PANAMá  |  Panamá City, Panamá Travel Guide
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The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal

Obviously you won’t want to miss this one. Mention Panamá and most people automatically attach the word “canal.” And no wonder. Since its completion in 1914, the Panama Canal has been considered the world’s greatest feat of engineering. The United States acquired the failed French Canal Company’s assets in 1904 and began that same year to build the canal, which runs almost 50 miles/80 kilometers across the narrowest part of the isthmus – from Colón City on the Atlantic to Panamá City on the Pacific. Although it took 10 years to dig through the continental divide, combat malaria and yellow fever, divert and dam rivers, and create a system of artificial lakes, the three-lock canal was completed ahead of schedule and, at a cost of $387 million, under budget. To visualize the amount of rock and dirt that was removed from the channel, just imagine it piled onto a train of flatcars long enough to circle the globe four times. Because saltwater would need to be pumped up from below sea level – 8.7 feet/29 meters below the channel – and would corrode the locks machinery, only freshwater can be used. To protect this watershed, five-mile-wide swaths of forest on both of the canal’s sides have been left undisturbed for almost a century.

Ships transiting from the Atlantic to the Pacific pass through almost seven miles/11 kilometers of the channel to the first lock system, Gatún, where they are raised 85.9 feet/25.9 meters to the level of Gatún lake. After passing over a 15.8-mile/25.5-kilometer stretch of the lake and through the Gaillard (Culebra) Cut, they enter Pedro Miguel Locks, where they are lowered 30.8 feet/9.4 meters. The canal continues another 1.30 miles/2.1 kilometers to Miraflores Locks, where the ships are again lowered to the Pacific tidewater level before proceeding the remaining 2.48 miles/4 kilometers to the sea. It takes approximately eight to 10 hours for each ship to transit the canal from ocean to ocean, and more than half of that is across Gatún Lake, the world’s second-largest man-made lake. Fifty thousand people were displaced as villages, forests and mountains were flooded during the lake’s creation, and all those many islands rising above its surface are the tops of drowned mountains.

Miraflores Locks are 20 minutes west of the city, just off the Gaillard Highway. The clearly marked entrance is on your left. The newly remodeled Miraflores Visitor Center reopened in fall of 2003, and has an expanded viewing platform for watching the giant ships make their way through the locks, and four indoor exhibition halls that contain scale models of the canal, a navigation simulator, artifacts and historical information. You can enjoy films of the canal’s history in the 182-seat theater. The current entrance fee to the Visitor Center is $8 (but rates may have changed by the time you read this). There’s plenty of parking. If coming by bus, take any one bound for Gamboa and ask to be dropped at the entrance to the Miraflores Locks.

The Gatún Locks near Colón do not have a visitor center, but there is a viewing platform and guides are available. There are no visitor facilities at Pedro Miguel Locks, which can be seen only from a distance. 

Last updated November 26, 2007
Posted in   Panamá  |  Panamá City
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