The Suez Canal and the Panama Canal, since I learned about them at school, have always been a dream come true. I wanted to take advantage of our passage in Central America to make one of my dreams come true: crossing the Panama Canal by boat.
By typing “Panama Canal Cruises”, my researches lead only to luxury 2/3 weeks cruises between Colon (in Panama) and the United States ! Even a round-the-world cruise (4 to 6 months) ! You might as well say that finances do not follow 😀
Fortunately, there are options that are much more affordable when you dig a little bit, and that take less time: with a small boat; or simply by public transportation.
Note: Be aware that the balboa, Panama’s currency, is indexed to the value of the U.S. dollar. The USD is used here, the balboa exists only in small currency. Thus, all prices & rates are indicated in USD
PART 1: Visit the Panama Canal by BoatPART
2: Visit the Panama Canal by Car or Public Transport
PART 1: Visit of the Panama Canal by Boat
- Partial crossing of the Panama Canal (5-6 hours, passing through two locks) on board a small boat. Starting at $125/person
- Cross the entire Panama Canal (12h) on board a small boat, passing through 3 locks. Starting at 170$/person. Be careful, there are very few tours of this type, going from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, so boats are full a month and a half in advance. Remember to book early!
Note : rates observed in October 2019, for one person
Here are the companies found on the Internet, all 3 are very well rated. It is difficult to compare the services however, because it isn’t clearly indicated on their sites.
|Company Name||URL||Partial Canal Tour|
(5-6h, crossing 2 locks)
(Pacific Ocean => Atlantic Ocean)
|Canal & Bay Tours||canalandbaytours.com/en||125$||170$ (7 to 8h)|
|Panama Marine Adventures||pmatours.net/pacific-queen/||125$||180$|
|Panama Canal Tours||panamacanaltrips.com||180$||250$|
We opted for a Partial Canal Tour at Panama Marine Adventures because they cost less and have two schedules, one around 6:30 am and another around 9:30 am. If you book one month in advance, on the chosen date, there is only the schedule at 9:30 am. It’s not too bad because you can sleep a little bit more. Whatever the chosen schedule, they cross the locks of Miraflores and Pedro Miguel.
What you need to know about boat tours
- Booking and payment is done online on the 3 sites mentioned above.
- The departure times given on the sites are approximate (difference between 1h and 2h). The exact schedule will be communicated by the boats the day before, because it is the Canal office that decides at what time such or such boat can pass.
- They all come to pick you up and drop you off at one of the hotels indicated on their site
- Lunch & drinks included but don’t expect anything fabulous.
- There are a lot of people on such boats (300 people). Despite the price, it will not be a luxurious experience so don’t expect too much
PART 2: Visit the Panama Canal by Car or Public Transport
And for those who get seasick or just want to have another viewpoint, there are also four options:
- Near Panama City (1h by public transportation, or 20mn by car): Miraflores Visitor Center (20$) and its locks: Miraflores Locks. The building has several floors and it is the most touristic place of the Panama Canal as it is closer to the city
- Pedro Miguel Locks – Pedro Miguel Locks (7mn by car from Miraflores, ): no infrastructure dedicated to boat watching. There is a parking lot 100m from the lock, where you can observe the boats for free.
- Gatun locks (1h drive from Panama City): these locks are very similar to Miraflores, but the platform is much closer to the boats than in Miraflores. Fee : 5$
- Near Colon (1 hour by car from Panama City): the Agua Clara Visitors Center ($15) and the newest generation locks: Agua Clara Locks, 3 lanes, and with gates that open by sliding, and not opening like the old locks
What you need to know if you visit by car or public transport
- Access to the visitor centers costs between $15 and $20/person
- In Pedro Miguel there is no visitor’s center, you can watch the boats from a parking lot 100m from the lock.
- In Gatun, there is only a platform with an entrance fee of 5$, no museum like Agua Clara or Miraflores
How to get to the locks: Miraflores Locks?
- Public transportation serves Miraflores Locks, from the city center, in one hour.
- The route includes a change at the Albrook subway station to the C970 bus (which passes every 30 minutes).
- To take public transportation, you should consider buying a rechargeable Tarjeta Metrobus card ($2) first, and put some money on it (minimum $0.5).
- Count 0,35$ for the outward journey
- Otherwise, don’t bother, take Cabify (discount code here), the equivalent of Uber for $5 to Miraflores from Panama City
- If it’s still too complicated for you, there are tours that drop you off at Miraflores and take you back to the hotel for $10/person. Ask at the front desk of your hotel.
How to get to Gatun Locks or Agua Clara Locks?
- There is a train that goes to Colon in 1 hour (25$ one way), but it does not directly serve the lock. As soon as you get off the train, you have to take a cab (21 minutes) to the Agua Clara locks. This isn’t the option we recommend as it takes 8 hours to get there! (waiting for the return train), and the train only runs during the week.
- There are tours to go to Agua Clara Locks, stopping in the forest, visiting the artificial lakes, but it is very expensive (more than 300$/person).
- To visit the 3 locks in one day, including Agua Clara Locks, the simplest and cheapest would be to rent a car (10$ per day +40$ all-risk insurance) as soon as you arrive at the airport (to avoid the crazy traffic downtown). It is better to go first to Agua Clara Visitor Center (which closes earlier) and then return to Miraflores. Just pay attention to the opening hours of the centers & boat passage on the official website