How to Go to the Panama Canal on a Layover at Panama Tocumen Airport

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You can very easily go to the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks on a multi-hour layover at Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport. You don’t even need to book a tour.

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Last week I used a 7.5 hour layover in Panama City on a trip from Washington DC to Havana, Cuba to visit the Panama Canal and see two ships moving through its locks en route to the Pacific Ocean. My whole excursion took about four hours from the airport back to it.

Why Go to the Panama Canal and Where Exactly Do You Go?

The Panama Canal is a wonder of engineering and human achievement. Ships are taken from sea level through three locks and other manmade and natural parts of the canal and then back to sea level in a different ocean. At locks, the ships are raised or lowered before moving through. Before the Panama Canal, to get around the Americas you had to go thousands of miles farther to the south of South America.

The nearest locks to the Tocumen Airport in Panama City are the Miraflores Locks, near the Pacific Ocean. These locks are 35 km from the airport and take 35 to 75 minutes of driving–depending on traffic–to reach. Here you can see ships going through the locks from an observation deck just a few dozen meters from the action, and you can tour the museum and Visitors Center.

How to Get to the Miraflores Locks

  1. Hire a taxi at the airport to take you to the locks, wait two hours, and take you back to the airport.
  2. Book a tour.

If you speak Spanish, the first option is definitely cheaper and preferable. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you’re probably better off just booking a taxi when you arrive.

A quick search shows a tour that costs $107 for one person and charges extra for more passengers. I paid $60–Panama uses the US dollar–total for my taxi, and there would have been no extra charge for extra passengers.

Getting the $60 price took a little negotiating and a little walking around.

After exiting immigration (US passports do not need visa), there was a group of taxi drivers. I asked one what the charge would be to take me to the Miraflores Locks, wait two hours, and bring me back. He brought me over to the official desk, and they quoted me something crazy like $100. I walked outside and found some more taxi drivers. They offered me the trip for $90.

Then I saw one taxi driver alone. He offered me the trip for $60.

My theory is that the taxi company at the airport has a monopoly and exorbitant prices. Taxi drivers are unwilling to undercut the cartel if their co-workers are around. But if you find one alone, you can get a more reasonable price.

In the developing world, I think $60 is fair for 70 km of driving and four hours of the driver’s time. Maybe some drivers would be willing to go for less, but I can’t imagine getting cheaper than $50.

The taxi there at 2:15 PM took about 40 minutes. The taxi back at 5 PM hit rush hour traffic and took about 75 minutes, during which I mostly napped. Both ways, the drive gave great views of the coast and of Panama City.

The taxi driver stayed in the car for the entire two hours I was at the locks, so I left my carry ons in the car. Just in case he was some nefarious thief–he wasn’t–I snapped a picture of his license plate before going into the Visitors Center.

I am very glad I used a taxi instead of a tour for the money savings and convenience of going whenever I landed without having to make prior plans.

The Visitors Center at Miraflores Locks

Foreigners pay $15 for a ticket to the Visitors Center, which includes access to a few short films, a museum, and some rooms that recreate the view of engineers and ship captains during crossings.

First I watched a 10 minute film that runs nearly constantly alternating between Spanish and English about the construction and history of the canal.

Then I walked through displays about the construction of the museum. These were all edifying. They clarified to me who had built the canal, how difficult it had been, and why the United States eventually gave back control of the canal to Panama.

The museum featured a recreation of what engineers at the locks see…

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…and one of what ship captains see. I breezed through the film and museum in about 45 minutes. At that point I headed up the observation deck.

Here’s the view, which clearly shows the 54 feet a ship needs to be raised or lowered to pass the locks.Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.22.24 PM

We were about to watch two ships that were being dropped down to sea level to head further south to the Pacific. There are two paths for the two ships to clear the locks simultaneously.
Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.22.34 PM

When I arrived, the ships were just exiting the Pedro Miguel locks, just visible in the distance.Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.22.42 PM

They trudged very slowly towards us, assisted by tug boats.Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.22.52 PM

Dozens of us watched in rapt anticipation. Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.23.13 PM

Finally the two ships arrived at the Miraflores Locks. A man over the loudspeaker–who basically emceed the afternoon–told us the nearer one was a Norwegian Cruise Liner and the farther one was a cargo ship.Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.23.28 PM

At this point, the ships inch through the locks with only a few feet to spare and being guided by the small carts on the tracks on either side. The cruise liner had passengers on every deck.
Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.23.39 PM

Finally the ships arrived at the point where they had to wait for water to be drained.

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And slowly the water did drain. Compare its level above and below.

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Unfortunately, it was now 5 PM. I’d been at the locks for two hours, and the museum closes at 5 PM, so I had to go. I didn’t quite get to see the ship pass through the locks completely, but I certainly got the idea.

I napped as my driver fought traffic back to Tocumen. We arrived at the airport at about 6:15 PM, I collected my bag, and handed him $60. My excursion was definitely worth $75 total since I don’t know if I’ll ever be back in Panama.

