There is something simply amazing about showing up at the Panama Canal and watching it in operation. The history of its construction is quite spectacular (this is a great book about it) but perhaps the most amazing thing is that today, 100 years after the Canal went into service, it remains operational more or less on the same exact gear which it started with a century ago. An entire generation of cargo ships was built to the “Panamax” spec. That is, they are the largest ship which can fit through the Canal with a scant two feet of clearance on each side. Part of that is necessity, of course. It would not be possible to shut down the Canal and make changes considering the amount of traffic it sees on a daily basis. And part of that is because it really does just work.
There are three sets of locks which control the flow of boats (and water) between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. On this trip we visited both ends, the Miraflores (Panama City) and Gatun (Colon) locks to watch them in operation. As an added bonus, we also saw part of the construction efforts for the new locks adjacent to the Gatun end of the Canal.
The locks at Miraflores are the more common destination for tourists. They’re only about 20-30 minutes outside of Panama City and a relatively cheap cab ride away. The visitors center there is also much more developed, with a museum and movie theater (now in 3D) showing the history of the Canal as well as its current operations and impact to the Panamanian economy. The movie remains bizarre and awkward, but it does manage to get across the point that there is a ton of money in play (about $4-6mm daily) and that it is critical to the survival of the country. The museum side is a bit better than the movie, showing off much of the construction history and also the current operations of the Canal, plus bits of the local ecology.
And then there is the 4th floor observation deck, now covered to provide protection from the weather (it wasn’t when I last visited a couple years ago). The views from the roof deck are hard to beat as the ships come and go, rising and lowering rapidly as water is pumped between the chambers.
At the Gatun locks the experience is rather different. The observation deck is probably less than a quarter the size of that at Miraflores. The crowds, however, are even smaller meaning less fighting for a spot on the rail to get a photo or simply watch the ship pass unbelievably close to you. It truly felt like I could reach out and touch the ships as they passed.
The Gatun locks also represent one of the three places I’m aware of where it is possible to pass across the Canal by car. The first two are major bridges further south which pass high above the Canal. At Gatun, however, there is a roadway attached to one set of the doors. It is possible to drive across essentially at sea level. When there is a ship lined up for passage it is a pretty incredible sight.
One of the cooler features of the Canal, at least to me, is the “mules” which guide the ships through. That’s the nickname given to the small train cars which operate on cog-wheel tracks alongside the canal and through a coordinated set of tow lines keep the ships centered in the locks. It is an impressive effort, to say the least, as the larger ships use 6 mules working together (2 at the front, 1 at the back on each side) to help keep the ships lined up.
And, finally, there was the experience of visiting the new construction near Gatun. In addition to (somewhat inexplicably) being the most expensive of the three visits it was also the most disappointing. I understand that the construction is still on-going but the new site is rather far removed from the actual locks, high above where the ships will eventually pass. That’s not even the worst part to me. The awe which the Canal inspires, at least for me, is very much based on the fact that they managed to build it 100+ years ago with a set of tools rather different than what we have today. The fact that an add-on is being built today is almost a let-down, a mild nod towards the need to grow but still not nearly the same leap forward in technology or functionality that the original construction was 100 years ago. Then again, I suppose nothing really could be.
I’m intrigued by the new locks and I’ll almost certainly be back to visit after they open. But I also feel like the original locks are truly a modern marvel and anyone who hasn’t seen them and thinks they might want to should start making plans for a visit to Panama in the next couple years. That’s the best bet for getting up close and personal with the Canal and its massive customers.
- Just another day working on the Panama Canal
- Panama City is still amazing
- A man. A plan. A canal. Panama!
Never miss another post: Sign up for email alerts and get only the content you want direct to your inbox.