Costs for Panama Canal

If you’re going to ride a yacht or transport cargo through the Panama Canal, be ready to pony up some serious cash.

I just handed in a magazine story on Panama and was going through my notes from the trip. I visited the Panama Canal for the second time. The first time I actually went through it on a 14-person ship, while this time I just went to the Miraflores Locks visitor center.

You find out lots of factiods when visiting, but I’m most fascinated by the commerce side of it. Obviously it’s easier for a shipping company to go through here than to spend weeks sailing around the bottom of South America, so they’re willing to pay. A lot.

Cargo ships are billed $82 per full container, $74 for an empty one. (So you really don’t want to have a lot of empties.) Then in a system that seems like it was copied from U.S. airlines, there are lots of extra fees on top of that. The ship passing by in the photo above was loaded with 3,800 containers, so here’s what the captain paid:

– $321,446 for the containers

– $11,445 for the work of 7 tugboats

– $4,745 for ground assistants

– $3,600 for ground wires

When they exit the other side of the canal, that transit alone will have added 1/3 of a $million to the cost of the goods on the ship. So if you’re in Boston getting coffee from Sumatra or a car from Korea, keep this in mind when you look at the price.

Speaking of prices, you’ll pay a surcharge if you go on a cruise ship through the Panama Canal. Those ships are levied a fee of $134 per bed. Enjoy the ride that day—you’ve paid handsomely for it.

So what about the poor soul trying to live a lifelong dream of sailing around the world?

canal transit Panama

It’s definitely best to go small than to look like a new money Russian tycoon. Small ships of less than 50 feet in length pay $800 for the transit. Those of 50-80 pay $1,300. Those 80 to 100 feet pay $2,000. Above that it’s $3,000. But hey, if you’ve got a yacht that big, three grand is probably chump change anyway. No, you can’t use a credit card. Or cocaine. Supposedly someone tried that once.

If you’d like to just see a bit of the (slow) action instead, entrance to the Miraflores Locks complex is $8 adults, $5 kids and seniors. There’s a restaurant and bar on site. If you’re a Panama resident, you only pay $3. That includes entrance to the museum and a guide explaining how everything works. [Update – the price has nearly doubled in 2014, to $15 for foreign adults. More info here.]

Keep in mind these are 2013 numbers and will surely rise. Next year a wider section of the canal opens to allow container ships through. This engineering feat cost billions and billions to pull off, so you can bet those ships making use of it will pay handsomely.

If you ask me, a couple days in Panama City is plenty and there are far more interesting places to go within a few hours. See the Visit Panama site for ideas and gorgeous photos.