A mid-winter vacation to Panama offered a chance to see the canal up close. A few years ago, we rented a narrow boat and traveled canals in England and northern Wales with another couple, which involved getting out and using hand cranks to open and close gates to go up and down locks. In Panama, my wife and I booked a full transit, traveling north-northwest from the Pacific to the Caribbean, for a canal experience on a larger scale. Our excursion boat, operated by Canal and Bay Tours (click HERE for its website), offers full transits – including breakfast and lunch buffets – only on the first Saturday of each month. Half-transits, from Panama City to Gamboa, are offered every Saturday.
5:45 a.m. Pick up at hotel. (Click HERE for my New York Times review of our hotel, the Waldorf Astoria Panama.)
Way too early to be awake in Panama City, we boarded a bus that was collecting people from various downtown hotels. It took us to the Amador Causeway, where my wife, Jane, and I had bicycled the day before. The mile-and-a-half causeway, built over a century ago with rocks and soil excavated during construction of the canal, links the mainland with three small islands at the Pacific entrance to the canal.
6:55 a.m. Board boat at an Amador Causeway marina.
After a bit of a wait, we’re given wrist bands that identify us as full-transit passengers – about half the people starting out with us are going only halfway. The boat is the Tuira II, with two decks of open-air seating. Its capacity is listed at 450 passengers, but it looks as if our fellow canal enthusiasts are perhaps only half that number. Almost all the passengers are speaking Spanish, though German, French and English can also be heard. A couple of people are carrying copies of David McCullough’s 1977 book “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870 – 1914,” appropriate reading for this trip.
7:40 a.m. Boat leaves marina.
Our bilingual guide introduces himself over the P.A. system: Melvyn Oller. He tells me later that he’s been a guide with Canal & Bay Tours for 12 years, but that it’s been eight years since he’s made a complete transit. You’d never know it from the wealth of canal statistics, trivia and other information that he has at the tip of his tongue.
7:50 a.m. Idling in Panama Bay, waiting for a canal pilot.
Captains do not take their own ships though the canal, not even a relatively small boat like ours. Every craft is commanded by a canal pilot. Melvyn says there are 298 canal pilots, two of whom are women.
7:55 a.m. Canal pilot jumps from a launch onto our boat. We move into the canal channel.
Boats do not go through the canal for free. Fees for a one-way transit start at $800 for boats less than 50 feet. Our 117-foot excursion boat is charged $3,200, Melvyn says, and the fees go up to at least $429,000, which he says is what the 965-foot-long, 105-foot-wide cruise ship Norwegian Pearl pays. There are additional charges for the use of tugboats and for lines that keep ships from scraping the sides of the locks. (The lowest fee ever was 36 cents in 1928, paid by the American adventurer Richard Halliburton when he swam the canal.) The Panama Canal Authority reports that it contributed over $1 billion to the national treasury in 2011.
8:30 a.m. We pass under the Bridge of the Americas.
We’re cruising past the port of Balboa, with docked ships, shipping containers and cranes lining the shore, when we encounter this mile-long, four-lane bridge. When it opened in 1962, it was the first fixed bridge over the canal, and today it’s one of only two fixed bridges. (There’s still a moveable bridge at the Gatun locks.) The bridge’s clearance, 201 feet at high tide, sets a height limit for ships going through the canal. A third bridge is planned near the Caribbean entrance.
9:35 a.m. Approaching the Miraflores locks. We wait for a Caribbean-bound freighter to clear the first starboard lock so we can enter.
All ships use their own power to move through the canal, even entering and leaving the locks. We see thick cables connecting ships with locomotives, called mules, on the sides of the locks. These cables keep ships centered in the locks and away from the concrete sides; they do not pull the ships through. There’s no way for us to know why the freighter isn’t advancing into the next lock.
9:55 a.m. We head instead for the first port lock, following Wind Spirit, a sailing cruise ship out of Nassau.
Melvyn says the pilot has been told to move to the other set of locks – all the canal’s original locks are parallel twins that operate separately, so two large ships can advance at the same time or pass each other. The canal operators try to maximize traffic in the locks to save energy and water – a full transit uses all three Pacific and all three Atlantic locks and releases 52 million gallons of fresh water to the sea – so our boat and the 440-foot Wind Spirit, one of the Windstar line’s cruising yachts, will share locks all the way through to the Caribbean. The locks are 1,050 feet long and 110 feet wide and can handle ships up to 965 feet long and 106 feet wide. A lot of large birds hover over the water just below the gate, the point at which the fresh water of the canal abruptly meets the salt water of the sea, sending fresh-water fish into distress and making them easy picking for egrets, herons, hawks and pelicans.
