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Feb 2005
Issue 057

Out now!

A day trip to the Panama Canal

My recent visit to the Panama Canal proved an exciting finish to a two-month Central American journey which started with Spanish lessons in Guatemala. I’d never given much thought to what the canal actually looked like or how it operated before my sojourn. Somehow, though, it was different than I expected.

First, its southern Pacific entrance/exit forms the western city limits of Panama City, the nation’s eclectic capital. Second, there are only three locks on the entire 80-kilometer length of the canal. Third, Miraflores Locks, the closest to town and, hence, the most-visited, is vessel-less for more hours of the day than not (though the canal itself is operational 24 hours a day). Point three surprised me the most.

It seemed a sensible assumption that I would find ships and luxury cruise liners in the set of double locks at any time of day. So, I set out one morning by local bus and reached Miraflores Locks before 10 a.m. Only thing was, there were no vessels in sight and the place seemed abandoned.

“Where are all the boats?” I asked a security officer. “They’re moved through in two groups,” he explained. “Northbound in the morning and southbound in the afternoon. They’ll start coming through about 1 o’clock.” He also told me traffic moves more efficiently if it’s heading in the same direction.

Having the place virtually to myself meant quiet time to read the free Panama Canal brochure the guard gave me and to explore the miniscule museum. I watched a 10-minute video presentation twice, first in Spanish, then in English (it alternates all day). In my mind’s eye, I travelled from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea and back via the man-made Gatun Lake and the Gaillard Cut.

I also perused the historical photographs on the walls. Outside, I climbed aboard two retired locomotives that were once used to guide the vessels through the locks. Then I had a bit of a wait.

To pass the time I hopped on a northbound bus for Summit Botanical Gardens & Zoo, 10 kilometers away. Even at $1, the entrance fee seemed too much for viewing underwhelming flora and poorly maintained cages with lethargic birds and big cats. The best thing about the ride was the glimpse of the Pedro Miguel Locks, only
a few kilometers north of Miraflores.

When I returned to Miraflores sometime before 2 p.m. the place was crowded with boats and spectators alike. I had to elbow my way to the front of the viewing gallery and had all but forgotten the solitude of morning.

“Now entering the lock,” a voice announced, “is the Topaz Ace. This vehicular transporter is carrying a load of 5,000 cars and trucks.” Gasps filled the gallery. “Price tag for today’s passage is $133,000.” More gasps. “The highest price ever paid was for the January 17, 2003 passage of the luxury liner Coral Princess. A cool $217,000.” Gulps of air. “The average toll is $48,000. The minimum is $500.”

A few squeaks. “The lowest price ever paid was on August 23, 1928 by Richard Halliburton who swam the canal in 10 days. He paid 36 cents. He was weighed and measured and charged according to displacement like any other vessel.” Giggles.

I was impressed. It was hard not to be. There before my eyes was a gargantuan piece of floating steel. And it was filled with more steel. At 32.31 meters wide, the maximum allowed width, there were only 2 feet of manoeuverability left on either side.
The longer I watched the more amazed I became.

Actually, the fascination started the day before at the Museo del Canal Interoceanico, the official canal museum housed in a wonderfully restored building in the heart of Casco Antiguo, Panama City’s blended Havana-New Orleans-style quarter. The area is, in fact, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The museum presents a historical overview of the canal making it a recommended stop prior to visiting the canal. I spent two easy hours there marvelling over photos, video, documents, equipment, and, of course, statistics.

Some 14,000 vessels from 70 nations transit the canal each year. Maximum length: 294.13 meters. Maximum draft: 12.04 meters in fresh water. Each lockage uses 197 million liters of water. Transit averages 8 hours. Vessels are elevated 26 meters above sea level. The canal is the only place in the world where the captain of a vessel is obliged to yield command of the bridge — an authorized canal pilot takes over. Construction removed enough earth to circle the globe four times on railroad flatcars. The canal collects nearly $2 million in tolls daily. The Canal Authority invests $150 million annually on maintenance.

But for me the most impressive number was 1914. That’s the year the U.S. cargo ship “Ancon” made the first transit (nearly 1 million vessels have transited the canal since). The number astounded me because it means the canal is nearly 100 years old, built with turn-of-the-20th-century technology. Simply put, it remains one of the world’s greatest engineering feats.

Looking out from the gallery of the stadium-style seating, the world dwarfed by the oil tankers and cargo ships before me, I considered the significance of this joint between the North and South American continents. The only other way to the opposite side is via Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, more than 10,000 kilometers away. Despite high toll fees, passage here saves companies heaps of money and time. Passage is guaranteed to anyone who pays the tolls, regardless of their flag, but control of the canal has often been a political hot potato.

A canal route survey was first ordered by Spain’s King Carlos V in 1524. The French actually broke ground in 1880 only to be defeated 20 years later by jungle diseases and financial troubles. The U.S. picked up the task in 1903. But control remained a bone of political contention between the U.S. and Panamanian governments until the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties phased in total authority of the canal on December 31, 1999 to the locals. At last, the waterway truly became Panama’s canal.

By 5 p.m. the bus loads of tourists had gone.

I savored the tranquility as the ships moved effortlessly, almost silently, through the channel, safely tethered to guidance locomotives at either side. The biggest vessel of the day, a 255-meter oil tanker, was then swallowed by the lock when
it was drained.

I, too, was drained. The sun had been staring me in the face all afternoon and it had worn me out. I was also overwhelmed by the whole Panama Canal experience, for it’s more than a waterway. It’s a working monument to human ingenuity and determination, and the history and politics of a nation. I had learned a lot and the visit was one of the best day trips I’ve ever had.

Text & Photos: Jono David


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Open daily from 9am-5pm. Free admission.

Take any bus bound for Gamboa (north of the locks) from Plaza Cinco de Mayo bus terminal (just north of the pedestrian mall on Avenida Central, near the Legislative Palace). Buses depart roughly every half hour, $0.35, approximately 30 minutes (12 kilometers). By TAXI, bargain hard for a $10 fare from the city.

Ships pass through the Miraflores Locks in roughly two time blocks daily: NORTHBOUND: 6am till 10am; SOUTHBOUND: 1pm till 5pm.
aka the Panama Canal Museum, Plaza Independencia in Casco Antiguo, Panama City. www.sinfo.net/pcmuseum
Email: [email protected] Entry: $2. Open: Tue-Sun, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Panama uses the US dollar (US$). It is sometimes referred to as the ‘balboa’, which equals 100 centavos or 100 US cents. Travellers’ Cheques and credit cards are easily and widely accepted, and ATMs are also widely available.

AUTORIDAD DEL CANAL DEL PANAMA (Panama Canal Authority): www.pancanal.com,
Email: [email protected]
Instituto Panameno de Turismo (IPAT), www.panamainfo.com or www.visitpanama.com.