Travel notes: Experiencing the Panama Canal from both ship and shore

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The Panama Canal is an engineering feat amazing for its time. Begun by the French in 1881, the 50-mile-long canal route suffered numerous setbacks, and was finally completed by the U.S. in 1914. Today the Panama Canal continues to be a true marvel to experience, both on a ship cruising through it and from shore excursions along it.

The canal was long a “must-do” on my travel list. Originally, I thought I’d want to take a ship that cruised the entire canal’s length between its Caribbean/Atlantic and Pacific coasts. However, I opted for a cruise that entered from the Caribbean side, went into Lake Gatun and then returned through the same set of three locks. 

The advantage: from Lake Gatun, I could go ashore by small boat and then take a day tour to see far more than I could have on a full-transit canal cruise. Those cruises don’t offer shore excursions — they simply sail through the entire canal and all its six locks, taking about 10 hours depending on ship traffic. 

My day tour started with a one-and-a-half-hour ride on the restored, vintage Panama Railroad, which parallels the canal to the Pacific side. I enjoyed seeing the tropical jungle with views of Lake Gatun and getting a sense of the Panamanian isthmus before arriving in Panama City on the Pacific coast. Then the tour took a motor coach to the nearby Miraflores Locks, where I watched ships pass through — and gained a perspective different from being on board a ship while it was raised or lowered in the locks.

The Miraflores Locks also feature an excellent museum that explains the canal’s history and how the locks work, which I would have missed on a full-transit cruise. The tour included return by motor coach to my ship, now docked in Colon on the Caribbean side as night fell.

The ship, Holland America Line’s ms Zuiderdam, had arrived at the Gatun Locks at 6 a.m. Everyone was on deck to watch our 1,916-passenger ship ease into the first of the three locks. Each lock chamber is 110 feet wide and 1,050 feet long, which determines the maximum size of ships (known as Panamax) able to use the original canal locks. Looking down, I could barely see any space between the side of the ship at main deck level and the side of the canal — so close was the ship to canal’s cement walls on either side. 

Odd-looking locomotives, nicknamed “mules,” pull ships by cables into and out of each of the three locks to rise up a total of 85 feet from Caribbean sea level to Lake Gatun. This man-made lake was once the largest in the world when the Chagres River was dammed in 1913 for the canal project. 

As ships near the Pacific coast, they are lowered once at the Pedro Miguel Locks and then twice at the Miraflores Locks to enter the Pacific Ocean. Each set of locks are paired so ships can enter and leave Lake Gatun simultaneously. Total, there are 12 locks, six in each direction.

Each set of lock gates weighs 730 tons (equivalent of 300 elephants) — and all the original gates are still in use. Amazingly, the water used to raise and lower ships in each set of locks comes from Lake Gatun by gravity alone; Panama’s heavy rainfall replenishes the lake continually.

Construction of bigger locks at the Caribbean and Pacific coasts began in 2007; they opened June 26, 2016. This allows the transit of enormous Neopanamax category ships, holding much more cargo, and has doubled the ship-transit capacity of the Panama Canal. The alternative — and the reason the Panama Canal was built — is that sailing around South America takes ships two weeks or longer and routes them through the hazardous Strait of Magellan.

Sequence of locks and passages that a vessel passes through while traveling the Panama canal. (Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data)

Fascinating canal factoids:

  • The original attempt was begun by the French in January 1881, organized by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had successfully overseen the building of the Suez Canal.
  • The French effort failed due to tropical rains, diseases and lack of the construction technology developed just 25 years later — which allowed the United States to succeed.  
  • President Theodore Roosevelt spearheaded the canal project in 1904-1914. 
  • The U.S.-built Panama Canal opened on Aug. 15, 1914.
  • The excavation of the Culebra (Gaillard) Cut — through the isthmus’ Continental Divide — produced as much excavation material as 63 Egyptian pyramids.
  • The locks’ side walls are 45 to 55 feet thick at their base and taper to eight feet thick at the top, where less strength is required.
  • In 1999 Panama took over full operation, administration and maintenance of the Panama Canal from the U.S.
  • Annual ship traffic through the canal has ranged from a low of 807 transits in 1916 to 13,548 vessels in 2017.
  • Tolls for the canal are based on vessel type, size and type of cargo. Cruise ships pay a rate based on the number of berths. 
  • The cheapest toll ever paid to travel the canal was 36 cents in 1928 by Richard Halliburton, who swam the length of the canal. 
  • Neopanamax cargo ships using the new, wider canal locks can pay nearly $1 million today.
  • The American Society of Civil Engineers has ranked the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

— By Julie Gangler

Julie - headshot 2013Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.

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