10:10 a.m. Gates close behind us and chutes in the bottom fill the lock with water. The concrete walls appear to slide down as our boat calmly rises about 27 feet.
We’ll be moving through fresh water from now until we leave the last lock at the Caribbean end. Our boat is not connected to the mules – guide ropes tied to the sides of the lock are used instead. As it is, we’re so close to one side of the lock that I can reach out and touch the concrete wall. Melvyn says that all the concrete walls are original and were made using Portland cement from the United States. He also tells us that all the gates on the canal are original, made more than a century ago in Pittsburgh, though temporary gates are installed from time to time when the original gates are removed for maintenance. Mom was right – take care of your things and they’ll last a long time.
10:21 a.m. The lock's first chamber is full and we're waiting for the gate ahead to open so we can follow Wind Star into the next chamber, which happens at 10:23.
The gates open when the water level of our lock is the same as the level of the lock or channel we’re moving into. The gates resemble giant double doors that swing open. Closed, they from a shallow “V” shape with the point facing upstream. Watching us is a crowd at the Miraflores Visitors Center, which is a short cab ride from Panama City and which Jane and I visited a couple of days earlier. It has great views of the locks, a good restaurant, and a three-level museum that explains the history and construction of the canal. There’s also a distant view of new, larger locks being built to handle “New Panamax” ships. “Panamax” is the term for the largest ships that can be handled by the original locks. “Post-Panamax” is the term for any ship that exceeds those dimensions, and “New Panamax” is the term for ships that will fit into the new locks, which will be 1,400 feet long and 180 feet wide, allowing passage of ships 1,200 feet long and 161 feet wide. Tugs will accompany every ship into the new locks, which will recycle much of the fresh water they use.
10:50 a.m. We leave the Miraflores Locks and enter Miraflores Lake.
The two locks at Miraflores have put us 54 feet above sea level. Miraflores Lake is one of two artificial lakes created in the construction of the canal. Ships using the new locks will take a new channel from the new three-stage Miraflores Locks to the Culebra Cut, bypassing Miraflores Lake and the Pedro Miguel Lock.
|The century-old concrete walls of the Pedro Miguel Lock are close enough for us to reach out and touch.|
11:25 a.m. We reach the Pedro Miguel Lock, follow Wind Spirit into the chamber and are lifted about 31 feet.
Pedro Miquel raises us another 31 feet, putting us 85 feet above sea level, high enough for us to cross the continental divide.
11:45 a.m. We leave Pedro Miguel and enter the Culebra Cut.
This 8.5-mile section, also known as the Gaillard Cut, is too narrow in places for ships going in opposite directions to pass each other. Trying to cut a channel through Culebra Ridge was the stopping point in the late 1800s for the French effort to build the canal. The American accomplishment – using labor mainly from the West Indies – in dynamiting and digging the channel remains one of the world’s great feats of engineering. The cut was lowered from 194 feet above sea level to 39 feet before it was flooded. More than 100 million cubic yards of rock and soil were removed (remember the Amador Causeway?). Edward Berger, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia, regularly takes students to Panama to study the canal and its effects on politics, economics, culture and the environment. “Nobody ever appreciates how big the canal is, or how narrow the Culebra Cut is, until they see it in person,” he says. Steep stony hillsides still show how rock was cut in the creation of the canal. The Culebra Cut’s channel is being deepened and widened as part of the current expansion project.
Noon. We pass under the Centennial Bridge.
Spanning the Culebra Cut is the Centennial Bridge, completed in 2004 and named in honor of the Panama’s 1903 proclamation of independence from Colombia. The bridge is part of the Pan-American Highway.
12:51 p.m. We meet our first Pacific-bound ship, a freighter.
Ships enter the canal from each end in the mornings, pass each other during the day and exit in the evenings. There are about 40 complete transits each day, roughly 20 in each direction. We’ll see several more freighters, tankers and car carriers over the afternoon.
|El Renacer prison, as seen from the canal.|
Melvyn tells us we can’t see the specific building at El Renacer prison, where Noriega, 80, has been serving a sentence since 2011 for human rights violations dating to his rule in Panama. This follows almost two decades in American and French prisons.
12:55 p.m. We pass where the Chagres River feeds into the Culebra Cut and Gatun Lake.
