Are you in the middle of planning a trip to Panama?
Wondering how to visit the Panama Canal?
In this Panama travel guide, I’m going to share with you the best ways to see the Panama Canal. This guide is ideal for those who are into history/history nerds like me and want the BEST canal experience. However, for those who aren’t nerds, I’ve also included a list of easy and cheap ways to see the canal.
So let’s get started!
Oh yes, by the way, for more information on traveling to Panama, check out my complete list of Panama Travel Guides.
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In this post, you’ll find…
- Where EXACTLY is the Panama Canal
- History of the Panama Canal
- How the Panama Canal works – ESSENTIAL info for trip planning – Don’t skip this part!
- How to See the Panama Canal
The TOP Panama Canal Tours:
RATING: 4.6/5 (33 Reviews) | TIME: 6 Hours | COST: US$145
- Take a boat ride from the Pacific Ocean through Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks to Lake Gatun (vice versa)
- Includes FREE snack and FREE lunch
- FREE hotel pickup and dropoff
RATING: 4.9/5 (38 Reviews) | DURATION: 4.5 hours | PRICE: $65
- Includes FREE hotel pickup and dropoff
- Miraflores Visitor Center
- Casco Viejo
- Bridge of the Americas
- Amador Causeway
RATING: 4.8/5 (156+ Reviews) | DURATION: 5 hours | PRICE: $129
- Includes FREE hotel pickup and dropoff in downtown Panama City
- Miraflores Visitor Center (Included in the tour price)
- Lake Gatun
- Monkey Island
RATING: 4.5/5 (100+ Reviews) | DURATION: 6 hours | PRICE: US$100
- Agua Clara Visitor Center at Gatun Locks
- Colon Rainforest
- San Lorenzo Fort
- Includes FREE hotel pickup and dropoff
Where EXACTLY is the Panama Canal?
The Panama Canal stretches from the city of Colon on the Atlantic Ocean to Panama City on the Pacific Ocean.
Container ships, cruise ships, and even sailboats ply the canal daily as they make their way from one ocean to another.
You can either visit the canal from the Pacific Side in Panama City, the Atlantic side in Colon, or from Lake Gatun in Gamboa. I recommend visiting the canal from Panama City, but in this guide, I’ll tell you all the different ways to visit it.
The original Panama Canal was completed in 1914. However, in the twenty-first century, some container ships had become too wide to fit through the original canal, so in 2016 Panama built another set of locks running parallel to the old locks. This new set of locks is called Cocoli Locks.
History of the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal has one of the most interesting histories in the world. On the one hand, it was an engineering and scientific miracle. But on the other hand, its construction was filled with hubris, corruption, lies, disease, war, revolution, racism, and death.
Best Books on the History of the Panama Canal?
- The Path Between the Seas – By David McCullough (1977) – The most popular book on the history of the Panama Canal but it was written over 45 years ago, sooooo not the most up-to-date book on the market.
- Panama Fever – By Matthew Parker (2007) – An excellent but more up-to-date published book on the canal. You’ll find Parker has a different perspective on the characters and events from McCullough’s.
Before the Panama Canal was Built
Before the Panama Canal was built, ships had to travel around the tip of South America to get from Europe or the East Coast of the United States to Asia or the West Coast of the U.S. This would take many months of travel.
The Panama Canal clipped off months or over 10,000 km from the original route.
During the California Gold Rush, the quickest way for Americans to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast was to take a boat to the Caribbean side of Panama and get off in Colon, where they would then take a boat down the Chagres River to Panama City.
Eventually, a train was built parallel to the river that would take passengers across the isthmus to Panama City. Finally, fortune seekers would catch another boat to California.
The French and the Building of the Panama Canal
The first country to try building the Canal was France. The story of France’s attempt to build the canal is one that is hard to believe–a story of hubris, incompetence, corruption, and scandal.
