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The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a fresh-water, lock-based canal measuring approximately 50 miles in length and traversing north-northwest. Acting as a freshwater elevator, each vessel, irrespective of its type and dimensions, is lifted 85 feet above sea level to reach the height of Gatun Lake, before being lowered back down to sea level on the Canal’s opposing side. This procedure is achieved using a series of locks on both sides of the Canal.

The Canal is comprised primarily of the following:

Locks — There are five sets of locks: Agua Clara, Cocoli, Gatun, Miraflores, and Pedro Miguel. Gatun, Miraflores, and Pedro Miguel Locks date back to the initial construction period, whereas Agua Clara and Cocoli were completed in 2016 during the expansion period. Gatun and Agua Clara Locks are located on the Atlantic. Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, and Cocoli Locks reside on the Pacific.

Embarkment Dams — There are three, artificially created embarkment dams: Gatun, Madden, and Miraflores. Gatun Dam, which lies adjacent to Gatun Locks, was built between 1907-1913 and is responsible for impounding the water that flows from the Chagres River, which, in turn, creates Gatun Lake. The dam measures 738ft at the water's edge, making it the largest of the three dams. Madden Dam was built between 1932-1935 to increase the holding capacity for each of the three locks and help regulate the flow of water into Gatun Lake. It impounds the water from the Chagres River, forming Lake Alajuela in the process. As well, it provides hydroelectric energy for the Canal and surrounding areas. Miraflores Dam is the smallest of the three dams and is located adjacent to Miraflores Locks, between Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks.

Gatun Lake — Gatun Lake covers 163 sq miles, and when completed, was the world’s largest man-made lake. All vessels transiting the Panama Canal pass through Gatun Lake en route to their final destination.

Gaillard Cut — Gaillard Cut a thin 8.5 mile (13.7 km) section connecting Pedro Miguel Locks with Gamboa. Carved through the continental divide, this section is also referred to as "Culebra Cut" due to its abundant curves; Culebra in Spanish means snake. It was named after U.S. Army engineer David de Bose Gaillard, who supervised much of the construction. In all, 6,000 men worked on this particular project, which lasted from 1907-1913. An estimated 60 million pounds of dynamite was used during the excavation process.

Panama Canal Watershed

The water for the Canal is obtained from a vast watershed that covers 1,150 sq miles (736,000 acres,) an area that encompasses four different provinces and measures 7-8 times the size of Gatun Lake. The rainwater catchment area, highlighted in red on this map, includes the rivers and dammed lakes that extend across both sides of the Canal. All the rainwater collected from this area is diverted into the Canal and with good reason. For each vessel transit, approximately 52 million gallons of fresh water are used: 26 million gallons to raise the vessel to the height of Gatun Lake, and another 26 million to lower it to ocean level. So, you can appreciate just how important it is to protect the watershed and conserve water.

Names to Remember

Philippe Buneau Varilla - was the last chief engineer under the French construction effort, who closed the sale of rights and properties to the United States for $40 million. Panama appointed him plenipotentiary ambassador to the United States to negotiate a Canal treaty in its name, and he returned to Panama with the treaty in 1903, which then paved the way for the Canal construction. Panama later considered him a traitor due to the terms of that treaty, which Panama considered most unfavorable. US Secretary of State John Hay was his counter-signer.

President Theodore Roosevelt - under him the Canal project acquired life. After the Spanish American War, Roosevelt felt the need to permit the US Navy to sail between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. His only trip outside the United States while president was to Panama, to inspect progress of the Canal project.

John Stevens - the second chief engineer during the construction effort. A US railroad man appointed by Roosevelt, he recognized yellow fever was the project’s worse enemy and stopped all construction for one year until it was brought under control. He also devised the train car system to clear dirt and rock out of the construction site.

Colonel William Crawford Gorgas - a US Army officer stationed in Cuba, he was brought to Panama to solve the yellow fever problem. Upon discovering that it was caused by mosquitoes, he took sanitation steps to eliminate breeding spots. This was perhaps the single most important triumph in the Canal’s successful conclusion.

