In this era of globalised travel, there are fewer experiences remaining that are true journeys. Transiting the Panama Canal is, however, one of those awe inspiring experiences that conjures the romantic notions of the original explorers. The mere mention of the Panama Canal is something distant and exotic. It represents much more than a Canal, being an eclectic mix of engineering combined with politics and Central American history all in one.
The Canal has had a long and somewhat chequered history. Initiated by the French who lost 25,000 lives in the misguided notion of building a sea level canal, the mantle was subsequently passed onto the Americans via a treaty which the Panamanians themselves played no part of. It represents an engineering marvel and transiting it is one of the world’s great experiences. A visitor to Panama can make an excursion to many visitor centres dotted along the canal that provide a close up of the workings of the Canal. However, for the true Canal experience, it is best to opt for an ocean to ocean transit. Numerous cruise lines offer this service.
Entering from the Atlantic or Caribbean side, one passes the San Cristobal breakwater before reaching the Canal proper at the Gatun locks. Seeing the height change of large ocean liners and the infamous “Panamax” is truly impressive. The Panamax ships are those designed to fit the canals with a few centimetres to spare. There is certainly little margin for error. With the opening of the new Canal, the size threshold is even greater, allowing for the world’s largest cargo vessels to transit the Canal for the first time.
Once through the Gatun locks, one enters the vast Gatun lake, framed by lush verdant rainforests, frequented by tropical coloured birds and the odd monkey. As a result of the special administration of the Canal zone historically, the area bordering the Canal is home to a beautifully preserved natural wilderness of lush vegetation, contrasting with the man made lines of the canal itself.
Edging closer to the Pacific, one passes the Chagos river, one of the main sources of water for the canal. Nearby, lies the prison where infamous dictator Noriega is held. This low rise building, set among the palm trees, is somewhat unassuming. Were it not for the lookout towers, one would not realise it was a prison. Considering Noriega’s infamy within Panama’s chequered history, it is perhaps a political point that Noriega’s prison is visible from the canal itself.
Descent to the Pacific is negotiated via a series of locks, first the Pedro Miguel and then the Miraflores locks. These locks are a reminder of the intense engineering involved. Ships are pulled along by manually operated mules which ride alongside the canal. At each lock the water level is raised in a mesmerising process repeated for each ship in turn.
Once past the Miraflores locks, one passes the immense Culebra Cut which remains as a reminder the human cost involved in constructing the canal. The creation of this passage through the mountainous terrain was besieged by numerous landslides in its creation, testament to the extremes of Panama’s wet season.
Numerous bridges cross the Canal. On the Atlantic there is only one retractable bridge allowing a single flow of traffic. Seeing the tropical coloured buses dart across the Canal before the next ship arrives is a surreal sight. Facing looming cargo vessels and liners whilst on your daily commute must constitute one of the more interesting commutes in the world. The Centennial Bridge is a beautifully graceful structure spanning the Canal on its Pacific side. Named to commemorate the country’s centennial celebrations in 2003, its gleaming cables are an immense sight when passing underneath.
The opening of the new much wider Canal is testament to the progress made by Panama as a country. Whilst construction of the new Canal might have run behind schedule and exceeded its original budget, where once American control was essential in the construction of the original Canal, the new Canal is very much a Panamanian endeavour. Its opening has facilitated the transit of a new generation of super cargo vessel and ocean liner, maintaining the Canal’s position into the future. For the traveller, however, the Canal is more than pure economics. The Canal provides a physical splice through Central American history, politics and geography in a truly unique and memorable way.
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