The canal, opened in 1914, is one of the essential waterways in the world; about 14’300 ships (average of the years 2011 to 2013) pass through it each year.
The dimensions of the locks and waterways of the original canal were only sufficient for ships up to the Panamax size (Container Ship with 5000 standard containers). Since the opening of the extension on June 26, 2016, Neopanamax vessels with up to 14,000 standard containers can pass through the Panama Canal.
The amount of goods transported through the Panama Canal corresponds to about five percent of global ocean freight traffic. The canal generated almost eight percent of Panama’s gross domestic product in 2013.
Locks of the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal has three lock systems:
1.) The Gatún locks are located on the Atlantic side immediately after the entry from the Caribean Sea to the Panama Canal. The Gatun Lock lifts the ships with three consecutive lock chambers to Lake Gatún, 25.9 meters (85 feet) above sea level.
2.) At the exit of the Gaillard Breakthrough on the Pacific side is the Pedro Miguel lock with a drop height of 9.5 meters (31 feet).
3.) Close to Panama City are the Miraflores locks with two directly successive lock chambers and with a drop height of a total of 16.5 meters (54 feet).
(The Pacific Ocean is slightly higher than the Atlantic Ocean in the Panama Area.)
Visiting the Panama Canal
There are two main ways to visit the Panama Canal: Firstly, you can visit the various viewpoints on the mainland from where you observe ships and get introduced to the technical aspects of the locks. Secondly, you can discover the Panama Canal making a cruise through the canal.
Viewpoints and Visitor Sites:
Miraflores Lock Visitor Center
The typical and most recommended visit is to the Miraflores Visitor Center. The Miraflores locks are very near Panama City. The visitor center has several attractions, but what everyone wants to do is climb to one of the three levels of the viewpoint from where you can observe the passage of the enormous ships (Panamax) through the system of locks. It is worth clarifying that from the terraces of Miraflores, you can see the colossal Neopanamax ships only in the distance. However, you can observe the locomotives that help to move the vessels in and out of the lock chamber. The visitor center has a Museum showing history, operation of the canal, the biodiversity of the area, and its role in international trade. In total, the visit can last about 2 hours, but you can stay watching pass buckets until they close the center.
Pedro Miguel Locks
The Pedro Miguel locks are located about 5 kilometers northwest of the Miraflores locks. They do not have any infrastructure for the visitor, so seeing ships pass through the gates has no cost. It is seen at sea level from behind a fence, and some people take advantage of the place to sit and relax while watching the huge ships pass by. On our tours, we don’t visit the Pedro Miguel Locks from the landside.
Gatun Locks visitor center in Aguas Clara
Agua Clara Visitor Center is north of Gatun Lake, near the city of Colon in the Caribbean.
This set of locks was inaugurated in 2017 and is part of the expansion of the canal, whose goal is to pass even larger ships. In my opinion, this is the most exciting site to observe from close the huge Neopanamax sized ships. Tug boats help to move Neopanamax vessels in and out of the lock chambers. On our tours, we visit the Aguas Claras Visitor Center in the morning when we travel on the Transoceanic Train from Panama City to Colon.
Cruising the Panama Canal on a boat
One way to get to know the channel beyond the viewpoints is to navigate the canal in boats prepared for tourism. There are various tour companies offering this service, and it is an incredible experience. The little ships share a lock chamber with the enormous freighters. I recommend doing a partial transit, passing the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks. The whole canal transit is also possible, but it takes a long time, and I think after two locks, you have seen and experienced the system. Unfortunately, you cannot combine the transit cruises with the Train Journey on the Transoceanic Train. The Transit Cruises do not run every day; they are usually organized on Saturdays and Sundays only. Depending on the traffic in the Panama Canal, the departure time of these cruises can vary. It is best to book the voyage with a few days in advance and to include the hotel transfers to the cruise terminals.
A great visit by land and water of the Panama Canal is part of our tour “Coffee, Rum & Trains in Colombia and Panama.”