I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. And again. And again. An easy way to get cheap flights is to allow yourself to take a longer flight and get a “bonus” city from an extended layover. I actually find myself searching for long haul flights that have a layover of 7 hours or more to get an extra stop on my vacation unless it’s a short trip. When searching for flights to Peru, this was no different. I wanted to see what destination I could “pop” into before arriving at my final destination in Lima and the airline, Copa, offered a stopover in Panama City, Panama.
Not to be confused with the city in Florida, Panama City is the capital of Panama, located in Central America and often called the landbridge of the Carribean Sea and the Pacific Ocean connecting North and South America. Probably most known for the infamous, man-made Panama Canal, it is the most populous city of Panama. As a United States citizen, a visa is not needed to enter Panama, but you will need a valid passport and proof of either your journey on or hotel/lodging information.
As a bit of “pre-research”, I wanted to figure out all the logistics to visiting the canal before departing so that I could maximize on my 6hr 50min layover and hit the ground running as soon as deplaning. During this research, I realized that the canal was the most popular destination in Panama and was the main place I wanted to visit.
Many blogs noted that it was best to allow at least 1 hour to both enter and exit customs for Panama. My flight arrived Friday Morning and departed again Friday night and both times I made it through customs in under 30 minutes. Still, set aside at least 1 hour to exit customs and estimate 2 hours when returning. Better safe than sorry.
Getting to the Panama Canal
The Miraflores Locks (Canal), locks closest to the airport, are about 35km from the Tocumen airport and can be anywhere from a 35 to 75-minute drive, dependent on traffic. It is not necessary to book a tour to visit the canal, honestly, most are overpriced and unnecessary. When exiting the airport there are various taxis and taxi companies available to escort you to the entrance of the Miraflores Locks or alternatively, you can use Uber. For the taxis and taxi companies, you can easily arrange for them to escort you to the locks, wait at the canal for you or pick you back up 2-3 hours later, and drive you back to the airport.
To get to the Canal, I used one of the many taxi companies available, comparing pricing with that of Uber and taking pictures of the license plate and vehicle for safety. The ride was 35 minutes long. To return back to the airport I took one of the random taxis that are located outside of the visitor’s center entrance. I would not recommend using any of the unmarked taxis located outside of the canal. I had a terrible experience and the drive went from 45 minutes to over 2 hours. Luckily, I allotted plenty of time to get to the airport and clear customs/security and so I made my flight.
I paid $35USD to get to the canal. I paid $35 USD to return to the airport. $80 total as I tipped the driver. Definitely negotiate your price. You can even get an RT ride to and from the airport for $60 USD if you negotiate.
At the Panama Canal
Once you arrive at the Miraflores locks, you will go up an escalator and be at the entrance of the visitor center. You can purchase your tickets to enter the visitor center at the front entrance. Tickets for visitors are about $20 USD, card or cash is accepted, and it gains you entrance to see the ships crossing, short films giving the history of the canal and a museum.
I went straight to the watchtower to catch all of the action. The platform was packed with tour groups, visitors and locals alike, marveling as the ships slowly passed by. A moderator is explaining the history, what is currently happening and giving various commentary on the platform, in both Spanish and English.
Additionally, there is a buffet-style restaurant in the visitor center, the only food around. The buffet was $35 USD and the food was quite good, giving a taste of Panamian culture through their cuisine.
What is the Canal And Why Is It Important?
Not a bad question because I didn’t know much of the history prior to visiting, but this is what makes traveling so great. The Panama Canal was built between the years 1903-1914 by architects from Pittsburgh, PA (my hometown) to essentially, provide a shortcut for ships to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific ocean. Prior to the canal, explorers had to journey around South America, adding months to their journey, significantly decreasing the amount of cargo that was shipped between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Canal saved shippers money, by saving on fuel, and improved trade by cutting down on travel time. It was paid for and acquired by the United States, but in 1977 it was handed over for Panama to control in the Torrijos-Carter Treaty. It is amazing to see how well the entire canal was built and how smoothly it runs, especially considering the time in history that it was built and the technology they had available to them during that period.
It is one of the most important trading routes and is still active today.
The currency of Panama is the US dollar. If you are coming from the United States this is a benefit as you will not have to worry about converting money. Most places also take credit cards.
In Panama, Spanish is the official language and the most widely spoken, however, there are several signs in English and other languages.
Panama overall is a safe country to visit, with minimal criminal activity affecting tourists, outside of potential pickpocketing, which can happen anywhere to anyone. Stay alert. If you ever have a chance to visit Panama, even if just for a layover (at least 5-6 hours long at a minimum) definitely make your way over to the canal.
Airlines like Copa will often allow you to extend your layover with no additional fee. Originally, my flight landed around 12pm and had a departing flight 45 minutes later, Copa honored this price and allowed me to leave on the flight leaving almost 7 hours later.