Dozens of spectators gawk from an observation deck as a bulk freighter carrying grains from the United States to China edges closer.

Forty-tonne locomotives known as mules latch on to the massive vessel with cables and guide it inside the Miraflores locks, employing a mechanical precision that keeps it from banging into the concrete walls despite the tight fit.

The ship's passage through the Panama Canal is nearly complete as the 700-tonne steel doors swing shut. Most of their bulk is under the water, hiding the fact they're as tall as an eight-storey building and the same ones that have been doing the job for more than a century.

A cargo ship prepares to cross the Miraflores locks. Photo / AP
A cargo ship prepares to cross the Miraflores locks. Photo / AP

As a major Latin American hub of finance, commerce and transportation, the Panamanian capital is a growing destination for business travellers. For anyone looking to duck out of a convention centre for a few hours, fill a gap between meetings or even if you've just got a long layover at the airport, a visit to Panama City's No.1 attraction and its newly expanded locks makes the perfect side excursion.

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Shipping geeks in particular will delight at this engineering marvel that revolutionised global maritime trade when it opened for business on August 15, 1914, but it also appeals to a broader audience with nearly 3000 people visiting each day during the January-April high season.

The Miraflores Visitor Center offers several storeys of space with an up-close view of the machinations of the canal, where ships pass through about 35-40 times a day. With each crossing, an enthusiastic guide informs visitors on one recent sticky, tropical morning, the locks fill with about 100 million litres of fresh water that then spill into the Pacific Ocean.

"I'm impressed by the magnitude of this operation," said Vicky Londono, a Colombian traveller who flew into the airport that day with her husband and hopped in a cab to see the canal before continuing to their final destination, Madrid.

Thousands watch as the Neopanamax cargo ship, Cosco Shipping Panama, prepares to cross the new Agua Clara locks. Photo / AP
Thousands watch as the Neopanamax cargo ship, Cosco Shipping Panama, prepares to cross the new Agua Clara locks. Photo / AP

The Canal Authority threw a big bash on Monday to formally inaugurate its new Cocoli locks, which doubled the waterway's capacity and can accommodate huge New Panamax-class vessels that carry up to three times as much cargo as those previously able to fit. There will be no separate viewing platform at Cocoli for at least two years, but for now you can see some of the action at a distance from Miraflores. Tip: bring binoculars.

"This is spectacular," said Tom Matz, a retired lawyer from New York, as a sky-blue liquid petroleum gas ship emerged from Cocoli bound for the Atlantic. "The past, present and future of the canal, all right here."

Getting to the canal is a snap, with a host of travel agencies and hotel tours competing for your business. For US$30 ($42) or so, depending on your willingness to haggle, taxi drivers will take you from the city centre and pick you up a couple of hours later. Plan on US$60 or more if you're starting from the airport, as well as a 30 to 45-minute cab ride there - possibly longer due to Panama City's chronic traffic congestion.

People take photos at sunset from a footbridge in Panama City. Photo / AP
People take photos at sunset from a footbridge in Panama City. Photo / AP

If no ship is passing through when you arrive, while away the time in the facility's theatre and museum for comprehensive exhibits on the canal and its construction - which claimed the lives of more than 25,000 workers, most of them from Caribbean islands, and mostly from tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.

A simulator lets you play captain and virtually manoeuvre a ship through the locks. There's also a snack bar, and a pricier restaurant upstairs that stays open into the evening.

IF YOU GO

PANAMA CANAL

: Miraflores Visitor Center opens 9am-5pm. Adults (non-Panamanians) pay US$15. Busiest time for crossings: 9am-11am. Schedules for ship crossings: http://visitcanaldepanama.com/en/

Additional viewing platforms are located at old and new Atlantic locks near the northern city of Colon, about an hour away by car.

GUIDED TOURS: These well-established travel agencies offer canal visits:

Pesantez Tours

Viajes Arco Iris

City Sightseeing Panama
RESTAURANT: Atlantic & Pacific Co