Over 22,000 people died from disease during the 9 years of construction (1880-1889). Millions of dollars were siphoned off into people’s pockets. And a well-respected French family was left penniless and the eldest son was imprisoned for the arrogance and ignorance of his father.
Ferdinand de Lesseps
The one name that you should remember from this time period is Ferdinand de Lesseps. He was the head of France’s attempt to build the canal. De Lesseps had more charm and confidence than integrity and humility. It’s hard to know what he was thinking. Did he knowingly lie and cheat people? Or did he believe his lies and was just living in a fantasy world? Reading his story, one is reminded of Elizabeth Holmes or Sam Bankman-Fried.
What did the French do wrong?
The French started building their canal without doing proper research on what would be the most suitable canal for Panama. Lesseps just insisted on building a sea canal and wouldn’t accept facts even after years and years of failure. A sea canal was not possible given the terrain, the soil, and the raging Chagres River. As a result, the French ran into one engineering problem after another.
Why did so many workers die?
The French had another big problem: so many workers—both French and West Indies—died on the canal from malaria and yellow fever. Back in the 1800s it was believed that these two diseases were caused by dirt, filth, bad air, or immoral living. No one knows for sure how many died—as the French didn’t really keep track of the deaths of the Jamaican workers. But estimates say that it was at least 22,000.
The collapse of the Panama Canal Company
However, Lesseps kept telling people that construction was going well and progress was being made. The guy was so charming that everyone believed him. Sound familiar? Finally, in 1889, Lessep’s lies caught up to him and the company ran out of funds.
Construction stopped and France was rocked by the scandal of the Panama Canal. There were several trials. In the end, de Lessep’s son went to prison for the lies or incompetence of his father.
The Americans and the Building of the Panama Canal
Then the Americans came along. Many Americans especially Theodore Roosevelt, saw the canal as essential for the future imperial ambitions of the United States.
However, the Americans debated between building a canal in Nicaragua or Panama. Unlike the French, they had done a substantial amount of research. In the end, Panama won with the help of another fascinating French guy (I’ll tell you about him below) and a corrupt American lobbyist.
Colombians refused to give in to the Americans
But the Colombians, who owned Panama, had different ideas. They didn’t trust the Americans as the U.S. was already giving off hints of imperialist ambitions in South America. Thus, the Colombians refused to allow the Americans to build the canal. However, the Panamanian elite wanted it.
So the Panamanians with American backing and the support of a French engineer named Philippe Bunau-Varilla revolted and declared independence from Colombia.
The notorious Philippe Bunau-Varilla
Philippe Bunau-Varilla is probably the most hated French person in Panamanian history. His role in the Panama Canal and the revolution was to have repercussions for the next 85 years of Panama-U.S. relations.
The Panamanian revolutionaries needed money for their revolution to succeed. Bunau-Varilla agreed to give them $100,000 in exchange for being made Panama’s ambassador to the United States.
After the Panamanians got their independence, Bunau-Varilla stabbed them in the back. As Panama’s ambassador to the U.S., he rewrote the original Panama Canal Treaty. The conditions in the new treaty were so favorable to the U.S. and so disadvantageous to Panama that they were to anger Panamanians for the rest of the twentieth century, leading to hatred and resentment toward American and many deaths.
The Panama Canal Treaty
In the new treaty, the United States basically was given complete sovereignty over the land in the canal zone, which included 10 miles of land on each side of the canal. The second change was that this control over the Panama Canal was to be in perpetuity and not for the 99 years that had originally been agreed upon in the previous treaty. The treaty also in essence gave the U.S. final say over any decision made by the Panamanian government, including who would govern the country.
The U.S. began construction on the Panama Canal in 1904 and they stumbled just like the French did during the first year.
However, in 1905 the right people were put in charge: the railroad engineer, John Steven,s and the infectious disease doctor, William Gorgas.
The U.S. spent time before construction eliminating yellow fever and malaria by reducing the number of mosquitos. Discovering the cause of these two diseases probably saved tens of thousands of lives, and without this achievement, the canal probably wouldn’t have been completed.
