There are, of course, plenty of ways to visit the Panama Canal for the first time. We were approaching from the Pacific side, and wanted to get up close after several passes over the Bridge of the Americas.
The Panama Canal celebrated its 100th
birthday last year. Of the three locks dotting its Pacific to Atlantic span, Miraflores is by far the most accessible from Panama City. The other two are Gatun and Pedro Miguel. It’s an easy 20 minute drive to the Miraflores visitor centre unless the infamous traffic is against you (it was with us, on Christmas Eve). It’s a well-nigh obligatory stopping point for first time Panama visitors.
Practicalities first. Admission for a family of four was $50. By the time we got there with two children we were hungry and crotchety. There is a posh-ish looking restaurant serving “regional specialities” which is essentially a rather uninspiring and expensive buffet. The coffee shop on the ground floor is a better bet. The empanadas and enchiladas don’t look like much but they’re great value and surprisingly light and tasty, especially the spinach empanada. It also provides a less hectic vantage point for seeing passing ships than the hectic fourth floor viewing platform.
You don’t come for the food though. A slow and laborious process it may be, but it’s hard to prepare yourself for the majestic sight and engineering marvel of a huge ship moving through the lock system. Whilst the boats are tugged along at a leisurely pace, the water levels drop surprisingly rapidly and dramatically to allow safe passage. We knew from watching the maritime queues for the Panama Canal from Playa Bonita that it’s a wise idea to enter mañana
time if you’re making the transit by boat. Three ships made their way through while we were watching.
It gets very
hot watching outside because the sea breeze that relieves the tropical heat in Panama City and the coastal resorts is absent.
Once you’ve watched what you came for, don’t miss the museum, lurking near the main entrance on the right. It’s several floors of informative content, not just on the engineering aspects but also on local flora and fauna. There’s some great archive footage of the dynamite explosions used to clear countless quantities of solid rock for the Canal’s construction.
There is a peculiar machine which you stand still on and it measures the water content inside your body. The four of us watched one person after another get exactly 78% until the equipment started to seem broken or fixed. When we mounted it, however, both children were running at 60% while I was 76%, Jonathan 72%. Being informed that we had puzzling below average hydration wasn’t part of what we’d anticipated as our experience…!
The simulator on the third floor of the museum is the highlight. It cleverly creates the sensation of driving a large boat through the lock, with wheel, controls and a panoramic view of the view to front and sides.
Toilets are clean, there is a cinema screening a film about the waterway and one anxiety of ours, getting back to Panama City again, was assuaged by having our driver wait for us, but there were also tons of free taxis idling outside. The all-round experience is a 7/10 and could be enlivened in various ways, as no doubt it shall be over time.
I was disappointed that the visit didn’t provide the opportunity to get up close and personal with the banks of the Canal, which are meant to host scores of basking crocodiles and turtles. Sadly we had to save that for a different occasion.