The Panama Canal is one of the most recognized tourist attractions in Panama, everyday thousands of tourists go on tours to the Panama Canal. The most popular tours of the Panama Canal are transit tours. Transits can be made in the North or South directions. There are small differences between transit tours, and one of the differences that exist is due to the regulations of the Panama Canal Authority. I will explain the differences so that you can choose the best tour for you.
Panama Canal Northbound Transit Tour
All the Northbound Panama Canal tours start from a dock in Amador which is 15 minutes from Panama City. There are different docks in Amador, and the pier from which the tour will depart depends on the operator who is going to run it.
Most operators offer an option that includes hotel pickup and drop off in some Panama City hotels. If you choose this option, a bus or minivan will pick you up at your hotel and will take you to the dock in Amador to register, so you can start your tour heading Northbound. If you prefer to go to Amador on your own, the process is the same, you arrive at the dock to register and then board the boat to start the tour. You can go in your own car and leave it in the free parking lots or go by Uber or Taxi.
The time the tour starts changes every day. This is because the start time depends on the time that the other ships will pass through the Panama Canal. For this reason, the Panama Canal Authority publishes the tour start time one day before the tour. Normally the start time for northbound tours is between 6:00 am and 9:00 am.
In the Northbound direction, you can do a Partial Tour (6 hours sailing) or a Full Tour (9 hours sailing). Both tours start in Amador and most operators offer these two options. For more information about the differences between partial and full transit tours, I recommend reading the blog "Partial vs Full: Panama Canal Transit Tours".
Northbound transit tours begin with a journey through the Bay of Panama, until you reach the entrance to the Panama Canal. Many operators serve breakfast before arriving at the first locks called Miraflores. Between the Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Locks they serve lunch. When you are passing through the locks it is the perfect time to take good photos, since you will be surprised by the giant ships that will also be making the transit at the same time as you. After passing through the second locks, you will arrive at the Gamboa pier. Here all the passengers who are doing the Partial tour will get off, and the buses will return them to their hotels or to the dock in Amador.
If you are doing the Full Tour you are not going to disembark here, you will continue on the boat heading North and pass one more lock, the Gatun Locks. Finally, when you pass the Gatun Locks, you will reach the Caribbean side of the country, specifically at Colon. There will be waiting for you some buses that will return you to your hotel in Panama City, if you have a foreigners ticket. If your ticket is for residents, the bus will drop you off at the dock in Amador so you can take your vehicle, taxi or Uber.
Panama Canal Southbound Transit Tour
From the name, some people think that a Southbound Canal tour would be the opposite of a Northbound tour. It is not exactly like that, I'll explain below.
All the Southbound Panama Canal tours start from the public dock in Gamboa, it is 45 minutes from Panama City. Gamboa is in the middle of the Canal, that is, in the middle of the country. There is only one pier in Gamboa, which is used by all operators to do this tour.
Like Northbound tours, most operators offer an option that includes pick-up and drop off at your hotel in Panama City. If you choose this option, a bus or minivan will pick you up at your hotel and will take you to the public dock in Gamboa to start your Southbound Tour. But first you will go to Amador to register and pick up passengers who were not picked up from the hotels. If you go on your own, you have to go to Amador to register (it is 15 minutes from the City) since in Gamboa there is no place to register. After you complete your registration in Amador a bus will take you to Gamboa, and in Gamboa you will board the boat to navigate through the Panama Canal.
The Southbound tour start time changes every day as well, just like the Northbound tour. Normally, the South Direction tours start between 11am and 2pm, it is ideal for people who like to sleep a little more in the morning.
After leaving the Gamboa dock you will navigate the Corte Culebra until you reach the entrance to the Pedro Miguel Locks. Once you pass the Pedro Miguel locks, you will be served lunch on the boat, and then go through the Miraflores locks. After passing the Miraflores locks you will receive some snacks before arriving at the Amador pier to finish the tour. In Amador, the buses that will return you to your hotel in Panama City will be waiting for you, if your ticket is for foreigners. If you have a resident ticket, you can take your vehicle, taxi or Uber from there.
In South Direction you can only do a partial tour (6 hours sailing), and at the time of writing this blog, there is no Full Southbound Transit by any Operator in Panama.
What are the Differences and Similarities Between the Northbound and Southbound Transit Tours?
Both directions are a bit similar, here are some differences and similarities that exist between the northbound and southbound transit tour:
- In the North Direction you can do a partial tour (2 locks) or a complete tour (3 locks) of the Panama Canal, unlike the South Direction tour that can only be done in a partial tour (2 locks).
- In the South Direction the tour normally includes lunch and light Snacks, and the North Direction tour includes breakfast and lunch.
- The Northbound tour generally starts in the morning and the Southbound tour in the afternoon.
- The tours in both directions can include pickup and drop off from your hotel in Panama City.
- No directions include pickup or return to Colon or Gamboa.
- If you go on your own, you will always have to go to Amador to register before the tour.
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