If you’re in Panama, a visit to the canal is a must. Here, expat writer Lee Elliott describes a family day out to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center to see the big ships.
The Panama Canal mesmerized me! I had been staring at these little engines (called mulas – mules) glinting in the sun as they crawled along their fixed rails at the Miraflores Locks for at least an hour.
The ship they were pulling into the lock below me was flying a Swedish flag as it lumbered along; a huge beast of a vessel stacked high with containers.
Beyond the entrance to the canal, more ships lined up into the distance, waiting for their turn.
The process of loading a ship into the lock, winding the iron gates shut, and floating it to meet the level of the canal beyond, is slow. And I mean super slow! But somehow you can’t help becoming transfixed.
I imagined some Swedish containers it carried must be on the way to the Ikea store in Seattle, where once upon a time, in years past, I’d once furnished my old apartment. After all, the fastest route from Scandinavia to the west coast of the United States is via this multi-tiered wonder of a waterway that is the Panama Canal.
Beyond the lock, those ships that had entered before at a sea slug’s pace, gathered speed as they disappeared inland towards Gatun Lake, leaving the Pacific for the Caribbean.
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Soon after moving to Panama, I felt obliged to see the Panama Canal for myself.
It wasn’t a trip I was particularly looking forward to though, if I’m honest.
I imagined the Miraflores Visitor Center overlooking the entrance to be full of whatever they call the ship’s version of trainspotters. ‘Ship-spotters’ minus anoraks and in less of a hurry?
But then I found myself calmed and spellbound watching something I thought would be boring. In fact, it was therapeutic! An hour passed before I knew it while gazing at this lumbering performance.
The last time I felt like this was when as a child, I watched a lava lamp for the first time, waiting for the wax to melt and do its thing.
Unless you’re paying for a tour and arriving on a bus (unnecessary in my opinion), the best way to get to the Miraflores Visitors Center is by car, taxi, or Uber. It’s not far and an Uber from, say, El Cangrejo in Panama City, costs as little as seven bucks. The bus from Albrook is $0.25 per person.
We arrived a little after 3:00PM, as I heard that mornings and afternoons were the best time to be sure of seeing ships pass through.
Apparently, it works like this; ships transiting from the Pacific to the Atlantic (Caribbean) pass through in the mornings (peak time around 9:00-10:00PM) and vice versa in the afternoons. With no ships, this could have been a disappointing visit, apart from the ice-cream kiosk, which alone made the journey worth it for the kids.
Once you’ve had your fill of the observation deck, you can visit visitor center museum (note: currently closed in early 2023).
Made up of four exhibition halls, this covers the history, function, international importance, and the inevitable biodiversity of a man-made waterway linking the Caribbean to the Pacific.
While inside, time your wanderings to ensure you catch the 3D movie they play. This is informative while remaining engaging for the kids. There are alternate English and Spanish sessions, so if you’re not bilingual, check the times. And if it’s still closed when you come, make a point of also visiting the InterOceanic Canal Museum in Casco Viejo instead.
Once you’ve had your fill of ships, the inevitable gift shop has the usual selection of mugs, postcards, and trinkets. There’s also a snack bar, a far cry from the restaurant they had here before the pandemic.
Like most parks and museums in Panama, there’s a price difference between locals and visitors.
Non-residents (ie, tourists) pay $15 for adults and $5 for children aged 6-12, compared to $5 for Panamanian citizens and legal residents.
But if you only want to see the lock and don’t care about the museum and the movie, you can bypass the museum entrance fee and go straight to the restaurant (if/when it reopens). A smart move if you have a long wait to see a ship come in.
It was a worthwhile visit. As a family, we enjoyed the experience, and the children had fun checking out the ships from the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center.