The Americans also scrapped plans for a sea canal and instead went with the lock canal. If they hadn’t, they probably wouldn’t have finished the canal for another twenty years.
The U.S. finished the canal in 1914.
The end of U.S. control over the Panama Canal
In the end, Panama became a vassal of the United States until President Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos of Panama signed a treaty whereby the U.S. would give up the canal in 1999.
Before this happened, though, the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989 to arrest its one-time ally, the psychopath, General Manuel Noriega. Several thousand Panamanians lost their lives and most Americans lost all historical memory of the invasion.
Ever since 1999, Panama has run the canal and has done as good of a job as the Americans had done.
For the BEST book on Manuel Noriega and the U.S. invasion of Panama, I highly recommend God’s Favorite by Lawrence Wright.
How the Panama Canal Works
Before visiting the Panama Canal, it’s ESSENTIAL that you know how it works. If you don’t, you might end up visiting at the wrong time and see NOTHING! Trust me! I’ve me several other travelers who went to the canal and saw NOTHING because they went at the wrong time.
Visiting the Panama Canal in the Morning
In the morning, ships ONLY travel down the canal from the Pacific end to the Atlantic end.
The best place to see ships passing through the canal on the Pacific Side is at the Miraflores Locks. According to the Miraflores Visitor Center, ships pass through until 9:09 am. However, when I visited, there was a sign saying that they had stopped passing through at 8:45 am that day. Anyway, don’t go to MIraflores between 10:00 am and 1:00 pm.
The Miraflores Visitor Center opens at 8:00 am, so make sure to get there before 9:00 to see the last boats go through the locks.
Visiting the Panama Canal in the Afternoon
In the afternoon starting at 12:00 pm, the canal is ONLY open to ships traveling from the Atlantic end to the Pacific end.
According to the Miraflores Website, the first ship passes through the Miraflores Locks is at 2:25 pm. However, when I visited the first ships passed through at 2:40 pm. Anyway, it’s around that time. Ships continue passing through the locks at least until Miraflores Visitor Center closes, so if you go between 2:00 and 5:00 you should see something.
What is the purpose of the locks?
When the Americans were constructing the canal, they were having a hard time cutting the canal through the Continental Divide. They could not dig deep enough to make a canal level with the sea. In addition, they were having difficulty controlling the flooding from the Chagres River.
The only solution was to build a canal with locks and create a huge human-made lake.
What you see today is a canal that is at a higher elevation than both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. When ships enter the Panama Canal from either the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans, the locks raise the ships so that they are equal to the level of the canal and lower them to sea level when the ships exit the canal and enter the two oceans. Maybe I’m a nerd, but I think it’s really cool seeing the ships being raised and lowered.
How many locks are there?
There are 3 locks on the Pacific side (2 locks at Miraflores and 1 lock at Pedro Miguel) and 3 locks on the Atlantic side (all 3 are at Gatun Locks) that raise and lower ships. You can visit the locks on both sides.
The original canal has 2 lanes of traffic, so you can see 2 ships passing through the locks at the same time.
However, in the 2000s, at the height of globalization, shipping containers became too wide to pass through the original locks.
In 2016, Panama built a new set of locks running parallel to Miraflores and Pedro Miguel. This new set of locks is called Cocoli Locks. When you’re at Miraflores Observation Deck, you can see ships passing through the new locks in the distance.
How do the locks work?
As a ship travels the canal from the Pacific side, it enters the first lock at Miraflores. The lock raises the ship 9 meters (29.5 feet) above sea level. Doors to the second lock open and the ship enters a new lock. When it enters the second lock at Miraflores, the lock raises the ship another 9 meters (29.5 feet). Finally, when the ship enters the Pedro Miguel lock, the lock raises the ship a final 9 meters (29.5 feet).
In total, the ship is raised 27 meters (88.5 feet) above the level of the Pacific Ocean.
The ship then travels through the Culebra Cut, which is where engineers carved the canal through the Continental Divide.
