Centennial Bridge, Gaillard Cut, Panama Canal
Panama Canal Transit
The Panama Canal is a 48 mile (77 km) lock system that allows ships to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans without going around South America. The United States successfully finished the Panama Canal in the early 1900s and kept control of any Panama Canal Transit for decades. In 1999 Panama took over control of the canal. The canal makes use of the natural flow of water from Gatun Lake, in the middle of the canal, to raise and lower ships in both directions.
Panama Canal Transit Map
A Panama Canal Transit takes 8 – 10 hours, including the Miraflores Locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks, the Gaillard Cut, Gatun Lake and the Gatun Locks. You might think the canal would run east/west, but the country of Panama actually runs east / west. So, the canal basically runs north and south between the Pacific and the Atlantic. During a Panama Canal Transit, you will pass under the Bridge of the Americas near Panama City and under the Centennial Bridge a bit farther north.
In 2016 an expansion project added an additional set of locks to the Panama Canal Transit, which allows larger ships to make a Panama Canal Transit. These larger ships are called New Panamax. The expansion doubled the volume of ships that can transit the Panama Canal
Gatun Locks, Visit Panama Canal
Buy a Panama Hat
You can buy a Panama hat in Panama City, but it’s probably made in Ecuador. Panama hats were first made in Ecuador and the highest quality ones are still made there. The popularity of the Panama hat was based on the need to supply foreigners with protection from the sun during construction of the Panama Canal. Early visitors also bought the hat for their Panama Canal Transit. Now the Panama hat is a style recognized all over the world.
Descending to Colon, Gatun Locks
Get to Panama
People get to Panama by air and cruise ship. Tocumen International Airport is about a 20 minute cab ride from Panama City. Cruise ships arrive from the Pacific and Atlantic. Cruise ship passengers usually transit to Lake Gatun and then tender off the ship for a shore excursion.
Coral Princess in Parallel Panama Canal Locks
Panama Canal Half Transit
Many cruise lines offer what they refer to as a Panama Canal half transit. These cruise ships keep passengers on board from Colon through the Gatun Locks to Lake Gatun. Passengers then disembark for shore excursions. The ship turns around, going back through the Gatun Locks to wait for its passengers at the docks in Colon on Limon Bay.
A half transit only covers a small section of the Panama Canal and never gets near the Pacific. The big advantage is that your cruise returns to the Caribbean instead of making the very long journey along the Pacific to the United States.
Train Engine to Align Ships in Panama Canal
Get around Panama City
Taxis are the primary means of transport in Panama City and they are reasonably priced. In Panama City, a Hop-on-Hop-Off Tour offers excellent routes on their red double-decker buses. The Hop-on Hop-off covers all the major points of interest. Stops include the Miraflores Lock, Casco Viejo, several malls and the Amador Causeway.
Panama Viejo, © Can Stock / jacklyric
You can take the Panama Canal Railway between Panama City and Colon. Ride one way or return in a 1930s train that has dome cars. In Colon, take a side trip to the Portobello UNESCO World Heritage Site. See the old Santiago Fort ruins and Fort Jeronimo in Portobello. Cruise ship passengers must book the Panama Canal Railway directly through their cruise line.
Gatun Lake, Visit Panama Canal
The dry season in Panama is December to April, which makes it the best time to visit Panama. This is also the summer vacation period for locals and the time of year when schools are not in session. In the Green Season, from May to November, Panama weather has daily rainfalls. Rainfall can exceed 16 feet per year in some locations in Panama. The prevailing winds flow to the west and north into the Caribbean, so Panama is not subject to hurricanes.
The country never goes on Daylight Savings Time and because it is near the equator, the days are always 12 hours long. That means Panama weather temperatures do not vary throughout the year. Expect average highs of around 95 F (34 C) and average lows of 70 F (20 C) in any month.
Weather Graph for Panama
Visit Panama – Visa Requirements
Most tourists who visit Panama will find that there aren’t any visa requirements as long as you are stay less than 6 months. Proof of exiting travel arrangements may be required at your point of entry. Check your specific country at VisaHQ. For a list of exempt countries, visit Project Visa.
Miraflores Locks Swing Bridge, Panama Canal
Visit Panama – Currency
The official currency of Panama is the Balboa. The exchange rate is set exactly equal to the US dollar. The US dollar is commonly used throughout the country and change is often given in US dollars even if you originally pay with Balboas. Major credit cards are widely accepted too.