Visiting the Panama Canal in Panama City

Panama Canal cruise ship passes through Miraflores Locks Panama City

Panama Canal in Panama City

If there’s one thing you must do when traveling to Panama, it’s visiting the iconic Panama Canal. It’s said to be one of the largest, and most difficult, engineering projects ever completed. The best place to witness real ships pass through the Panama Canal is at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center in Panama City. 

The Panama Canal is an artificial waterway that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean. The canal has a lock system that raise and lower ships to Gatun Lake, a large freshwater artificial lake that sits 85 feet above sea level.

The Panama Canal is often labeled as one of the Wonders of the Modern World, a claim that is hard to dispute after you learn about its impressive engineering accomplishments.

In this post, we share our experience visiting the Miraflores Locks and Panama Canal in Panama City.

Please note – at the time of publishing this post, the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Things are constantly changing, so it’s best to confirm hours of operation at the facility before making travel arrangements. More info about the Miraflores Visitor Center here.

More things to do in Panama City

Miraflores Locks sign outside the Miraflores Visitor center, Panama City travel

Miraflores Visitor Center

The Miraflores Visitor Center is the best place in Panama City to watch the big ships pass through the Panama Canal lock system. The facility has multiple terraces and observation decks for guests to use. It also has an exhibition hall and museum that tells the fascinating story of the Panama Canal. 

The Miraflores Visitor Center has an IMAX theater that shows the film ‘Panama Canal in 3D a Land Divided a World United’. There is an additional charge to watch this movie. More info about the film here.

We enjoyed the 3D movie and would recommend it. We had little knowledge about the history of the Panama Canal and the challenges it faced during construction. It’s an interesting story. 

IMAX movie theater at Miraflores Visitor Center in Panama City

Our boys enjoyed the 3D IMAX movie at the Miraflores Visitor Center in Panama City. 

Miraflores Locks Panama Canal in Panama City

Miraflores Locks Panama Canal in Panama City

Notice the water level in the front canal and the back canal. The boat on the back is about to pass through the Panama Canal locks. 

Approximately 14,000 ships use the Panama Canal every year. It takes about 10 hours to sail the length of the Panama Canal, depending on the lineup at the locks. 

Here’s more info about how the water locks of Panama Canal work.

big cargo ship enters Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal in Panama City

A large cargo ship enters the Miraflores Locks. This is the final lock on the Panama Canal for ships passing west from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Ship traffic flows east to west in the morning, and west to east in the afternoon. 

Now that this cargo ship is inside the lock, the big gates close and water levels slowly decrease. The locks act as a big water elevator, lowering the ship so it can pass through the canal. The process takes about 45 minutes. 

Here’s a time-lapse video showing how ships get through the Panama Canal.

Scroll up three photos and look for this boat. You can see how much water has been released from the lock.

As the water from one lock is released, the other lock begins to fill up. Notice the difference between the front and back locks.

ship passing through the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks in Panama City

The huge cargo ship has now been lowered inside the lock. It’s now ready to move forward. See below.

The ship begins to pass through the Miraflores Locks Panama Canal. Notice the water level in the front lock now. It’s almost full. The water has transferred from one lock to the other, which allows the ships to rise and fall inside the locks.

Learn about the history of the Panama Canal Locks here

The ship has now passed through the Miraflores Locks. It will sail the final section of the Panama Canal before reaching the Pacific Ocean. You can watch the ships enter and exit the Panama Canal at Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador) in Panama City.

The Panama Canal is the most popular tourist attraction in Panama City. 

And, just like that, the ship passes through the Miraflores locks and is sailing towards the Pacific Ocean. 

Guests watch the cargo ship pass through the Panama Canal from the observation deck at the Miraflores Visitor Center in Panama City

Guests watch the cargo ship pass through the Panama Canal from the observation deck at the Miraflores Visitor Center in Panama City. 

