How Long Is the Full Transit of the Panama Canal?

The Panama Canal is one of the world’s premier examples of engineering prowess. The work in connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean began in 1881 under the French. Managed by the United States, the canal opened for business in 1914. It wasn’t until 85 years later that the control was transferred to Panama.

A full transit of the Panama Canal would take 8 to 10 hours by ship. The fastest recorded transit of the Panama Canal was U.S. Navy hydrofoil Pegasus’ 2 hours and 41 minutes in June 1979. However, they only crossed Miraflores to Gatun which is only 59% of the entire waterway.

To get the picture of what 59% of the Panama Canal is, read on and learn about the passage’s layout. We’ve also created a mini-guide for the best partial and complete tours of the Panama Canal.

How Long Is the Panama Canal?

The Panama Canal joins key parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean that are important in maritime trading. The overall distance of these two oceans from each other is 10,376 kilometers, so you can imagine how long its bridging canal would be. 

The full stretch of the Panama Canal is 80 kilometers long, which is 0.77% of the total distance between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Pacific entrance of the channel starts in the Gulf of Panama and ends in the Atlantic’s Carribean Sea.

This is the order of the Panama Canal layout from its Atlantic entrance, so you have an idea:

  1. Atlantic Ocean (Carribean Sea). The Atlantic entrance is 8.4 kilometers long. When entering through this side of the canal, one goes through the Limon Bay, which is a large natural harbor.
  2. Port of Colon (Cristobal). This port connects to the main Atlantic entrance. It is also the capital of Panama’s Colon province. 
  3. Gatun Locks. This 3-stage flight of locks is what brings vessels to Gatun lake, 26 meters above sea level when coming from the Atlantic side. The locks are 1.9 kilometers in total.
  4. Gatun Lake. This 24-kilometer artificial lake was built upon the construction of the Gatun Dam. It is a summit canal portion that is fed by the Gatun River and emptied by basic locks.
  5. Chagres River. This is an 8.5-kilometer natural waterway that connects to the high-level canal extension.
  6. Culebra Cut. This 12.4-kilometer part of the canal cuts through the mountain ridge and passes under the Centennial Bridge.
  7. Pedro Miguel Lock. This single-stage lock is a 1.4-kilometer descent bridging the Miraflores Locks to a summit.
  8. Miraflores Locks. Situated in the Miraflores lake, the locks measure a total of 1.7 kilometers long. This part of the canal is already 13.2 kilometers away from the Pacific entrance.
  9. Balboa Port. Here, Panama City is already closeby. It’s also a point where the railway meets the shipping route.
  10. Pacific Ocean (Gulf of Panama). This is where the main Pacific harbor is. Ships pass under the Bridge of the Americas to move towards the direction of the Atlantic.

As displayed in this layout, the canal is indeed composed mostly of artificial lakes and channels. These make the waterway one of the most brilliant establishments in history. 

Why Are There Locks on the Panama Canal?

The layout of the Panama Canal mentions locks or water locks, which you’re probably not that familiar with. So what are water locks? They are gears that raise and lower vessels on different river and waterway levels.

The primary reason there are 12 stages of locks on the Panama Canal is because the Pacific Ocean is a little elevated compared to the Atlantic Ocean. The imbalances in sea levels require vessels to go 26 meters above sea level when getting over the Panama terrain so they can reach the other end of the waterway.

The water locks or Lock Gates assist in lifting and dropping the ships, boats, or watercrafts to the sea level of the exit they’re reaching. This is why the Panama Canal has been recognized as a genius assembly all these years. 

The Panama Water Lock System is deemed one of the most brilliant engineering services to have ever been formed in the early 20th century. Through the years, the locks have been the cause for shorter transits between the Pacific and the Atlantic.

How Do the Panama Canal Locks Work?

opening of panama canal gatun locks
Panama Canal Gatun Locks opening” by Stan Shebs, used under CC BY / Desaturated from original

There are two ways to understand how the Panama Canal locks work. First is by knowing how the ships are lowered and raised throughout the Atlantic-Pacific transit. Second is by grasping its operational concept.

The Atlantic-Pacific transit or the southbound route depicts a more detailed Lock Gates action compared to the Pacific-Atlantic. Here, you’ll be able to fully understand what it’s like for ships to shift from different sea levels in each of the 8 major stops of the Panama Canal.

