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Visiting the Panama Canal on a Budget with Children
Traveling with a Big Family at the Panama Canal
For most international visitors to Panama City, Panama, the first activity on the to-do list is to see the Panama Canal itself. At US$20 per ticket, and $10 up to $20 per taxi for a ride there, this can be an expensive little outing for a big family. However, there are alternative ways... see the Panama Canal, not all of which involve paying an admission fee. In this post we'll share our big family's tips and thoughts on seeing the Panama Canal, including two free options.

Best Time of Day to Go
Visiting the canal is best done early in the day, because there are no ships in the locks for long stretches of the day, from mid-morning until quite late in the afternoon. Going at the wrong time of day could mean feeling like you made a wasted trip, and/or, having a very long and boring day of waiting to see some ships.

Depending on the source of information, as well as the actual tides of the day and ship traffic, there are either no ships from 1030 am to 2 pm daily, or possibly from 1030 until as late as 430 pm. There is a major process called the "changing of directions," during which time no ships can pass through the canal locks while the water flow is being reversed.

Your experience may vary, but at the time of our trip the best times to see ships were said to be from 9 am to 1030 am, and then there was possibly another opportunity from 3 pm to 4 pm (however, some sources say there are no ships until after 430 pm - again, I'm sure it depends on tides, ship traffic, and day of visit). The Miraflores Visitor center was open 8 am to 6 pm, last time I checked. So during a 10-hour day of non-stop tourist fees, during all of which the center is raking in cash hand over fist, there is only a 90 minute period in the morning and in the late afternoon (at most, 3 hours total out of 10), which afford the visitors any chance at all to see any sort of ship action.

Waiting For Your Ship to Come
If you have already paid and are standing there at 10:35 am looking at a canal devoid of ships, wondering where all the ships are, the Miraflores Visitor Center has helpful announcements telling you to enjoy the gift shops and the restaurant while you wait, because supposedly,

"The ships will be here in one hour." 

This announcement is repeated periodically until the ships finally arrive, which may be up to 6 hours later (for someone who first heard it at 1030 am).

Is the Panama Canal a "Wonder of the World?"
I have seen other canal locks in operation at various times in my life, and based on that underwhelming experience, I personally do not consider this sort of thing to be an actual tourist attraction. There are some big metal walls that hold water at different levels. Hang on to your seats, because there may be more than two such water levels: you might get to see water at low, medium, and high levels.

So water on this side of a given door is really high; while water on that side is really low. And check it out: Humans can control the water level by moving some levers which move the water-doors and then waiting patiently! Amazing, right? Yeah, I don't know, but this isn't "Wonder of the World" caliber material, in my book. From an engineering standpoint, sure, I can see engineers being interested. But will that engineering feat be interesting, to the average visitor? How about to the kids?

Is the Panama Canal worth visiting?
Some still-extant Wonders of the World, which a traveler in the present era can still visit. One of these things is not like the others...

And I know, it's not fair comparing a modern Wonder of the World to an ancient Wonder of the World. The Golden Gate Bridge is not the in the same class of amazement and beauty as Chichen Itza or the Great Wall of China.

And anyway, how could we think of going to Panama without seeing the Panama Canal? This would be like going to Paris without at least driving by the Eiffel Tower; like visiting Manhattan without catching a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty; like driving through the western U.S. without getting a least some small measure of your kicks on Route 66.

I guess some things just have to be done. Just imagine the post-trip conversation, if we hadn't gone:

Anybody:  Oh, you and your family went to Panama? Did you see the Panama Canal?

Me:  No.

Anybody:  No?!  Well, why not?!

It was literally easier to just see the canal, than to have that conversation a hundred times over the course of my life.

The Visitor Center Option
So, the Panama Canal made it onto our list of things to see and do in Panama, during our short one-night stop in Panama City. We considered the Miraflores Visitor Center, which is the most commonly visited from Panama City.

There's also a newer, larger locks system, also fairly close to Panama City: the Cocoli Locks. Current info on Cocoli is a little harder to track down:  there either is, or isn't, a visitor's center open, as of mid-2019. You might also be considering the Gatun Locks and/or the Agua Clara locks, but keep in mind that those are on the opposite end of the canal - meaning, the opposite side of the country. Still, those are feasible for a day-trip. We just didn't have the kind of time in Panama City that would be necessary to even consider those.

The Miraflores Visitor Center has a museum, gift shop, restaurant, and a crowded viewing platform from which one can see the ships passing through the locks (when there are any ships in the locks). According to their website, foreign visitors pay $20 per adult, $12 per child (age 6 to 12), with children age 13 and up having to pay adult prices.

So for us, the Miraflores Visitor Center option would be a whopping $96 for the experience. They have exactly one dining choice there, featuring cold, bland food at exorbitant prices (or so I've read). People pack the observation deck like sardines. In my evaluation, this visitor center visit would have given me the feeling of being in a tourist trap; it would have been monotonous, and underwhelming to boot.