George W. Goethals - after John Steven’s abrupt resignation in 1907 as chief engineer, Roosevelt appointed Goethals, an Army colonel, to oversee the project. Under his leadership, the army of workers found needed discipline. We owe to him the happy conclusion of the project in 1914.

The Panama Canal Treaty

On September 7, 1977, then U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian President Omar Torrijos, signed the Panama Canal and Neutrality Treaties, which, collectively transferred full control of the Canal to Panama on December 31, 1999, and guaranteed its permanent neutrality.

All U.S. military facilities and installations in the Panama Canal Zone area were to revert to Panamanian ownership. The Canal Zone extended 5 miles (8 ㎞) on both sides of the Canal, though it did not include the cities of Panama or Colon. Those who grew up in the Canal Zone were known as “Zonians.”

Transfer activities, however, began as far back as October 1979 when the Canal Zone was abolished, as stipulated in the Carter-Torrijos Treaty. US government administrative, civilian and military institutions began a gradual draw-down, which continued until the transfer was completed in 1999. When it was over, 95,293 acres (386 ㎢) and 5,237 buildings were returned to Panama, ending a military presence that lasted nearly 90 years.

Beginning in 1979, the Panama Canal was placed under joint US-Panamanian control and managed by the Panama Canal Commission. In 1999, when full control of the canal was transferred to Panama, the Panama Canal Commission was abolished and replaced by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which continues to manage the Canal to this today. The ACP, an autonomous government body, was created to assume sole responsibility for the management and operation of the Canal.

The Agua Clara Visitor Center is the Canal’s newest visitor center and the only place along the Canal offering views of Gatun Lake. It is perched on a hilltop, overlooking the southern entrance to Agua Clara Locks. They have a wonderful picture of the viewing platform on their website. Vessels entering into and departing from Agua Clara Locks pass right in front of you, so you’ll get a close-up view of these monstrous vessels, as they enter into or depart from the locks. Keep in mind, the largest ships that transit the Canal pass through Agua Clara Locks. Just in front is the anchorage, you should see dozens of vessels anchored waiting to recommence transit.

It’s a beautiful complex that offers panoramic views, a projection room, and a gift shop. It is a very different experience than the visitor center at Miraflores Locks. At Miraflores, you are much closer to the locks, but you don’t have views of Gatun Lake.

For more information, we recommend you visit their website.

Situated just 10-15 minutes north of Panama City, Miraflores Locks contains two chambers and is the Canal's southernmost set of locks. A visitor center, complete with a museum, restaurant/bar, souvenir shop, and auditorium, resides just in front of the locks' control tower, providing visitors with close-up views of the locks and vessels during transit. Visitors have the option of viewing the Canal from two distinct locations: the roof, which offers scenic views of Miraflores & Pedro Miguel Locks, Miraflores Lake, Centenary Bridge, and surrounding area or, the second level, which has comfortable, shaded seats and provides similar views. Pamphlets and other printed material about the Canal are provided upon entering.

For more information, we recommend you visit their website.

Getting to Miraflores Locks

Google Map - Miraflores Locks Google Map - Albrook Bus Terminal

Buses to Miraflores Locks depart regularly from the Albrook Bus Terminal and take only 15-20 minutes. Buses that read "Miraflores" will take you to the visitor center's entrance, whereas buses that read "Forestal" will drop you off along the main road that passes in front of the Miraflores Locks; from there, you will need to walk 5-10 minutes to reach the visitor's center. (After passing through the entrance gate, continue walking until you cross over the steel bridge—the Miraflores Dam will be off to your right. Stay to your left and proceed until you reach the large staircase/elevator that leads to the main entrance. Metro buses to Miraflores Locks depart every 30–45 minutes.)

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Pedro Miguel Locks, which consists of only one chamber, resides just north of Miraflores Locks on the northernmost part of Miraflores Lake. Unlike Miraflores and Gatun Locks, there is no visitor center. However, there is a large parking area in front of the locks, allowing visitors to get a close-up view of the vessels as they enter into and out of the locks' chamber.

