Panama Canal. All You Need to Know about This Engineering Miracle and How to Visit It

The Panama Canal is probably the most important must-see in Panama. Today we share tips on how to organize your visit better and and tell you a story of the Canal.

Panama Canal. Technical data.

Perhaps for some people who have never read about the Canal in details, the Panama Canal is a small water path that connects the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, its length is about 80 km, and it takes in average 8-10 hours to cross the canal. Until recently, the canal inside the locks was 34 meters wide and 12.56 meters deep. Thanks to the opening of a new branch within Panama Canal expansion project, which took a place in June 2016, the Canal now can have vessels of almost 55 meters wide and depth below the waterline of more than 18 meters.
The canal consists of locks system with chambers that first raise the water to 26 meters above sea level (3 chambers) in Gatun area (if come go from Caribbean). After the passage of the main part, the water level is lowered by the Pedro Miguel (9.5 meters) and the Miraflores locks system (2 chambers with the total of 16.5 meters).

Two hydroelectric stations, with the capacity of 22.5 and 36 MW located in Gatun and near Miraflores supply the electrical part of the Canal.

History of Panama Canal.

The idea of building a canal was first mentioned in the 16th century. The history of its concordance and construction was accompanied by political and economic confrontations of such countries as the United States, Spain, Britain and France. In parallel, a similar project in Nicaragua was under consideration until recently. It was approved in 2014.
In 1879, the developer of the Suez Canal, French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps launched a campaign to build another canal – in Panama. As a result, in 1881, his first compatriots arrived in the country, and one year later began excavating the soil. Thus, 1982 is considered as the beginning of the construction.

The initial plan was to build the canal 22 meters wide and 9 meters deep. Also, the initial project did not include a system of gateways. The canal was supposed to connect two oceans naturally in one level, which would have led to deep excavations and, moreover, cutting 26 meters of soil. In addition to engineering difficulties, the construction was complicated by the yellow fever epidemic, financial crisis, as well as a the corruption scandal, in which many politicians were involved including Ferdinand.
As a result, Americans bought the project in 1903. After that, a key decision was made to use the gateway system to reduce the excavation work. During seven years of dry excavation, 153 million cubic meters were removed. The work also included drilling and explosion of rocks.
To increase the depth of the canal, various machines were used, even ships. This vessel was specially built in Scotland and began to work in 1912. The chain with 52 buckets allowed to dig out more than 1000 tons of material in less than 40 minutes.

On October 10, 1913, US President Wilson telegraphed a signal to explode the remaining small part of the land that separated the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The first ship that passed the canal at the stage of work was a floating crane Alexandre La Valley. This happened in January 1914. Same year in August cargo ship Cristobal repeated this route. The official opening of the Panama Canal is August 15, 1914, with the passage of cargo ship Ancon.

How to visit the Panama Canal.

Not many people know that observing the passage of the ships through the Panama Canal can be organized in several places: in Gatun (Gatun locks) and near Panama City (Miraflores locks). Gatun has lower entrance fee and almost complete absence of people. Yet, these are the only cons. Colon is one of the most dangerous cities in Panama. Our skepticism about Lonely Planet record that this city should be avoided could not stop us at first. We found a route with buses and were ready to go there. Our plan was to get to the city, stay only at the bus station, and then take a second bus to the locks. After talking with the locals, we changed our mind. Colon is really dangerous, and we were told that even at the station there is a possibility of robbery. “It depends on how luck you are,” one of our random fellow traveler summarized. Alternatively, you can go there by taxi, which makes this trip very expensive.

Also, if you have a lot of time in Panama, you can pass through the canal by the ship. In addition to the commercial offers, you can be a volunteer for a yacht, waiting for its turn to pass the canal. There is even a special webpage where yacht owners look for teams of line handlers. According to the law, each ship must have 4 line handlers and generally this job costs 50 dollars. That is why yacht owners look for volunteers to reduce costs. We even had a variant with a couchsurfing on such a yacht, but, unfortunately, the dates did not fit at all.

There is also the opportunity to ride a special train along the canal, although we do not know what is so special about it.

Miraflores locks. You can get there from the Albork station. The bus to Miraflores leaves every hour at .00 at the very beginning of the platforms (exit F). Entrance fee for non-residents is $15, children – $10.

Despite the technical possibility of simultaneous servicing of ships in two directions, in the morning the ships go towards the Caribbean Sea (Atlantic), and after lunch back to the Pacific Ocean. The canal is recommended to visit from 9 to 11 and then after 13. We were late for the first part because had a problem with breakfast in our hotel. We spent about one hour visiting the museum and watching a short film about the construction of the Panama Canal. The English session starts every hour at .50, in Spanish – at .20 minutes.
The complex includes a gift shop, as well as a museum with an exhibition where the video from the captain’s deck-cabin viewpoint was the most interesting thing.

Despite all these entertainments, we had to wait for the afternoon passage of the ships for about 3 hours. Meanwhile, local personnel told some facts about the canal using loudspeakers, and tried to inform about the estimated arrival time of a ship. They mentioned that January was the low season the ships. At first, it was interesting to listen, but then it became annoying.

There are several possibilities to watch the ships. This is a large deck on the 4th floor. From here, we were watching how a boat with tourists passed the canal from the middle for $150 a person.

On the second floor there is a small amphitheater with chairs as in the stadium. We had to wait for the next ship for three hours, so we landed there. We were hesitating whether everyone would be sitting as in a theater while ships are passing the canal. People kept coming, and just stood near the fence.

Just before the arrival of the ships, employees with speakers tried to organize people, but after unsuccessful attempts gave up. We had the places on the edge to have an overview in the direction of the ship approach. Yet, people stood on the steps, we could not see anything and they would not bother to move. So every time we need to stand up to take a photo and squeeze into the crowd.

Perhaps the best option for observation is the cafe on the third floor. We assume that you need to reserve a table and wait.
After a while, we heard about the first ship approach from the speakers. The passage of the ship is of course interesting and fascinating. The vessel enters the lock chamber and stops after the first gates close behind it.

Then water goes out of the chamber. From the photo, you can see the initial and final result. The total difference of the water level is 16.5 meters.

When the water level in two chambers becomes equal, the gate in front of the ship opens, and the ship goes into the next chamber. The locomotives or “mules”, as they are called here, help the vessel to move inside the canal.

The last gate the ship passes is a bit far from the observation point, but the procedure is similar.

Thus, we watched the passage of three ships. It was impressive. We spent almost a day here and got a little tired from the heat, waiting, crowd, but still it was worth it. We took a bus and went to Panama Bay to have some lunch and even managed to see the ship we had already seen along the way.