Below is how a vessel navigates through the canal from the Atlantic entrance all the way to the Pacific end. After reading the operational translation following the transit’s breakdown, we’re sure you’ll have more appreciation for the canal’s greatness. 

It’s not a competition, but this will make you enjoy your visit to the waterway more than the other tourists! 

The Transit

When the vessel passes through Gatun Locks, it is raised 26 kilometers above sea level to match the Gatun Lake’s level. Once the ship reached the Gatun Lake, it stays within the same level for 34 kilometers and another 13.7 kilometers when it reaches Culebra Cut before the Pedro Miguel Locks.

The Pedro Miguel Locks lowers the vessel for one step to the level of Miraflores Lake. The transit continues for 1.6 kilometers more within the Miraflores Lake until the ship enters the Miraflores Locks where it is lowered two steps to the level of the Pacific Ocean.

The transit continues through the Pacific Ocean until the Gulf of Panama, the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal.

The Operation

The operational mechanism of the Panama Canal Water Lock System can be described in the following 6 steps the Gatun Locks follow:

  1. The ship enters the lower chambers of the water locks
  2. The chamber’s first valve opens and water flows by the gravitational force from the upper chamber to the lowest one, bringing the water to sea level
  3. The locked gate opens so the vessel is allowed entry into the chamber, and the gate closes 
  4. The next chamber’s valve opens to heighten the water level to the first chamber’s
  5. The water level balances again and the ship finally exits the lock and goes through the 77-kilometer stretch of the canal

Can You Swim in the Panama Canal?

swimming woman

Did you know that in 1928, writer Richard Halliburton was the first to swim the entire Panama Canal He only paid a total toll fee of 36 cents, which remains the lowest in the history of the waterway.

The fee was rated based on his weight, which was 150 pounds. Currently, the average toll for ships making the full transit is $54,000 while the highest is $375,600. The full journey took Halliburton 50 hours over ten days. 

These days, you can still swim in the lakes of the Panama Canal. However, no one’s allowed to swim near the locks anymore. Halliburton was the only person to swim all the three major locks of the waterway.

Halliburton’s being the lightest to have ever gone through the Panama Canal locks didn’t make him any easier to be carried through. It still took quite the mechanical effort for the writer to pass as much as it did for the 40,000-ton aircraft carrier Saratoga–the heaviest to have ever transited the canal.

Can You Drive Through the Panama Canal?

Crossing the Panama Canal through car sounds like that unique road trip every adventure-seeker dreams about. It would be such a nice way to see everything around that part of Central America–the tall mountains, spectacular bridges, and the little towns in between.

You can drive through the Panama Canal, and there are two ways to do it. You will have to start the drive along Pan-American Highway and choose whether to traverse the Bridge of the Americas or drive across the Centennial Bridge to reach the southern end of the Panama Canal.

The Pan-American Highway is the key road that takes you through Central America. It mainly begins in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, which is accessible from the U.S. via Interstate 35 of Laredo, Texas.

Through the highway, drive towards the town of Burunga where you’ll decide which of the two major roads to pass through. You have two options: stay where you are, which would be the Carretera Panama-Arraijan highway or make a turn to Centenario road.

If you stay on your current spot, you’ll be driving on the Bridge of the Americas at the southern tip of the canal. Then you’ll reach downtown Panama City once you cross.

If you turn to Centenario, the bridge you’ll cross is the Centennial Bridge. It is close to the midway area of the Panama Canal. Upon crossing, it will take you to the Camino de Cruces National Park.

Just take note that you can’t go over the Darien Gap by car alone. The gap is what borders Central America and South America. You’ll need to ride a boat and transport your car along to head over to Colombia.

How Much Does It Cost to Visit the Panama Canal?

The Panama Canal earns about $2 billion every year in revenue. This is from both corporate and tour transits through the waterway. For transit fees, ships are charged a toll based on their weight, private boats are asked for a fee ranging from $800-3200.

For tours, there is the Miraflores Visitors Center found at the Miraflores Locks offering tourist access from 9 am to 5 pm every day for $15 (visitors) and $3 (Panamanians and permanent residents).

Partial and full transit tour packages, however, cost $125-180. The tours already include breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Also, you’ll be touring the canal with a professional guide so you can totally appreciate the beauty of the waterway.

Records say that approximately 13,000 to 14,000 vessels transit the Panama Canal. That is about 35-40 ships a day. That is why Panama’s General Treasury manages to obtain $800 million from the canal’s annual profit.

