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The Panama Canal

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The Panama Canal
Panama City, Panama

The Panama Canal, designated as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World and a Monument of the Millennium” (American Society of Civil Engineers), took nearly 400 years to complete. In 1513, Spain’s Vasco Nunez de Balboa was the first person to navigate and cross the Isthmus to the Pacific Ocean, attracting even early travelers to use the narrow stretch of land between the Atlantic and Pacific for their journeys. Throughout it’s history, the Spanish, Dutch, French, British, and Americans looked for paths between the seas, but it wasn’t until 1903 when Panama gained it independence from Columbia (in a United States-backed revolution), and under the The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, the U.S. took over and completed the French canal project of the 51 mile-long (82km) channel from Colon to Balboa (Panama City). At a cost of $375 million and 5,609 lives, the canal was completed in 1914.

Panama Canal Panama City Panama

The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty had not only allowed the US to come in and build the canal, but also control a zone the length of the channel and 5 miles wide on each side. Officially, a 553 square mile US territory inside Panama. This divided the country in two and caused tension throughout most of the twentieth century. It was a very self-contained territory and contributed next to nothing to the Panamanian economy since most workers were either US citizens or West Indians. Eventually in the 1960’s, anti-American riots sparked government discussions regarding the occupied land, but it wasn’t until 1977 when US President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty returning 60% of the land to the Panamanians. The canal was also established as a neutral international waterway in 1977, which guarantied any vessel safe passage, even at a time of war.  In December 1999, the remaining 40% of the Canal Area was turned over to Panamanian authority.

Pedro Miguel Locks

In the canal, ships pass through three groups of locks: the Gatun Locks, Pedro Miguel Locks, and Miraflores Locks (12 locks total combinred). The Gatun Lock steps up 85 feet (26m) from the Atlantic Ocean to Gatun Lake and after crossing the lake, ships are then stepped down the 85ft (26m) through Pedro Miguel Locks, Miraflores Lake, and  Miraflores Locks before finally crossing into into the Pacific Ocean.  In the 8-15 hours (depending on traffic) it takes them to traverse the 51 mile stretch, ships save massive amounts of time (around 12 days average) and distance by avoiding the trek around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Ships travelling from New York to San Francisco will shave 7,872 miles off their trip just by going through the canal.

Crossing through the locks also comes with relatively high toll. Each ship pays different amounts based on its size and cargo, but large cargo ships typically pay $100,000 – $200,000 for the journey (at least that’s what I remember the announcer at Miraflores Locks saying). As of 2010, a cruise ship, the Norwegian Pearl, holds the toll record after paying $375,600 to pass through, while Richard Halliburton only shelled out $0.36 to swim the channel in 1928. Smaller private ships typically get through for around $54,000. Not exactly couch-change.

Panama Canal Panama City Panama

Around 40 ships use the crossing daily with nearly 15,000 coming through each year. Work began in 2007 on a $5.25 billion project to expand the Panama Canal. The project should be completed by 2014, allowing ships double the size of current dimensions to get through the channel.

Miraflores Locks: At 10km outside of Panama City, the Miraflores Locks are the closest to the city and the last step for ships crossing into the Pacific Ocean. At an $8 entry fee (per person), you gain access to a museum and grandstands on the first floor, restaurant on the second floor, and general overlook on the 4th floor (3rd was a private function room). We ended up skipping out on everything and just opted to sit up on the fourth floor watching the ships come through and drink some cervasas. Although not the most exciting event to watch, seeing the locks in action and thinking about what is actually happening is really interesting. It got even better at the end of the day when some large cargo ships moved through – amazing to see these ships above our heads moving through these relatively small channels. Definitely worth the visit.

Panama Canal Panama City Panama

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