Have you even been to Panama if you don’t set eyes on the incredible Panama Canal? It’s the main attraction in Panama City, and one of the country’s most well-known sites.
One of the best travel hacks I found during my trip to Panama was learning how to visit the Miraflores Locks and see the Panama Canal for FREE. This means you’ll save the $20 USD it costs to view the ships from Miraflores Locks!
Ok, $20 USD isn’t a huge amount of money, but money goes far in Central America (once you’re out of Panama and Costa Rica at least). Unless you’re really into big boats or engineering, you might not know whether the Panama canal is worth it? Well, let us share our perfectly legal ways to see the Panama Canal for free, so that you can save your precious money for the rest of your trip.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND ON THE PANAMA CANAL
The Panama Canal cuts through the Americas, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for quick and efficient transit. Before it was built, any ships travelling between the oceans had to go the long way round. This means travelling all the way to the southern tip of South America, and back up again.
People dreamed about creating a shortcut for a long time and many countries tried to accomplish it. Eventually, we made it work. In 1914 the canal was opened, letting ships sail smoothly across the Isthmus of Panama for the first time. The Panama Canal was not just a waterway; it was a game-changer, connecting oceans, countries, and making the world feel a bit smaller.
HOW TO SEE THE MIRAFLORES LOCKS FOR FREE
The Miraflores Locks is the closest viewpoint to Panama City and by far the most popular way to see the boats passing through the Panama Canal. This viewpoint is a fascinating place that will help you understand how the entire canal operates. But if you’re on a budget (like us!), you might be wondering: are the Miraflores Locks really worth $20 USD?
But using this hack to see the Panama Canal for free will help you to save a bit of money, and you’ll still get a glimpse of what’s happening at the Miraflores Visitor Centre.
You used to be able to ask for a free ‘restaurant only’ ticket to Miraflores’ Atlantic and Pacific Restaurant, buy a coffee, and view the boats for free from their terrace. Sadly, this famous hack has now run its course. As of 2022, the restaurant is permanently closed, with no indication of when it will reopen.
So here’s what you do.
Head to Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre (more about how to get there later). Once you arrive, head up the set of outdoor stairs to the right of the visitor centre entrance. There shouldn’t be anyone asking to check your ticket at this point. At the top of the stairs, take a left, until you’re outside the door of the cinema area. You’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the boats going through the locks.
Note: It’s impossible to get into the viewing deck, museum, or documentary without buying a ticket. But this hack will, at least, let you see the Miraflores Locks for free. You’ll get an up-close view of the boats too!
The Reality of the Miraflores Viewpoint. People take photos as a cargo ship sails through the Miraflores locks carrying… cars!
MY EXPERIENCE OF VISITING THE PANAMA CANAL
Of course… we realised all this after we’d bought our tickets for the Miraflores Locks. This means we can give you our honest opinions about whether the Miraflores Locks are worth it or not.
We’d heard that the Panama canal is the single most interesting thing to do in Panama City. But I’d also heard that the canal is boring, and that sometimes you have to wait hours just to see a boat pass by.
I’m not super into big boats and I don’t know enough about engineering to appreciate the marvel that is the Panama Canal. I was hesitant to spend so much money, but my partner really wanted to go. And I actually really enjoyed the experience. Although the viewing platform was rammed with people, we waited long enough to wave at a couple of boats. It was fun!
The Canal has an announcer who narrates (in Spanish and English) details about the current ship that’s passing through – its nationality, size, cargo etc – and explains how the canal system operates. Some of these ships are so wide that they’re only a few inches away from the sides of the canal. They’re pulled through, extremely slowly, by cute little trains on each side. This makes sure the boats stay on-course and don’t damage the sides of the canal.
The museum and accompanying documentary are both well-made too. If you end up buying a ticket, we recommend watching the documentary before you go and see the boats. It walks you through the history of the Panama Canal, which gives you a real sense of appreciation for this feat of engineering.
HOW TO GET TO MIRAFLORES LOCKS
The cheapest way to get to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre is to hop on bus C810 from Albrook Bus Terminal. This is the largest bus terminal in Central America – it’s confusing and chaotic (especially if you’re trying to fight through on the Friday before a national holiday – would not recommend!).
The C810 leaves from between the bus terminal and the mall. The sign on the bus will say ‘Miraflores’.
If you’ve got cash to splash, the easiest and least stressful way to get to Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre is to take a taxi or use a tour service that provides transportation to and from the canal.
