what to see panama canal

Get your camera ready for your Panama Canal journey. (Photo: Eric Mohl)

Panama City

Panama Canal 101: Which Observatory is Right for You?

There are three Panama Canal observation centers spread along the 48-mile long canal. Each one gives visitors an up-close encounter with this engineering marvel in its own particular way. Here’s how to find the Panama Canal observation center that’s right for you.

If you want to stick to the city’s center…

Miraflores Locks. (Photo: Eric Mohl)

The Miraflores Visitor Center Panama Canal observation area is closest to the city center. It includes a movie theater where a film about the history of the canal is shown in English and in Spanish. Four exhibition halls contain more information, including displays about biodiversity around the canal. There’s also a gift shop, and, of course, observation decks where you can watch ships passing through the Miraflores Lock.

The lunch at Atlantic & Pacific Co., a restaurant at the Miraflores Visitor Center, is also said to be terrific. The menu has a la carte items and, as its name suggests, there’s plenty of fish and seafood. It also has a daily buffet from 11:30 am- 4:00 pm.

If you want to visit the newest observation center…

Near Colón, on the Atlantic side of the canal, The Agua Clara Visitor Center is the newest canal-side observation center and the only place where you can get a good look at the larger locks, which were opened in 2016 after nine years of construction at a cost of more than 6.7 billion dollars. The larger Panama Canal locks are the size of four football fields and accommodate larger so-called“NeoPanamax” ships, which can carry 12,000 containers as opposed to the older “Panamax” ships, which carry “just” 5,000 containers.

The Agua Clara Visitor Center has an observation area with two views: one of Gatún Lake and one of the new larger locks. There’s also a restaurant, gift shop, snack bar, and a short nature loop trail that’s suitable for walkers of all ages.

If you want to get as close as possible to the canal action AND avoid crowds…

The Gatún Locks Visitor Pavilion, also located close to Colón on the Atlantic side, has a two-level observation area over Gatún Lock, which is the longest lock in the Panama Canal. It’s a simpler facility than the Miraflores Visitor Center or the Agua Clara Visitor Center, but you can get closer to the action and it doesn’t get nearly as crowded.

Panama Canal by the numbers

panama canal
Tour boats also float through the Panama Canal. (Photo: Eric Mohl)
  • Original cost: It cost $375 million to build the original Panama Canal.
  • Check out these specs: The concrete walls of the original Panama Canal locks are 55 feet thick. The doors on the locks of the original Panama Canal are 47 to 82 feet high, seven feet thick, and they’re hollow and buoyant, which means that even though these doors weigh up to 662 tons, a pair of 25 horsepower motors can open and close them.
  • Its history: In 2014, the original Panama Canal celebrated its 100th birthday and much of the original construction,including those massive lock doors which hold back tons and tons of water, is still being used today.
  • What it takes to keep cargo moving: The Panama Canal employs more than 10,000 people and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.