The Best Ways To Experience The Panama Canal

29 JUL 2015
by: Adam | posted in: Guide, Project Expedition | comments: 0
The Panama Canal is an incredible feat of human engineering, and a unique tourist destination. Let’s start with some numbers. 52 million gallons of water are used every time a ship passes through the canal. Lake Gatun, which supplies that water, is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. Over 13,000 ships pass through the canal every year carrying items from one side of the world to the other, and some of those ships will pay up to $450,000 for the trip. Fortunately for you, there are a variety of ways to see the Panama Canal and they all cost a lot less than that.

Experience it

Ever been in a boat as it’s raised 85 feet above sea level? Here’s your chance. One popular way to see the Panama Canal is by experiencing it for yourself. You can do the whole thing, taking the day to make the 8-10 hour trip from one side of the continent to another. With this trip you’ll see everything: the Centennial Bridge, the Bridge of Americas, the famous Culebra Cut (the only gap in the Continental Divide), and you’ll also get to experience all three locks of the canal. If that sounds like too long of a day there’s also the option to survey a smaller portion of the canal, with these partial trips usually taking around 5 hours. Either way, there’ll be a guide on hand to help explain the process of the locks and the fascinating history behind the canal.


Bridge of the Americas


Isthmus of Panama

Part of what made building the Panama Canal so complicated was the rainforest encompassing the region. The lush tropical setting has now been established as national parks, Soberania being the friendliest to explorers. An interesting way to see the canal would be to mix a sampling of Panama’s rich wildlife with a view of the ships passing through the canal. There are many tours that offer just that.

Some of these tours are also by boat. You can paddle out into Lake Gatun in a kayak and scan the surroundings for all of the creatures that inhabit the waterways. Softly drifting along in a kayak will give you your best chance to spot a manatee gliding under the surface. Ruins that are scattered around the area are accessible by kayak as well. There are also chartered fishing boats that will cruise right up the canal alongside cargo ships before veering off down one of the rivers that cut through the rainforest. Here, in the shade of a tree covered cove, you can try your hand at catching a peacock bass and enjoy a peaceful day of fishing.

Panama Rainforest


On Foot

For those who want an adventure but would prefer to keep their feet on solid (or perhaps muddy) ground, most of the walking tours of Soberania National Park and Panama city also incorporate the Panama Canal into their treks. Soberania offers a variety of wildlife and is an especially great place for birdwatching. It has 525 species of birds, including the distinctive Harpy Eagle (see below), which is the national bird of Panama. Other birds you may see within its boundaries are toucans, toucanets, and crimson-bellied woodpeckers. A few different species of monkeys, anteaters, and sloths reside in the jungle as well. The canal portion usually comes on your way back to the city, as you stop at the Miraflores locks and watch as the water rushes in and out of the lock, allowing the ships to continue on their way.

Harpy Eagle (the national bird of Panama)


By Air

Perspective is always the most important part of understanding something, and there’s no better perspective of the huge scale and achievement that is the Panama Canal than looking down on it from hundreds of feet in the air. You’ll be able to see just how the canal was cut through the land and imagine what a massive undertaking it must have been. You can see the culmination of those efforts too, as the long line of giant cargo carrying ships pass through one lock after another. You can see the canal by air from the seat of a plane or a helicopter. These tours will also take you around the surrounding wilderness, offering even more incredible views of Soberania, Lake Gatun, and the rest of Panama.

Panama Canal


The Panama Canal isn’t your usual tourist destination. The water isn’t a clear Caribbean blue, and cargo ships don’t always make the best photo ops. That’s okay though, because what the Panama Canal offers is a look at one of the most essential and groundbreaking works of engineering ever constructed. There’s plenty of natural beauty in Panama and some of these tours will give you a taste of that, but sometimes you need to just sit back and marvel at what humans are capable of. To see and experience the Panama Canal is to see and experience one the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, and afterwards maybe you’ll be left wondering what we’re capable of completing next.

Hop over to Project Expedition's Panama Canal page to see these tours and more.

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