The Panama Canal was one of the largest and most challenging engineering projects ever completed, forever changing international trade. It is also listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World; therefore, it was a must see for us.
The first notion of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama was in the early 1500’s shortly after the Spanish arrived and involved digging a sea-level passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The first actual attempt in constructing a canal was by the French in 1881 when Panama was still a province of Colombia. Their attempt was a complete disaster – they didn’t believe in the use of engineering causing countless construction failures and furthermore malaria and yellow fever ran rampant in the area combined leaded to the death of over 22,000 workers. In 1889, the French project went bankrupt and was sold to the US in 1904 for a fraction of what was invested into it.
On November 2, 1903, US warships blocked sea passage for possible Colombian troops allowing the Panamanians to rebel and declare independence. A couple days later the US signed a treaty with the new US ambassador of the new Panamanian government granting them permission to build and indefinitely administer and defend the ‘Panama Canal Zone’. This would later become a contentious diplomatic issue between Colombia, Panama and the US. In 1914 the Canal was completed and operational after a mere 10 years of construction.
In 1977, proceeding decades of disagreement and in the wake of increasing violent protests, a new treaty was signed which gave the rights of the canal to Panama with full ownership handed over at noon on December 31, 1999.
- Total length: 77km
- Average crossing time: 8-10 hours
- There are 3 sets of locks which raise and lower ships 26 meters above sea level
- Length of the Culebra Cut: 12.6km
- The size of the locks dictates the maximum dimensions of vessels – the standard is known as PANAMAX
- Average ships per year: 14,000
- Fresh water is lost to the oceans at a rate of 101,000m3 per downward lock cycle
- Tolls to cross are based on size/length, type of ship (passenger/cargo), and weight
- Average toll is US$54,000
- Most expensive toll ever paid was by a Norwegian cruise ship in 2006 at US$375,600
- Cheapest toll ever paid was by an American man that swam across in 1928 at 36 cents
- The United States spent almost $375 million on the project (roughly equivalent to $8.6 billion now)
We arrived at the Miraflores Locks Visitors Centre shortly after 10:00 AM just in time to see a cruise ship leaving the second set of locks and a cargo ship entering the first set. Traffic in the Canal stops between 12:00 and 14:00 to switch the direction of traffic. Maybe we were unlucky as we just caught the last ships crossing that morning – we had hoped to see a couple other types of vessels cross as well.
In the Miraflores Visitors Centre there is also a short 3-D film on the construction and history of the Canal as well as a mini 3-floor museum which details how the canal works and again touches on the history and construction of the Canal.
The top floor of the museum illustrates designs for the new locks which parallel the existing sets and will allow ships 60% larger to cross the Isthmus of Panama. The dates posted around the museum haven’t been updated and still promote the scheduled opening date in 2014 (long since past). From the viewing platforms you can see that construction is nowhere near complete and their new completion date of 2016 seems unrealistic.