Visiting the Panama Canal was was the number one thing my husband—a man invested both personally and professionally in international shipping—wanted to do in Panama.
So we did, of course, see the Panama Canal, and I was pleasantly surprised how fun it was for the whole family. We went to the Agua Clara Locks and it was a fantastic place to visit with kids. Five stars. Highly recommend.
Facts About the Panama Canal
- Here’s how the canal works: ships enter the canal from the ocean; go through the locks, which help them rise up from sea level to the level of Lake Gatun; cross Lake Gatun; then are lowered down through the locks again to sea level, and exit the canal. (I had to look this up before visiting the Panama Canal…which I am only a little embarrassed to admit.)
- The whole thing takes 8 to 10 hours.
- The French tried to build the canal in the 1800s, but failed.
- The United States then negotiated control of the Canal Zone and construction began in 1904, using workers of many different nationalities. Over 5,000 people died during the construction from accidents and disease.
- The Panama Canal was completed in 1914.
- Panama gained control of the Panama Canal in 1999.
- There are five sets of locks now on the canal. The old sets are the Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific Side and the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side. The new, larger locks, completed in 2016, include the Agua Clara Locks on the Atlantic side next to the Gatun Locks, and the Cocoli Locks on the Pacific side—which allow larger ships to go through where smaller ships use the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks.
Is the Panama Canal Worth Visiting?
The canal? Meh. The Agua Clara Visitor Center? Absolutely.
Is it fun to watch water in the locks rise and drop at a glacially slow rate? Only if you enjoy seeing paint dry.
However, the sheer size of the ships and the number of them parked outside the locks (visible from the Agua Clara Visitor Center during the shipping backup of 2022) was impressive, and the history of the canal is fascinating.
The visitors centers do a good job of using signage and exhibits to explain the history of, conflict surrounding, and engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal. From an educational standpoint, the canal is a must-see.
Both the Miraflores and Agua Clara Locks have viewing areas as well as museums, although those have been closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Miraflores Locks has an IMAX theater, although also closed in recent years.
If you just don’t have time to make it to the actual canal, the Panama Canal Museum in Casco Viejo would be another option for this education.
Where Can you See the Panama Canal?
The primary places to visit the Panama Canal are the Miraflores Visitor Center (adjacent to Panama City) or the Agua Clara Visitor Center outside Colón City.
The Miraflores Locks are historic and easily accessed from Panama City. The visitor center has multiple viewing platforms as well as a museum and IMAX theater.
We chose to visit the newer Agua Clara Visitor Center. The Agua Clara Locks were completed in 2016, designed to accommodate the larger Neopanamax ships, and Visitor Center is impressive. It features panoramic views of the canal, a museum, a really lovely gift shop, a playground, and picnic tables.
Both visitors centers offer tours, but you can also roam around alone if you prefer.
If you want to actually be ON the Panama Canal, you can take day tours on boats traversing the canal. You can even take fishing tours on the canal, which is just the type of crazy “I did it so I could say I did it” thing my husband would adore.
What About the Panama Canal with Kids?
My advice: make a trip out to the Agua Clara Visitor Center.
Kids are low on patience, and the Panama Canal is all about patience: it takes the average ship 8-10 hours to cross the canal. These are not fast-moving boats.
Fortunately, Panama is a kid-friendly country and they have you covered. The Agua Clara locks has a PLAYGROUND. Plus picnic tables and plenty of room to run.
The Agua Clara Locks visitor center was designed to be a true destination. They have giant signs leading there from Colón, making it easy to find. And although Colón itself isn’t much of a tourist town, a detour to the Agua Clara Locks while driving from Panama City over to the Caribbean Coast is worth it.
We stopped here on our way to Portobelo, where we wanted to see historic ruins and go snorkeling on Caribbean islands. It worked out well, except for the sea urchin stings—but that’s a story for another day.
When Should you Visit the Panama Canal?
This one is important. TIME YOUR VISIT CAREFULLY.
Ships only pass through the locks in the morning and the afternoon. We arrived at 3 p.m. and managed to see the tail end of a ship leaving the locks.
The times change, so it’s worth checking with the visitor center daily for the exact times.
How Much Does it Cost to Visit the Panama Canal?
$10 USD in 2022.
Well worth it, in my opinion.