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The year 2014 was the year that the Panama Canal had been in operation for 100 years. So what’s a better year than to visit the Panama Canal? During my stopover of three full days in Panama in November 2014 I also visited the Panama Canal. I visited the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side with my trip to that side and the Pacific side with my Panama City trip (read here [online shortly keep tuned to the blog). As I stayed at the Intercontinental Resort Hotel just outside of Panama City I did need a bit more time for transportation but the hotel was so good I did not mind.
History of the Panama Canal
Back in the 16th century the King of Spain already ordered to check for a waterway through the Americas. It was until the French attempt in the late 19th century that transport was done over land through the Panama Railway. The French architect Ferdinand de Lesseps was the main mind behind the Panama Canal but the French did not manage to finish it. Early 20th century the US government took over the project and finished building it in 1914. During the years various dams, adjustments and improvements were made. Only in 1999 the Panama government took over the command of the waterway.
The waterway consists of three locks of which I visited two, see below. The waterway consists of dams, artificial lakes, manmade canals, bridges and more. At the moment there are new locks constructed so that bigger ships can enter the canal. These locks will be finished in the next year. Nicaragua is also working on their own canal since the end of 2014 which will bring competition on the market. Their canal is not without protest as a lot of nature will be gone to construct the canal. The economic benefits are more important probably.
Gatun locks of the Panama Canal
The Gatun locks are located at the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. They are easy to combine with a visit Colón, Portobelo and San Lorenzo forts which are UNESCO Heritage Sites. This is exactly what I did and makes a great day trip from Panama City. About the other sites I will write something more later. Check out this big ship which just passed the locks and going into open waters on the Atlantic Ocean.
Personally I liked the Gatun locks more as the Miraflores locks as you can almost touch the ships going through. The Gatun locks lift up/down the ships in three steps 26 meters. There are two lanes but they are both used in the same direction at a time and switched direction during the day. The ships are kept exactly in the middle of the locks by mules which are small locomotives on rails which keep the ships straight with chains. In the old days they were steam locomotives but these days to safe the environment they are now electric.
Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal
The Miraflores locks do the same as the Gatun locks at the Pacific Ocean side. I visited them together with a Panama City trip about which I will write later. The difference that the Miraflores locks have only two steps and the third step is done at the Pedro Miguel locks which I did not visit. It’s really interesting to see the ships going up and down which is actually a quite quick process. In the time-lapse image below you will get some impression on a ship going down.
The locks have a lot of safety build in. The doors are made very strong and they open in the direction of high water so in case of failure they will close automatic avoiding a flood of water going to low waters. The water used to lower and higher the ships comes from the Canal itself. After a ship has passed this actually flows into the oceans. This would mean that the Canal would drop in water level after many passings. To save water this is saved in basins so that water is actually used a few times on different levels. One thing sure is that the Panama Canal brings a lot of wealth to Panama which you see throughout the country.
The system is really interesting and you can sit down to relax and see the ships pass by for hours. The best time to visit is after lunch time. The visiting time is approximate an hour plus transport. If you are in Panama City do not miss this!
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Did you visit this destination too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!
Sometimes it’s impossible to cover every single place of interest, activities, food, and others that might be relevant. In the below list you find a list of relevant links with further information about this destination which I have carefully curated. These will help plan your trip even better.
- If you are going to Panama then you can check this article: Panama tips for travellers. It contains all kinds of unefull information including visa requirements, accomodation suggestions, currency information and much more. Just tons of information to plan your Panama trip.
Gallery with images from the Panama Canal
Click an image for a full screen gallery of more photos taken during this trip. If you like to use any photo for commercial, private or editorial use please contact first for permission and/or pricing.