On my way to visit the locks at the Panama Canal, my taxi driver told me how life in Panama seems to be dominated by the canal. “Every day,” he said, “something about the canal is on the news. We can’t escape it.” The Panama Canal is vital to the country of Panama for income and jobs, and after being handed over by the US in 1999, it has become a source of national pride.
Since 1534, there had been talk of a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. The first actual attempt was made by the French in 1881 but they abandoned the project due to engineering problems and a high death rate among workers suffering from yellow fever and malaria. The US took over the project in 1903 after Panama gained independence from Colombia and finally completed the gargantuan engineering project in 1914. After several years of contentious US control of the Panama Canal Zone, the canal was finally turned over to Panama in 1999. It remains one of the most difficult projects of all time, and has been named one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
The Panama Canal is 77.1km (48 miles) long with three sets of locks. They allow ships to transit between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea in about eight hours, not including waiting time. Ships pay a toll depending on their class and weight, which could end up being several hundred thousand dollars. Smaller pleasure ships pay about US$1,000.
Visiting the canal is a must when in Panama City. There are three sets of locks to visit – Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, and Gatún, along with opportunities to do a canal transit cruise or visit the artificial Gatún Lake, among other activities. I decided to visit Miraflores and Gatún.
The Miraflores Locks are the most easily accessible set of locks and the most tourist-friendly. A taxi from Albrook Bus Terminal to the locks should cost about US$5, but taxis will often try to charge tourists US$10. The visitor center is open from 9am to 5pm and costs US$15 for foreign nationals and nonresidents of Panama.
The Miraflores Locks are a complete experience for visitors. There is an interesting museum, a short 3D film, and of course, the locks. A restaurant and café are also on-site.
The museum does a good job of explaining the history of the canal and how it works. Plenty of maps and charts show visitors the canal in numbers and give important facts about who it serves and its importance to the world. The second floor includes an exhibit on the nature found in the area around the canal.
The upper floors have some great interactive displays showing what it’s like to guide a ship through the canal, before allowing visitors to enter the viewing platform.
A narrator at the viewing platform gives a play-by-play in both English and Spanish of what is happening to each ship that enters the locks. They point out important people on the ground and on the ship and give facts about the ships that are passing through at that moment. Watching the ships pass through is amazing in itself, but the narrator really makes the experience even more interesting and worthwhile.
At Miraflores, which is on the Pacific side, ships change their level 16.5m in two stages. As ships enter the locks, the huge doors close behind them. The doors are the original doors from the canal opening in 1914.
After the doors close, the water level is raised or lowered depending on the direction the ships is traveling in. When the lock is being filled or emptied with water, you can see it bubbling. The lock in the picture below is being filled while water in the lock that contains the ship is being lowered.
Once the water level is equal to the next stage, the doors open and the ship is pulled through by two small trains, or “mules”, that guide it and keep it from hitting the walls. There isn’t much room to spare!
If you don’t have much time and want to get the basic canal experience, Miraflores does the trick. My only problem with it is that it’s overcrowded by tourists fighting each other for a good spot along the railing. It can be tough for many visitors to get a good view of what’s happening, and it can be frustrating. My experience qualified Miraflores Locks as a tourist trap. For a more personal experience, it’s a good idea to visit the Gatún Locks near Colón.