BEST TIME TO VISIT MIRAFLORES LOCKS
The Miraflores locks open for half the day to let boats through from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Then they open again, so that boats can travel in the opposite direction for the remainder of the day.
The best time to get to Miraflores Locks is between 2pm and 4pm. This is the time that it’s almost guaranteed to see boats carefully traversing the locks on their way from the Atlantic to the Pacific. However, this also makes it the busiest time. It can get unbelievably busy on the bleachers overlooking the canal!
Many people also recommend visiting at 9am, when the museum opens. You are also likely to see boats (although they’ll be going the other way!), and it’s quieter at this time too!
Fun fact: On average, straight through from one ocean to the other, it takes boats 8-10 hours to traverse the Panama Canal. Captains have to hand over control of their entire vessel to special employees who are specifically trained to drive boats through the locks. That’s crazy!
WHERE ELSE CAN YOU VISIT THE PANAMA CANAL FOR FREE?
The Panama Canal is 48 miles long and cuts straight through the Republic of Panama. Although Miraflores Locks is the ‘classic’ viewpoint, there are so many other areas where you can see the huge ships passing through it.
Here’s a map of some of our favourites! And don’t worry, there’s no admission fee for any of these viewpoints.
#1 MIRADOR PEDRO MIGUEL AND LOCKS
This is our favourite alternative to Miraflores Locks if you want to see Panama Canal for free! Just north of the Miraflores Locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks are an easy stop from the highway to Gamboa. There’s a bus stop, and a parking strip from where onlookers can watch ships transit the canal. There’s also a small, privately owned museum that you can pay to enter if you wish.
And the best bit? It’s super easy to get there from Panama City by public transport. Just hop on the C820 bus from Albrook Bus Terminal. If you’re feeling flush, you can also take an Uber (they really don’t cost a lot in Panama!).
#2 CULEBRA CUT
One of the easiest places to see the Panama Canal for free is to stop at Culebra Cut. The road to Soberania National Park or Gamboa Rainforest Reserve runs right along the canal. You can stop at Culebra Cut to take photographs, and watch the big boats as they prepare to enter or leave Miraflores Locks
The easiest way to get to Culebra Cut is to take an Uber. The cheapest way is to get the C640 or C850 bus from Albrook Bus Terminal.
#3 THE MIRADOR DE LAS AMÉRICAS
This one is perfect for those who don’t only love big boats, but also big bridges! The ‘Bridge of the Americas’ spans the entrance of the Panama Canal. The viewpoint offers an excellent view of the bridge, which is pretty grand. It also offers a bird’s-eye view of all the ships lining up as they prepare to make the journey from Pacific to Atlantic.
Unfortunately, you can’t get here by public transport, and will have to take a taxi or Uber.
#4 AMADOR CAUSEWAY
If you’re heading out to the popular Biomuseo, why not continue towards Perico Island. There are plenty of places here to grab a drink and look out over the ocean. Not only will you have excellent views of Panama City’s skyline, you’ll also see many cargo ships waiting for their turn to go through the locks.
The easiest way to get to Amador Causeway is to take an Uber (they really don’t cost a lot in Panama!). The cheapest way is to get the C640 or C850 bus from Albrook Bus Terminal.
FEELING FLUSH? TRY THE PANAMA CANAL RAILWAY!
So, you’ve decided that you want to see the Panama Canal in style?
Something we’d have loved to have done during our time in Panama is to have taken the gorgeous Panama Canal Railway. The Panama Railway, also known as the Ferrocarril de Panamá in Spanish, is a historic railway line that runs parallel to the Panama Canal, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Before the canal was built, this railway was a vital transportation link for goods travelling across the continent.
The train has a scenic dome carriage for tourists, where you’ll get to experience picturesque views of the canal, Gatun Lake, and the lush Panamanian rainforest. There’s also commentary throughout the journey.
The trip is a little pricey, at $50 USD for an adult ticket. You can choose to take a round-trip or stop off in Colon, a large(ish) port city on the Atlantic Coast. However, Colon doesn’t have the best reputation. In fact, it’s the most dangerous city in Panama!
BONUS TIPS: OTHER THINGS TO DO IN PANAMA
You might be wondering what else there is to do in Panama City, and in the rest of Panama? Whether you’re heading north to party in Bocas del Toro, or south to relax in the pristine San Blas Islands, you can check out the rest of our guides to Panama here.
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