Planning on visiting the Panama Canal in Panama City? The Miraflores Locks are a must see on your Panama vacation. Here is everything you need to plan your visit to the Panama Canal Miraflores Locks – from price to location to interesting facts. Let’s go!
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I’m not going to lie – prior to my arrival in Panama, I was not extremely interested in visiting the Panama Canal. I was much more interested in exploring Panama’s waterfalls in Chiriqui and the untouched islands of San Blas.
Sure, I would stop and look at the Panama Canal, but only out of obligation. You can’t visit Panama and not visit the Panama Canal, right?
Boy did I have it all wrong. The Panama Canal is actually fascinating. The history is long and storied, with financial and moral scandals littered throughout the ideation and construction of this one-of-a-kind marvel.
Here I will share with you why visiting the Panama Canal needs to be on your Panama Bucket List, and provide all of the logistics to make it a reality.
Visiting the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks
There are so many things to do in Panama City, and a visit to the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks is more of less compulsory. You really can’t visit Panama and not plan on visiting the Panama Canal, can you?!
Just in case you’re a little bit like me (meaning, you had forgotten roughly 95% of everything you learned about this man-made canal from back in your school days), well then I’m here to remind you why it is amazing and why you need to visit.
First, some basics!
What is the Panama Canal and What is it’s Purpose?
The Panama Canal was built as a maritime “shortcut” if you will to save time and cost when transporting goods. The man-made waterway connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at one of the narrowest points of North America.
The building of the Panama Canal was one of the largest engineering projects ever attempted.
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Where is the Panama Canal Located?
The Panama Canal is a relatively thin passageway that stretches across Panama, and connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal cuts through about 50 miles of land on the Isthmus of Panama and facilitates maritime trade.
Zoom out on the map below to get a sense of just how skinny this section of Panama is.
Who Owns the Panama Canal?
The Panama Canal is owned and administered by the Republic of Panama. The building of the Panama Canal, however, relied on help from France and the USA, and employed citizens from many countries around the world.
The Best Time to Visit the Panama Canal
The weather in panama City is hot and humid all year round. It does not vary greatly.
However, the best time to visit Panama Canal Zone would be between December and April to avoid possible rain and the worst of the humidity. Do note that where you view the Panama Canal is covered, so even if it is raining you can certainly still visit.
How Many Miles are Saved by Going Through the Panama Canal?
Ships crossing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa) will save roughly 8,000 nautical miles! If not for the Panama Canal, they would need to go all the way around South America to reach the opposite side.
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All About the Locks at the Panama Canal
I didn’t fully understand the function of the locks until actually viewing them. Here I will try and break down the purpose of them as succinctly as possible.
I visited the Miraflores Locks viewpoint, which is the closest option from Panama City.
The Panama Canal crosses the continental divide. The man-made lake that sits between the oceans, called Gatun Lake, sits 85 feet higher than sea level.
Because of this, engineers needed to find a way to “raise” the cargo ships from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake, and back down to sea level again. So, how is this done? With the lock system.
Once a ship enters the first lock, a massive gates closes and water begins to fill the area. You can actually see the level rising, though it is not always a fast process. Once the ship is high enough to pass to the next lock, the next gate opens and it moves forward. The principle is the same no matter which direction the ship may be passing.
How Long Does it Take for a Ship to Pass Through the Panama Canal?
To pass through the entire Panama Canal will take roughly 11 hours. For a ship to pass through the Miraflores Locks, where you can view the process, will take around one hour.
How Much Does it Cost a Ship to Pass Through the Panama Canal?
That depends on the size and weight of your boat. The transit toll for a ship under 50 feet is around $800. For those up to 80 feet, the fee is $1,300. And, it goes up from there.
But, remember all the time and fuel that the ship is saving by passing through the Canal in the first place!
Let’s Talk about Visiting the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks!
The exact location of Miraflores Locks Visitor Center can be found here:
The Miraflores Locks Visitor Center is roughly 30 minutes from downtown Panama City. So no, you cannot just view the Panama Canal from downtown as this blogger may have erroneously assumed!
How Much Does it Cost to Visit the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks?
- The entrance fee to the viewing platform is $10 USD for foreign adults.
- Tickets to both the viewing platform and the museum costs $20 USD.
- A ticket to the IMAX Theater costs $15 USD.
- A ticket for all of the above costs $30 USD.
Here you will also find a restaurant and a gift shop.
The Gatun locks are on the Atlantic side. If you prefer a less busy viewing experience, you can definitely head there. But the Miraflores Locks are much closer to Panama City and I didn’t find them to be too congested.
Do Ships Pass Through the Panama Canal 24/7?
Nope. Ships will only pass through Miraflores Locks from 9-11am and then 3-5pm.
I highly recommend arriving around 30 minutes or so earlier than when you want to view due to the ticket line. I visited on a Sunday so perhaps this is extra important on weekends. Still, the line moved and was not too terrible.
Buy your ticket and head up to the 4th floor platform to watch the ships pass by.
Should You Take a Tour of the Panama Canal or should You Go on Your Own?
