainforest Resort is located at Corregimiento de Cristobal, IA 5, Panama City 7338, Panama. Tours are offered through their website. Their Gatun Lake Tour is $35 USD per person, and the Sloth Sanctuary and Nature Labs tour costs $26 USD. They have a number of other tours including rainforest hikes, riding an aerial tram, and other, ranging in cost.
Panama Canal Tours
If you are determined to take a Panama Canal tour, there are many to choose from. I have had great luck with booking tours through Get Your Guide and Tripadvisor and I do recommend reading the reviews. These sites are very helpful for planning a Panama vacation or heading anywhere, really. The Miraflores Locks Visitor Center also offers tours that last 2 hours, though I didn’t see a price listed on their website.
Panama Canal is a marvel of engineering and worth visiting when you go to Panama. In fact, I’d say if it’s the reason you decide to visit, that’s completely ok. It’s that interesting to see and to learn about. And think about it—the original sections were built over 100 years ago. We didn’t have the technology we do today, and I think that makes it even more incredible.
Panama City is such a great place to visit, and the Panama Canal will be sure to be a highlight of your trip.
How to Get to Miraflores Locks
The easiest way to get to Miraflores Locks is by taking an Uber. It doesn’t cost a lot (around $20 USD), and the cost will vary depending on where you are staying in or around Panama City. The ride takes approximately 30 minutes from much of downtown Panama City. You also have the option to take a taxi which will cost around $30 USD. You can ask for them to wait if you plan a brief visit to the canal. Either way, make sure to negotiate the cost and wait time before you leave.
There is a direct bus from the Albrook Bus Terminal, however, it only runs a few times a day. You can also take a Gamboa bus or a Paraíso bus which goes to Gamboa. These buses run on the canal-side highway and will stop at the Miraflores Locks sign for you to get out. From there, it’s around a 15-minute walk to the Miraflores Locks center. The cost for the bus is $.35 USD.
Why You Should Visit Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks
We’ve probably all heard about the Panama Canal, but there’s something so incredibly impressive about visiting. Though I didn’t think it would be all that appealing and I went because I thought I should, I enjoyed myself far more than I expected. Once you learn the immense effort and creativity it took to create the canal, you can’t help but be impressed! Take the time to watch the movie and to wander around the exhibit to learn more about this impressive feat. It’ll be a highlight of your visit to Panama City.
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