Check That One Off the Bucket LIst: The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a miraculous engineering feat, a modern wonder of the world and something that I’ve always wanted to see.  (See my Central American Bucket List)Not only is it a 48 mile long connection dug in jungle and rock between two oceans but the boats going through start at sea level, rise up 54 feet and then back down through a system of three huge locks.  All using gravity.  And the size of these boats?  It’s no joke…The trip generally takes 8-10 hours.The canal was completed by the Americans (well, actually the workers were mainly from the West Indies, primarily Barbados) in 1914 and handed over to the Panamanians on December 31, 1999.

Visiting is a very cool thing.

The first set of locks from the Pacific side are the Miraflores Locks about 15 minutes outside of town.  There is a good sized visitor center and viewing area.  To enter as a non-resident, you can pay $5 USD to only access the viewing areas or $8USD to see the movie and the museum.  Pay the extra.  The movie is worth it.  Particularly if you are interested in the new locks that are being built to accommodate even larger boats…boats that can hold up to 12,000 containers or are 160 feet wide (currently the locks are 110 feet wide).  These mega-locks are set to open on the 100th anniversary of the completion of the canal in 2014.

When you first arrive, you won’t be impressed.  The building is 3 stories high and you are allowed on only two and the observation area is way too small…way too crowded.  Try to get a spot along the edge…people with their cameras will be elbowing you to get in front.

A large scarab beetle landed on the woman in front of me…something to photograph while I waited for the first ship of the day to enter the locks.  The boats go from Pacific to Atlantic in the morning and the opposite way in the afternoon.


This 106 foot wide tanker from Hong Kong was steered into the first level by tug boats and then the “mules”…or the electric locomotives.  The boat is driving itself and only steadied by the trains as a precaution.

The water and the boat drops 27 feet over 8 minutes and these doors open.  They are the height of a 7 story building.  Huge.  (A goofy announcer is doing a play-by-play in English and Spanish during the whole transit…telling you when to get your camera ready and when to wave to the boat’s passengers.)

The doors open and the boat glides through (with 2 feet on either side) to drop again in the next lock.

It’s an incredibly tight squeeze.

The crew of the St. Marien watching us watching them.

Ok…maybe I’ve made it seem boring…but it’s not.  It is amazing.  Wildly impressive.  Totally worth seeing.