Planning Your Time
The amount of time needed to visit the Panama Canal and central Panama depends on the number of activities that you'd like to do, since several require joining guided excursions. It's easy to take in the Panama Canal itself by land in one day, making time for the visitor centers that offer up-close views. You'll want to spend at least a night or two in the Pacific beaches and El Valle de Antón, since they're a farther drive (and you'll want time to relax and enjoy the scenery). You can easily visit Summit, Parque Nacional Soberanía, and Gamboa by taxi or rental car as a day trip, but you may also want to stay overnight at either Summit or Gamboa to have more time to enjoy those destinations. You'll need to join tours to do the canal transit, trips on Gatún Lake, visit indigenous communities, and white-water rafting in Chagres National Park. You should rent a car to explore more distant areas such as Portobelo, the Pacific beaches, and El Valle de Antón. The Panama Canal Railway is an interesting trip, but the downside is getting dumped in Colón, which is why most people take the train as part of a tour that meets them at the Colón train station and takes them to nearby sites.