Just another day working on the Panama Canal

Today we visited the canal and the Miraflores locks and see the actual workings up close. I was expecting it to be pretty impressive and it absolutely exceeded my expectations. It was outright amazing. Considering that it has been in operation for 95 years, more or less in exactly the same way as it operates today that is even more impressive.


The visitor center at the Miraflores locks visitor center is about five miles north of downtown Panama City, about 20 minutes and a $35 cab ride round trip. Given that we wanted to make a couple other stops and that we needed to get back out to the airport in the morning we just rented a car. Other than the fact that there are no street signs anywhere (that’s a whole different story) I think that the rental car option is way better. So a quick drive up the canal and we arrived at the relatively new tourist center, built in 2000. We arrived at the same time as the buses from a cruise ship, so that wasn’t particularly great, and the organization of the security screening at the entrance makes the TSA look organized, but we managed to get inside after about 10 minutes and raced up to the top floor observation deck, about 60 feet above the canal. A cargo ship was transiting right then, along with a couple private yachts and a tugboat, and getting to see the canal in operation was phenomenal.

The larger ship was connected up to a few locomotives. The locomotives handled the job of holding the ship in place as the waters shifted in the locks and then moving the ship forward once the locks were opened.

One of the locomotive drivers focuses on moving the ship through the locks.
For the smaller ships the line work is done by hand. There are several employees assigned to working each ship as it passes through the locks. These smaller boats are generally paired up with the larger ships where there is space available to ensure maximum utilization of each flow from the locks.
Two “hand-liners” walking the bank of the canal after tying up a yacht.

After the ships are secured inside the lock the magic happens. In eight minutes millions of gallons of water move from the lake down into the lock, lifting the ships up in the process. The second stage of the Miraflores lock includes a rise of 27 feet in that time. Watching the ships move up like that was pretty incredible. And then the gates are opened and the the ship is maneuvered out to the end of the locks. From there it navigates out through the lake and up to the next lock.

Throughout the process there is a play-by-play announcer giving out information in both Spanish and English. They actually tailor the script to the specific ships passing through which adds to the experience. We learned the costs of the toll – up to $250,000 for the largest container ships that pass through, or about $1000 for a smaller yacht – and also that it was the maiden voyage through the canal for one of the tugs in the grouping. Very cool.

The gates are finally opened and the ship can now head on to the next set of locks.

We actually arrived just in time, as the ships we watched were the last ones to clear the locks for about three or four hours. I’m not exactly sure why there was such a delay – maybe because it is just too damn hot for the crews to be out working in the noontime sun – but the place runs at a 95%+ rate of transit slots being used so I’m sure there is a good reason they don’t add more slots in to the work day. Basically there was nothing going on there from ~10:45am to ~2:30pm, at least not today. And while the locks are rather impressive to see just existing, they are way cooler to watch as the ships pass through.

After watching the ships pass through we headed back inside to the air conditioning to watch the movie on the history of the canal and visit the exhibitions that they had in the museum there. The videos were not particularly well done in my opinion (“they looked like a high school project” was one comment) and the museum had some neat things like tools from the excavations but otherwise was a waste. I’d skip those next time and spend more time watching the ships, plus save $3 on the admission fee.


Deck hands, waiting for the next leg of the trip through the canal.

The Panama Canal truly is one of the wonders of the modern world. The fact that they got it built is amazing and watching it in operation today, 95 years later, doesn’t disappoint.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.