The canal then makes its way to Gatun Lake. This is where the powerful Chagres River was damned. The Chagres was another challenge for the builders of the canal. During the rainy season, it often flooded.
After Gatun Lake, the ship enters the first lock on the Atlantic Side, the ship is lowered 9 meters (29.5 feet). At the second lock, the ship is lowered another 9 meters (29.5 feet). And finally, the last lock lowers the ship 9 meters (29.5 feet) until the ship is at the same level as the Atlantic Ocean.
How to See the Panama Canal
There are several ways to visit the Panama Canal during your trip to Panama. I will talk about all of the ways and which ones I did.
|Ways to See the Panama Canal||When||Price||Why See the Panama Canal this Way?|
|Panama Canal Cruise – Half-way||Sa & Su||$145||The BEST way to see the canal for history or engineering buffs|
|Panama Canal Cruise from Pacific to Atlantic Oceans||Once a month||$195||The ULTIMATE way to see the canal if you’re really a history or engineering nerd|
|Miraflores Locks||Daily (afternoon)||$17.22||An EASY and VERY ENJOYABLE way to see the canal; highly recommended|
|Pedro Miguel Locks||Daily||FREE||The cheapest way to see the Panama Canal; not good for photos|
|Gatun Locks in Colon||Daily||$10||A good way to see the canal when you’re in Colon; there are tours from Panama City|
|Lake Gatun||Daily||$75-$155||A FUN way to combine the Panama Canal with a visit to monkey island; good for families|
|Panama Canal Museum||Tu – Su||$15||A great place to learn about the canal BEFORE you visit the Panama Canal|
|Museum of the Afro-Antilleans of Panama||Tu – Sa||FREE||A great way to learn about the African-Antillean workers who worked on the canal BEFORE or AFTER your visit to the canal|
1. Taking a Cruise Down the Panama Canal
The BEST way to see the Panama Canal is by taking a boat tour down the Panama Canal. This way is for those who REALLY want to be immersed in one of science’s greatest inventions.
It was one of the best things I did in Panama. But I’m a nerd and I love history and science. So this is not for those who are too cool.
These Panama cruises only do half of the Panama Canal. But you still get to go through 2 locks at Miraflores and 1 lock at Pedro Miguel, pass under the Bridge of the Americas, sail through the Culebra Cut, and see Lake Gatun.
There are 2 half-day boat tours:
- Northbound Tour (Saturdays) – Pacific Ocean toward Lake Gatun
- Southbound Tour (Sundays) – Lake Gatun toward the Pacific Ocean
Both tours only do half the canal.
Northbound Panama Canal Tour:
The Northbound Panama Canal cruise departs every Saturday morning. The boat travels from the Pacific Ocean toward the Atlantic Ocean.
The tour leaves from Isla Flamenco in Panama City and ends around the town of Gamboa on Lake Gatun.
The Northbound Cruise costs US$145 for children and US$95 for children. Check-in time is between 6:30 and 7:30 am. The tour company will pick passengers up at certain hotels around Panama City. Expect to finish the tour around 2:00 pm.
The tour includes hotel pick-up and drop-off, a small snack, free drinks, free lunch, and English and Spanish guides. I was told that my tour did not include drop-off at the end, but I was dropped off at my hotel.
One big negative about the cruise was that the boat was pretty crowded. Maximum number of people is 250! Get to the boat early so that you can stand at the front of the boat as it goes through the locks. This means you probably won’t be able to do the free hotel pickup and instead get to the port on your own.
Why do the Northbound Panama Canal Tour?
You get to feel what it’s like for the ship to be raised through the three locks, which just seems like a cooler thing to experience than a ship being lowered (according to an engineer I met on the cruise.)
Southbound Panama Canal Tour
The Southbound Panama Canal Cruise goes from Gatun Lake to the Pacific Ocean. This cruise runs only on Sunday afternoons.
