panama canal 101

panama canal 101

Sunday, April 7, 2002

Last year, more than 12,000 vessels passed through the Panama Canal, which divides North and South America and connects the Atlantic to the Pacific. So cruising the canal is the only way to see it, right? Hardly. Here's how to get a close-up view of one of the world's great engineering feats.

WHERE: The canal is west of Panama City, about an hour by taxi from Tocumen International Airport and 10 minutes from Gelabert Airport (formerly Albrook).

GETTING THERE: Delta, Continental, Taca and American are among the airlines offering connecting service from Washington. Round-trip fares start at about $600, with restrictions.

EXPLORING THE CANAL: The best view is at the Miraflores Locks, where a two-story observation tower provides an ideal perch for seeing how the canal works. There's also a visitors center with bilingual guides. It's about 20 minutes by taxi from downtown Panama City. Another great vessel-viewing spot: Gatun Locks, on the Caribbean side (about two hours from Panama City).

You can also walk beside the canal on the Fort Amador Causeway, built to provide a calm harbor for ships entering the canal. Constructed from dirt excavated from the canal, the winding spit of land starts near the Bridge of the Americas (which spans the canal's Pacific entrance and links the continents), extends several miles into the ocean and connects four small islands. The causeway is about 15 minutes by taxi from downtown.

For historical background, don't miss the Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum (Plaza de la Independencia; $2). It details the canal's building and includes memorabilia such as vintage photographs and tools. Info:

If you must get on the canal, consider Argo Tours (telephone 011-507-228-6069, www.big-ditch .com), which offers complete and partial transits. Argo's partial transit departs at 7:15 a.m. Saturdays from Pier 18 in Balboa and, depending on traffic flow, passes through several locks. Price is $90. Tours by other operators, including helicopter and bus excursions, are listed at

GOING NATURAL: Bird-watchers flock to Soberania National Park (011-507-314- 0060,, which hugs the canal's eastern edge; it's less than an hour's drive from downtown. Some 380 species of birds were recorded during one count on Pipeline Road, a popular hiking route. Contact the Audubon Society (011-507-224-9371, for birding activities.

During canal construction, engineers created Gatun Lake, where ships now nose toward the oceans. You can visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado, an island in the lake where scientists have been studying tropical biology since the 1920s. The $70 fee includes lunch and boat transit from Gamboa Locks, about 30 minutes from the city. Info: 011-507-212-8000,

GETTING AROUND: Navigating Panama City can be difficult. Few buildings are numbered and addresses refer to nearby intersections. Discuss taxi fares in advance; drivers may quote the "tourist price" (double or more), or try bullying the meek into a "tour" at a higher fare.

Panama City's bus service connects the towns along the canal, and the Panama Canal Railway chugs past several locks during day trips from Balboa to Colon on the Caribbean. Check the Panama Tourism Bureau (see below) for details.

WHERE TO STAY: Watch the sunset over the canal at Country Inns & Suites (800-456-4000, on the Fort Amador Causeway. Request a room with a balcony facing the canal. Rates start at $100 a night. Major Panama City hotels, some with casinos, include Marriott, Westin Caesar Park, Holiday Inn, Radisson and El Panama.

Low-budgeteers should check the pensiones in the Casco Viejo area, where shared rooms cost $7 to $12 and amenities include a ceiling fan and bar of soap. The Canopy Tower Ecolodge and Nature Observatory (800-722-2460,, in a former U.S. radar station inside Soberania park, caters to bird-watchers. Rates from $95 per person per night (including meals and guided walks).

INFORMATION: Panama Tourism Bureau, 011-507-226-7000,

-- L. Peat O'Neil

© 2002 The Washington Post Company