Undoubtedly Panama’s top tourist attraction, a visit to Panama would not be complete without a visit to the Panama Canal. The best place to see the Panama Canal is from the Miraflores Visitor Center, located approximately 15 minutes from downtown Panama City.
The Miraflores Visitor Center comprises several viewing platforms, a restaurant, museum, auditorium and gift shop. A constant commentary is given about boats transiting the Canal, including information like their origin, destination, the cargo on board, size and weight of the ship and the toll paid by the boat to transit the Panama Canal.
Located in the narrowest part of the American continent and the lowest region of the Panamanian isthmus; the Panama Canal was built by the United States of America from 1904 to 1914 and is still one of the world’s most amazing feats of engineering. In fact, the Panama Canal is listed as one of the Wonders of the Modern World.
The Panama Canal provides easy and reliable crossings between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for more than 750,000 vessels each year. Ships from all over the world are built to fit the exact specifications of the three sets of locks that are located along the amazing waterway. These ships are known as Panamax Ships.
The Panama Canal is 50 miles (80 km) long from and runs from northwest to southeast, with the Atlantic side entrance around 33 miles (54 km) north and 27 miles (43 km) west of the pacific mouth. The straight-line distance between those two point would only be 43 miles (69 km).
A ship takes approximately 8 to 10 hours to pass through the Panama Canal and must be pass through the three sets of locks – Gatun Locks close to the Atlantic entrance , Pedro Miguel Locks and Miraflores Locks close to the Pacific entrance. Each lock chamber is 110 ft. (33.53 m.) wide and 1,000 ft. (304.8 m.) long. Most of the trip through the canal is done with nature’s help, as the ships are lifted up by water from sea level to the lake, from where they are lowered to sea level again.
Gatun Lake, through which ships travel for 23 miles is one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. It covers an area of more than 163 square miles (425 km²) and was formed by damming the Chagres River. When navigating the lake you can see scores of small islands, which are actually the tops of hills that were submerged by the damming.
A hydro-electric plant at the dam provides part of the energy needed by the Panama Canal. The operation of the locks consumes an incredible amount of fresh water. Each time a ship passes through the waterway, about 52 million gallons of water, mostly from Gatun Lake, must flow into the locks and out to sea. All of the Panama Canal locks use gravitational force to empty and fill the chambers.
The Panama Canal is currently undergoing a process of expansion to create a third set of locks. Nowadays, cargo ships are being constructed that are too large to fit through the Panama Canal. These are known as Post-Panamax Ships. The project was first presented by the then-Panamanian President Martín Torrijos on April 24, 2006 and Panamanian citizens approved it in a national referendum in October, 2006. The project will double the canal’s capacity.
The Panama Canal expansion project will create a new lane of traffic along the Panama Canal by constructing a new set of locks. Details of the project include the following:
Construction of two lock complexes—one on the Atlantic side and another on the Pacific side—each with three chambers, which include three water-saving basins
Excavation of new access channels to the new locks and the widening of existing navigational channels
Deepening of the navigation channels and the elevation of Gatun Lake’s maximum operating level.
The Panama Canal expansion project started on September 3, 2007. The project promises to generate enough wealth to transform Panama into a First World country. The expansion of the Panama Canal is scheduled to be completed between 2014 and 2015.
Did You Know that…
… The cargo ship Ancon was the first vessel to transit the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914?
… A boat traveling from New York to San Francisco saves 7,872 miles by using the Panama Canal instead of going around Cape Horn?
… The highest toll paid for a transit through the Panama Canal until 1995 paid by the Crown Princess on May 2, 1993; it was US$141,349.97?
… The lowest toll paid was US$ 0.36 and was paid by Richard Halliburton who crossed the Panama Canal swimming in 1928?
… The San Juan Prospector was the longest ship to transit the Panama Canal; it was 751 ft. (229 m.) in length with a 107 ft. (32.6 m.) beam?
… The Hydrofoil Pegasus of the United States Navy did the fastest transit of the Panama Canal by completing it in 2 hours and 41 minutes?
… Each door of the locks in the Panama Canal weighs 750 tons?