Sights and Scenery
There are many things to keep a look out for as you transit through the Panama Canal. This page has some of them, but our most comprehensive guide with more than 100 sights is in our book – “Transit the Panama Canal”.
All of these sights are available here on the website as well. These were separated into the cruise pages because you can’t see all of them from the vantage point of a yacht. Follow the links under Cruise Ship Transit or head to What You Will See.
On the long trip across Gatun Lake and through the Culebra Cut there are a few sights to keep a lookout for:
Atlantic ‘French’ Bridge
This magnificent bridge was completed by a French company in August 2019, and is the third bridge crossing the Canal.
The other two bridges, which you will pass under closer to the Pacific Ocean, are the Centennial Bridge and the Bridge of the Americas.
At the Miraflores locks, a swing bridge was built by the US in 1942 to provide the first way to drive across the Canal. The Bridge of the Americas replaced it in 1962, but it remained an emergency bridge until it was removed in 2018.
A fourth bridge is planned, which will be built right next to the Bridge of the Americas on the Pacific side.
Unfortunately these wonderful lights were not operating on our last passage through the Canal, so they might be kept for special occasions. Hopefully a cruise ship transit counts, because when the bands of colour are moving it is a great sight!
French Canal Attempt
North of the Gatun Locks on the west side you can see some of the French Canal construction effort. This is the portion built by an American contractor for the French between 1885 and 1899. Few people know that American Contractors actually completed one third of the digging that was accomplished during the French effort.
In about the same place but on the other side is where the US started a new set of locks during WWII.
The Panama Canal Yacht Club used to be on the east side, but this was removed to accommodate expansion of the port.
Arrow Signals at each Set of Locks
The entrance of each set of locks has huge arrows designed to communicate the status of the locks with the approaching ships.
Heaving Line Targets
Practice targets for the ACP linehandlers are at each set of locks.
Large earthen dam across the Chagres River, which contains Gatun Lake: 640m/2,100’ thick at the base, 2,300m/7,500’ long along the top, 121m/397’ thick at the water level, and 30m/98’ thick at the top, which is 9m/30’ above the normal lake level. A hydro-electric generating station at the dam generates electricity which is used to operate the locks and other equipment in the Canal.
Yacht Club Gatun
If the Gatun Lake mooring buoys are not accessible you might anchor off this yacht club, still in sight of the end of the locks. It is no longer used for recreational vessels, but the pontoon is used by cruise ship tenders to ferry people ashore for the cruise ships only doing a partial transit.
Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center
Looking past the Gatun Yacht Club you will see the Agua Clara Panama Canal visitor centre located on a hill.
This picture shows dredgers working on the entrance to the locks – the visitor centre is the complex on the hill. If you have the time, this centre is worth a visit because you get an excellent aerial view of the Agua Clara Locks.
Manatees are believed to have been introduced in Gatun Lake in 1964 by the former Panama Canal Commission as part of an aquatic vegetation control program. However, a few years later, some of the manatees escaped during a storm, and shortly after the remaining manatees were released and the program was abandoned.
We have heard them and seen something large in the water close to the Gatun mooring buoys. Here is a Manatee Article for the skeptics.
Crocodiles of up to 4-6 metres have been seen in the Canal waters, both salt and fresh.
A large crocodile captured in the Canal – swimming is not recommended! A 2015 article about an 800-pound crocodile removed from Gatun is here.
You will probably hear these guys in the morning on Gatun Lake. More like roaring than howling, they are most often heard around sunrise, or when there is rain coming.
As you leave the Gatun Lake mooring you will see a marked channel off to the port/east side of the main Canal. This passage is no longer used as it is not considered a safe passage, although you might see ACP security boats coming through.
Mahogany Tree Stumps
These are the remains of the trees that were covered when Lake Gatun was formed. Coast Eco Timber are harvesting some of the wood, but you will see that there are plenty of stumps around, which is a lot of the reason you are not really allowed to wander off to explore the lake.