You take a bus from Panama City to Lake Gatun, where you catch the boat through the canal. First, you go along the Culebra Cut before passing through the Pedro Miguel lock and then through the two locks of Miraflores. The boat eventually sails under the Bridge of the Americas to the Pacific Ocean. The tour ends at Flamenco Island.
Why do the southern tour?
The cool thing about doing the southbound cruise is that you get to travel toward the Pacific Ocean at the end of the tour and you get to see the skyline of Panama City.
Your boat, however, will be lowered through the locks, whereas the southbound boat is raised as it goes through the locks.
The other reason to do the southbound Panama Canal cruise is that you don’t have to start the tour so early as you do with the northbound tour (6:30 – 7:30 am). The check-in time for the southbound one is between 9:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
How to book your Panama Canal Boat Tour
I did the Northbound Tour in March 2023 and booked directly with the boat company called Panama Marine Adventures. I recommend this company because their boats looked better than the other two going through the canal at the same time my boat went through.
However, I do NOT recommend booking directly with the company. I’ll tell you later my reasons.
Instead, book through Get Your Guide. It’s the same tour I took with Panama Marine Adventures.
Here’s how to book through Get Your Guide:
- Book Your Northbound Tour (every Saturday morning) – Pacific Ocean to Lake Gatun (US$145)
- Book Your Southbound Tour (every Sunday afternoon) – Lake Gatun to the Pacific Ocean (US$145)
Why book through Get Your Guide?
The price is the same as booking directly with Panama Marine Adventures.
And Get Your Guide is AMAZINGLY helpful if you have trouble with your tour. Finding a representative to talk to from Get Your Guide is easy and quick and they will contact the tour company if you have problems.
I tried to book a hotel pick-up time with Panama Marine Adventures and they did not answer my message for several days. They finally contacted me AFTER the deadline for booking a pickup. Thankfully, they did allow me to book a pickup.
However, whenever I’ve used Get Your Guide and had problems with a tour, like I did in Ecuador, I’ve gotten an immediate response from them even late at night.
You might be interested in these posts:
2. Take a Panama Canal Cruise from the Pacific to the Atlantic
For the ultimate history and/or science nerd there is a cruise that takes you through the whole Panama Canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.
I sooooo wanted to do this cruise.
But unfortunately, it’s only done once a month and I was not in Panama City when the cruise was running. Here are the dates for 2023:
- June 17
- July 15
- August 19
- September 16
- October 21
- November 18
- December 16
Check Panama Marine Adventures for 2024 dates.
The cruise begins at Flamenco Island before crossing under the Bridge of the Americas. It then passes through the Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Lock. Then it snakes its way through the Culebra Cut, where the canal was carved through the Continental Divide. After that, the boat cruises through Lake Gatun before it is lowered 26 meters through the three chambers of the Gatun Locks. Finally, your boat ends on the Atlantic side in the city of Colon. A bus brings you back to Panama City.
The tour lasts 12 hours and costs US$195 for adults and US$105 for children.
What’s included in the tour?
- Hotel pick-up and drop-off
- continental breakfast
- free drinks
- afternoon snacks
- bilingual guide (English and Spanish)
You can book your tour with Panama Marine Adventures.
3. Miraflores Locks
The easiest and most popular way to see the Panama Canal is by visiting the Miraflores Locks. The locks have a visitor center that includes the following three attractions:
- IMAX Theater to watch a 40-minute 3-D film on the Panama Canal
- Exhibition Hall – temporarily closed
- Observation Deck to watch the boats pass through the locks
You can watch a 40-minute 3D film (you get 3D glasses) on the construction of the Panama Canal. It’s narrated by Morgan Freeman.
Personally, I think the movie was boring and did a horrible job of telling the history of the canal. It felt more like a tourism video as it spent way too much time bragging about how beautiful Panama was.
Here were the times for the 3D documentary on the canal when I visited:
- 8:45 am
- 9:45 am
- 11:00 am
- 12:15 pm
- 1:30 pm
- 2:45 pm
- 4:00 pm
- 5:15 pm
There are 4 exhibition halls that introduce visitors to the Panama Canal’s history, function, biodiversity, and international importance. When I visited in April 2023, it was closed.
