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
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
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
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
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