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
When your vessel passes around the top of Isla Barro Colorado you will see the landing station for the Smithsonian Institute’s biological research station.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) has this permanent research center on the island, dedicated to studying tropical forest ecosystems. Because the Island’s diverse ecosystem has been very little altered by humans, Barro Colorado has been studied for over eighty years within a great variety of biological disciplines
It is only possible to visit the island through the STRI for a guided tour of the facilities and a walk through the forest. Unfortunately the wait list is usually quite long.
To the north of Barro Colorado are the Islas Brujas and Islas Tigres, which together hold a primate refuge – visitors aren’t allowed.
Website: STRI Barro Colorado
The main channel of the Canal has 289 permanent buoys. Lateral buoys located north of the Pedro Miguel Locks are painted red to indicate the west side of the channel and green to indicate the east side. The colours reverse south of Pedro Miguel.
Note that there are multiple navigation buoys with the same number. Look out for 60¼ and 60½ and the others marked A, B, C etc. Additional buoys have been added over the years to improve navigation and instead of renumbering all the buoys, letters were used.
There are 40 lighthouses on the Canal, of which two are on Barro Colorado. The oldest lighthouses are located in Punta Toro in the Atlantic and Flamenco in the Pacific, both dating from the period of construction of the Canal by the French, between 1881 and 1898.
Panama Canal Railway
The Panama Canal Railway is the oldest operating railway in the world. The first track was constructed between 1850-1855 in response to the 1849 California gold rush. The Panama Canal Railway Company proved to be a veritable cash cow with one-way fares as much as US$25. The one-way fare today is? You guessed it, US$25!
The vintage dome car was built for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1938.
The train runs parallel to the Canal, 47.6 miles from Colón to Balboa in Panama City, and will be on your port side.
Today a tourist train runs once every day departing at 07:15 from Panama City and back from Colon at 17:15.
The primary function of the railway today is to move some 1,500 containers a day between the Atlantic and Pacific ports, on trains with up to 55 flatbeds or double-stacks. This is done for container vessels, which are too large for existing lock chambers, and also to move empty containers.
Gamboa – Titan Crane
Gamboa is the point where the Chagres River feeds into the Canal and forms Gatun Lake. The town was built to house Canal workers in 1911, and is now the home of the ACP Dredging Division.
You will know when you are close to Gamboa when you see the gigantic floating crane Titan. Among the largest floating cranes in the world, Titan was built by Hitler’s Germany in 1941 and claimed by the United States as war booty. The Navy operated it for over 50 years before selling it to the Canal for US$1 in 1998!
Titan entered service in Panama in 1999 after having served for 50 years in Long Beach, California. It can lift 350 metric tons and is one of the “strongest” cranes in the world.
Titan can be floated into the locks of the Panama Canal and is used for the heavy lifting required to maintain the lock doors of the Canal, which are serviced every twenty years.
After passing the town of Gamboa you will see Renacer prison on the port side, which was the ‘home’ of Manuel Noriega (1934-2017), a former Panamanian politician and military officer. He was the military dictator of Panama from 1983 to 1989, when he was removed from power by the United States during the invasion of Panama.
From the 1950s until shortly before the US invasion, Noriega was one of the CIA’s most valued intelligence sources, as well as one of the primary conduits for illicit weapons, military equipment and cash destined for US-backed counter-insurgency forces throughout Central and South America.
Noriega was also a major cocaine trafficker, something which his US intelligence handlers were aware of for years, but allowed because of his usefulness for their covert military operations in Latin America.
Noriega served time in the US and France for drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering, and was in this Panama prison for murder and human rights violations. He died in hospital on May 29, 2017.
The mountain range that the Panama Canal cuts through is called the Cordillera de Talamanca near the Costa Rican border. Farther east it becomes the Serranía de Tabasará, and the Canal is located in the portion called the Sierra de Veraguas.
From 1915 to 2000 the Cut was named Gaillard Cut after US Major David du Bose Gaillard, who had led the excavation. After the Canal handover to Panama in 2000, the name was changed back to Culebra, which means ‘snake’ in Spanish.
