If you asked 100 people what they knew about Panama, 99 would probably say: the Panama Canal. So when you go to Panama, you might as well get as good a look at the canal as you can get. And the best way to do that is to sail through it on a Panama Canal tour.
A number of tour companies in Panama City offer full or partial transits of the canal, so there’s no problem getting up close and personal with it. The one I took on my 2013 trip to Panama was a partial transit, starting near the Gatun locks on the Caribbean side and going through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks before arriving in Panama City.
It was a long, fascinating ride that gave me a real feeling of what it’s like to sail through the canal. And having previously gone through the Gatun locks on a cruise ship, I can now say I’ve done the Panama Canal from end to end.
First, a little primer on the canal. Completed in 1914 at the cost of more than 20,000 lives, it spans the narrowest strip of land in Central America, allowing ships to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific (and vice-versa) without going right around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America.
It does it by raising them 26 metres from sea level to a series of inland lakes and channels before dropping them back to sea level again, using three sets of locks. Fun fact: while it links east to west, the canal actually runs closer to north and south, because of how Panama is situated.
But back to the cruise. Leaving the Gatun docks, we found ourselves sailing across the man-made Gatun Lake, a big part of the canal system. So instead of sailing through a channel, as you might imagine, we were sailing past wooded hills and drowned islands.
And it didn’t take long to meet some of our fellow cruisers. Giant container ships soon began to appear on the horizon, drawing everyone to the railings to get a look at just how huge they are. They’re as big as apartment buildings, but more often than not, there was no sign of any human life aboard.
The tour guide kept up a constant stream of info on the canal, its history, and its workings. Every ship that goes through gets a canal pilot, he explained, just so there are no accidents: getting a ship stuck in the wrong place could plug up the whole system and cause a massive traffic jam.
He also alerted us to local points of interest, like this former U.S. facility, now a prison which is home to Panama’s most famous inmate, former dictator Manuel Noriega.
Leaving Lake Gatun, we entered the Culebra Cut, the man-made channel that takes the canal across the continental divide. This is one of the world’s great engineering achievements, since it had to be cut through miles of rock and clay, carving back hillsides that sometimes caved in during heavy rains, making them go back and start again.
The hill below was originally many metres higher than it is now, and had to be cut back for the project. However, said our guide, the canal builders got some clever help: they started a rumour that there was gold in the hill, and an army of gold-diggers appeared overnight and set to work.
Our first lock, Pedro Miguel, was a pretty utilitarian affair, with only one chamber. You’ll notice there’s a second channel, as there is at all the locks, so ships can pass in both directions at once. It’s kind of like a two-lane highway with a traffic island in the middle.
Waiting in the locks was a unique experience — something like sitting in the starting gate waiting for the race to begin. It took about 15 minutes for the water in our lock to fall to the level of Miraflores Lake. Finally, the doors opened and we could move on.
We didn’t need them, but the big ships are controlled as they pass through the locks by small locomotives called “mules”, which guide them with huge cables to keep them from hitting the sides. It still happens occasionally, and you’ll see scrapes on the sides of some ships. Along the way we got a few glimpses of the huge expansion that will soon make the canal an even bigger deal. New channels have been dug beside the original ones, with two new sets of locks, wide and deep enough to take the megaships that don’t fit into the current canal.
The expansion, slated to open in 2015, will double the amount of shipping going through the canal and triple the revenues.
The Miraflores Locks were the next stop, and while Pedro Miguel was matter-of-fact, this was a bigger affair. Miraflores is the lock nearest to Panama City, so it’s a bit of a showcase, and as we passed through we were watched by a big crowd at the nearby viewing platforms (remember to wave).
The Miraflores visitor centre also has a small museum explaining the workings of the canal; it’s worth a visit if you want a quick canal experience. Coming through the lock seemed like a showier affair, too — there was almost a sense of achievement watching the doors swing open in front of us. Here’s some video to let you see what it’s like.
After Miraflores, it’s not far to the Pacific, and before long we could see the famous Bridge of the Americas loom up in the distance.
To the left of the bridge you’ll notice a large freight terminal, which serves a strategic purpose. If a ship is too big to go through the canal, it can offload its cargo here and other ships will transport it to the Caribbean side to continue its journey.
Our last vista was Panama’s Amador causeway, with the city skyline beyond. And looming on the horizon, Frank Gehry’s startling, multi-coloured new biodiversity museum, which is supposed to look like a giant bird from above. I don’t know if it does or not, but after a day on the water I took their word for it. After all, we were home, the day was getting hot, and it was time for a beer.
Finally, a note on Panama Canal tours: my tour was sponsored by Decameron Explorer tours, but take a close look at the tour you book, since different tours take very different routes. Some do the whole canal, from end to end, while others start at Panama City and go through one or two locks before returning, or dropping you off for the drive back. Prices range from around $150 to more than $200, and refreshments are usually served.