This post is also available in: Spanish
Ask anyone what the name Panama conjures up for them and “the Panama Canal” will be the prompt reply… and with reason. It is one of the engineering wonders of the world. To see a cruise or container ship glide through locks with inches to spare or coast past a rain forest is a mind- boggling sight.
The French started to build a canal in 1880, under the supervision of de Lessups of Suez fame. The venture failed. Then, in 1903, the U.S.A signed a treaty with Panama which had just seceded from Colombia (with help from U.S. gunboats) to build a canal. On August 15th, 1914, the U.S. cargo ship, Ancon made the first transit.
The Canal remained in U.S. hands until the end of 1999 when it came under Panama´s control following the treaties signed by Panama and the U.S. on Oct. 1st, 1979.
Nowadays there are many ships known as Panamax ships which only just squeeze through the locks and there are more ships being built which are too big for the locks. For this reason the Panama Canal Administration is building an extra set of wider and deeper locks, due to be finished in 2015 at a cost exceeding $5 billion.
The Canal is about 50 miles long and ships are lifted 85 feet in three lockages as they cross the Isthmus. The journey through the Canal takes about eight hours and a ship is normally in Canal waters between 14 and 16 hours.
At the Visitor Center at Miralflores Locks on the Pacific side or Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side bilingual commentators will give you a running commentary. A tour operator will organize a trip for you or take a hop-on hop-off bus to Miraflores. A very special way to see the Canal is to take a partial transit offered by Canal and Bay tours.