It depends on the experience you are looking for!
If you want an expert to share the Canal’s history and significance (not to mention, manage the logistics) you may want to book a tour. And, bonus, there is more than one way to experience the Canal!
Option 1: 5 Hour Panama Canal and City Tour. This one offers a shocking amount of value packed into an affordable tour! Miraflores Locks are the highlights, but other notable spots in the city are included.
Option 2: Travel Through the Panama Canal by Boat! This option is awesome and I think when I return, I would like to experience this. Go through all of the locks and feel for yourself what travel through the Panama Canal is really like.
Option 3: A Panama Canal & Jungle Tour. This one takes you to several interesting stops, not to mention a lesser-visited Panama Canal viewpoint. Hotel pickup, visit to Monkey Island, Agua Clara locks, and San Lorenzo National Park visits all included.
If you feel comfortable, it is more than possible to visit Miraflores Locks solo. Just take an uber to the Visitor’s Center and order another when you are ready to leave.
My Visit Experience
Before You Go
So what changed my mind about the Panama Canal?
It actually was not my visit to the Canal itself. At least not initially.
It was, in fact, a museum that I visited on a whim the day prior to my visit. In Casco Viejo, within Panama City, sits a small museum called Museo Canal.
Much of the information here is written in Spanish, but don’t worry. It gets more and more informative the farther into the museum you get.
It was here in Museo Canal ($15 USD per foreign adult) that I got my first taste of the historical chronology that building this “8th Wonder of the World” as well as the financial, moral, ethical, and natural issues that arose.
I highly recommend doing the same, as it will allow a huge amount of context that I never would have had if I’d just visited Miraflores Locks alone.
During Your Visit
The viewing platform is large, but it does fill pretty quickly around the railings. People do move about now an then, so if you don’t get a front row view immediately, you can likely squeeze in if you’re willing to wait.
The ships do take quite a while to pass through. I visited during the afternoon slot, from 3-5pm. I was lucky that one ship was about to enter the canal upon my arrival. So I got to watch one ship’s full passage as well as a half passage of another one or two ships.
The process is fascinating. More so because of my Museo Canal visit, no doubt.
Seeing this process in person really does make you appreciate the monumental task it was to create this system. You absolutely need to plan on visiting the Panama Canal when you’re in Panama!
The History of the Panama Canal
It would be impossible for me to write the entire sordid history of building the Panama Canal. But I will try and nutshell the process and provide some great resources for learning further about it, before or after visiting.
First, know that the Panama Canal was not the first of such endeavors. The French were responsible for building the Suez Canal in prior years. The Suez Canal was a longer feat, but the terrain was soft and sandy.
So, when in 1881, the French began fundraising and subsequently building the Panama Canal, they were sorely underprepared. The dense rainforest, the monsoon rains, and the complicated sea level against the continental divide were all new roadblocks.
After approximately 15 years of engineering and building, the project was halted. There had been an obscene number of deaths as well as misappropriation of funds and embezzlement.
It was under President Teddy Roosevelt that the USA stepped in and restarted the efforts, in 1904. Chief Engineer John Stevens managed the process and the crew worked with Panama to complete it.
Dirt and rock removed to create the waterway was used to create the Amador Causeway, which is a lovely tourist spot today.
People came from all over the world to work on building the Panama Canal, many from the Caribbean islands, Colombia, Armenia, Spain, Greece, Panama, and the United States. I learned about the many moral issues regarding worker’s class and salaries depending on where they came from.
The canal was finally completed in 1914, just after World War I began.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter of the United States approved a plan to pass control of the Panama Canal to the country of Panama. After a period of joint control, the Panama Canal was turned over to the government of Panama in 1999. As mentioned above, the Panama Canal is fully owned and operated by Panama.
Buy a Book About the Panama Canal Before Your Visit!
This short history barely scratches the surface of this multi-year and massive project. If you are interested in reading more, I have three books to recommend. These would be great to read either beforehand, or even afterwards to expand your understanding of the whole project.
1. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 By David McCullough
This 700-page account covers both the French and the American periods of constructions, and delves deep into the human and engineering side of the Panama Canal. It is a compelling, interesting read and has won several awards – as well as one for historical accuracy. This is a great choice for history lovers.
2. The Building of the Panama Canal in Historic Photographs By Ulrich Keller
This book delves into the entire story of the Panama Canal through the use of historical photographs taken over the course of the project. This book offers a rare glimpse back in time to provide a visual account that you can’t find elsewhere. This is a great choice for anyone who wants to “observe” the construction and catch a glimpse of the hard-working people on site.
3. Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal By Marixa Lasso
This book dives into the darker aspects of the build, such as the use of indigenous and foreign people who did not make the same wages or have access to the same caliber of housing or schools than the other workers and foremen. This book offers a different and valid viewpoint if you want to understand the Panama Canal from all angles.
Visiting the Panama Canal is a Non-Negotiable.
Have I convinced you yet that you need to spend some time here to see the locks in action? The broader your understanding of the Panama Canal is beforehand, the more you will appreciate the process once you see it. At least that’s how it worked for me!
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