small boats entering miraflores locks in the Panama Canal

Visiting the Panama Canal

Ways to Visit the Panama Canal

When in Panama City, visiting the Panama Canal is a must.  There are many ways to see it including taking a boat passage through the whole thing, taking a day trip on a boat, taking a tour on the manmade Gatun Lake, going to one of the locks, or walking along the causeway.

Walking along the Cinta Costera on the causeway which connects three islands simply provides an opportunity to see the boats heading toward the canal. I probably wouldn’t call it a canal visit, but the walk is nice enough for views of the boats and water.

Taking a boat tour of Gatun Lake is a good way to see the vessels transitting the canal while also seeing wildlife, monkey island, a native Indian village, Fort San Lorenzo and other places depending on the chosen tour.

Of course, going through the canal and locks on a boat is a popular choice, but just going to the locks is quite something and a cheaper alternative for those on a budget.

I recently returned from the Danube, and we went through several locks on our boat, so I felt like I would enjoy seeing the locks process on land.  As such, after taking a monkey island and Indian village tour on Gatun Lake, I got dropped off at the Miraflores Locks to see the process.

Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal

The Locks

The first thing to know is there are several locks along the Panama Canal including the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, Cocolí, Gatun, and Agua Clara.  The first three listed are on the Atlantic side and closest to Panama City.  The last two listed are on the Pacific side and closest to Colón.

Miraflores Locks are the most visited locks because they are closest to Panama City and have a large visitor center with a museum, movie room, restaurant and several viewing platforms. 

The Pedro Miguel Locks is a single set of locks just north of Miraflores and is not set up for visitors.

The Cocolí Locks are part of the recent expansion of the Panama Canal that was completed in 2016 to allow larger vessels through the canal.  There are not visitor facilities here, but it is possible to drive to the locks.

Both the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Cocolí Locks can be seen in the distance from the Miraflores Locks.

The Agua Clara and Gatun Locks are next to one another and have a new visitor center and platform viewing that were completed during the expansion.  These are an hour’s drive from Panama City.

Miraflores Locks Visitor Center and Viewing Platform

As I mentioned above, I visited the Miraflores Locks after my tour of Gatun Lake which was made during the construction of the Panama Canal to control flooding.

My tour group dropped me at the locks, and I took an easy Uber ride back to Panama City after I watched a variety of vessels pass through locks.

Best Times to Visit

It is important to know that the boat traffic comes through the Miraflores Locks around 10am and 2pm.  Hotels can call the Miraflores Locks for the exact schedule.  There is also more traffic through these locks than the newly expanded Cocolí Locks which is for larger ships.

Entry Fee, Museum and Platforms

I arrived at the Miraflores Locks about one hour before the first ship was planned for transit at 2:15.  The entry fee is $20 for all non-residents.  This includes the museum, movie, and platform viewing.  There is not a way to just go to the platform, though I believe it might be possible to go to the restaurant and order a drink without paying the $20.

It is important, however, to understand at least some of the history related to building the Panama Canal in order to better appreciate this modern wonder of the world.  So at least consider watching some YouTube documentaries or visiting the Panama Canal Museum in Casco Viejo which is supposed to better than the museum at the locks.

I watched a documentary the night before I visited the locks, so I sped through the four-level museum up to the observation deck and skipped the visitor center movie.  The museum included a floor on the construction of the canal, a floor on nature, a floor on operation, and a floor on vessels.  It wasn’t too exciting but positioning myself for a good view of the process through the locks was!

I joined a few folks up on the observation deck about 30-40 minutes before the vessels came through.  By the time the first ship arrived, a line of people about two or three deep surrounded the outer railing. 

Operating Process

The Miraflores Locks include two parallel flights with two chambers for a two-step down process.  Thus, two ships may pass through the locks at the same time.

Container Ship

The first vessel to come through was a large container ship which used the second flight of the two-set lock system. I called it the second flight because the other flight is slightly closer to the visitor center. Upon approaching the locks, the ship, with the guidance of a pilot and two tug boats, pulled up to a guide wall which is an extension to the center wall in the locks.  Here, it was taken under control of electric locomotives called Mules.  While the ship moved forward under its own power, the mules were used for side-to-side control and braking.

Once it entered into the first chamber of the flight, the gate at its stern closed. Then, the ship waited for the water to drain to the level of the next step as the mules kept it in place protecting the two gates.

The Miraflores Locks use a two-step system, so once the water was level on both sides of the two gates (used for safety), the ship passed through to the second chamber and went through the same process again before it continued out of the locks and into the canal.

It took about 45 minutes for the ship to go through both steps of the Miraflores Locks, thus about 20 plus minutes to transit through each of the two chambers. As they pass through, an announcer explains some of the process and describes the ship.

Pack of Boats

Just as the ship prepared to leave the first chamber, a pack of small boats entered the other flight’s first chamber.  These boats did not need mules.  They were tied up together, sometimes three astride, and guided by hand lines.  While logically, it makes since that small vessels would pass through the Panama Canal, for some reason I always imagined the canal was utilized for big boats.

