While the Central American country of Panama has many draws its number one must-do and see by a long way is the incredible Panama Canal. Arguably the most remarkable feat of engineering ever achieved by man, this 82km-long route – effectively a short cut between the Pacific and the Atlantic reducing three weeks of travel to less than one day – is now over 100 years old.
Chosen by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Modern World’ along with such man-made marvels as the Channel Tunnel and the Golden Gate Bridge, not one other entry on the list is as old as the Panama Canal. Most were constructed with the benefits of more modern machinery and engineering industry advancements while the Panama Canal story goes right back to the 1800s. Interestingly though, the idea of a waterway through Panama was first conceived by the king of Spain, Charles V, in 1534 when much of Central America was under the rule of the Spanish Empire.
Overall the canal’s story is a fantastical tale woven together from elements of genius levels of engineering, endless examples of human endurance and a determination which resulted in a truly amazing accomplishment.
Tragedy, Genius and Ultimate Success – The Canal’s Amazing History
The canal’s history is indeed fascinating while also presenting a story of tragedy on a large scale; a true marvel of engineering which involved the efforts of many thousands of individuals – from the expert brains who conceived and developed it to the endless stream of workers needed to build it.
The canal was originally a French-run project begun in 1881 and was taken on with nothing but total confidence after the opening of their Suez Canal engineering feat in Egypt just over a decade earlier. However, the challenges in Central America were entirely different, both from an engineering aspect and a geographical one.
The jungle environment led to at least 5,000 deaths (some believe it to be nearer to 22,000) by malaria and yellow fever along with accidents such as mudslides also responsible for such a high mortality rate and multiple set-backs. Facing bankruptcy the French admitted defeat and everything came to a complete halt from 1894 until the US took control in 1903. The American period wasn’t without incident and challenges either but this time the project was completed and on August 15, 1914 the Panama Canal opened to commercial shipping traffic. The S.S. Ancon was to go down in history as the first vessel to make the new canal transit.
Three weeks before the completion however the global conflict which was to became known as World War I began and it wasn’t until six years later that the grand opening ceremony that had been planned to celebrate this wondrous canal was finally held.
The Magic of the Locks
One of the major issues that engineers faced in building this water route which allowed vessels to cut thousands of miles off their journeys and avoid the multiple hazards of rounding Cape Horn was the difference in sea level heights according to the opposite timing of differing tides on the Caribbean and Pacific side. The US answer to this dilemma was to incorporate locks at either end which allowed huge vessels to be effectively raised or lowered by many meters. A huge artificial lake – Gatun Lake – was created to make this all possible and although today it doesn’t even make the top 10 list it was at the time the largest man-made lake on the planet.
Astonishingly, and as a major tribute to those earliest Panama Canal engineering geniuses, the original locks are still used today despite modern expansions and additions.
Expansion and Growth – The Canal Arrives in the 21st Century
100 years however is a long time. Ships, just like planes, cars and every other form of powered transport or mechanical device that man has invented have undergone considerable changes. By the beginning of the 21st century the Panama Canal was losing trade and the reason for this was patently obvious; the more modern fleets of enormous ocean-going cargo ships just didn’t fit through the locks and if a ship couldn’t enter the locks it couldn’t pass through the canal.
In 2007 work began on additional and wider locks and in 2016 these more spacious lanes were opened bringing the Panama Canal well and truly into the 21st century. Allowing for increases of 25% in length and draft and 51% in beam, the Panama Canal was once again busy with the comings and goings of some of the most enormous vessels in existence.
Parrots, Lakes and Locks – The Bucket-List Worthy Transition Through the Panama Canal
Bucket-lists are many different things to different people – climbing mountains, jumping out of airplanes, going on safari, seeing the Northern Lights…..the possibilities are very personal and very diverse. However, transiting the Panama Canal is on the bucket-list of almost all those who come to explore this part of the world and there are several cruise ships which allow you to undertake this unforgettable journey of between 8 to 11 hours.
It would appear that more than one passenger before taking the Panama Canal journey had envisaged it as simply a long thin route for its entire length so the reality comes as a surprise to many.
This is an exotic journey of lush jungle surrounds where colorful parrots fly overhead chattering loudly and where you can spot monkeys in the trees as you leisurely skirt the vegetation-rich islands of the massive Gatun Lake or cut through the beautiful Soberania National Park. Behemoth-sized cargo ships moving across the lake or patiently awaiting their turns to exit via the locks are a common and awe-inspiring sight too.
While the natural loveliness and the wildlife-spotting possibilities are a definite Panama Canal attraction it is still the transition through the three lock systems (one at the Caribbean end and two at the southern and Pacific end) which most passengers rank as the absolute highlight of the trip. This is where the mechanically marvelous takes place as ships are lowered or raised almost 26m from or to the height of Gatun Lake depending on which way they are headed.
Known as the Gatun, Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks with the new lock expansions and additions found at either end of the route, transiting the locks is a highly skilled and involved procedure which is fascinating to watch and be a part of. So precise are the maneuvers needed for the locks that ships are boarded by a specially trained canal pilot who will oversee the procedures. Additionally, chains, ropes and various other devices are attached to allow precise steering and tiny but important straightening adjustments during the entire process.
Most pleasure tours and cruise ships which run the canal route make a real event of these lock passages. Depending on the company you may get live commentaries, live closed-circuit videos and be allowed access to parts of the ship often off limits in order to fully appreciate the process and get the best views of gates opening and closing and water being pumped in or out.
The Visitor Centers
For most people Panama Canal experiences are limited to the wonderful visitor centers at either end – the Miraflores Visitor Center at the Pacific end just outside Panama City and the Agua Clara Visitors Center just outside of Colon on the Caribbean side. However, even if you have been privileged enough to actually cruise through the canal from end to end these centers are still fascinating places to visit
Both offer observation decks so you can witness first-hand the awe-inspiring sight of some of the largest ships in existence – known as Neopanamax vessels – making the transition through the locks. Additionally, the Agua Clara Center gives you exceptional views of the new 2016-opened locks in operation. You will also find a wealth of interactive exhibits, historical canal-related artifacts and short films which relate the canal’s story to date and the plans for the future. Once you have experienced these centers you will have a far greater understanding of quite why this marvel of engineering revolutionized trade on a global scale and will have learned all kinds of fascinating facts.
These snippets of information include such things as the average toll charged to ships to pass through the canal (around US$54,000 with the upper-end amounts running into six figures) and that the lowest toll ever paid was by Richard Halliburton in 1928 when he swam the entire canal.