I already had my boarding pass for my flight to Havana–I had gotten it at check in in Washington–so I headed to emigration. After flipping through my passport, the person asked when I had entered Panama. I replied that I had just entered a few hours earlier and gone to the Canal. I think that’s why I had no stamp because I was just considered in transit. That satisfied the passport checker, and I headed through security and to my gate arriving about three hours before my flight.

My whole excursion took about four hours including traffic, so I think a trip to the Miraflores Locks is fine if you have a 5+ hour layover.

Bottom Line

Copa often offers the cheapest flights and best award space from the United States to South America, Central America, and the Caribbean via its Panama City hub. You can usually select a longer layover of up to 24 hours for no extra money or miles. If you have a 5+ hour layover, head to the Miraflores Locks to see an engineering marvel up close.

 


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40 COMMENTS

  1. So I guess you flew on COPA IAD – PTY? In business or economy and what were your impressions of the flight/COPA?

    • Economy. 9 AM flight. I was up all night scheduling posts for my time away from the internet (Cuba), so I slept from takeoff to landing. No complaints 🙂

  2. They have a nice buffet lunch at Miraflores, and you can sit out on the patio and watch the ships go by. I think that’s the way to do it if it fits your schedule.

  3. THE Canal is on my bucket list and I planned like the last 20 years HOW to do it a affordable cruise (hard to do ) and you do it in a stop over @ little cost and you TOAD us how to do it .

    Great website now I will retire to my cave and beat my head against the wall now or better yet stop @ Metoprix and get a Cheap bottle of FRENCH wine and forget about it ..

    Have a NICE (Fr.) Time
    CHEERs

  4. My version of this was <24 hours, and I got really drunk with some Mexicans I met in Hooters. They helped hire me a taxi to go check out the locks at 2 or 3 am. It was pretty cool.

  5. Great article. I’ve always loved taking advantage of the <24 layovers, and I've always wanted to visit Panama Canal. Thanks!

    Can Americans freely visit Cuba nowadays? Other than Havana, do you happen to know any other destination that would have a layover in Panama City?

  6. Excellent insight and tips to visiting the canal. I just got back to the airport from my excursion to Miraflores. My only delay was my drivers car broke down on the way and he had to call his sister to pick us up and then borrow her car.

    A driver negotiation note: while I speak decent Spanish, I negotiated a price of $60 after the driver asked for $80. At the end of the trip, he said it was supposed to be $70. 60 and 70 sound very similar in Spanish. Hold up fingers if you need to to be clear. We settled on $65 (although he didn’t look particularly happy about it).

  7. Really helpful advice on the Panama layover. I left it until the last minute, in the airport departure, to plan – this post was exactly what I needed to know.

  8. Thank you so much for this great information. I have a 7.5 hour layover in Panama City and will do exactly as you have done, and recommend!! I appreciate your insight and advice!!!

  9. Hello, I will be doing a 8 hour layover on Panama as well, I have a question, did you paid any Exit/Entry fee to get in and out of the airport.

    Tks.

    • Cool… I am going with the family and this would probably be cheaper for us… and more adventurous… he he he…. have you done that ? do you know anybody who did it ?

  10. Thank you for all the Information. This is our tour in 4 weeks. 😉
    Can we check our baggage from Washington directly to Havana, Cuba? Thanks
    Or what have you made with your luggage?

  11. I will have an upcoming (April 2017) 7 hour layover in Panama via Copa and just found this article. Several questions: 1 If I am ticked through Panama will I need to deal with my checked luggage during the time in Panama or will it through check from flight to flight? I may go with only carry on but not sure this far out.

    2 To make this trip from the airport to the canal do you pass through or enter into the Canal Zone, if so what does that involve?

    3. Are there taxis at the Mirafores Locks? Could you take one to the lock, let it go and get another back later?

  12. One followup: after the visitor center closes at 5pm are you ejected from the canal or is there any other place you can stay nearby and see the ships pass? I see mention of a restaurant open much later. Just realized my light docent get in until 2:11p, with customs and taxi that will not leave much time.

  13. Thank you for the smartest tip and detailed posting. Just exactly what I’d looked for my 06:41 am arrival at PTY, for a short 5h40mins’ layover; Will try to find a taxi driver, from outside of the terminal.

  14. Hey, there! We would consider doing this for a flight to Argentina. The thing is our luggage…not sure if there’s a holding area at the airport?

  15. Scott, I really appreciate this advice. I was scouring the internet to see if someone else was crazy enough to do what I wanted to do (visit the Panama Canal during a stopover). Now seeing that you did it, I am going to try and do the same during a 7 hour layover next month. Thanks for the advice and your post.

  16. Scott, wanted to let you know that I executed your plan and it worked perfectly. I was able to do nearly the same things you did. Plus, I got the cabbie to stop at a Starbucks in downtown Panama City to pick up a country mug for a souvenir. Thanks again for your blog and advice.

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