Your Ultimate Guide to Visiting the Panama Canal

Fun fact: My great-great Uncle Harry worked on the Panama Canal! I didn’t know that until after we visited, but I’m glad I know it now. When we decided to take a long layover in Panama City, I knew we had to go to the world-famous Panama Canal. What I didn’t know is that it’s kind of involved! It’s not something you can see from a random lookout point or something you can pop-in and pop-out of. So, here’s your guide to visiting for yourself!

Why You Should Care about the Panama Canal

You probably learned about the Panama Canal if you went to school in the United States, but if you’re like me, you kind of only remember that Teddy Roosevelt was involved, kind of, somehow. But the Panama Canal is actually important to everyone, all over the world, whether they ever think about it or not!

Why? The Canal cuts shipping time by 20 days. Twenty days! If what you ordered from Amazon needed to cross from Atlantic to Pacific, or Pacific to Atlantic, it went through the Panama Canal at some point. Otherwise, it would have needed to go all the way around the southern tip of South America. Time is money, and less shipping time is better for the bottom line!

Also, the building of the Panama Canal made great strides in world health. Malaria, yellow fever, and other illnesses had plagued people living and working in Panama forever, but no one knew why. In order to make the Panama Canal a reality, these diseases had to be figured out. Because of research on the diseases here, doctors found out mosquitos were the culprits and were able to take steps to mitigate the risks. We can prevent mosquito-spread diseases today because of the Panama Canal!

Make sure to go to the top for a bird’s-eye view!
Read on: Top 9 Habits of Successful Travelers

The Mira Flores Visitor Center

Now that you know some of the reasons why you should care about the Panama Canal, you know why you need to visit. You’ll start at the Mira Flores Visitor Center. Here, you’ll buy your tickets for $17.22 per person, as of early 2023. Inside, you’ll find a couple of exhibition halls, a food court, gift shop, IMAX movie theater, and access to the Canal Viewing Area.

You’ll start at the Visitor Center

The Movie

So, I’m not a huge fan of educational movies at sites like this. They’re usually cheesy, have a specific agenda, or are about 30 years outdated. Or sometimes all three! And this one was 45 minutes, which is definitely leaning toward too long. But honestly, this movie, narrated by Morgan Freeman, was incredibly well done. I actually enjoyed it, and I think you will, too!

Some of the most interesting facts include:

  • The U.S. wanted to build a canal through Panama (though they were not the first to try), but in the early 20th century, it was a protectorate of Colombia. President Roosevelt sent support to Panama, and they were able to fight and win the Panamanian War for Independence in just one day: November 3, 1903. The U.S. built the Panama Canal, and they maintained multiple military bases there until 1999.
  • It’s a tight fit! The original, 1913 Panama Canal is only so wide, and many cargo boats and cruise ships are only just the right size to go through the Canal. In fact, did you know they also recently built a wider canal next to the original? It opened in 2016.
  • A Panamanian specialist boards every ship that goes through the Canal. The captain cedes control of his ship to the specialist, who guides the ship all the way through. The specialist is the only one even allowed to speak while the boat makes its way!
  • There are no water pumps to move the water from one lock to the other. It’s all done by gravity.
  • An average of 40 ships go through the Canal per day, and 10,000 people work there to make it happen.
  • Anyone willing to pay can go through the Panama Canal, including shipping vessels, cruise ships, and even sailboats!
Those ships are all waiting to go through!
More here: Your Ultimate Guide to a Long Layover in Panama City, Panama

The Viewing Area

So, we went to the viewing area first because of the timing of the movie, but in my opinion, the best way to experience this is to see the movie first, then go to the viewing area. It’s not a deal breaker if your timing works out the opposite way, as ours did, but seeing the movie first will help you understand what you’re looking at when you do go out to the canal. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to enter the viewing area a second time, so you won’t be able to do both.

There may or may not be a ship going through when you’re there. We saw a small sail boat waiting to go through when we went to the viewing area. On our way out, we could see a massive ship waiting in one of the locks–it was so tall, we could see it from the parking lot on the other side of the Visitor Center!

Hopefully there will be a ship going through for you!
Read next: Tips for Your Stopover in Panama City, Panama

Want more? Check out my dedicated Panama Page!

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