One of the most remarkable feats of engineering to emerge from the twentieth century, the Panama Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Built at its narrowest point between the oceans, the Panama Canal connects cities in Mexico and the USA to the Atlantic. Constructing a canal was first talked about in 1524 with King Ferdinand of Spain and saw years of delays, bankruptcies, and trouble. The canal took 75,000 men ten years to build, and the first ship passed through it in 1914. Ships line up on either side of this very busy shipping lane waiting for their turn to go through this remarkable structure and engineering achievement. Even large ships have the dimensions of the Panama Canal’s locks brought into consideration during construction so that none get stuck.
A journey through the eighty one kilometre stretch of the Panama Canal usually takes around ten hours. Each lockage uses 197 million litres of water and ships are raised 26 metres in each lock to reach Lake Gatun. People wishing to make the trip can do so on a cruise liner, usually sailing from Panama City to Colon. Another alternative is to travel on one of the many cargo ships that pass through the canal. Many cruises also include the Panama Canal as part of a wider experience so that passengers can experience this classic water journey.
The journey through the Panama Canal begins in the entrance channel of the Gulf of Panama, and ships pass under the Bridge of the Americas to the Miraflores Lock. Ships sail through this lock system and then pass into the Miraflores Lake, which is 16.5m above sea level and is 1.7 km long. The next lock passed through is the single system Pedro Miguel Lock, which is the last in the ascending series and has a lift of 9.5 metres to the main canal level.
Next in the journey is the artificial valley known as the Gaillard Cut, which slices through the Continental Divide. Ships pass under the Continental Bridge from the Gaillard Cut, which is at an altitude of 26 metres. At this point, the River Chagres, which was formed during the damming of the Gatun Lake, is in view as ships enter the lake. Remarkably, Lake Gatun actually carries shipping 24km across the isthmus of the canal. A three stage lock system at Gatun drops the ship back down to sea level and at Limon Bay there are anchorage points and an 8.7 km passage back to the outer breakwater of the ocean.
One of the advantages of travelling through the Panama Canal is an opportunity to view some of the indigenous wildlife in the area and particularly around Lake Gatun. Barro Colorado Island, for example, was established as a research centre when the lake was formed and is operated by the Smithsonian Institution. Lake Gatun is 180 square miles and is a large ecological centre for the Panamanians. It also supplies the thousands of gallons of water needed to operate the Panama Canal lock systems. One of the most popular activities on Lake Gatun is fishing, and popular species caught include Sargento or peacock bass, which were introduced accidentally in the 1950’s and are very popular with anglers due to their aggressive nature. People also come to Lake Gatun to watch the bird life and indigenous animals, including parrots and monkeys.
Colon and the Port of Cristobal is a popular stopping point for shipping emerging from the Panama Canal at the Caribbean end. This is the second largest city in Panama and an excellent base to explore the country, as well as being a vibrant shopping centre. Visitors to Colon can also explore the San Lorenzo Rainforest and can see the area that the notorious pirate Captain Morgan once occupied. Another interesting place is on the Chagres River, where the Choco Indians live in stilted huts and have an in depth knowledge of traditional medicine using local plants.
The Panama Canal is a surprisingly beautiful place to visit and, despite the heavy shipping traffic, has many beautiful creatures and plants in the area, as well as a whole ecosystem living side by side with one of the most famous engineering achievements in the world. This is an excellent journey to make to see this waterway and also to experience the natural beauty of Central America.
(Image by Flickr user : Bruce Tuten)