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4 Ways to Experience the Panama Canal

by Teresa Bitler

Jan 18, 2020

Teresa Bitler


A modern engineering marvel, the 48-mile Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through a series of locks you have to see to truly appreciate. While you can cruise through the canal, it’s not your only option.


Here are four ways to experience the Panama Canal with your family:



The most obvious way to experience the Panama Canal is to cruise through it. Most popular cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Viking, sail through the canal. Even Disney offers a cruise from San Diego to Port Canaveral (or vice versa) on Disney Wonder.


For families, cruises offer the distinct advantage of alternative entertainment. Those who are interested in the canal can watch the ship navigate the locks while those who aren’t can swim in a pool, watch a movie or grab a bite to eat. Plus, cruises stop at Caribbean and Mexican ports of call before and after the journey through the canal.


Small Boat Tour

You don’t have to book a cruise ship to sail through the locks. Several companies, such as Panama Canal Tours, navigate 100–500-passenger tour boats either partially or entirely through the canal.


Complete transit trips usually begin in Panama City and end in Colón on the Caribbean side of the country. On the way, you’ll pass through the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun locks as well as Gatun Lake. A luxury bus will take you from Colón back to Panama City with the entire trip taking about 11 hours.


Partial tours only go through the first two locks and are usually only five or six hours, including the bus ride.


Explore Gatun Lake

To make the canal possible, engineers dammed the Chagres River, creating Gatun Lake, just south of Colón. Since it’s part of the canal — ships pass through the Pedro Miguel Locks and traverse the lake before entering the Gatun Locks — a boat tour of the lake offers a unique perspective.


Boat tour on Lake Gatun. Photo: Teresa Bitler


Most Gatun Lake tours begin near Gamboa and head north in small boats with a dozen passengers, or fewer. As you motor across the open water, you may pass oil tankers, cargo ships and cruise ships. Tours stop at Monkey Island for close encounters with white-faced capuchin, tamarin and howler monkeys.


Visit the Locks

For a different perspective, visit Miraflores Locks and watch ships pass through. The Miraflores Visitor Center offers three observation decks overlooking the locks, plus four exhibition halls, a gift shop and an IMAX movie about the canal. Plan to stay for lunch or dinner at Atlantic & Pacific Co. (Note: Ships do not go through the locks midday.)


If you have a car, you can also drive over the Gatun Locks or drive to the new Agua Clara Visitor Center to watch the ships go through the locks.


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