The 8 Best Panama Canal Tours of 2019

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The Rundown

Best Overall: See Ocean to Ocean Panama Canal and Jungle Tour Rates at Viator

"This full-day excursion has the best and most numerous reviews."

Best Runner-Up: See Full-Day Monkey Island and Indian Village Tour Rates at Viator

"Monkey Island is an opportunity to encounter three different primate species up close."

Best Budget: See Gatún Lake Expedition Rates at Viator

"Experience the wonders of the Panama Canal for less than $40 per person with this whistle-stop tour."

Best Partial Transit: See Panama Canal Partial Tour Rates at Viator -

"The adventure takes you through the Culebra Cut and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks."

Best Wildlife: See Panama Canal Eco Cruise and Rainforest Discovery Center Visit Rates at Viator

"Nature lovers will appreciate this tour, which focuses on the canal’s diverse animal and birdlife."

Best Cultural: See Panama Canal Eco Cruise and Embera Village Combo Tour Rates at Viator

"Especially rewarding for those with an interest in meeting the indigenous tribes of the Chagres River region."

Best Canal & City: See Panama City Tour and the Canal Rates at Viator

"Learn about the history of Panama City itself as well as that of the canal."

Best Layover: See Panama Canal Layover Tour at Viator

"This three-hour tour allows you to tick off one of Panama’s most iconic attractions in record time."

01 of 08

Best Overall: Ocean to Ocean Panama Canal and Jungle Tour

Viator Panama Canal Tour

Courtesy of Viator

Of all Viator’s Panama Canal tours, this full-day excursion has the best and most numerous reviews. You will explore the length of the canal by boat, air-conditioned mini-bus and on foot. On the way, you’ll pass by vast ships on their journey from one side of the canal to the other, and will have the opportunity to see them up close as they pass through the Gatún Locks. Interactive displays at the Gatún Locks Visitor Center give a great overview of the canal’s history, although the main source of information will be your professional, English-speaking guide. 

Other highlights include a tour of Gatún Lake. You’ll scour its banks for wildlife, and stop at Monkey Island to meet howler, capuchin and tamarin monkeys. Upon reaching the Caribbean/Atlantic shore of the canal, you will be taken to San Lorenzo National Park, where rainforest flora and fauna await alongside UNESCO-listed Fort San Lorenzo. The price includes your guide, all activities, entrance fees, a picnic lunch and round-trip transportation. Hotel pick-up and drop-off is also offered from most (but not all) areas of Panama City. 

02 of 08

Best Runner-Up: Full-Day Monkey Island and Indian Village Tour

Viator Panama Canal Tour

Courtesy of Viator

This tour lasts for approximately eight hours, but instead of taking you along the length of the canal, combines three popular Panama City tours into one fun-filled day. A boat trip around Gatún Lake gives you the chance to marvel at the canal’s cargo ships and look for local wildlife, while the visit to Monkey Island is an opportunity to encounter three different primate species up close. The highlight, however, is probably the visit to Soberanía National Park, located on the Chagres River near the Pacific end of the canal.

Here, you will hike through the jungle, where monkeys, sloths, and other exotic wildlife roam freely. The park is also a birder’s paradise, with over 500 species including the majestic harpy eagle. The trip includes a visit to an authentic Emberá village. Here, you’ll learn about the customs and traditions of this indigenous tribe, who use dye to draw intricate patterns on their skin and know how to harvest forest plants for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. The tour includes a professional guide, transportation, and all park entrance fees. It excludes food and drink and hotel pick-up/drop-off. 

03 of 08

Best Budget: Gatún Lake Expedition

Viator Panama Canal Tour

Courtesy of Viator

Tourists traveling around Panama on a shoestring budget can experience the wonders of the Panama Canal for less than $40 per person with this whistle-stop tour. A 45-minute boat trip around Gatún Lake, it includes a local guide who will provide commentary about the canal’s history, construction, and wildlife. As you cruise around the shores and islands of Gatún (one of the world’s largest artificial lakes), you may view some of its exotic animals in person as they come down to the water to drink. Possible sightings include capybaras, crocodiles, and iguanas. 

Of course, monkey sightings are virtually guaranteed on Monkey Island, where habituated capuchins, howlers and tamarins sometimes come close enough to touch. Don’t get so distracted by the wildlife that you forget to pay attention to the ships on their way in between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans! These giant vessels make for spectacular photo opportunities as they pass by. The tour excludes hotel pick-up and drop-off. Instead, travelers will need to make their own way to the marina at Gamboa Rainforest Resort, situated near the mouth of the Chagres River. 

04 of 08

Best Partial Transit: Panama Canal Partial Tour - Southbound Direction

Viator Panama Canal Tour

Courtesy of Viator

If you don’t have the time or inclination to join a full-day tour, this partial transit expedition is a worthwhile alternative. It lasts approximately six hours and departs from Panama City. You’ll travel by bus to Gamboa, the small town located at the point where the canal begins to open out into Gatún Lake. Then, you’ll board a waiting boat and journey back down the canal towards the Pacific coast. The adventure takes you through the Culebra Cut and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks, where the boat is lowered nine and 16.5 meters respectively. 

