Recently when we looked through old pictures, we realized to how many places we have been – long before we thought of or even started this blog. So, we decided to share with you once a week a place we explored in the past in our rubric “Been There Yesterdays”.
We have lost count on how many times we sailed through the Panama Canal – but it never lost its magic and fascination! Even now, we would right away hop on a ship and cross it again. Probably this time on a cargo ship instead of a cruise ship.
The Canal de Panama – as it is known in Spanish – is a 77.1 kilometer long ship canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean via the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. There are locks at each end to lift ships up to Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal.
The current locks are 33.5 meters wide. A third, wider lane of locks is currently under construction and is due to open in 2016.
France – under the lead of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man behind the construction of the Suez Canal – began to work on the canal in 1881, but had to stop because of engineering problems and high mortality (20’000 dead men in eight years!) due to yellow fewer, malaria and snake bites.
The United States took over the project in 1904 and after a decade the canal was completed. It was officially opened on August 15, 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Drake Passage or Strait of Magellan.
When approaching the Canal from the Pacific side, the ship first passes the Bridge of the Americas, the Puente de las Americas as it is known in Spanish.
When entering a lock, the vessel gets hooked up to the “mules” that keep the ship steady in the locks. These machines run along tracks that look like rollercoasters and play a vital role because the biggest ships, which can fit through the canal, have only about 30-60 centimeters spare in the chambers.
At the moment it takes 20 to 30 hours to go through the entire Panama Canal but there can be rather long waiting hours, especially for container and cargo ships as cruise ship companies are known to pay heavy fees (we talk about 6 figures in US$) in addition to the regular “passing fee” to skip the queues and transit during the day!
We used to dock at Cristobal (a part of the city Colon) on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. From there you can either visit the rapidly expanding Panama City or a land-based viewing platform for the Gatun locks.