The Panama Canal Connects
The Panama Canal consists of two man-made lakes – Miraflores Lake and Lake Gatun, a series of artificial channels, and three sets of locks that gradually lower ships from the Caribbean to the Pacific and vice versa. The trip through the Canal takes about nine hours and an average of forty vessels goes through the Canal each day. The Canal can accommodate vessels from a sailing yacht to all but the largest commercial ships, and ships are guided through the lock system by small locomotives, called “mules,” that run on a track along side the Canal.
The Isthmus of Panama has always been a strategic location. The first Spanish explorers talked of building a canal as early as the mid-1500s. Later, during the mad rush of fortune seekers heading for the California and Alaska gold fields in the mid 1800s, a railroad was constructed across the isthmus. Eventually, it was President Theodore Roosevelt, never one to be afraid of a large project, who committed the United States in 1904 to finishing the construction of the canal.
Building the Canal
The Panama Canal project was begun in 1880 by the French, under the direction of engineer Ferdinand de Lessops. The French plan was to dig a sea level canal (without the locks), but the construction bogged down due to the harsh jungle conditions and rampant disease, and the project was abandoned in 1889. By then, over 22,000 Frenchmen had died in the jungles of Panama.
By the time the Americans began the current Canal in 1904, the jungle had been partially cleared and much had been learned about preventing and curing yellow fever and malaria. Many fewer Americans died during the construction, but the Canal still claimed over 5,700 additional lives before it was opened in 1914. Water to fill the locks continued to be a problem for Canal, and in 1935, the Gatun Dam was completed to create Lake Alajuela Lake, which still acts as a reservoir for the Canal.
The Canal Today
The Panama Canal remains as vital today as it was in 1914. Administered by the Panama government, the Canal is continuously being improved and upgraded. The canal administration has recently committed over one billion dollars to widening and upgrading the Canal. Each year, over 14,000 ships pass through the locks, with an average toll of $54,000. Some of the largest ships, such as the mega-cruise liners pay well over $150,000 for the trip.
Visiting the Panama Canal
Cruise passengers continue to be fascinated with the Panama Canal and many cruise lines, such as Holland America Lines and Princes Cruises, offer itineraries that include a Panama Canal passage. Land-based travelers can take a day trip from nearby Panama City or Colon. Visitors can view the ships passing through the Canal at the Miraflores Lake visitors’ center. This modern facility includes three observation decks, a theater offering films about the history of the Canal, a snack bar and restaurant with a panoramic view, a gift shop, and changing exhibits on different aspects of the Canal.
Over ninety years since it opened, the Panama Canal continues to impress. One of the worlds greatest man-made wonders, it is well worth a trip to see its magnitude first-hand.