After nine years, billions of dollars, and dozens of delays, the massive expansion of the Panama Canal finally opened last month. While the most dramatic way to experience the NeoPanamax locks will happen in November 2017, when the Caribbean Princess launches its 10-day canal cruises ($1,000 USD to $3,600 USD), there are plenty of other ways to see the new locks — and indulge in a bit of canal history — without the hefty price tag. Here are our five favorite ways to explore the new Panama Canal expansion.
1. Watch ships pass from the Agua Clara Visitor Center.
The most accessible way to see the new locks is at the Agua Clara Visitor Center, where an observation deck provides a bird’s-eye view of the canal. From here, watch ships pass through the new, larger locks ($5 USD adult, $2 USD children), which run parallel to the original locks and are the size of four football fields. The NeoPanamax locks are capable of holding larger ships up to 1,200 feet long and 160.7 feet wide, capable of carrying 12,000 containers. (In comparison, the original locks only permit ships sized to carry just 5,000 containers.) The center also has a restaurant, a snack bar, a gift shop, a theater, and a short nature trail.
2. Drive the swinging bridge to Fort San Lorenzo.
Few people realize that you can also drive over the Panama Canal. In fact, you must drive over the canal in order to visit the San Lorenzo Fort ($5 USD), a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a requisite stop while in Panama. The massive stone fort was built by the Spanish conquistadors and finished in 1599. Strategically located at the mouth of the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, it allowed the Spanish to keep an eye on pirates who wanted the treasure that the Spanish were hoarding. To get there you have to drive over the Panama Canal via a swinging bridge which rotates to create a roadway over the canal at the Gatún Locks.
3. Walk the Amador Causeway.
Panama City’s verdant, waterfront Amador Causeway affords views of ships waiting for their turn to pass through the Panama Canal. To get there, take a taxi (from $5 USD to $10 USD) to Flamenco Island and walk the scenic 3.7-mile strip. Make time to stop at the Biomuseo, designed by architect Frank Gehry (whose wife is Panamanian); the colorful, angular building, which was inspired by the colorful textiles of the Kuna and Embera people in Panama, took 10 years to complete. The museum includes exhibits that show how the rising of the Panamanian isthmus created a land bridge which facilitated the spread of flora and fauna throughout the region ($22 USD adult, children $11 USD; closed Mondays).
4. Casco Viejo: Go for the Canal Museum, stay for everything else.
The Canal Museum of Panama ($10 USD, children under five enter free) is a great place to bone up on your canal history. Displays cover the life of the canal — from the first failed French attempts to build, to the successful U.S. construction project, and the eventual handing over to Panamanian authority. All displays are in Spanish but an English language audio tour is available ($3 USD). Afterward, peruse the neighborhood. Casco Viejo is the city’s hippest ‘hood, with sleek hotels, chic shops, street art, and fabulous restaurants. Don’t forget your camera — there are Instagram-worthy shots around every corner.
5. Spend the night on Lake Gatún.
Panama Canal diehards should book a stay at Jungle Land Panama Lodge ($200 USD per night) — a houseboat hotel located on a peaceful tributary of Lake Gatún, which forms part of the Panama Canal. U.S. expat Captain Carl created the comfortable adventure outpost by connecting two houseboats. In addition to accommodation and great food, Captain Carl offers kayak tours on the lake for wildlife watching, fishing, and ship spotting in the canal (from a safe distance).