Update: The old Gatún Locks visitor center was permanently closed at the end of May 2016. A new visitor center located at the expansion project has opened. It’s called Agua Clara.
If you’re interested in seeing the Panama Canal and have more time to spare, head to the Gatún Locks on the Caribbean side. They’re located near the city of Colón. Admission is US$5 and hours are 8am to 4pm. There’s no museum or restaurant like at the Miraflores Locks, but this is the best place to simply view ships passing through the locks. Not only is this the longest and most impressive set of locks, you also won’t have the hordes of people elbowing you to get a glimpse and you will be much much closer to the action.
The Gatún Locks changes a ship’s level 26m in three stages. According to Lonely Planet Panama Edition, at the time they were built, a record 1,820,000 cubic meters of concrete was poured during their construction. This much concrete could build a wall 2.6m thick and 3.6m high running for 213km!
After paying admission, there are a couple of retired mules that used to pull ships through the canal.
From there, follow the footprints to the viewing platforms. I accidentally went into a restricted area and managed to get a few shots off before security came and removed me.
Once I was at the correct viewing platform, I had an up close and personal look at the ships passing through. I felt like I could reach out and touch them!
As at Miraflores, there was a narrator explaining what was happening as the ships passed through the locks.
If you have more time to kill, do yourself a favor and pass over the canal on the small one lane bridge. You will have a unique perspective of the locks and of the canal as it opens up into the Caribbean Sea.
Further down the road is the Gatún Dam, which created Gatún Lake, once the largest artificial lake in the world, by damming the Río Chagres. The dam is another great engineering feat, and its creation submerged 262 square km of jungle and villages. Hydroelectric power generated by the dam provides electricity for the locks. Unfortunately, it was getting late and I didn’t have time to visit the dam.
To get to the Gatún Locks and dam, it’s easier with your own car. You can also take a bus from Panama City’s Albrook Bus Terminal to Colón Bus Terminal and either take a taxi (about US$30 round trip including waiting time) or a public bus that stops near the locks. If you have your own car or plan on taking a taxi, a trip to the Gatún Locks can be combined with a visit to nearby Fuerte San Lorenzo.
On the way to Gatún Locks, you’ll also be able to get a quick look at the new Panama Canal Expansion Project. These new locks were scheduled to open in 2016 at the time of my visit, and will be able to accommodate much bigger ships. For those really interested, there is an observation deck to see the construction firsthand.