Country 21: Panama | This post is part of my 30×30 series. Read more here!
Completely by accident, I arrived in Panama City on the day of the 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal opening. After four days of touring the pristine San Blas Islands, I was a little reluctant to trade my beach vibes for a trip to see an engineering marvel, but the Panama Canal surprised me by being totally worth the visit.
When you read about the topic in history class, it sounds drier than a drained lock. Back before the 1880’s, the only way to get from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic was to sail around treacherous Cape Horn, which took sailors skirting around the southernmost tip of South America. Panama’s location at the crux of Central America and its geographical narrowness made it a prime contender for a man-made shortcut that would connect the two oceans and make shipping faster and safer.
Construction on the canal was begun in 1881 by France, but soon stopped due to issues with the engineering and a high worker mortality rate. The U.S. took over the project in the early 1900’s, opening the canal official on August 15, 1914 (100 years to the day before I visited!). Foreign involvement and control of the canal continued until 1977 and was pretty controversial.
The canal had an important influence on maritime design—ships had to be built in order to conform to the width of the canal, otherwise, they couldn’t get through. The U.S. navy redesigned their WWII-era battleships in order to use the canal. Post-war, they began a campaign to widen the locks to allow larger and bulkier ships passage. Further work on widening the canal has been in progress for several years,
The American Society of Civil Engineers declared the Panama Canal one of its Seven Wonders of the Modern World, honoring the engineering achievements that make the canal functional and integral to modern society.
Why is it a world wonder?
So, what’s so remarkable about a canal? The Panama Canal consists of three sections that lead across the isthmus. Basically it goes: Pacific Ocean > Port of Balboa > Miraflores Locks (which lift ships up to the height of the Chagres River > Gatun Lake > Gatun Locks (which lower ships back to the ocean-level) > Port of Colón > Atlantic Ocean (and then vice versa for ships traveling east to west).
Gatun Lake, which is in the middle of this process, is an entirely man-made construction, created by a dam which deepened and widened an existing river into a lake where ships can easily cross the 15 miles to the opposite locks and ocean beyond. The lake is naturally protected by impenetrable rainforest, keeping the ships (and their cargoes) safe throughout their passage.
The locks on either side lift ships through drainage and refills. On the Pacific side, the Miraflores locks lift and drop ships to and from a height of 54ft or 16m. On the Atlantic side, the Gatun locks lift and drop ships to and from a height of 87ft or 27m. The lock gates are about 7ft or 2m thick—you can see and touch replicas in the museum.
Though the canal is only 50mi or 80km across, it takes an average 8-10 hours to pass completely through. I figured filling the locks would be a significant time-taker, but the locks actually fill and drain within 8 minutes! Ships need to be carefully piloted throughout that journey with tugboats (the canal has a fleet of 36), and once inside, are further guided by little locomotive-type vehicles called mules (the funny little gray boxes in the middle photo above).
It’s hard to articulate how impressive the canal actually is. I grew up in a port city (my dad even worked for the Port of Oakland), so I’ve seen a fair share of huge cargo ships. But watching them pass through a channel with the narrowest of margins, rising and falling to the height of a small building just through the use of water, they seem more like toys than the vessels the size of city blocks. I thought I’d spend max one hour at the Canal, but I spent closer to 3, touring the interactive museum (you can even simulate “piloting” a ship through the canal!) and watching the locks rise and fall.
How to get to the Panama Canal
I visited the canal at the Miraflores Visitor Center, which boasts an impressive viewing platform, snack bars and restaurants, 4-story museum, and movie theater. It was simple to get there with the public bus, which has a stop directly at the Miraflores Locks and costs just 25 cents to ride. Of course, you can also take a taxi or Uber—it should cost about $15 per one way.
The Miraflores Visitor Center is open daily from 8:00am to 6:00 pm, with tickets sold until 5:15. Non-residents should expect to pay B.20 (or $20 USD) as of October 2018.