As such, I likely would have left had another big ship come through, but the process of small boats transiting the locks intrigued me.  Fifteen vessels filled the first chamber before the gate closed behind them!

Cruise Ship

Just as they completed passing through the first chamber to the second step, a cruise ship entered the second flight that the ship had used previously.  After waving to the cruise ship passengers, I bid farewell to the Miraflores Locks.  I was surprised to see that I stayed a few hours just to watch the process.

The History of the Panama Canal

For me, knowing some of the history of the Panama Canal, made visiting much more interesting.  Here’s a brief summary:

The French Attempt

The first attempt to build the Panama Canal was made by the French in the late 1880’s.  They faced many problems with the sea level design of the Panama Canal and with the diseases spread by mosquitos.  Over 20,000 workers died from yellow fever in nine years before the French went bankrupt and handed to project over to the Americans.

The USA and Panama’s Independence

Theodore Roosevelt and the USA took on the Panama Canal in 1903.  Roosevelt wanted the canal for a two-ocean military fleet.  Unfortunately, the Colombians did not want to cede the land for the Panama Canal, so Roosevelt encouraged rebels to fight for independence as USA military ships stationed in the area.

Panama declared its independence in a day, though the USA was forced to pay Colombia $25 million in reparation.  In addition, the USA paid Panama $10 million for control of the Canal Zone, though agreements were never signed.

The Design and Construction of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal was completed after ten years of construction in 1914.  During this period, the USA struggled as well.  The first two head engineers quit.  The third one couldn’t because Roosevelt put a military man in command!  40,000 workers, many from poor Caribbean Islands, worked on the canal, and a class system formed.  White men were paid in gold while the others were paid in silver.  So instead of black and white racial barriers, it was gold and silver.

In addition, the USA faced the same problems as the French.  Mosquitos spread malaria and yellow fever, so Roosevelt hired a health specialist who eradicated the mosquitos and as a result the diseases.  Furthermore, the sea level canal design didn’t work, thus the design had to be changed. 

New Plan

As a result, a new plan called for creating a man-made lake to tame the Chagres River that floods with the eight-month rainy season and to dig a canal with a lock system designed to raise and lower vessels 85 feet.  With the sea level canal designed scrapped, vessels could now transit the troubling Culebra Cut which crossed the continental divide.

Ultimately, workers removed the earth from the Culebra Cut which was transported by trains and deposited in the Chagres River.  This resulted in damming the river to create Gatun Lake.  The locks were built and ten years later when everything was complete, the Panama Canal was filled with water from the lake.  The Panama Canal was an engineering marvel and represented the USA’s emergence as a world power. 

The USA operated the canal zone until 1977 when they signed a treaty beginning a 20-year transfer of operations over to Panama.  Panama took complete control over the Panama Canal in 1999.

Changing Times

It’s amazing to think 100 years later, the Panama Canal still operates and has only been closed twice, once due to a landslide in 1915 and once due the USA 1989 invasion to remove Noriega from power.

It is also incredible to consider the effect of the Panama Canal on both the economy and culture.  Once there was very little trade with Asia.  Now everything in America is made in China!  The Panama Canal was a tremendous boost to Panama’s economy and increased shipping capacity around the world.

While I marvel at this modern wonder of the world, I can’t help but think how it affected nature too.  I think of the sea life from two oceans meeting.  And what about the animals who lived in the blasting zone or on the plains that were flooded by the lake?  How about all those reptiles that live on mosquitos? 

While I’m not going to strap myself to a tree in protest or take away from the remarkable accomplishments of the Panama Canal, I think I would be short sited to at least not mention that nature was affected.  If only we didn’t need mosquitos in the cycle of life.  I’d be happy for them to be eradicated worldwide!

A Few Panama Canal Statistics

  1. The canal is between 48-51 miles long depending on the documentary!
  2. It takes 10 hours for a ship to travel through the canal
  3. Without the canal, it takes two weeks to travel 8,000 miles between oceans
  4. Over 14,000 ships pass through the canal a year
  5. The canal takes 27 reservations per day (If you stopped to do the math like me, based on reservation only 9,855 ships should be passing through the canal per year).  I don’t know!
  6. Payment to go through the locks is based on weight.  The big container ships pay $200,000 to $300,000 to go through the original locks.  The new locks cost more for the bigger ships
  7. It is the only place in the world where the captain gives up control of the ship to a canal specialist
  8. The original locks are 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide
  9. The two-gate system is in place for extra safety
  10. The 700-ton gates are moved by a 40 horse power motor (what is typically used to operate a lawn mower
  11. Gravity is utilized to raise and lower the ships 85 feet
  12. 30% of Panama’s economy is dependent on the canal
  13. 50% of Panama’s power comes from the electricity created by the canal’s dam
  14. It cost $10 per mosquito to eradicate them.  I wonder who counted them all

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Published by

Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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