Visiting the Panama Canal Locks

This is really a bit of a shaggy dog story but perfectly illustrates the challenges of navigating the confusing rules and contradictory information that often surrounds tourist sites, especially when one doesn’t speak the local language.

We figured we couldn’t visit Panama without seeing its most famous site, the canal, so I researched the options. Although the official websites are not very useful, offering only the most basic info, I found online reviews that provided better. The Miraflores Locks Visitors’ Center seemed like a good choice: it was reported that you could go in and eat in their restaurant overlooking the locks. With luck, a ship would come through the locks while you were there. One review mentioned that the visitor center posts the times that ships will pass through each day, so you can plan accordingly. Great.

We plan to visit the center on a Sunday and drop by in the late morning to find out when ships will be coming through. The center is large, modern, and seemingly well-organized. Air conditioning, escalators, lovely clean restrooms (always on the hunt for those when I’m travelling!) and lots of info about pricing for the exhibits and the giant Imax theatre.

There’s a pleasant young man fronting the entrance and I ask him about the restaurant: Do we need a reservation? Can we go inside to make the reservation in person for later today? (I’m cowardly about trying to communicate on the telephone in Spanish, so I figure a face-to-face with the restaurant maitre’d is a safer bet.)

Yes, we need a reservation. No, we can’t go in to make the reservation.

Hmmm.

Next, we check the “ships transiting” board. It hasn’t been updated for two days (a concern) and it indicates that there will be no ships going through between 9 am and 4 pm. Is that info accurate for today? We have no way of knowing.

Mark, the practical one in this duo, suggests we forget making a reservation and we simply return around 4 pm to dine. It’s unlikely to be full. We’ll have to take our chances on seeing a ship transit the locks.

Skip ahead a few hours and we return just after 4 pm. Mark approaches the ticket booth and asks if we need to pay the admission fee if we just want to go to the restaurant. She says no, just go upstairs to the fourth floor.

We start making our way up various stairways and ramps until we’re stopped by a couple of uniformed security guys who want to see our tickets. We don’t have any, we explain, we’re just going to the restaurant. No, apparently we do need tickets, and the guards send us to a kiosk. But as we’re walking away, one of them says, ticket is free. Sure enough, when we explain once again that we only want to go to the restaurant, the kiosk lady gives us free admission.

Now sporting our neon green wristbands, we are finally legit and we smugly ride the elevator to the fourth floor.

By this time, it’s 4:20. We enter the restaurant, a nice one, not a cafeteria or snack bar, but a sit-down place with linen tablecloths and actual servers. We tell the server who approaches us that we’d like dinner.

So sorry, restaurant is closing in 10 minutes.

What?! How can a restaurant that serves dinner close at 4:30? Besides, I remember some online reviews mentioning that they ate dinner at sunset while viewing the locks. Sunset in Panama is always around 6 pm (it doesn’t change much, unlike in our temperate zone).

It’s a mystery.

We’re very disappointed and the server can tell. He kindly suggests we could have a cold drink (always a welcome idea in the tropics) on the balcony. I jump on this, as it will at least give us a chance to see the locks, even though there is no ship at the moment.

He seats us on a small side balcony with a narrow view. Oh well, better than nothing. We linger over our drinks as long as possible, but eventually, we pay and start to leave. Then I see that there’s a much larger balcony that actually overlooks the locks. Ah, that’s where we really wanted to be. There are people wandering around out there.

Oh, I say to the maitre’d wistfully, could we possibly just pop out to the balcony for a moment?

“Of course,” she beams.

Out on the balcony, as we gaze at our much-expanded view up and down the canal, we can now spot a tanker just coming into the locks. That settles it: we’re out there for the long haul now.

Over the next hour, we get front-row views of the entire process as the locks fill/empty and the ship is towed through. The sun sets gloriously in the background. I keep throwing furtive glances at the restaurant inside as they shut it down, thinking any moment they will come and tell us to leave. But they don’t. There are lots of other people on the balcony and they obviously have no intention of leaving until the ship is through, so I guess the staff just don’t bother trying to clear the place.

And that’s how we got a perfect view of a ship transiting the locks without paying the admission fee or buying dinner. We had just the right combination of foreign cluelessness and naïve brashness. Sometimes—if you’re lucky—that works.