Panama Canal trips appear on quite a few budget travel bucket lists. The nation of Panama offers attractions that are perhaps more enjoyable and impressive than this canal. But it can't be denied that most visitors are curious about this famous stretch of waterway. Nothing short of engineering genius allowed for its creation.
Many people combine a visit to the canal with their cruise or simply with a visit to Panama's capital city.
Take a look at three options for making a budget travel excursion to the canal.
Option #1: Visit the Miraflores Locks
For visitors to Panama City who have limited time but want to see the world-famous canal, a visit to the Miraflores visitor center is a low-cost, time-saving option.
The visitor center is about 20 minutes by cab from downtown Panama City. Transportation here can be arranged for about $20 USD round trip. Remember that cabs in Panama usually do not have meters, so you must negotiate a price before getting into the car.
Upon arrival at the visitor center, select a full-visit ticket ($8 USD/person). This will provide access to both the observation deck that overlooks the locks and a multi-floor museum that explains the history and the workings. There is an orientation movie offered in several languages that is well worth your time. Try to see it early in your visit if possible. Those arriving late in the day should ask about the last showing in their native language.
Don't assume the English version is always available.
As you watch from the observation deck, giant cargo ships slowly rise or fall 45 feet in about 10 minutes time. Pacific-bound traffic is lowered here, while those preparing to traverse the 50-mile canal and enter the Caribbean will be rising.
Panamanians voted in 2006 to double the capacity of the canal, and that extensive project reached completion in 2016.
Option #2: Partial Transit and Rain Forest Tour
Boat trips can afford views spanning the section between the Pacific and Gatun Lake (Lago Gatún in Spanish). This huge artificial lake was created when the canal was constructed, and it is surrounded by rain forests offering looks at a variety of wildlife. These boat trips can be purchased for under $150/day. One company offering such a trip is PanamaCanalBoatTour.com.
Cab rides from Panama City to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort cost about $40 USD. It is located along the canal on the Panama City side of Gatun Lake. Even if you don't stay there, the resort offers quite a few day trips ranging in price from $15-$50/person. At the high end of that price range, you can actually kayak the Panama Canal. Bear in mind that if tours at the resort don't fill up, they could be canceled.
Option #3: Full Transit
If you wish to cross the entire length of the canal, be aware of a few facts: military ships and cargo ships have top priority here. It is a busy waterway (the locks never fully cease operations) and you'll see ships anchored at sea waiting turns for transit. For that reason, tour boats can sometimes be forced to wait on larger vessels. The shortest amount of time required to make this 50-mile journey is about eight hours.
If you're still interested, the next issue is cost. It is possible to pay $300 USD or more for this trip. But if you do some shopping, you can usually find something for less. Check PanamaCanalCruise.com for possibilities.
Ancon Expeditions offers a tour in which you make partial transit of the canal (including two locks) and then return by motor coach for about $200/person. You can also take a Trans-Isthmian train between Colon on the Caribbean side and the Pacific side. It's an upscale train modeled after the luxury trains of an earlier era. Tickets run $25 each way for adults.
One final tip: Ask your hotel clerk or concierge to recommend a tour or even a cab driver willing to hire out for the day. Many times, this results in a cheaper and more fulfilling experience.