Next up, this beautiful cruise ship begins the process of passing through the Miraflores Locks Panama Canal. You’ll notice this ship, and the one approaching in the distance, are entering the south lock. This is because the water from the north lock has now transferred over to this lock.

The movement of water from one lock to the other is how the ships are lowered or raised. The direction of the ship, from east to west or vice versa, dictates how the ship will enter the locks. The more we learn about the process, the more impressed we become. 

Our boys were not sure what to make of the Miraflores Locks and the Panama Canal.

“So we just watching boats pass through the river?” 

They did not understand the significance of what they are witnessing. That’s okay. Hopefully, they will appreciate this experience when they’re older.   

They did, however, enjoy visiting nearby Monkey Island Panama. More on that here.

seating area at observation deck at Miraflores Locks Panama Canal in Panama City

Above is the seating area on one of the observation decks at Miraflores Locks Panama Canal. There are three levels with observation decks. The decks may get crowded, depending on the time of your visit.

You may also view the ships from the Miraflores Restaurant at The Panama Canal. The restaurant gets mixed reviews for its lunch buffet. However, it’s a unique place to have lunch if you’re hungry. 

View the Panama Canal Miraflores Locks webcam here

The Miraflores Visitor Center has a cafe (Kotowa Coffee House) and two restaurants (Atlantic & Pacific Co and the Miraflores Restaurant At The Panama Canal), as well as a gift shop. 

Price to visit Panama Canal and Miraflores Visitor Center

At the time of publication, the price of tickets to Miraflores Visitor Center is:

  • Adults $20 USD
  • Children 6-12 years old $12 USD
  • Children under 6 years old are free. 

It’s an additional $10 to add the IMAX Panama Canal movie, for a total of $30 USD.

Best time to visit Panama Canal Miraflores Locks

Most of the information we read prior to visiting said to be at the Visitor Center early. Some mentioned that it’s best to arrive by 8:00 AM to avoid the inevitable crowds. The Panama Canal is the most popular Panama City tourist attraction, after all.

Ships traveling west to east, from the Pacific Ocean to Atlantic Ocean, pass through the Panama Canal in the morning. The direction flips in the afternoon, from east to west. 

Peak viewing times are between 9:00-10:00 AM and 3:00-4:00 PM. We visited around 2:00 PM on a Tuesday and it was not too busy. 

The Miraflores Visitor Center hours of operation are from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM. 

How to get to Miraflores Locks from Panama City

The easiest way to get from Panama City to Miraflores Visitor Center is by Uber. Almost all of our transportation in Panama City was with Uber. It’s the easiest and safest way to get around the city. 

It takes approx 30 minutes to get to the Visitor Center, depending on where you start. We stayed at the Marriott Finisterre in Panama City, which is centrally located.

You don’t need a different Uber app. The app you use in Canada or the USA works fine in Panama City. By using the Uber app, you avoid giving bad directions or having issues explaining where you want to go. It removes language barriers. You also don’t have to worry about exchanging money, so it removes the fear of getting ripped off by an taxi driver. 

You can also take a bus, which is obviously much cheaper. However, if you’re traveling with kids or family, we recommend you take an Uber. It’s so much easier and faster.

For ultimate convenience, stay at the nearby Holiday Inn Panama City. It’s located within walking distance to the Miraflores Visitor Center.  

big ship sailing in the Panama Canal Lake Gatun Panama

Panama Canal tours

While the Miraflores Visitor Center is an easy introduction to the Panama Canal, there’s no better way to experience the Panama Canal than actually being on a ship that passes through the locks. 

You can join a one-day boat tour that start at Gamboa and concludes at the Amador Causeway in Panama City. This Panama Canal tour passes through the Miraflores Locks, so you can experience what it’s like firsthand. 

You can also take a boat ride through the Panama Canal while on the Monkey Island tour from Panama City. This is a fun tour that combines a few activities and gets you up close to some of the mega-ships as they sail through the Canal.

Read more blog posts from our trip to Panama:

Have you visited the Panama Canal?

Share your travel tips in the comments below. Our readers thank you!

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