Getting to Pedro Miguel Locks

Google Map - Pedro Miguel Locks Google Map - Albrook Bus Terminal

Buses to Pedro Miguel Locks depart regularly from the Albrook Bus Terminal and take only 20-25 minutes; you must take the bus that reads "Forestal." They will drop you off along the main road that passes directly in front of the locks.

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Spanning 47.6 miles and considered by many to be one of the world’s great train rides, the Panama Canal Railway offers passengers a memorable way to see the Panama Canal.

The Railway offers passenger service Monday–Friday between Panama City and Colon. The train departs Corozal at 7:15 a.m. and returns from Colon at 5:15 p.m. The trip lasts one hour. The passenger cars are comfortable, well-appointed, and air-conditioned, and their large windows and glass ceilings offer spectacular views of the surroundings.

Along the southern portion of the Canal, between Panama City and Barro Colorado Island, the train tends to run parallel to the Canal and never ventures very far from the channel. It passes alongside Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks, and then briefly moves inland as it winds through the lush, verdant forest of Gaillard Cut. Further north, after passing Barro Colorado Island, it drifts east and spends most of its time out in the open, as it makes its way across Gatun Lake.

We hear so much about the Panama Canal, but most people don’t know that the railway was operating for 60 years before the Panama Canal was even built, and it played an instrumental role during the Canal’s initial construction period. The Panama Canal Railway dates back to the mid-1800s, and upon its completion in 1855, was the world’s first transcontinental railway.

Visit their website for more information about their services and the railway’s history.

Getting to Corozal

Google Map - Panama Canal Railway

The Corozal train station is located near the Albrook Airport. Unfortunately, there are no Metro buses that stop at the station, but several Metro buses stop near it. Look for the buses that read Miraflores, Forestal, Ciudad de Saber, and Mercado de Abastos. From the stations where they drop you off, you can walk or take a taxi.

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The Panama Canal transit tour consists of a partial or full transit through the Panama Canal.

Partial transits last approximately 5-6 hours and include a trip under the Bridge of the Americas, through Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks, through Gaillard (Culebra) Cut, under the Centenary Bridge, and on to Gamboa, where you will disembark.

For those of you participating in a full transit, your journey will continue northbound. Shortly after departing Gamboa and off to your left, you'll pass Barro Colorado Island, the largest forested island in the Panama Canal waterway. The island is managed by the Smithsonian Biological Station, which maintains several trails and a research facility. Then, you'll navigate through Gatun Lake, in the direction of Gatun Locks. After your passage through Gatun Locks is completed, you will proceed to Colon to disembark.

Most often, these tours depart from Flamenco Island and transit northbound. There are occasions, however, when your tour will consist of a southbound transit. In that case, you will be transported to Gamboa or Colon, where you’ll begin your tour in reverse order.

The highlight of your transit will occur when approaching and entering the various lock chambers. You'll get a close-up view of the tugboats and locomotives in action and the chamber doors as they open and close. You'll feel the vessel seesaw back and forth as it's being raised or lowered in the chamber, only after the doors are closed.

Currently, two companies offer such tours: Panama Marine Adventures and Aventuras2000. Their schedules vary, depending on the time of year. The months between November–April are considered high season, during which time, both companies normally schedule several weekly departures. Partial transits are far more common, whereas full transits are normally limited to weekends. At the moment, both of these companies only offer tours through the old set of locks, not the new ones completed during the expansion period.

Throughout the tour, bilingual speakers are present to narrate your transit, offer insightful and pertinent facts, and answer any questions you may have. They're Panamanian citizens who have spent considerable time working in and around the Canal, so they know it extremely well. Overall, they do a wonderful job. Both companies have onboard souvenir stands and provide snacks and refreshments throughout the transit.

If you're not aboard a cruise ship transiting the Canal, then I highly recommend this tour. You won't be disappointed.

Panama Canal Transit Companies

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