The highlight of visiting Miraflores is watching the ships go through the locks from the Observation Deck.
The problem with the observation deck, though, is that it’s too small and there are too many people. When I got to the deck in the afternoon, the bleachers were full so I had to stand on the left edge of the deck and only got a view of the ships leaving the locks.
If you stand to the right of the bleachers in the afternoon, you’ll get to see the ships entering the locks.
Even though I had taken a cruise through the locks several weeks earlier, I still LOVED watching the ships go through them AGAIN.
In the morning the last ship to enter the locks is BEFORE 8:45 or 9:00 am. The first ship to enter the Miraflores Lock in the afternoon is after 2:00 pm. Don’t go between 9:00 am and 1:00 pm.
Coffee Shop, Wine bar, and Snack Bar
There’s a coffee shop, wine bar, and snack bar at the Visitor Center. They sell snacks as well as coffee and other drinks.
Are there long lines at Miraflores?
Yes, it’s true that there are long lines. However, my line moved relatively fast. I think I was in line for only around 10 minutes.
How to get to the Miraflores Locks
Getting to the Miraflores Locks by public transportation is SUPER EASY and FAST.
I highly recommend doing it by bus because taxis and Ubers tend NOT to like taking people all the way to the locks. AND they really hate picking people up from the locks.
Google Maps will show you the EXACT location where your bus is picking up passengers. Every time I used Google Maps at Allbrook it was 100% accurate in identifying the location of the bus stop.
Bus fare costs 25 cents. However, you will need a Metro Card, which costs US$2. You can buy a Metro Card from machines at subway stations around the city or from inside the Allbrook Bus Station.
Google Maps also works really well in Panama City for bus routes and schedules.
Bus C810 will drop you off right in front of the entrance to the Miraflores Visitor Center.
My bus left Allbrook Station at 1:00 pm and arrived at Miraflores at 1:20 pm. This gave me enough time to buy tickets for the movie starting at 1:30 pm and get to the Observation Deck at 2:20 pm for the first boat passing by at 2:40 pm. I finished watching the ships pass through the locks at 3:30 pm and made it to the bus stop at 3:45 pm. I caught my bus back to Panama City a few minutes before 4:00 pm.
You can also drive if you have a private vehicle. There is a parking lot in front of the Miraflores Visitor Center.
How to get from Miraflores back to Panama City
Pick up Bus #C810 from the same spot that you were dropped off at. Google Maps will give you the bus schedule.
I met this American guy who was trying to get an Uber back to Panama City. No Uber would pick him up. This was at 3:45 pm. Taxis were offering to take him back for US$12.
Is Allbrook Station Safe?
Allbrook Station is safe, clean, and convenient.
It’s where you catch buses to other parts of Panama like Bocas del Toro and David. Allbrook is also where a lot of metro buses begin their routes to other parts of Panama City. There’s a subway line that ends at Allbrook as well.
Here are the 3 most HIGHLY-RATED Tours of the Miraflores Locks:
For the most convenient way to visit Miraflores, take a guided tour. All tours include hotel pickup and drop-off as well as a guide to explain the history and background of the Panama Canal. I recommend booking tours through Get Your Guide. In case something goes wrong with your tour, you can easily and quickly contact Get Your Guide.
RATING: 4.9/5 (35 REVIEWS) | TIME: 4.5 hours | PRICE: US$65
- Jampacked, informative, and reasonably priced
- Miraflores Visitor Center (entrance fee included in the tour price!)
- Bridge of the Americas
- Amador Causeway
- Casco Viejo
RATING: 4.6/5 (72 Reviews) | TIME: 4 hours | PRICE: US$125
- Jampacked and informative
- Miraflores Visitor Center (included in the tour price!)
