There is so much more to see and do in Panama other than just the Panama Canal.  Yet no trip to Panama would be complete without experiencing the greatest engineering feat the world has ever known.  The best way to see the Panama Canal is to experience it by boarding a boat and doing a Full or Partial Transit Tour that we include in all of our Customized Vacation Packages.

Panama Canal Full Transit Tour

Ships make the transit through the Gatun Locks from the Atlantic side heading to the Pacific Ocean side.

The most comprehensive way to experience the Panama Canal is to take a full transit which enables you to traverse the entire country, beginning on the Pacific side at the Flamenco Marina located on Amador Causeway.  This epic voyage begins as the vessel heads north toward the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, providing a spectacular view of the Bay of Panama and the modern Panama City skyline.  After passing underneath the Bridge of Americas, it will not be long before the ship enters Miraflores Locks, which is the southernmost of the two sets of Pacific locks, as it ascends 18 meters in two different steps.

After passing through the second set of locks on the Pacific side which are called Pedro Miguel Locks, and ascending 9 meters, the ship travels through the famous Gaillard Cut which is where the Chagres River flows into the Canal.  It is also referred to as Culebra Cut because its curves resemble those of a snake (culebra).  This is one of the highlights of the trip because it is carved through the Continental Divide.  It is also where the work is being done to expand the Panama Canal.

Passing through the manmade Gatun Lake, which was once the largest man-made lake in the world and formed by constructing the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River, you can see the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at Barro Colorado on your way to Gatun Locks.

The final and only set of locks on the Caribbean side is the Gatun Locks.  There it requires two sets of locks to lower ships a total of 26 meters through three distinct sets of chambers.  After transiting the Gatun Locks, passengers disembark at Colon and return to Panama City where this amazing journey of a lifetime began.

Panama Canal Partial Transit Tour

RESIZED Tour Boat and Tanker

If time does not allow for the full Canal Transit, the next best way to experience the Panama Canal is to take a Partial Panama Canal Transit which takes you through two of the three sets of Locks.  Most common is the southbound route which means the vessel begins at the north end of the Gailard cut, where the Chagres River flows into the Canal. The Gaillard Cut (also known as Culebra Cut because its curves resemble a snake) is one of the main points of interest for visitors because it was carved through the Continental Divide and this section of the Canal is full of history and geological value. Traveling the Cut’s 13.7 kilometers on the way to Pedro Miguel Locks provides a great opportunity to observe the work in progress for the epic Panama Canal expansion project.

Miraflores Locks Visitors Center

The Miraflores locks at the Panama Canal in Panama.

Regardless of whether you have the opportunity to experience the full or partial Panama Canal Transit, you will not want to miss spending some time at the Miraflores Locks Visitors Center.  With its four-story Visitors Center and Museum, you can learn all about the history and construction of the Panama Canal.   and then go up on the observation deck to witness the ships transiting the Locks.  In addition to the observation deck, the massive complex contains a four-story museum, a theater playing Canal documentaries in English and Spanish, and an excellent restaurant and bar.    The best time to see the colossal Panamax tankers transiting the Canal is around five o’clock in the afternoon.  There you can enjoy dinner and drinks at one of the most spectacular settings in the world!

Gatun Locks and the Panama Canal Expansion Visitors Centers

The gates closing at Gatun Locks Panama Canal

Gatun Locks just might might be the most impressive and worthwhile visiting of the three sets of Locks. Gatun Locks is much less crowded than Miraflores which are on the Pacific side and the ships pass by so closely it feels like you can reach out and touch them.

Since all three chambers are connected, you’ll have the opportunity to see the entire process completed in one set of locks. On the Pacific side the process is split into two distinct sets of Locks. It takes approximately 1.5 – 2 hours for a vessel to complete the transit at Gatun Locks, regardless of whether it’s heading northbound or southbound.

The current Canal Expansion project was approved by the people of Panama via a referendum in October in 2006 at the extraordinary cost of approximately $5.2 billion dollars. The widening of the Panama Canal began in September 2007 as a means for doubling the capacity of the inter-oceanic passageway to meet the world’s growing commercial demand. Though slightly delayed, this unprecedented expansion project is due to be completed by the first quarter of 2016.

Due to the girth of Post-Panamax ships being too large to fit through the existing chambers, two new sets of locks are being located alongside the existing ones – one on the Caribbean side at Gatun and one of the Pacific side at Miraflores. The new locks are being constructed in a channel started by the U.S. in 1939 but later cancelled due to World War II breaking out. The new locks will be 30% larger and are intended to accommodate Post-Panamax ships and the increased commercial demands resulting from enhanced global trade.