Upon your return from a trip to Panama, your friends, family, and coworkers are guaranteed to ask you about the star attraction of Panama tourism and economics: the Panama Canal. The famed canal is constantly touted as a must-see attraction in Panama, and mentioned in gads of travel articles and guides as a requisite of any Panama vacation. The story behind the construction and reclamation of the canal by the Panamanian people is rich and riddled with international intrigue. History books dedicate entire chapters to the monumental passageway and it is truly a worthwhile effort to study up before a trip.
What you often don’t find in the guidebooks, however, are a few lesser-known secrets for making sure you have the best experience possible at one of the world’s most famous and well-trafficked tourist destinations. Navigating a trip to the Miraflores locks and Panama Canal can be a bit like visiting a theme park: a good visit depends on planning and getting there before the hordes of tour buses arrive.
Despite the crowds, I highly recommend a full afternoon at the Panama Canal to anyone mechanically-minded. Those who spent their childhood constructing fortresses out of Legos or watching giant construction cranes at work for hours on end will be enthralled by this modern marvel in action.
That being said, those of us with shorter attention spans may want to spend an hour or so perusing the museum and hoping to catch a ship that passes by before grabbing a drink at a local watering hole or moving on to another lively Panama City destination like Casco Viejo or the Amador Causeway.
I do promise that no matter where your interest lies, after watching the intricate process of a giant ship passing through the perfectly-designed canal locks, you’ll be glad you made the trip.
The visit to Miraflores locks is twofold – you can start with a jaunt through the museum detailing a complete history of the construction of the canal with a special focus on the workforce and labor that went into the build. Once you’ve satisfied your historical curiosity, you can stroll out to the sunny observation deck to catch a glimpse of the present-day canal in action. Tickets can be purchased for the complete 2-part tour, and are around $10 depending on age, student and retiree status, etc.
How to get there
If you don’t have a rental car, your best bet is to hail a cab from the city center. A cab ride to the canal should be around $10. Don’t worry about paying the cabbie to stay as cabs frequent the Miraflores locks parking lot to transport travelers back to town.
When to go
Everyone visiting the canal should aim to see a ship passing through – it’s truly an amazing sight! The trick to a perfect Panama Canal visit is timing – I suggest calling the museum the day of your visit to see what time ships will be passing through the canal. They can usually give you a good timeline; plan to arrive about an hour and half before the ship so that you can stop by the museum beforehand.
What to wear
Breezy clothes and sun protection. The outdoor viewing deck does get pretty sunny and steamy hot during the afternoon. (I spent my second day in Panama very sunburned after a visit to the canal on my first day).
What to bring
Don’t forget your guidebook – many of them have special addendums further detailing the history of the canal that make for a good read during downtime.
There is an on-site restaurant with a selection of grab-and-go lunch fare so you can pick up a snack or enjoy a picnic lunch from the viewing deck as you wait for your big ship to come in.
A visit to Panama just wouldn’t be complete without seeing one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels. It makes for a first introduction to the fascinating history and innovation that Panama has to offer, as well as a great story for everyone back home!