No visit to Panama City would be complete without seeing the Panama Canal, an impressive man-made canal which took 10 years to build at the beginning of the 1900’s. Coined the greatest shortcut in the world, the canal connects the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, by carving a narrow ocean path through Central America. Even in 2015, the Panama Canal remains an engineering feat, with a series of “locks” which controls water levels through the power of gravity and allows ships to float through.
If you’re thinking of visiting the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre, here are some tips based on our experience:
Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre
The Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre is probably the most common way to visit the Panama Canal. For $15USD entrance per person, you are granted access to an informative four-floor museum, which includes a 10-minute introduction video (different showings for English and Spanish), restaurants and snack shops, and several floors of observation decks.
I really enjoyed the museum, which was extremely informative, not only about the purpose of the canal, but also its impressive construction and engineering, the people behind the canal, and its use in present time. Plan for approximately 45 minutes to go through the entire exhibit.
Restaurants at Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre
Because we were visiting the Panama Canal around lunch time, we wondered whether we would would be able to buy food at the visitor centre. The main restaurant is the “Atlantic & Pacific Co” restaurant, which was extremely expensive. For lunch, they were only offering a buffet option for $50USD per person. You can just go for a drink, but your seating options with a view of the canal are limited as the prime spots are saved for the buffet patrons.
Instead, we opted to get gelato and pastries at the two small cafes instead. The gelato in a cone was delicious and perfect for the hot weather (watch out, it melts really fast) but I don’t recommend the empanadas which just didn’t taste fresh (we ended up wasting food and throwing it out).
The Best Panama Canal Viewpoints at Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre
It didn’t seem to be a problem to get a good view of the canal from any of multiple observation decks at Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre. However, it got quite busy starting from an hour before a vessel is scheduled to pass through the canal.
There are picnic tables on the bottom floor, bleachers on the second floor to sit on and a restaurant patio on the third. However, our favourite observation floor was the top fourth floor observation deck, which seems to be the breeziest with the best view from higher up.
If you’re staking out a spot to watch the vessel passing, pick somewhere with shade!
The Vessel Passing through the Panama Canal
Before you go to the visitors centre, see if you or your hotel can call ahead to ask what time the ship passes through, and time your arrival for 1 – 2 hours before the scheduled time. That’ll give you enough time to go through the museum exhibits, and then pick a spot to sit or stand at while you wait for the vessel passing. We had to stake out a viewing spot 45 minutes before the ship was passing though.
The actual vessel passing is a very slow process. Someone is giving a bi-lingual play by play over a microphone. Nothing you wouldn’t have already learned from the 10-minute video, or the canal museum, but something to listen to, to pass the time. As slow as this was, it’s worth going to the Canal when this happens. Without the demonstration a boat passing, you’re just looking at a canal of water.
By the way, there is free wifi at the Panal Canal visitors centre!
The items are super overpriced, so I wouldn’t recommend buying anything from there. Save your souvenir shopping for elsewhere!
We visited Panama City in December 2015. For more things to do in Panama, see our posts on: Parque Natural Metropolitano In Panama City and The Oreba Organic Cacoa Farm Tour In Bocas Del Toro.