Feb 24, 2020

The Panama Canal tour

The Panama Canal is an architectural wonder. In 1513, when the

first European, the Spanish explorer Vasco de Balboa, crossed the Isthmus of Panama, he became the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean. Thus began a dream to create a water route that would provide quick, easy access between the two great oceans. The first attempt was by a
French Company in 1880. At that time Panama was part of Colombia. The French attempt failed mainly due to the cost in money and lives. When the French abandoned the project the United States became interested in a canal and even considered one across Nicaragua. The Nicaragua Canal concept is revived every so often, most recently by a Hong Kong company but it too was abandoned. The United States ended up building the canal which opened in 1914. Control of the Panama Canal Zone was transferred to Panama in 1999.  

There is a museum in Old Town devoted to the construction of the
canal plus many like to visit the Mirafloras Visitor Center located
on the canal lock where displays provide the history of the canal and the canal’s operation.  Visitors can watch ships transiting.  The Mirafloras lock is one of three on the canal; two on the Pacific side and one on Lake Gatun.  The locks allow ships to raise and lower 85 feet to accommodate for the change in the terrain. 

However, the best way to experience the canal is on tourist boat.  So, that’s what I did.  John and I did it when we were here in 2002 but I have a love and fascination for waterways so I booked the trip.  The tour company picked me up at the hotel and I was lucky because the departure wasn’t until 10 a.m. The cargo ships get first dips on the canal because the average ship pays nearly $500,000 to transit. It is first-come first-through except for those who pay an extra $15,000 or more to go to the head of the line. Princess Cruise Line pays about $425,000 plus $35,000 to have a pre-reserved time to transit. A full transit takes eight to 10 hours. Most tours are for a half transit and include a meal.

It took me a while to figure out why when one ship left the lock
another didn’t enter going the other way.  The problem is the Continental Divide.  It is too narrow from more than one ship to go through at a time so the alternate traffic; one way for 12 hours and the other way for the next 12 hours. 

My tour started with a bus ride to Gamboa on Lake Gatun, basically in the middle of the canal. We went through the Continental Divide and into Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks where we waited for a ship to join us.  

The Erie Canal had a lasting
influence on all canal building.  Both shortened the distance and time to travel drastically and, of course, brought money into the area. When ships enter and leave the locks they are drawn by “mules,” not a mule called “Sal” but today the electric ones are still called “mules.” Two on each side of the ship to keep the ship in the middle. They run on tracks. 

The complete canal transit on a tour is long and one has to return by the tour’s bus so people wishing to visit Colon on the Atlantic side of the canal might consider taking the train.