Regardless of whether you’re travelling with kids, the Panama Canal should be at the top of your list of things to see in Panama City. The best place to view Panama’s star attraction is at the Miraflores Visitors Centre. Located at the Miraflores Locks in ‘the Canal Zone’ (about 20 minutes by car from the city centre), the centre houses a four-storey museum and an observation deck. Even if you aren’t mechanically minded, it’s well worth exploring this remarkable landmark of ambition, persistence and engineering.
Visiting Miraflores with Kids
The 48-mile long (77km) manmade wonder that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans took 34 years to complete and recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. In the early days, an estimated 1,000 ships travelled along the canal each year. These days, however, around 15,000 ships take the journey.
But, as many will know, the actual construction of the canal was far from plain sailing. The French were the first to take on the engineering challenge in 1881 but the project was rife with problems from day one. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the engineer behind the Suez Canal, was put in charge but poor planning and tropical disease (which killed an estimated average of 40 people per day) eventually saw the project declare bankruptcy.
In 1901, under President Roosevelt, the US took over and turned the project around. Much of its success can be attributed to Colonel William Gorgas who was the first person to make the connection between mosquitoes and diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.
The museum at Miraflores showcases the canal’s fascinating history and mechanics through various displays and exhibits. My children’s favourite is the simulator on the third floor which allows them to navigate their way through the locks, or at least pretend to. The dashboard of buttons and control sticks aren’t actually connected to the projection screen but little kids don’t need to know this!
Video: Panama Canal Simulator
Click ‘play’ for the Captain’s point of view!
The Observation Deck at Miraflores
Another highlight for kids at Miraflores is the observation deck. Here visitors can wave to passengers on passing cruise ships. On one memorable occasion we visited the centre to wave to one of my husband’s old high school teachers! He was on board the colossal Queen Elizabeth as part of an epic cruise around the Americas. Sadly their itinerary did not include a stop in Panama but we were all hopping up and down with delight when we spotted their signal (a blue coat-cum-flag!) from the lower decks.
Another amusing moment on the observation deck, particularly for my children, was the time they spotted an old man in his underpants. He was admiring the locks from his private balcony at the very front of the boat, totally oblivious to the crowd of snap-happy onlookers. My children thought it hilarious. Cruisers, take heed!
The Expansion Locks
In 2016, Panama officially opened it’s Expansion Locks. These wider lanes allow the enormous ‘neo-Panamax’ ships to transit the canal. They also allow smaller ships to pass in opposite directions simultaneously. Prior to this, traffic was one-way only, switching direction around late-morning.
Miraflores: More Information
Opening times: 9am – 4:30pm daily.
Best time to visit: There are conflicting views on this. I often see big containers pass by first thing in the morning and would suggest getting there first thing.
Where to eat: Miraflores has an elegant (and quite pricey) restaurant that overlooks the locks (open 12pm – 11:30pm). For more casual options, there are a handful of cafes and restaurants in La Plaza Ciudad de Saber, just 2km across the road from Miraflores. If you have little kids, Ciudad de Saber also has a lovely park with a small playground. This is a popular spot with families and dog-walkers, especially at dusk.
Where to stay: The closest hotel to Miraflores is The Holiday Inn in Ciudad de Saber. This is a popular business hotel, especially for the UN crowd as many UN agencies are based in this part of town.
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