To travel through the locks in a small vessel is an amazing experience, allowing you to see how they work up close. There are plenty of photo opportunities along the way, too, including Centennial Bridge and the Bridge of the Americas. As you travel, the English-speaking guide will give fascinating insights into the canal’s history, engineering, and wildlife. You’ll also enjoy a complimentary buffet lunch on board the boat. The tour price includes a round-trip transfer from your Panama City hotel. If you like, it can be done in reverse as well.  

Continue to 5 of 8 below.
05 of 08

Best Wildlife: Panama Canal Eco Cruise and Rainforest Discovery Center Visit

Viator Panama Canal Tour

Courtesy of Viator

Nature lovers will appreciate this tour, which focuses on the canal’s diverse animal and birdlife. It lasts approximately seven hours and starts with a cruise up the Panama Canal from Panama City to Gatún Lake. When you get there, your guide will point out wildlife as you move slowly along the shores of the lake, stopping for a quick visit to Monkey Island to meet its resident capuchins, howlers, and tamarins. Next, the boat docks at Gamboa where you’ll disembark and travel by road to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center in Soberanía National Park. 

The center boasts jungle hiking trails and a 40-meter observation tower. Use the latter to get a close look at the birds and animals that live in the forest canopy. Soberanía is known for its birdlife with top sightings including colorful toucans, trogons and the beautiful blue cotinga. Mammals range from monkeys and sloths to inquisitive coatis. Lunch is a picnic at the Visitor Center, where feeders attract up to 14 different kinds of hummingbirds. The tour includes a professional guide and driver, the boat cruise, park entry fees and activities, lunch and hotel transfers.

06 of 08

Best Cultural: Panama Canal Eco Cruise and Embera Village Combo Tour

Viator Panama Canal Tour

 Courtesy of Viator

This full-day tour is especially rewarding for those with an interest in meeting the indigenous tribes of the Chagres River region. It starts with a transfer in an air-conditioned mini-bus from Panama City to Gamboa. At Gamboa, you’ll board a boat and cruise northwards along the canal to Gatún Lake, passing giant cargo ships en route. As you journey around the lake’s islands, look for tropical wildlife including monkeys, crocodiles, capybaras, and iguanas. After a brief stop on Monkey Island, the tour continues up the Chagres River to Lake Alajuela, located on the edge of Chagres National Park.

Here, members of the local Emberá tribe will be waiting to transport you via dugout canoe to their village. You’ll spend the rest of the day at Parará Purú, watching cultural presentations and traditional dance displays and enjoying a simple lunch of plantains, fried fish and fruit. There will also be opportunities to buy indigenous crafts and even to get a temporary Emberá dye tattoo. The tour includes all transportation, lunch and bottled water and a professional guide. Hotel pick-up and drop-off is available at select hotels.

07 of 08

Best Canal & City: Panama City Tour and the Canal

Viator Panama City & Canal Tour

Courtesy of Viator

If you’d like to learn about the history of Panama City itself as well as that of the canal, this half-day tour is a great place to start. First, you’ll tour Casco Antiguo (also known as Casco Viejo), the city’s historic quarter. It dates back to 1673 and features an awe-inspiring blend of colonial building styles including French, Spanish and Italian convents, churches and palaces. As you go, your bilingual driver/guide will reveal the stories behind the landmarks you see along the way. The second part of the tour takes you to the canal’s Miraflores Locks. 

Here, you’ll watch in awe as vast tankers and container ships are lifted up or lowered down heights of up to 20 meters depending on the tide. A tour of the exhibits at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center explains how incredible engineering makes this feat possible. On the way back to Panama City, you’ll pass through the demilitarized Panama Canal Zone which was once an unincorporated territory of the United States. The tour includes air-conditioned transportation, entry into the Miraflores Locks and Visitor Center and hotel pick-up/drop-off.

08 of 08

Best Layover: Panama Canal Layover Tour

Viator Panama Canal Tour

Courtesy of Viator

Those with a lengthy layover at Tocumen or Allbrook airport don’t have to spend it in the terminal. Instead, this three-hour tour allows you to tick off one of Panama’s most iconic attractions in record time. It’s private, which means it’s fully adjustable to your flight schedule. After being picked up at arrivals, you’ll be driven to the Miraflores Locks while your professional guide tells you all about the city’s history. When you get there, you’ll stand on a sheltered terrace above the locks and watch the huge ships passing through.

The exact height depends on the time, but averages around 16.5 meters at mid-tide. Regardless, it’s an astonishing spectacle – and one that you can learn more about at the Visitor Center. Here, displays and exhibits tell the story of the canal’s construction, engineering, and global significance. The tour includes the services of the guide and driver, round-trip airport transfers and your airport/departure tax. You will need to pay extra for your entrance fee to the Miraflores Locks. Timings only work if you are able to leave the airport between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.

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