"A Panama Canal Drive? Don't you need to CRUISE the Panama Canal?"
Can you really drive the Panama Canal?
Not all of it really.
But you can stay next to the canal and drive along parts of it which is what we did.
We really didn't have time for a Panama Canal cruise, but we wanted to see Panama...
And of course, if you go to Panama, you really need to see the canal...
So we did what we love doing... we rented a car and took off on our own, and we did a Panama Canal DRIVE... at least for part of the canal, and we had a great time.
We started by driving from the airport to the Miraflores Locks with its great Visitors Center. There is a small entrance fee... US$ 3-8 when we were there... depending on your age and whether you want to see the exhibits or not.
You'll get a great view of the locks and their operation from the observation deck. You can eat at a snack bar or a full blown restaurant. Outside of the visitors center you can see historic train engines.
The sign directing you to the locks creeps up on you from the two lane road, so be on the lookout for it... Or you can always turn around and go back like we did.
You CAN see the canal without taking a long cruise...
Take a day trip through some of the locks from Panama City.
You can see one of the day trip boats in this photo. (Looks pretty little compared to the big cargo ships!)
Once a week they have an ocean to ocean day trip through the canal.
There is also a train that travels along the canal from Panama City to Colon every morning.... The train makes the return trip in the late afternoon. The Panama Canal Railway chugged along beside us for part of our Panama Canal drive.
We opted to spend our time exploring more of Panama, so from Miraflores Locks we headed towards Gamboa, driving along the edge of the Canal for part of the way.
You'll find a roadside viewpoint at the Pedro Miguel Locks. Watch tugs move big container ships into position for the canal. And watch out for the train!
At Gamboa, the canal opens up into Gatun Lake which was formed when they dammed the Chagres River to build the canal. Cruise ships cross the lake to reach more locks on the Caribbean side.
On the one-lane bridge into Gamboa, cars, trains and Panamax container ships travel side by side. Now that's a Panama Canal drive!
We stopped in Gamboa at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort only 30 minutes from Panama City.
The Resort offers boat rides up the Chagres River and also on the lake, and you're in a perfect location to explore the jungle surrounding Pipeline Road.
What’s Pipeline Road you ask?
Well, it’s a “hotspot” for birdwatching and a great place for hiking and seeing monkeys and if you’re lucky some other critters, but we’ll get to more on that later…
In Gamboa and at the Resort you can also see historic Canal Zone housing. The Gamboa Rainforest Resort even offers a few renovated Historic Apartments for rent.
We drove across the isthmus... although this really couldn't be a Panama Canal drive. The road leaves the canal for most of the drive.
On the Caribbean side, we bypassed the city of Colon and the Gatun Locks at that end of the canal. With enough time, this would definitely be worth a visit.
With only a week for our visit, there were hard choices to make. We opted to visit the pretty little historic town of Portobelo...
There are Spanish Forts there and a historic Customs House where gold left the New World for Spain.
Christopher Columbus discovered the bay and named the area... There are all kinds of stories of pirates and explorers tied to this little town.
It was an hour and a half drive on a two lane road to get there when we visited, but a new toll road will soon be finished. That will make the drive shorter and open up the whole Caribbean coast.
While the Caribbean coast was sleepy and undeveloped when we were there, with easier access, it is sure to be developed.
The rest of our Panama birdwatching adventure was a great success. We went in spring hoping to see the Resplendent Quetzals.
For that our Panama Canal drive took us across the canal on the Bridge of the Americas onto the Via Panamericana for a drive to the west to Volcan Baru National Park nearly on the Costa Rican border.
Driving in Panama is not hard, but we sometimes found that the signs were not as clear as they could have been. Especially in and around Panama City, signs didn't seem to give us enough warning... but then, driving in big cities is always a challenge.
Because we were there to explore the jungles, we avoided all three of the biggest cities in Panama....
Outside of the big cities, the roads were mostly two lanes, but they were in pretty good condition. There are toll roads near Panama City.
We made our drive from Gamboa, through Panama City and all the way to Volcan Baru in nine hours. There are plenty of places to stop for food along the Panamerican Highway. There are hotels along the way too if you wanted to break up the drive and explore some of the other towns along the way.
OK... so we didn't cruise the whole Panama Canal. That was OK for us. We felt like our Panama Canal drive showed us enough of the historic canal... and our drive through other parts of the country showed us a well rounded picture of what Panama is like.