As our Uber pulled into the Mira Flores Visitor Center at the Panama Canal, I suddenly had a memory race through my mind. I was transported back to being 13 years old again traveling with my parents for spring break in Florida. We always went to the same little place near Sarasota for the week. But somehow this year I convinced my parents to stop at Disney World on the way home, even though it was out of the way. I knew my Dad had no real interest in Disney World and the never-ending lines. In fact my dad intensely hated lines and crowds. I understood that he was making this trip for me and that it would take a great deal of self-control and patience on his part to survive the day.
I just remember being so excited as we entered the parking area for Disney World and looking at my dad’s face as we parked the car in a lot bigger than I had ever seen before in my life. I could tell that my dad was already frustrated before we ever even heard “It’s a Small World” playing as we paid for the expensive tickets. I’ll always view that first trip to Disney World as a sacrifice that my dad made for me.
I looked at my dad in the Uber and could tell he was excited to be here at this engineering wonder; in fact it was the whole reason he came on this trip with me, to visit the Panama Canal.
Role Reversal As We Age
Once again a weird feeling of role reversal struck me; it happens more frequently now that we’ve both gotten older. There is always a point in your relationship with your parents where there is a switch – where you are taking care of them instead of them taking care of you. Suddenly I felt like the parent granting a child a wish of a lifetime. As we walked in and paid for our tickets I was excited too. The excitement wasn’t necessarily for the canal; I was excited to be taking my dad to the canal.
I had done my research and learned that the canal passages at the visitor center picked up again at 2PM so we arrived right around 1:30 and had time to traverse the museum at the visitor center before heading out to the viewing platform. Dad was meticulous about seeing everything in the museum as he looked intently at each model and description; many times pulling me over to explain something.
As we looked at the diagram of how gravity makes the canal work, we got in an argument about where the water went. We each tried to explain our view and it immediately reminded me of when he helped me with my homework when I was young. That process was always frustrating because of his insistent descriptions when I just wanted to be done and go watch TV. But as an adult, I loved this exchange of ideas and understanding, it was a pleasure now.
Travel with my Father
I know how lucky I am to get to see so many amazing places in the world, but on this trip I also realized just how lucky I was to be able to travel with my dad. During our time on the Uncruise ship I had a number of people around my age come up to me and tell me how special it was that I was traveling with my father. This was normally said with tears welling up in their eyes; I totally understood. I know I’m fortunate that my parents are still in such great health and that my dad in particular is willing to go on wild adventures with me at the age of 82. It’s these travel memories that will overshadow all of the others I have and I will be forever grateful.
Read About More Travels with my Father
The Panama Canal, An Engineering Miracle
“For its time, the building of the Panama Canal was as difficult as putting a man on the moon.”
It is well known that constructing the canal was one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.
You might wonder what the big deal is – it’s just a water passage after all. However, it’s not just a sea level water passage. To go through the Canal a ship has to be raised 85 feet up and then let back down over the course of 51 miles. I’m not great at science, but even I know this isn’t easy. Now for the real kicker – this all had to be figured out in the early 1900’s when they barely even had access to electricity. Most of the mechanical operations were done by steam engine.
The Panama Canal was the largest concrete structures made at the time. The lock gates were as tall as an eight story building. Their steel plates were held together with over three million rivets. In fact, it took over four years to complete the gigantic locks. During the entire construction of the locks, as well as the canal passage, there was an unprecedented number of inventions made that were essential for 21st century construction.
So of course visiting the Panama Canal was an engineer’s dream. Even I, a mere business major and now writer was pretty fascinated by it. But for my dad, a retired Caterpillar engineer who worked at designing big engines his whole life – this was his Disney World.
