The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel that has been facilitating trade between the Atlantic and the Pacific for 100 years. To fully understand the history, technology and natural environment surrounding the feat, a visit to the Panama Canal is an absolute must.
The History of the Panama Canal
At only 50 miles across, the stretch of land where the canal now lies has long been an important trade route crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic. It started when the Spanish first arrived in Panama and the Native Americans guided Vasco Balboa and his men across the isthmus; the overland path would soon serve as an important route for the Spanish to take gold and silver from one side of the country to the other.
Fast-forward to 1881. Frenchmen under Ferdinand de Lesseps began the legacy of the Panama Canal with their first attempts to dig an inter-oceanic canal. Unfortunately, due to poor working conditions, disease and the natural elements, the project was abandoned in 1889.
The United States were next to enter the stage, eyeing the profitability a successful canal would bring. After helping Panama to declare its independence from Colombia in 1903, a treaty was signed and the U.S. was granted a 10-mile wide strip of land where the canal would finally come to completion in 1914.
Today, up to forty vessels take the 8-10 hour journey through 80km of waterways everyday. There are three lock complexes, each with two lanes, which operate as water elevators, raising ships from sea level to the level of Lake Gatun, 26m above sea level. After crossing the continental divide, the ships are lowered once more to continue on their journey.
How to Visit the Panama Canal
It’s hardly any wonder that the Panama Canal is the country’s biggest tourist attraction. There are a few different ways to experience the canal, each with their own merits:
1. The Miraflores Locks
A visit to the Miraflores Locks is the most popular way to see the canal, largely due to its accessibility from Panama City. Buses go to and from the Visitor Center at the Miraflores Locks and the Albrook Bus Terminal; this option will only set you back 25 cents each way. However, most tourists opt for the convenience of taking a taxi; this takes about 20 minutes (with no traffic) and costs $10-15.
The Visitor Center at Miraflores is modern and informative, but a complete tour will only take a few hours. For $15, you get access to a short documentary about the building of the canal, a four-floor museum with interactive exhibits, and great views of the vessels passing through the lock system. Typically the boats pass between 10am-12pm and 2pm-4pm, but call ahead to confirm—you won’t want to seeing the locks in action.
2. The Gatun Locks
If you’re really interested in a close encounter with the locks on the Canal, take a visit to the Gatun Locks on the Pacific side. The observation deck here is much closer to the Canal, and also enables visitors to see all three locks from one place (unlike at Miraflores).
A popular way to visit the Gatun Locks is to turn it into a day trip, combining a ride on the historic Panama Canal Railway, a visit to the locks, and a bus ride back to Panama City. Note that the Gatun Locks are outside of Colon, which is considered to be quite an unsafe city, largely due to the immense poverty. It’s not recommended to walk around Colon on your own, especially if traveling with ‘flashy’ accessories, like a camera.
3. Take a Cruise Through the Canal
It’s one thing to watch the locks from an observation deck. It’s another thing altogether to experience the Canal from the inside! To view the working of the canal and the surrounding jungle and wildlife, a boat tour is the way to go. There are numerous options available, from mid-range to luxury. Schedule at least 4 hours for a basic transit tour through the canal; traveling from ocean to ocean on a cruise will take around 12 hours. Boat tours depart from both the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the canal.
Have you seen the Panama Canal? What did you think?