How to See the Panama Canal for Free
Miraflores Visitor Center. Just look at those faces. Those people look totally fascinated and happy to be there, don't they? Or maybe not...
(And this was the shot chosen for marketing purposes! So presumably this was the most interested, happy group they could capture on film.)
Source: Miraflores Visitor Center

Crowd Behavior
The mere fact that nearly every tourist arriving in Ciudad de Panama goes rushing directly to the visitor center to observe the locks in action had me questioning the desirability of the experience. As Mr. Money Mustache has advised repeatedly, if you see a great herd of people all queued up to do the exact same thing, a more logical and rational approach would be to head in the complete opposite direction. It's a basic rule of life and I try to live by it, even moreso when traveling.

"Hmm, I don't know what all those people are feeling the need to wait five hours to see, but I'm not going to do that." 

See 20 cars curled around a McDonald's?  I don't go. Walk inside a grocery and see that there are 12 registers with only 2 cashiers working, and a 30-minute line at each register?  I turn around and go elsewhere. See 30 cars parked in a drop-off lane at school? We park immediately and walk a block.  I take my cues from queues, and try to find alternatives.

It was recently reported that visitors to one of the big theme parks in the U.S. waited ten hours for a chance to take a 3-minute ride on a new Harry Potter themed-roller coaster. Actually, it's not based on Harry himself but on a side character in the series, someone who probably gets 10 minutes of screen time per film, at the most. And these are families that paid somewhere in the neighborhood of US$115 per person, per day (plus lodging, transportation, and meals) for the privilege.

For a family of six, that'd be $690 for that day's entrance fee.  Assuming we'd need to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the park during our 10-hour wait, and that this dining privilege would cost at least $12 per person, you can tack on $216 in meal fees to the experience of that 3-minute ride. So with nothing else accomplished that day, this would mean the 3-minute ride would work out to a rate of

$14,016 per hour.

I'm sure "news" like that, claiming people were happy to wait 10 hours for Hagrid's Motorcycle Adventures in Waiting ride, is intended to drum up business; whereas for me it just makes me even more sure I'll never want to go there.

(Sidebar:  And since I searched for that ride's name without going into private mode, of course, my browser is already flashing amusement park ticket offers at me mindlessly. Why is it that even if you search for something you don't want, the internet tries to sell it to you for the next six months?)

Can You See the Canal at Miraflores without a Ticket?
So, people line up by the hundreds every day to see these amazing Miraflores Locks in action. Now, you may be thinking what I thought: why go inside the visitor center at Miraflores at all? Why not just go to that location, then get out of the vehicle, walk up to the lock, and look at it, for free? Who needs a ticket? Well, everyone does, that's who.

The locks and the canal are behind a tall levee (a bank of earth that is designed to help hold the canal in place), meaning you won't see a thing from the parking lot. The earthen levee also has a long fence to keep out tourists and visitors, and there is a long row of cargo containers placed in such a way as to further block the view (either coincidentally, or strategically). So the only way to catch a glimpse from that spot is to buy tickets. It wouldn't be worth going to Miraflores otherwise.

Is there any way to see the Panama Canal for free?
There are no free views to be had at the Miraflores Locks - there's a huge bank of earth, and a fence, and cargo containers, all blocking the view. 

Rolling Out the Welcome Wagon - for Paying Guests
I also read upsetting reviews that say that if you try to debark from your bus or taxi and catch a glimpse for free from nearby, the staff has been known to literally run after you, aggressively hounding you all the way back to your vehicle to toss you off the property.

In at least one case, this reportedly involved shouts of strongly-worded suggestions that any foreign visitors who didn't want to pay $20 per person for this viewpoint should go back to their own country immediately. (I'm sure that's not a common experience; a much more common experience is just to line up at the ticket window, then hand over one's wallet.)

The Panama Canal, built in part due to the efforts of shipping industry titan Cornelius Vanderbilt, has a long and convoluted history. The U.S. presence in that area has been a subject of mixed feelings, to put it mildly. The U.S. built military fortifications along the canal during WWII, over the protests of the Panamanians, for instance.

Back in the late 1800's and very early 1900's it was U.S. businessmen like Vanderbilt who led the effort to build the Panama Canal, in order to provide the fastest possible transit from the east coast of the U.S. to the west coast of the U.S., during a day and age when the overland route was still very long, difficult, and dangerous.

Taking the Oregon Trail wouldn't have been fun at the time
Road trips in the U.S. weren't always as fun as they are now

According to some accounts, the Panama Canal, and $2 billion+ per year in annual revenue it generates for Panama, would never have existed (we'd all be using a Nicaragua Canal instead) if it weren't for the complex history of competition among US shipping firms, the feud between Cornelius Vanderbilt and his estranged business partners, and the seizure of the presidency of Nicaragua by the young fellow from Tennessee named William Walker. The conflict between the business partners, and the eventual arrest and execution of the man from Tennessee, along with a dozen other factors, eventually led to the canal being constructed not where it was shortest or easiest to do so, but instead, in Panama.

