The Panama Canal remains amazing after 100 years


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 Panama Canal remains amazing after 100 years
Crew from one of the ships gets in on the photo op fun

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.

The Panama Canal remains amazing after 100 years
A “panamax” sized car-carrier passes through at Miraflores Locks

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.

The Panama Canal remains amazing after 100 years
The people line up, just like the ships do, for the experience

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 Panama Canal remains amazing after 100 years
A car-carrier waiting for the gates to open at Gatun Locks; next stop: the Atlantic Ocean

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.

The Panama Canal remains amazing after 100 years
At Gatun there is a bridge down at the water level, allowing you to get mighty close to the ships waiting to pass through

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.

The Panama Canal remains amazing after 100 years
The “mules” guide the ships through the locks

The Panama Canal remains amazing after 100 years

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.

The Panama Canal remains amazing after 100 years
The new locks are well into their construction efforts; they should open in a couple years

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.

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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.

10 Comments

  1. I went through it on Holland America last November. Pretty amazing. I don’t believe the water is pumped though. It flows by simple gravity, so water only flows one way and with each trip the water is lost to both oceans.

    1. Yes, the water flows via gravity; saying it is “pumped” is probably a bad choice of words on my part. But it does flow through pipes and such underneath the locks to get between the sections which is why I was saying that.

  2. It looks pretty similar to the Chittenden Locks in Seattle (and I imagine the technology is similar, but on a grander scale). The “road” on we have is only wide enough for bikes and pedestrians!

  3. Just curious…did their exhibits have anything to say about possible competition with a canal in Nicaragua? The government up there recently signed a deal with a Hong Kong company to build a canal across Lake Nicaragua which would shorten travel times by about 500 miles/1 day.

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