Tips for Visiting the Mira Flora Locks
The 5th floor viewing platform was full of people all vying for space at the front. There were no chairs and the hot afternoon sun shone on us causing me to sweat. I reached into my bag to put on more sunscreen and Dad looked to the left to see the first ship that would be arriving shortly into the locks.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was 2:30PM, it was time to leave this crowd of people in the sun for a much more comfortable viewing space at the Atlantic & Pacific Restaurant on the 2nd floor. The restaurant serves an all-afternoon lunch buffet and provides a balcony to watch the ships go through the locks as well as indoor seating with AC and lots of windows.
Dad and I got a couple of cold beers, some ceviche, and sat out on the restaurant patio to watch the action as the first ship entered the locks. Now this is how you view the canal – in style! Granted, the buffet is rather expensive ($40 per person) and nothing special, however you are really paying for the comfort. If you were just planning on watching a ship pass through and go home, then it’s probably not worth it. However, I knew we’d be staying all day and a little comfort, drinks, and food seemed like a good idea for the long haul.
The restaurant closes early on Mondays so as I looked around at 5PM I realized we were the only ones left and the staff was trying to clean everything up. They allowed up to stay as long as we could until they had to close.
Atlantic & Pacific Co.
Phone: +507 232 3120 or +507 232 3122
Monday to Saturday: Office from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Dinner from 5:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Sunday: Brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Monday closed from 5:30 p.m.
Since dad had not yet gotten his fill yet, we went back up to the viewing platform on the 5th level and spent 2 more hours there. It reminded me of begging him to ride Magic Mountain just one last time! The 5th floor viewing platform was completely empty at this time and we had a lovely view as the sun went down.
I told my dad that we had now been here for 6 hours. “Really?” he responded in a surprised tone. I think he felt as if we had just arrived! He was likely also surprised that I had hung in there that long, but it honestly was a pleasure because I knew he was enjoying it so much. He finally decided to call it a night and we went back to the city.
Surprisingly this wasn’t our first exposure to the canal, but our last. We had already been to the Aqua Flores Locks, spent a day at the Panama Canal Museum, and also did a complete Canal crossing on our Uncruise ship the week prior!
I’m pretty sure we covered every way that we could see the canal at this point – and I still had to sort of drag him away! However it did give me an incredible understanding of how the canal was built and what it was like to traverse it.
Best Ways to Visit the Panama Canal
Mira Flores Visitor Center
This is the easiest way to see the canal if you are staying in Panama City. It’s cheapest to Uber to the visitor center. But be sure to check the times of passage before you go so that you don’t arrive during a dead period (normally from 10AM to 2PM). It’s best to go in the early morning or in the late afternoon or night.
The center has a 3-story museum that is worth your time, and then there is a viewing platform where you can stay and watch as long as you want. Note – there are no chairs on the viewing platform. Or you can do as we did and go have lunch or drinks at the Atlantic & Pacific Restaurant on the 2nd floor for a less crowded view.
Mira Flores Visitor Center
Check their Website for more information
Open daily (including holidays)
from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Panama Canal Museum
Even though this isn’t technically the canal, it provides a wealth of information and history about the canal! We spent a half-day at this museum walking around and learning about the political history of the region, the construction process as well as the latest construction to expand the canal in 2016. You’ll walk out with an appreciation for just how big and challenging the making of the canal was.
“Together the French and American expenditures totaled $639,000,000. It took 34 years from the initial effort in 1880 to actually open the Canal in 1914. It is estimated that over 80,000 persons took part in the construction and that over 30,000 lives were lost in both French and American efforts.”
The museum is in a beautiful building in the Old Town of Panama City and once you are done at the museum treat yourself to a walk around this historical area.
I suggest that you spend the extra money to get the tour in English else you won’t understand many of the displays if you don’t speak Spanish.
Panama Canal Museum
More info at the website – in Spanish
Hours: TUESDAY TO SUNDAY
From 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Closed on Mondays
Agua Clara Visitor Center
This is the newest way to see the canal and it is a bit more challenging to get to. This visitor center shows off the newly finished locks that allow New Panamax ships to pass through. The visitor center is on the Cholon/Caribbean side of the Canal therefore you need to drive about one hour to get to Cholon from Panama City. You may rent a car or there are a few public transport options.