Construction of the Cut was one of the great engineering feats of its time. It is 12.6 kilometres (7.8 miles) from the Chagres River arm of Lake Gatun to Pedro Miguel Lock on the Pacific side. The narrowest point is 600 feet (currently dredging) and the widest at Gamboa is 1,000 feet. The excavation cost of the Cut was US$10 million/mile.
On the port side, Gold Hill is the highest promontory along the Cut rising 662 feet above sea level, and therefore it denotes the area where the most digging was required.
Opposite Gold Hill, on the other side of the Canal, you will see Contractors Hill with an elevation 333.5 feet above sea level.
Both of these hills were ‘responsible’ for the numerous landslides, which delayed the completion of the Canal. This is the reason that both hills are terraced and are closely monitored for potential land slips.
Opened in 2004. The 6-lane bridge is a cable-stayed design with a total span of 1,052m/3,451’. The main span is 420m/1,380’ and clears the Canal by 80 m/262’. The bridge is supported by two towers, each 184m/604′ high.
While Gatun Locks are a three-step system, the single-step Pedro Miguel and two-step Miraflores Locks are separated by the 1.5 kilometres long Lake Miraflores.
On your starboard side you might see a big ship moored to some enormous buoys. This is another place where ships can wait for the traffic through the narrow Culebra Cut to change direction.
The reason that the three chambers aren’t located in the same place, as they are in Gatun, is that an active Tectonic fault lies beneath the lake. This means that three adjacent chambers were unable to be constructed because of the engineering limitations of the time.
The new Cocoli Locks were constructed as a three-step system, which some experts consider a risky decision.
Miraflores Locks Visitor Center
Wave to the tourists on the viewing decks, and to the webcam at the top of the red and white tower which is aimed at the lock chambers. The webcam can be viewed at www.pancanal.com (Look for Multimedia tab).
The centre houses several informative Panama Canal exhibits, and a theatre showing films relating to the Canal. There is also a simulator of the bridge of a large commercial vessel transiting the Canal, which is enjoyable.
If you do intend visiting the centre then do so in the morning because this is when you are more likely to see more traffic using the locks. After the north-bound traffic has passed through Miraflores during the morning there is a lull in proceedings awaiting the south-bound traffic, which will start appearing around 14:00.
These locks consist of two lanes (east and west) each containing two chambers. These will lower you to sea level. Welcome to the Pacific.
Website: Miraflores Webcam
Rowboats in the locks
Bridge of the Americas
This bridge was completed in 1962 and allows the Pan-American Highway to cross the Panama Canal.
It is a cantilever design where the suspended span is a tied arch. The bridge has a total length of 5,425 feet in 14 spans, abutment to abutment.
The main span measures 1,128 feet and the tied arch (the centre part of the main span) is 850 feet.
The highest point of the bridge is 384 feet above mean sea level; the clearance under the main span is 201 feet at high tide.
Now that the locks have been expanded, the height of this bridge has become a limitation on vessels wanting to transit the Canal. The larger cruise ships can fit in the locks but not under the bridge.
Balboa Yacht Club
Right on the banks of the Panama Canal on the Pacific side, just south of the Bridge of the Americas. This shows the fuel quay, and drop-off point for your linehandlers. Some moorings available, and a place to drop off linehandlers, either at the fuel quay or via the water taxi. You can often anchor behind the moored yachts overnight if you ask at the fuel quay.
Located on the Causeway on your port side you will see the BioMuseum. It is very hard to miss!
Frank Gehry’s first design for Latin America contains exhibitions mainly relating to Panama’s biodiversity.
Also known as Panama Bridge of Life, the building was designed to tell the story of how the Isthmus of Panama rose from the sea, uniting two continents, separating a vast ocean in two, and changing the planet’s biodiversity forever.
Gehry’s wife is Panamanian, and in 2004 it was announced that Gehry would donate his design to the people of Panama
As always, estimates vary, but the project is estimated to have cost US$90 million.