The Panama Canal is an incredible feat of engineering linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and a vital trading route, as well as a world-renowned landmark attracting tourists from around the globe. The canal incorporates a system of locks leading from Colón to Panama City.
You can drive across the Panama Canal with the most popular route heading over the Bridge of the Americas to Panama City. Alternatively, you can take the Centennial Bridge or Atlantic Bridge, and even enjoy a guided boat tour on the canal.
If you want to enjoy the unique experience of driving across the Panama Canal, keep on reading to discover how to get there, the different ways to drive across the canal, and some useful tips for the journey.
Can you drive across the Panama Canal?
|Departure Point||Arrival Point||Via||Distance||Time|
|Panama City||Observation Deck||Bridge of the Americas||10 km||15 minutes|
|Colón||West entrance of the Atlantic Bridge||Atlantic Bridge||10 km||15 minutes|
|Panama City||West entrance of Centennial Bridge||Centennial Bridge||25 km||25 minutes|
|Panama City||Return to the departure point||Guided Boat Tour||N/A||5 - 6 hours|
You won't need a ticket to venture over any of the bridges over the Panama Canal, and there is no charge for whichever option you decide on.
If you decide to take a Guided Boat Tour along the canal, then Panama Canal Tours offers pick-up and return from Panama City, allowing you to travel the full length of the canal, from Ocean to Ocean.
All of the bridges are open year-round, so this is a trip you can make at any time.
If you are taking a Guided Boat Tour, there are several options; some offer trips around Panama Bay, whereas some sail the whole length of the canal, and frequency also varies, with some only operating on weekends.
How to drive across the Panama Canal on Puente de las Americas (Bridge of the Americas)
Starting in Panama City, the drive over the Bridge of the Americas is only a little over 10 km, and the journey can take as little as 20 minutes. However, traffic congestion is likely which can increase the time it takes to reach the Observation Deck.
The route begins by taking the route CA-1 south from the center of Panama City and follows the coast, passing Urracal Park and the Pacific Lookout, a great place to stop and enjoy the glorious views over Panama Bay before heading inland.
Continue past the Museum of Contemporary Art, and take a slight detour to take in the Panama Canal Museum, before passing Panama Maracana Stadium and you'll soon have the bridge in your sights.
Enjoy views over the Canal as you make the short journey across the bridge before arriving at Mirador de las Americas, the site of the Observation Deck offering spectacular views over the Canal and surrounding area.
Driving across the Panama Canal on Puente Centenario (Centennial Bridge)
Centennial Bridge is located just over 20 km north of Panama City and the route begins on Corredor Nte. Travel through Metropolitan Natural Park towards Paseo Dorado for 4 km. Join Route 4 heading west, passing the Rod Carew National Stadium and into the heart of Parque Nacional Camino de Cruces.
Route 4 then continues towards Paraiso and the Centennial Bridge. The journey itself takes around 25 minutes, although, as we have already mentioned, traffic can be busy in Panama City and this can increase driving time.
The bridge itself was opened in 2004 to celebrate Panama's Centennial and was introduced to help with overcrowding on the Bridge of the Americas. It is an impressive cable-stayed structure at just over 1,000 meters long and offers wonderful panoramic views.
Driving across the Panama Canal on Puente Atlántico (Atlantic Bridge)
The Puente Atlantico, or Atlantic Bridge, as its name suggests, spans the Panama Canal, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Starting in Colón, on the shores of Limon Bay, head south on Route 3, or Av Bolivar as it is known locally, passing Margarita before continuing on Carr. Nuevo Bolivar.
After around 6 km, head west along before arriving at Atlantic Bridge. There are stunning views north over Limon Bay and beyond to the Atlantic Ocean.
The bridge was completed in 2019, and is 4,600 meters long, with a clearance of 75 meters to allow the biggest cargo and cruise ships to pass safely beneath.
Colón lies on the shoes of the Caribbean Sea, and you can explore the locks at Gatun and Agua Clara if you decide to drive from west to east via the bridge.
How long does it take to drive across the Panama Canal?
|From||To||Via||Total distance||Total time|
|Panama City||Arraijan||Bridge of the Americas||20 km||25 minutes|
|Colón||Fuerte Sherman||Atlantic Bridge||20 km||30 minutes|
|Panama City||Arraijan||Centennial Bridge||30 km||40 minutes|
History of the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is an artificial waterway 82 km from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The construction of the Panama Canal started in 1881 and was first undertaken by France, but then had to stop the project due to several difficulties, including investors' lack of confidence.
The United States then took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal in 1914. The US operated the canal and controlled the maritime trade until 1999, when the Panamanian government took the canal.
Panama Canal has been ranked one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Locks at both ends of the canal raise ships to the elevation of Gatun Lake, a man-made freshwater body 26 meters above sea level.
After traveling through the lake, ships are lowered back to sea level at the opposite end of the canal.
Where to arrive to drive across the Panama Canal
The best place to cross the Panama Canal will ultimately depend on where you are traveling from but our recommended crossing is taking the Bridge of the Americas if you are visiting or traveling from Panama City.
This crossing offers stunning views over the Port of Panama City and across Panama Bay.
The Centennial Bridge is also close by, lying to the north of Panama City, and takes you into Parque Nacional Camino de Cruces, where you can explore the many walking trails and wildlife in this spectacular 9,000-acre tropical forest.
If you are traveling across the canal on the Atlantic side of Panama, then your only option will be to use the Atlantic Bridge.
Things you need to know about driving across the Panama Canal
Here are our top tips when it comes to preparing for a drive across the Panama Canal:
- Traffic can be busy crossing the Bridge of the Americas, and in Panama City itself, so avoid making the journey at rush hour. Traveling mid-morning or mid-afternoon is the best time to visit.
- Driving conditions may be unfamiliar, so be aware of other drivers - locals can have a more aggressive driving style and change lanes suddenly.
- The rainy season in Panama City runs from May to December. This can make the roads more slippery, and heavy rain can limit visibility so take extra care when crossing bridges in such conditions.
- You don't need a ticket to cross any of the bridges, but you will need a valid passport valid for at least 3 months after arrival. You will also need proof of a return ticket out of the country in order to gain entry.
- If you choose to take a boat tour on the canal, it is advisable to book in advance to avoid disappointment, as places may be limited.
Things to see on a drive across the Panama Canal
A drive across the Panama Canal is an unforgettable experience, but there is much more to enjoy when visiting the area. Lush Rainforests and National Parks line the route as the Canal heads south towards Panama City, and here are a few more ideas for things to do.
- Panama Canal Railway - While you won't cross the Panama Canal in your car on this trip, you can enjoy a scenic train journey along it. The railway offers a picturesque way to experience the canal.
- Miraflores Locks Visitor Center - You can visit the visitor center at the Miraflores Locks. Watch ships traveling the Panama Canal, see the locks in action, and visit the museum to learn about the canal's engineering.
- Casco Viejo (Old Town) - Visit the historic district of Panama City. The UNESCO World Heritage Site features colonial-era architecture, art galleries, restaurants, and shops. Stroll through its cobbled streets and bask in its rich history.
- Causeway Islands - Visiting these islands is worth it for the Amador Causeway alone. The scenic drive cuts through the Pacific Ocean, connecting the mainland to the picturesque islands.
- Cinta Costera - Stroll the coastal walkway and stop to enjoy the sunset. Throughout the day, you can watch ships passing through the canal entrance.
The Panama Canal is an engineering miracle and one of the wonders of the modern world. Driving across it is an excellent way to appreciate the scale of this incredible structure and a trip to the locks will complete this amazing experience.