Visit Panama Canal: 100 Years Later

December 28, 2014

There are so many unique things to explore in Panama.  The Panama Canal is considered by many to be the greatest engineering feat of the last century and the perfect example of human initiative and courage.   So what better time to visit the Panama Canal and explore this technological wonder than during the year of its 100th Anniversary?


The project took ten years to finish and cost a great deal in blood and treasure.  The purpose of the canal was to create a shorter route between the Atlantic and the Pacific, rather than go around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America.  The new 48-mile route shortened the distance by 7,000 miles.

The project to connect the two oceans was first started by the French in 1881, but it was abandoned when malaria and yellow fever claimed 220,000 lives and combined with the astronomical costs, became an impossible burden for the French to sustain.  Fifteen years later, the project was resumed by the United States, and the task was completed ten years later.  Much of the canal was constructed during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), who considered this project the most important accomplishment of his administration.

The canal was opened on August 15, 1914, and established an expanded route for global commerce.  The shortcut consists of a series of two-lane locks that lift the vessels from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake which sits in the middle of the canal transit. Once a ship moves past Gatun Lake, another set of locks lowers it back down to sea level so that it can continue its passage to the ocean.

Canal Via Cruise Ship

To visit Panama Canal, I chose to transverse the entire length via my Norwegian Cruise Line vessel.  We entered the mouth of the canal from the Port of Balboa on the Pacific side and exited through the Port of Colon and into the Caribbean Sea on the Atlantic side.

If you have more time to spend, check out this Panama itinerary.

A surreal panorama of dawn breaking on Panama City was the first thing I saw on the Panama Canal passage.

visit panama canal

The Locks

Small but powerful tugs abound near the locks to assist the vessels into the locks, if needed.


The Miraflores Locks is perhaps the most famous due to its proximity to Panama City.  Tourists and residents in the city can take a short drive to see the locks processing a ship without having to actually board a ship.

visit panama canal

The water used for the Miraflores (and all the other) Locks is poured by gravity from Gatun Lake using a culvert system from the side and center walls.


visit panama canal

I enjoyed various views of the canal from the balcony of my cabin.

visit panama canal

visit panama canal

But when it came to viewing the locks, I had a more expansive panoramic view from the top deck, while standing on a chair with friend Cindy.


Gatun Lake

Passing through the large Gatun Lake presented more stunning vistas with its abundance of small, uninhabited, thickly forested islands and is one of the highlights when you visit Panama Canal.  The lake itself is a man-made, forming the water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, allowing ships to pass from both directions.


The entire transit took approximately 12 hours.  The Panama Canal has been named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

A new, wider lane of locks is currently under construction and is due to open in 2016.

If you have extra time to spend here, check out this jungle experience in Panama.

More about the Panama Canal here.

You may also be interested in:

Between Two Oceans: Transiting the Panama Canal on a Sailboat

Costa Rica: The Cure for Boredom

Tikal Ruins in Guatemala

Cave Tubing in Belize

Click on the image below to PIN so you can plan your visit Panama Canal trip!

visit panama canal

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About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.”  Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.  She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.


  1. Comment by Irene S. Levine

    Irene S. Levine Reply January 13, 2015 at 12:06 am

    Yes, totally fascinating to pass through. When we went through the Canal, there were school children watching the cruise ships pass through the locks.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply January 13, 2015 at 9:04 am

      Did you get a photo of the school children at the locks? How sweet!

  2. Comment by Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go Reply January 13, 2015 at 8:21 am

    We were in Panama last July and were able to spend a day each at both the Miraflores and Gatun locks. Watching the ships transit the canals was absolutely mesmerizing and we’d love to one day take a cruise through the canal to see it from a passenger’s point of view!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply January 13, 2015 at 9:05 am

      It’s quite a marvel to be able to cut through from the Pacific to the Atlantic within one day, and see the diversity of sights along the way.

  3. Comment by Carole Terwilliger Meyers

    Carole Terwilliger Meyers Reply January 15, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks for taking me through the Panama Canal with you! It looks like a tight squeeze for a cruise ship. BTW, I needed to use my finger for the math problem. If you’re missing the canal, check it out via webcam at my website .

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply January 15, 2015 at 12:56 pm

      It is a tight squeeze, and some of the larger cargo ships can’t do it either. That’s why they’re building a new set of locks to accommodate the larger vessels.

  4. Comment by Jessica (Barcelona Blonde)

    Jessica (Barcelona Blonde) Reply March 8, 2015 at 9:37 am

    What an amazing view at dawn, and Gatan Lake looks spectacular too! I can’t believe how tight some of those locks look – it seems as if the ship can barely fit through. I can see why they’re working on some wider ones haha.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply March 8, 2015 at 10:01 am

      Jessica — the view at dawn was spectacular! I was glad I dragged myself out of bed!

  5. Comment by Elaine J. Masters

    Elaine J. Masters Reply March 8, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Never really got the allure of going through the canal till I read your piece. It also resonated as San Francisco and San Diego have made a lot out of celebrations related to the opening of the Panama Canal. It really changed the world.

  6. Comment by Rebekah Esme

    Rebekah Esme Reply March 8, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    Wow, this looks an amazing trip! I’d love to visit and must add it to my list for 2015/16! 🙂

  7. Comment by Tiana

    Tiana Reply March 8, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    Gatun Lake looks amazing !!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply March 8, 2015 at 1:12 pm

      It was! There were so many small islands as we drifted by….

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