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.
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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.
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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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