Balboa, he who is said to have discovered the Pacific Ocean but of course the indigenous people knew it was there all along, was the first to propose the idea of a canal from one ocean to the other. The first to try to make it happen were the French in the late 1800s. They were defeated in part by tropical disease, slower than anticipated progress, and problems with financing the project.
It was the USA who successfully completed the project in 1913, only handing over control of the canal to the people of Panama in 1999. As recently as 1989 the US invaded Panama, apparently because of concerns about how the canal was being managed, and concerns about the safety of US citizens in the region. It’s a long and complex relationship, and although Panama now governs the canal itself there’s no mistaking the US presence and influence.
The best place to view the Panama Canal is at the Miraflores Visitor Centre, which is about 35km from Panama City itself. It’s open from 9:00 am to 4:30pm. Although the canal operates 24 hours a day there is no guarantee you will see a ship pass through the lock. That’s because of the complexity of the passage of each ship through the canal system. Ships can queue for several days before gaining passage. Nevertheless, the best chance is between about 9:00 and 11:00 in the morning and then after two in the afternoon. There are no ships passing through in the middle of the day, as this is when the direction of the ships using the canal changes.
We struck it lucky. One ship was just exiting the Miraflores Lock, heading towards the Atlantic Ocean, as we arrived
and another entered a few minutes later.
The water level in the locks is altered through gravity. More than 26,700,000 US gal (101,000 m3) of fresh water are required to raise the level of each lock, making water a highly valuable resource in Panama. It’s the tropical rains that keep the whole system flowing.
Passage through the Miraflores lock system is surprisingly quick – only eight minutes on average. You know it’s a big deal when you spot the ship crew standing at the bow of the boat, phones out, taking photos.
The locomotives, referred to as mules, aren’t towing the ships. Each vessel goes through under its own steam, although the captain must hand over control of his ship to a pilot. The locomotives are there to guide the ship through the narrow lock system, to prevent it hitting the side of the canal.
I could have watched all this for hours, in fact we did stay for two.
Miraflores visit centre has an interesting museum, detailing the history of the canal. Tens of thousands of the workers sickened and died due to the tropical diseases they encountered. The vast proprtion of these were local workers. It was during the construction of the canal that the connection between the deadly Yellow Fever and mosquitos was understood. A huge eradication programme drastically reduced the number of fatalities.
This group of students must have had a fascinating view, although I was happy enough to stay on the visitors platform!
How to get there:
Option one: A taxi, cost approx $US10 each way
Option two: Local bus : You catch it from the Albrook mall and you’ll have yo walk from the stop on the main road to the visitor centre, cost US35cents
Option three: The Miraflores Lock is one of the stops on The Hop on Hop Off Tourist Bus: cost $US29:00 for a one day ticket.
Entry to the Miraflores visitor centre is $US15.00 per person for non-nationals.