Of great difficulty in its construction, the Panama Canal is a work of pharaonic engineering that connects the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. Its construction in 1881 has conditioned the development of the country since then and by becoming a communications hub of great importance in global trade given its strategic position.
Going to Panama and not visiting the canal is like going to France and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. There are two ways to visit it: from the canal itself, navigating or from its viewpoints. I'll tell you all the details.
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From the viewpoints of the locks
The main way to see the Panama Canal is from the viewpoints of its locks. There are three: Miraflores, Agua Clara and Pedro Miguel.
The most recommended and typical visit is to the Miraflores Visitor Center as it is the easiest to access and the closest from Panama City. The center has several attractions but everyone wants to go up to one of the three levels of the viewpoint from where you can see the Panama Canal and the huge ships through the lock system.
Seeing the gates open and close and the water escaping is impressive. However, it is not the only thing to do at the Miraflores Visitor Center since there is also an exhibition that shows the history and operation of the Panama Canal, its role in international trade and the biodiversity of the area. In addition, there is a room where a film (in Spanish and English) about the history of the canal is shown.
In total, the visit can last about 2 hours, but you can watch the boats go by until the Visitor Center closes or stay to eat in one of the two restaurants or the bar.
When visiting the Miraflores Visitor Center you should bear in mind that in the morning the ships cross from the Pacific to the Atlantic and in the afternoon the other way around. This means that ships do not pass at noon and there is no activity in the locks, so you can take the time to watch the documentary film or tour the exhibition halls.
Pedro Miguel Locks
About 5 kilometers northwest of the Miraflores locks are the Pedro Miguel locks. Since they do not have any infrastructure for the visitor to see the boats pass through the gates there is no cost. It is seen from behind a fence at sea level and since there are benches and street vendors, many people take the opportunity to sit and relax while watching the huge ships go by.
Clear Water Lock
Farther from Panama City are the locks and the Agua Clara Visitor Center, specifically north of Gatun Lake near the Panamanian city of Colón, an hour's drive from Panama City.
In 2017, the Agua Clara locks were inaugurated and are part of the expansion of the canal, the purpose of which is that even larger ships can transit than those that navigate the original canal. Of the entire expanded canal, they are the only locks that can be visited. The Agua Clara locks are the best place to see the Panama Canal if you came to the country on a cruise to the port of Colón or if you are interested in touring that area of Panama.
Beyond the viewpoints there is another way to get to know the Panama Canal: navigate it in boats prepared for tourism. It is an amazing experience, like getting to know this spectacular work of engineering from the inside. There are different companies that carry out the activity and some even offer breakfast and lunch on the boat.