- Amador Causeway
- Casco Viejo
- Includes hotel pickup and dropoff
RATING: 4.7/5 (148 Reviews) | TIME: 5 hours | PRICE: US$129
- Jampacked and fun tour with knowledgeable guides
- Miraflores Visitor Center
- A boat ride on Gatun Lake
- A stop at Monkey Islands to see monkeys and other wildlife.
4. Pedro Miguel Locks
COST: FREE | OPEN: 24/7 | LOCATION: Google Maps
If you want to see ships passing through the Panama Canal for FREE, head to the Pedro Miguel Locks. Here you can stand on the side of the road and look through the holes in a fence to see ships get raised or lowered in the one lock at Pedro Miguel.
In the morning, you’ll want to get here BEFORE 9:00 am and in the afternoon AFTER 1:00 pm.
I did not visit the Pedro Miguel Lock, but I did pass by them on a bus going from Gamboa back to Panama City and I went through the lock on my Panama Canal cruise.
How to get to the Pedro Miguel Lock:
If you don’t have a car, you can take either bus #C800 or C970 from Allbrook Station and get off at this bus stop near Pedro Miguel Lock.
5. Agua Clara Visitor Center to See the Gatun Locks
If you’re in Colon, the best way to see the Panama Canal is by visiting the Agua Clara Visitors Center. You can get a panoramic view of ships passing through the Gatun Locks. In the morning, the ships will be coming from Lake Gatun and entering the Atlantic Ocean, and in the afternoon, they will be coming from the Atlantic Ocean and entering Lake Gatun.
There is also a projection room where you can learn about the history of the canal.
According to the Panama Canal website, ships pass through the Gatun Locks between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm.
How to Visit Agua Clara from Panama City:
1. Almiza Tours
RATING: 4.5/5 (99 Reviews) | TIME: 6 hours | PRICE: US$100
- Informative and jampacked tour
- Includes hotel pickup and dropoff and transport from Panama City to Colon and back
- Agua Clara visitor center to see the Gatun Locks,
- Visit a rainforest to see wildlife
- The historic San Lorenzo Fort, where the Spaniards defended Panama from pirates like Captain Henry Morgan.
6. Lake Gatun
A fun way to see the Panama Canal is by taking a boat ride on Lake Gatun.
This lake was created during the building of the canal and it is considered part of the canal as ships need to pass through the lake. Lake Gatun is used to provide water for the raising and lowering of the locks.
While you’re on the lake, you can see the ships passing along the canal. However, you do not get to see the ships go through the locks.
To visit Gatun Lake, most people join a tour. All tours take you to Monkey Island on Lake Gatun, which is home to 3 types of monkeys, sloths, crocodiles, turtles, and a variety of bird species.
Top-Rated Tours of Lake Gatun and Monkey Island:
RATING: 4.7/5 (148 Reviews) | TIME: 5 hours | PRICE: US$129
- Miraflores Locks Visitor Center
- A boat ride across Lake Gatun
- Monkey Island to see monkeys and other wildlife
RATING: 4.8/5 (38 Reviews) | TIME: 5 hours | PRICE: US$155
- A boat ride across Lake Gatun to experience the ships crossing the Panama Canal
- Monkey Islands to see the monkeys and other wildlife
- Sloth sanctuary and a butterfly garden in Gamboa
RATING: 4.9/5 (17 Reviews) | TIME: 3.5 hours | PRICE: US$109
- A boat ride on Lake Gatun
- Monkey Island
RATING: 4.7/5 (144 Reviews) | TIME: 7 hours | PRICE: US$130
- An enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide
- A boat ride on Gatun Lake
- Monkey Island where you can see 3 kinds of monkeys
- An indigenous village where you can learn about the Embera people
7. Panama Canal Museum
The BEST way to get the most complete Panama Canal experience is to first visit the Panama Canal Museum BEFORE visiting Miraflores Locks or doing a Panama Canal cruise.
This very informative museum will tell you the history of the Canal and the history of Panama from the building of the Panama Railroad to the handover of the canal to Panama in 1999.