Panama Canal Tours

departing cruise in the panama canal

You can experience the marvel of the Panama Canal locks yourself by going on a tour. Yes, the canal is not just for commercial vessels or record-breakers. There are full transit tours and partial ones as well. 

We’ve prepared a guide for these tours for you below. Here, we break down the inclusions and itinerary of these tour packages so you won’t have to look them up yourself for hours.

Full Transit Panama Canal Tour

Full transit Panama Canal tours normally start at the Pacific entrance. It’s a roundtrip journey that usually starts around 6 – 8 am. 

You’ll be pleased to know that these tours are offered both in English and in Spanish. Also, the groups are only capped at a maximum of 15 people so you can enjoy the perfect midpoint between socialization and peaceful sightseeing.

How Long Does a Full Transit Panama Canal Tour Last?

Full Transit Panama Canal Tour lasts for a full 12 hours. It goes through all the famous 3 sets of water locks so you personally get to see how these gears work in leveling the boat to the sea. 

Since it’s a full 12-hour excursion, you’ll be provided breakfast, lunch, and some snacks for the entire day. The best tours even have unlimited sodas and waters on board. 

What is the Best Full Transit Panama Canal Cruise?

The best full transit Panama Canal cruise would be the one offered by Viator. It has the lowest price guarantee of $180 and covers all the inclusions cited above.

The package even offers a bus transport back to Panama from the endpoint of the trip, which is in Colon. There’s also a roundtrip hotel transfer so you won’t have a hard time finding the starting point of the Panama Canal cruise yourself.

Here’s the itinerary of this particular trip, which is standard for many other tours:

  1. Panama Marine Adventures, Panama City Panama
  2. Bridge of the Americas, Balboa, Panama City, Panama
  3. Panama Canal, Gatun Lake, Panama City Panama
  4. Centennial Bridge, Pan-American Highway, Panama City Panama
  5. Chagres River, Gamboa Panama
  6. Barro Colorado Island, Panama
  7. Gatun Lake, Panama City Panama

Partial Transit Panama Canal Tour

There are two types of partial transit Panama Canal tour. These are the southbound and northbound routes. Each tour only passes by two sets of locks in the canal. 

The southbound tour will pass by the majestic Centennial Bridge, the Chagres River, and the Bridge of the Americas. Then you get to admire the same two bridges in the northbound tour, plus the beautiful Gatun Lake.

How Long Does a Partial Transit Panama Canal Tour Last?

A partial Panama Canal tour lasts 6 hours, exactly half of the full transit tour. Since it’s a shorter trip, only get either free breakfast and lunch or just lunch. 

The southbound direction frequently starts late in the morning at 11 AM, so tourists are only provided free lunch on board. The northbound direction tours are commonly arranged earlier around 6 AM so that covers breakfast and lunch.

What is the Best Partial Transit Panama Canal Cruise?

The best partial transit Panama Canal Cruise would be the one offered by Viator as well. Both their southbound and northbound roundtrip tours are priced at only $125, which is a great price for a professionally guided half transit.

The inclusion and schedule for the two trips are exactly as described above. Here are their respective itineraries, which are the norms for these half-day trips:

Southbound

  1. Panama Marine Adventures, Panama City Panama
  2. Centennial Bridge, Pan-American Highway, Panama City Panama
  3. Panama Canal, Gatun Lake, Panama City Panama
  4. Bridge of the Americas, Balboa, Panama City Panama

(Roundtrip hotel transfers included)

Northbound

  1. Panama Marine Adventures, Panama City Panama
  2. Bridge of the Americas, Balboa, Panama City Panama
  3. Panama Canal, Gatun Lake, Panama City Panama
  4. Centennial Bridge, Pan-American Highway, Panama City Panama

(Roundtrip hotel transfers included)

Our Verdict

The Panama Canal is a glorious engineering structure that’s worth seeing at least once in your entire lifetime. Whether you’re cruising it partially or fully, what matters is that you get to experience at least how one of the water locks work.

The real beauty of the Panama Canal, after all, is not in the stunning nature and bridges that surround it but the mechanic genius that connects the Atlantic to the Pacific. 

Matt Romero

I’m Matthew Romero, one of the guys behind PanamaLifeInsider.com I am incredibly passionate about Panama, its beautiful territory, and all the incredible opportunities which offer to people coming here from all over the world both either visiting and settling. In this blog, I decided to share my passion with you!

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