Panama City and Canal Vacation Packages
PANAMA CITY AND THE PANAMA CANAL
Panama City is a vibrant, cosmopolitan and beautiful city, Capital of the Republic of Panama, and located at the Pacific side of the American Continent. Built in 1519 by Pedro Arias Davila, a Spanish Governor, it has been considered as one of the most important cities of the Americas.
Panama City is not like most capital cities that offer only a handful of interesting sites to see in addition to an abundance of beautiful churches. There are three distinct areas of the city to see in addition to Miraflores Locks Visitors Center – the ruins of old Panama City that were torched by the Pirate Henry Morgan; the colonial area of Casco Antiguo where the city was rebuilt; and modern Panama City with mesmerizing skyscrapers that rival those of Miami.
Most everyone who visits Panama City is very surprised at how modern and vibrant the banking and commercial area of Panama City is. There are many new great hotels, phenomenal restaurants and the best nightlife in Central America and some of the best in all of Latin America.
For its part the Panama Canal starts, or ends – whichever way you look at it – at Panama City at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. Just a short drive from colonial Casco Antiguo is the world-famous Miraflores Locks Visitors Center.
Panama la Vieja
The ruins of Old Panama City, Panama La Vieja in Spanish, are situated just northeast of downtown Panama City. The city was founded by Pedrarias Davila in August of 1519, and is the oldest Spanish settlement on the Pacific. At one time a thriving city, Panama La Vieja benefitted from the Portobelo trade fairs and most notably from Spain’s great bullion life line (shipments were said to pass through Panama while en route from Peru’s silver mines to Europe). Quickly, the city became a major center for merchants and landowners, with a population that presumably reached 10,000 by the mid-17th century.
Panama City was burned to the ground in 1671 during Sir Henry Morgan’s invasion and was relocated approximately 5 miles from the original site at what is today known as “Casco Viejo” or “Casco Antiguo”. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1976, the ruins of Old Panama are an expansive area offering the opportunity to explore the grounds and even climb the Cathedral Tower. The top of the tower boasts spectacular views of Panama City, Panama Bay, and the mountains off in the distance. It’s also located in an area that attracts an abundance of bird species for great bird watching, which is a fun fringe benefit of a visit to the ruins of Panama la Vieja. There is also a new Panama Viejo Museum, situated just east of the ruins, that has recently been completed and is now open to the public.
Casco Antiguo is the oldest sector of modern Panama City and was founded in 1673. This beautiful little area has several attractions that travelers shouldn’t miss and can easily be covered in a walking tour of a few hours. A monument to the French entrepreneurs who began the Panama Canal stands at the bayside end of Casco Viejo. There is also an adjacent art museum in the converted strong house, known as Las Bovedas, once used for storing gold.
Other points of interest are the famed flat arch or Santo Domingo Church, the beautiful gold-plated altar of the San Jose Church, the Panama Canal Museum, the National Theater, the National Cathedral, the Presidential Palace and other colonial churches and monuments.
Due to a massive restoration process Casco Antiguo is also the most fashionable and sought after place in Panama City to dine, enjoy drinks and spend the night. Casco Antiguo represents quite a juxtaposition, literally between old and new. Decrepit old buildings have transformed into sidewalk cafes, fashionable restaurants, elegant bars and quaint art galleries. Interspersed throughout the restored areas are beautiful historic plazas, the Church of the Golden Altar, and other beautiful churces built in the 17th century.
Panama Canal Full Transit Tour
There is so much more to see and do in Panama in addition to experiencing the Panama Canal. Yet no trip to Panama would be complete without experiencing the greatest engineering feat the world has ever known. And the very best way to see the Panama Canal is through a personal and interactive experience where you will be on a ship transiting the Panama Canal in the same way that commercial ships pass through the Canal.
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.
Precise planning is required to ensure availability since the Full Transit is only offered a couple of Saturdays each month and the Partial Transit is offered 2-3 times per week.
Panama Canal Partial Transit Tour
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. 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.
Before reaching the Pedro Miguel Locks at the southern end of the Cut, you will be able to view the picturesque Centennial Bridge which crosses over the Canal. Next, the ship enters the Pedro Miguel Locks, which is northernmost of the two sets of locks on the Pacific side. Once in the chamber, the vessel is lowered 9 meters in one single step.
You will then enter Miraflores Lake, which is a small artificial body of fresh water that separates Pedro Miguel from Miraflores Locks, the latter being the final set of locks before reaching the Pacific Ocean. At Miraflores Locks the vessel is lowered 18 meters in two distinct steps. After passing underneath the Bridge of Americas, the ship will enter the Pacific Ocean where passengers are afforded spectacular views of the Bay of Panama and the modern Panama City skyline. It is an amazing ending to a truly epic journey.
If you don’t have time to take a full or partial transit, be sure to at least spend time at the Miraflores Visitors Center where you can witness colossal vessels squeeze through the walls of the locks from a fourth floor observation deck.
Miraflores Locks Visitors Center
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. Don’t miss going up on the open-air 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!
Pedro Miguel Locks
The Pedro Miguel Locks are located about a mile north of Miraflores Locks. Though it is sometimes possible to see ships approaching or passing through the one-step chamber at Pedro Miguel Locks, there are no formal visitor facilities there.
Gatun Locks Visitors Center
The Gatun Locks are located on the Atlantic, or Caribbean side of Panama and link Lake Gatun with the Atlantic Ocean. Because there are three sets of chambers in addition to the approach channel, the Gatun Locks are truly an impressive site at nearly a mile long from end to end. Although facilities are not as developed as they are at Miraflores, Canal purists will not want to miss visiting the observation center at Gatun Locks. There is an observation platform up a long flight of stairs that offers a panoramic view of Gatun Locks, the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal, and Lago Gatun (Lake Gatun). What is most impressive is how close the tankers are as they squeeze through the locks. It almost feels as if you can reach out and touch them!
Panama Canal Expansion Visitors Center
Located just a few kilometers from the Gatun Locks Visitors Center, the Panama Canal Expansion Center at the Agua Clara Visitors Center enables visitors to witness history, again, while observing the construction of the new locks of the Panama Canal, one of the most important infrastructure projects of the early 21st century.
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 third quarter of 2015.
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.
During this fascinating tour, visitors have the opportunity to witness history in the making by witnessing firsthand the expansion project at Gatun where a new additional set of locks is being constructed. Then enjoy an informative and interesting video about the history and construction of one of the world’s greatest man-made wonders – the Panama Canal.