The Panama Canal

Written by Peter Lauffer
October 16, 2020

The Panama Canal is the most important tourist attraction in Panama. The canal is a waterway approximately 82 kilometers long that connects the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean across the narrowest stretch of Central America. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, various attempts were made to build such a canal connecting the two oceans. 

Panama Canal Map

At the end of the 19th century, the French intended to build a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific after having completed the Suez Canal in Egypt. At this time, Panama was still part of Grand Colombia, which made up what is today Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. However, differences of opinion between the leading engineers along with underestimation of the construction costs led to the bankruptcy of the French construction company involved.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Panama was becoming an independent nation. Realizing how strategic a canal would be in Panama for dramatically shortening the sea journey from East to West, the United States funded the construction of the Panama Canal on the condition that the United States would get perpetual rights to use of the canal. The United States also requested a strip of land ​​eight kilometers wide on each side of the canal. The canal was finally completed and inaugurated in 1914 and soon became one of the world’s most important waterways.

The United States gave the Panama Canal back to Panama on 31 December 1999. Since that time, Panama has received all tolls for ships passing through the canal. 

M/V Zuiderdamm in the Panamax Section of the Gatun Lock. In front are the Mules Locomotives moving the ship inside the lock.

The dimensions of the canal’s original locks and waterways were sufficient only for container ships up to 5,000 standard containers (Panamax Size Vessels). Modern container vessels, in contrast, can carry up to 14,000 containers; therefore, an expansion of the canal was necessary. The work started in 2007, and the expansion sections opened on June 26, 2016, to traffic from Neopanamax vessels carrying up to 14,000 standard containers.

For the fiscal year 2019, the Panama Canal registered a total of 13,785 ship transits and generated USD 2,592 million in tolls for the operating company and the state of Panama.

Locks of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal has three lock systems: 

1. The Gatún locks are located on the Atlantic side immediately after entry from the Caribbean Sea into the Panama Canal. The Gatún Lock lifts ships via three consecutive lock chambers to Lake Gatún, 25.9 meters (85 feet) above sea level.*

2. At the Gaillard Breakthrough exit on the Pacific Ocean 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 a total drop height of 16.5 meters (54 feet).*

*The Pacific is slightly higher than the Atlantic Ocean.

Ship leaving the Miraflores Lock in direction of the Gatun Lake

Visiting the Panama Canal

There are two main ways to visit the Panama Canal: First, one can visit the various scenic lookout points near the locks on the mainland, from which one may observe ships and be introduced to the locks’ technical aspects. Secondly, tourists can discover the Panama Canal by taking a cruise through the canal itself.

Lookout Points and Visitor Sites:

Miraflores Lock Visitor Center

The Miraflores Visitor Center is located near Panama City and is often part of a traditional city tour. At the visitor center, you can observe the Panamax ships crossing the “old” canal. 

From the terraces of Miraflores, you can see the enormous Neopanamax ships in the distance.

Cruise Ship at the MIraflores Lock

The visitor center has several attractions, but visitors typically most want to climb to one of the three lookout terraces, from which the passage of the Panamax ships through the system of locks may be observed. As a railfan, be sure to pay special attention to the “Mule-Locomotives” that move the vessels in and out of the lock chambers. The visitor center has a Museum with exhibits on the history of the canal, its operation, the biodiversity of the area, and the canal’s role in international trade. Allow plenty of time for watching the ships, as the ascending and descending process inside the lock is very slow

Pedro Miguel Locks

The Pedro Miguel Locks are located about 5 kilometers northwest of the Miraflores Locks. At the Pedro Miguel Locks, there is no actual infrastructure for visitors.  Some people enjoy simply sitting and relaxing behind the fences while watching the huge ships pass by. On our tours, we don’t visit the Pedro Miguel Locks from the landside.

Greek Petrol Tanker at the Aguas Claras Lock

Gatun Locks and Visitor Center in Aguas Clara

The Agua Clara Visitor Center is north of Gatún Lake, near the city of Colon in the Caribbean.

This set of locks is part of the expansion section of the canal and is the most exciting site from which to observe huge Neopanamax vessels up close. Tugboats help move the vessels in and out of the enormous lock chambers, which makes for a fascinating view. 

On our tour, we spend time at the Agua Clara Visitor Center. One can easily organize a visit to the Agua Clara Locks via a journey on the Transoceanic Train from Panama City to Colon. Otherwise, one must arrange a private car or take part in an organized tour to visit the Agua Clara Lock. 

Partial Canal Transit on the Pacific Queen

Cruising the Panama Canal on a boat

One way to experience the channel beyond the above lookout points is to navigate the canal itself in tourist boats. Various tour companies offer this service, and it is an incredible experience. The small boats share a lock chamber with the enormous freighters and cruise ships. I recommend making a partial transit, passing the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks. Transit of the full length of the canal is also possible, but it takes a long time, and after just two locks, one has adequately seen and experienced the lock system on the Panama Canal. 

🚂 Travel Tip: Unfortunately, visitors cannot combine the transit cruises with the Train Journey on the Transoceanic Train. The transit cruises do not run every day but are usually organized on Saturdays and Sundays only, when there is no Transoceanic Train running. Depending on the traffic in the Panama Canal, the departure time of these cruises can vary. It is best to book a tour that includes the Panama Canal Cruise, and be sure to include the hotel transfers to the cruise terminals—because you never know exactly in which direction you will take the cruise. That is, depending on the direction of traffic on the Panama Canal, the journey can go from Gatún Lake to Panama City or from Panama City to Gatún Lake. 

An excellent visit of the Panama Canal by both land and water is included in our tour “Coffee, Rum & Trains in Colombia and Panama.”