These new locks essentially doubled the capacity of the Panama Canal by adding a new lane of traffic allowing for a larger number of ships, and increasing the width and depth of the lanes and locks allowing larger ships to pass. The New Panamax ships carry one and a half times their predecessors and when you see one you will see just how behemoth they are.
Dad and I visited these locks as part of our Uncruise trip. It was really fascinating to see the newer technology as well as the tugboats that guide the big ships through. The new system uses 7 tugboats with the combined horsepower of 16,000. They move around so effortlessly like little insects. However these are complicated, powerful tugboats costing $11 million per tug boat!
There is a viewing platform there and a narrator providing information as the ships pass through. There is also a theatre, gift shop, and restaurants. I suggest you visit Mira Flores first and then go to Agua Clara so you can see the difference in technology and innovation.
Agua Clara Visitor Center
More info at the Aqua Clara Visitor Center Website
Open daily (including holidays) from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Do your Own Passage on Uncruise
As we drove to the port I looked at all of the colorful containers stacked up so high it seemed like the Wall of the North! Driving through a big container yard isn’t your typical site as one boards a cruise ship, but when you board a ship going through the Panama Canal, you have to start deep in the bowels of maritime cargo. Our little ship, the Safari Voyager, was waiting for us amongst cranes and stacks of containers.
Dad and I boarded the small ship and settled in with the rest of the guests. It didn’t take long for the pilot ship to join us in the port and soon we were off to traverse the canal. We went up to the top deck and my dad placed himself in front by the railing and he stayed there for the next 3 hours intent on watching our passage from his prime spot. We even ate dinner and drank beers there as we started our passage!
It takes an average of 8 to 10 hours to pass through the 51 mile canal and set of 6 locks. We were doing this journey with another smaller ship as a ‘partner’. It’s not cheap to go through the canal; the average cost is $150,000 going as high as $1.2 million for the largest New Panamax ships. The toll is a bargain compared to the more costly alternatives of either a two-week voyage around Cape Horn, or off-loading all containers onto a freight train to traverse the country and reloading another ship on the other side.
The Safari Voyager, which carries 62 passengers, pays $18,000 to $26,000 to traverse the canal. There are less than 300 cruise ships that actually pass through the locks each year and many of them simply go through the locks into Gatun Lake and then turn around and come back out. Only about 25 passenger ships pass through the entire 51 miles and 6 locks – and we were one of them!
As we watched electric mules ensure we didn’t hit the sides, and the water rise in the lock, we also had a constant narration by a local expert on the ship, Patrick. It was so nice to have Patrick there to ask questions to as we passed through. We entered the largest man-made lake in the world, Gatun Lake around 9PM and dad and I decided to go take a little nap until we reached the other side of locks. At 11PM we were at it again, passing through the remaining locks, dropping down 85 feet, and entering the Pacific Ocean.
That night we were up until 1:30 am watching all the excitement. While many passengers slept through the later night passage, I knew there was no way my dad would sleep through any of it. His joy was evident; it showed all over his face. He was able to do something few people get to do, pass through the canal. To an engineer, that’s sort of like a trip to Mecca – or maybe even Disney World.
Transit the Panama Canal
Uncruise does a full transit of the Canal as part of their Panama and Costa Rica Cruise. However if you only have a day, then you may want to check out a shorter partial transit from Panama City such as this – Please note – I have not personally tried this method, so I can’t speak to the quality.
Want to Learn more about the Canal History?
I bought my dad this comprehensive book about the Canal before we went on our trip. It has an extensive history of the political climate and how and why it was built. It’s a must read before visiting the Panama Canal.
I was a guest of Uncruise Adventures for the passage, however all opinions expressed here are my own.