The Chagres River – born in a jungle that gets over 100 inches of rain a year – once flowed only into the Caribbean. United States engineers built a dam to control that flow and form Gatun Lake, and created the Culebra Cut to divert some of the Chargres’s flow to the Pacific. It’s the only river in the world whose waters flow, albeit though artificial channels and locks, into two oceans. Its flow not only keeps Gatun Lake filled, it supplies the water that makes the locks possible – and it supplies drinking water to both Colón and Panama City, the cities at each end of the canal. For decades, there was virtually no development in the 10-mile-wide Canal Zone controlled by the United States, which had the happy effect of preserving much of the Chagres River’s watershed.
1 p.m. We tie up at a pier in Gamboa so the people who were doing half-transits can disembark.
We stop at a Panama Canal Authority pier alongside several of its 36 tugboats. Our half-transit passengers leave the boat here and immediately board buses for the return to Panama City, completely missing what makes Gamboa a popular destination. The Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which welcomes day-trippers from Panama City, offers a variety of wildlife and birding tours, an aerial tram through a forest canopy and a variety of exhibitions on jungle creatures and plants. Of course, we miss all of this, too, seeing only the jungle’s edge from the canal
1:15 p.m. We enter Gatun Lake.
Gatun Lake accounts for 21 of the canal’s total 50 miles. When it was built, it was the world’s largest artificial lake at 164 square miles. It’s at the same elevation – 85 feet above sea level – as the Culebra Cut. Plenty of room here for giant ships to pass each other.
2:30 p.m. We pass Barro Colorado, a 5,000-acre island that is home to the Smithsonian's Tropical Research station.
What were once hills became islands when Gatun Lake filled with water. One of these is Barro Colorado, a biological reserve administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Like Gamboa, it’s a popular daytrip out of Panama City. There are trails to hike and an interactive loop that takes about three hours. Talk about biodiversity. The island boasts 480 species of trees, 70 kinds of bats, 384 species of birds, and so on. From the boat, we see only its heavily wooded shore. This juxtaposition of primal wilderness, artificial waterways and giant ships intrigued one of our fellow passengers on the Tuira II. “What I most looked forward to in the canal transit was the sense of the balance between this huge project and the landscape,” says David William Foster, a professor of Latin American studies at Arizona State. “I’m fascinated by how the nature of the region seems to have absorbed the canal and by the sense of serenity as we traverse the man-made Gatun Lake.”
3:37 p.m. We pass the new Gatun Locks Visitors' Center, which overlooks the huge construction site of the new Gatun Locks.
The expansion project is in the news during our trip to Panama. The contractor, a consortium of Spanish, Italian, Belgian and Panamanian companies¸ is claiming cost overruns of $1.6 billion. The Panama Canal Authority has balked at paying that amount, and its public relations office has been cranking out press releases assuring that the expansion is still on track, even when work is temporarily halted. The project is about two-thirds complete, and Edward Berger at the University of Virginia is optimistic about it. “The expansion will be completed, and it's fascinating and impressive work,” he says. “The vision is absolutely audacious. We drove down into the project to see the scale of the locks – it’s an astounding amount of concrete to manufacture and pour, and seeing it first-hand made a huge impact on my students. A project like this is bound to run a little bit late, but it's exciting to think it's only a year or so from completion.”
3:45 p.m. We enter the first of the three Gatun Locks; this time a canal tugboat and Wind Spirit are behind us in the lock. At 4:58 we leave Gatun’s third lock and enter the Caribbean.
The three locks have taken us down 85 feet and we’re again at sea level. We pass the Caribbean entrance to the new channel that eventually will take ships to the new Gatun locks. On the shore we see four huge gates, made in Italy,that will be used in the new locks. These gates – 189 feet long, almost 33 feet thick, 99 feet high and 3,100 tons – will slide in and out of the canal walls. I can’t help but wonder if they will last a century or more.
5:18 p.m. We pass the Caribbean entrance to the new channel that will eventually take New Panamax ships to the new Gatun Locks, and by 5:50 we’re in Colón harbor.
We dock near a cruise ship, the Celebrity Equinox, which at 1,033 feet long and 121 feet wide is too large for the current canal but will fit comfortably in the expanded canal.
6:15 p.m. We dock and board buses, and by 8 p.m. we’re back at our hotel.
We’ve been in two oceans, crossed a continental divide – and traveled between 1914 and 2014.