Today the Panama Canal charges jaw-droppingly high fees for ships to pass through the locks: $2,000 for a small yacht, and more like $150,000 to $250,000 for very large ships. An example toll paid in 2016 was over $850,000 for a large ship. Some sources quote the highest toll as $1,200,000 per ship, including tug boat fees, etc. All this factors in to the price we pay for anything that has to get through the locks.

At any rate, I had mixed feelings about the prospect of handing over approximately US$100 for a glimpse of the canal.

The Non-Touristy Locks
One totally free option would be to take a car ride out to the Pedro Miguel Locks. This is not the best viewpoint of the locks, and a chain link fence will partially obstruct your view. Also, there are no bathrooms or other tourist facilities. But, you do see the canal, and ships if there are any ships. And again, the key word here is "free."

Traveling with a big family to Panama City, Panama, Panama Canal
There is no visitor center (and thus, no visitor fee) to gaze through the chain-link fence at Pedro Miguel Locks

The Hotel with a View of the Canal
There is also at least one hotel in the Panama City area that is right on the canal: the Radisson Hotel Panama Canal. It might actually be the only one - after a thorough review of Google Maps and, I don't see any others with a listing which would be this close to the canal, and have a view of it from certain rooms.

The pool also faces the canal, but the view of the canal is obstructed by vegetation. Some of the rooms, though - those with the "ocean view" description and premium, face the mouth of the canal and will likely show you a glimpse of passing ships.

Traveling with a big family to the Panama Canal
If you secure the right room, you might have this view
This location would have added about half an hour roundtrip (plus traffic) to our airport commute, so we stayed a little closer to the airport (in the area called El Cangrejo).

How We Saw the Panama Canal for Free
Since everyone in my family has all seen large canal locks many times before - and since some of the lower-rated reviews of the Panama Canal Visitors Center describe the experience as "about as fascinating as watching a bathtub fill up with water" - we opted to skip the paying-guests-only, locks portion of the canal altogether.

We instead rode with Uber XL to the Chinese Monument, also known as the Mirador de las Americas. This is a free stop - there is no ticket window; it's a public space. This is located on the western side of the Bridge of the Americas, immediately after the bridge on the right. From this vantage point you can see ships entering and leaving the canal. There are no locks here, just the wide entrance to the canal, and loading docks for the canal train. It's a far-off-in-the-distance view, but hey, it's the Panama Canal. Depending on time of day, you might see ships.

Traveling with a big family to the Panama Canal with young children
The Chinese Monument, commemorating "150 Years of the Chinese Presence in Panama," features a platform that affords a view of the Panama Canal

If you're there during the changing of the direction (roughly 1030 am to 430 pm) there won't be much to see; which is exactly the case at the same time at the visitor center.

The only hassle might be that at certain times, there are vendors there crowding the railings, trying to sell you Panama Hats and whatnot. At the time we went, there were no vendors, and the only other people we saw was a young Panamanian couple in love.

I would not, under any circumstances, attempt a crossing of the Bridge of the Americas on foot, with children. We checked it out, as we drove over the bridge in an auto, and commented on how crazy it would have been to try it on foot, even when we were younger, even before children. It's a very long, very tall bridge. I also wouldn't want to be caught in that bridge's standstill traffic at rush hour on a weekday.

Important: Have Your Driver Wait
Taking an Uber or taxi is definitely recommended, and, be sure the driver waits for you, to bring you back. It looked like it would be very, very difficult to hail a taxi or Uber from the Chinese Monument itself, as every car in that vicinity is rapidly on its way to some place else. Any driver back in the city who saw the monument set as the pick-up point (way over on the other side of the long bridge) would likely have rejected the fare.

Also, there's no simple way to get across the road going the other direction. When we left, we had to turn right, away from the city, then take a very long, hilly, looping route down one hill and up another hill, in order to get the car pointed back towards Panama City. That would not have been fun or feasible on foot, and possibly unsafe (you'd be on an isolated, jungly road with few cars and no passersby, just outside a major city - not my idea of a great place to take a walk).

Having the driver wait will only add a trivial amount to the fare, as this is, at most, a 10-minute stop.

Traveling with a big family to see the Panama Canal
View of the Panama Canal from the Chinese Monument

In our case - with our prior experience of viewing locks in action - the view of the Panama Canal from the Chinese Monument did not leave us wanting more. No one in our group was jumping up and down asking if we could somehow get closer, or spend even more time on this activity. Ten minutes, tops - maybe seven - and we were back in the car, on to the next activity...

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