The museum also covers the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.
Give yourself enough time to visit the museum. I ran out of time and had to rush to tour the last few rooms of the museum. There’s so much information that it might take you 2 to 3 hours. For history nerds, give yourself 3 hours.
8. Museo Afroantillano de Panamá
ENTRANCE FEE: FREE | OPEN: 8:30 am – 3:30 pm (Tu – Sa) | LOCATION: Google Maps
Another Panama Canal attraction you might want to consider exploring is the Museum of Panama’s Afro Antilleans (a.k.a West Indies or Afro-Caribbean people).
The museum traces the history of the Africans who came from the Caribbean islands to work on the Panama Canal during both the French and American construction.
Over 31,000 people from Barbados, Martinique, Trinidad, and other countries in the West Indies worked on the American Canal. It’s unclear how many from the West Indies came during the French construction of the canal. I’ve read everything from 10,000 to 50,000.
The West Indians did the backbreaking work of building the railroad and canal and also suffered the most from malaria, yellow fever, and pneumonia. Under the French, the majority of the 22,000 who died from disease were from the Caribbean Islands. However, the French didn’t keep good records so we don’t know exactly how many died.
The history of the West Indians is important and should be highlighted more. Unfortunately, the museum is rather small—basically one room. There are just a few artifacts, photos, and models. That is probably due partly to the fact that at the time the canal was being built, few paid attention to these people. This neglect was mainly due to racism and partly due to the people from the West Indies being too poor, overworked, and/or illiterate to find the means and time to record their thoughts, experiences, and daily lives.
How to get to the Museo Afroantillano de Panamá:
Take the subway to 5 de Mayo station. Inside the station, there are signs pointing the way to the correct exit to take you to the museum. Once you exit the subway station, the museum should be right across a narrow street.
It’s also possible to walk from Casco Viejo to the museum.
Top Places to Stay for Every Budget
Here are my recommendations on where you to stay in Panama City while you visit the Panama Canal. I stayed at Panama House Bed and Breakfast and would stay there again in a heartbeat.
However, I also highly recommend trying to find a place in Casco Viejo so you can experience the city’s beautiful historic neighborhood.
Best Budget Place to Stay in Panama City
LOWEST PRICE: US$20-$40 (private room);US$20 (dorm) | BREAKFAST: Included | RATING: 8.9/10 (252+ Reviews)
- Located near a subway station and lots of good restaurants
- Good WiFi – Great place for digital nomads
- Reasonably priced private rooms and dorm rooms
- Very inclusive: Other guests are diverse in terms of age, nationality, and race
Best Mid-Range Place to Stay in Panama City
LOWEST PRICE: US$80-$100 (private room) US$24 (dorm) | BREAKFAST: Not Included | RATING: 8.5/10 (1,477 Reviews)
- A beautiful French-style mansion in Casco Viejo
- Has both mid-range at around US$80-$100 and dorm rooms for US$24
Best Luxury Place to Stay in Panama City
LOWEST PRICE: US$242 | BREAKFAST: Included | RATING: 9.3/10 (97+ Reviews) |
- Located in the heart of Casco Viejo
- An impeccably beautiful boutique hotel
- Amazing rooftop terrace with views of the city
Don’t skip the Panama Canal when you’re visiting Panama. It is one of the greatest engineering feats ever conducted and it’s got a fascinating and tragic history that you should learn about.
But what, in my opinion, are the BEST ways to see the Panama Canal?
- A Panama Canal boat cruise
- A visit to the Miraflores Locks
Now where else should you go in Panama?
- San Blas Islands – BEST beach and island destination in Central America
- Boquete has tons of things to do if you like hiking, birdwatching, and drinking coffee.
PRO TIP: No one likes to think about insurance, but accidents do happen. I highly recommend getting travel insurance. During my travels over the past 2 years, I’ve been using SafetyWing for my insurance. They’re very affordable for all ages, and digital nomads can use their insurance long-term.
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