The Panama Canal is considered by many to be the greatest engineering feat of the last century and perfect example of human initiative and courage. So what better time to explore this technological wonder than during the year of its 100th Anniversary?
The project took ten years to finish and cost a great deal in blood and treasure. The purpose of the canal was to create a shorter route between the Atlantic and the Pacific, rather than go around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. The new 48-mile route shortened the distance by 7,000 miles.
The project to connect the two oceans was first started by the French in 1881, but it was abandoned when malaria and yellow fever claimed 220,000 lives and combined with the astronomical costs, became an impossible burden for the French to sustain. Fifteen years later, the project was resumed by the United States, and the task was completed ten years later. Much of the canal was constructed during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), who considered this project the most important accomplishment of his administration.
The canal was opened on August 15, 1914 and established an expanded route for global commerce. The shortcut consists of a series of two-lane locks that lift the vessels from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake which sits in the middle of the canal transit. Once a ship moves past the Gatun Lake, another set of locks lowers it back down to sea level so that it can continue its passage to the ocean.
I chose to transverse the entire length on a cruise ship. We entered the mouth of the canal from the Port of Balboa on the Pacific side and exited through the Port of Colon and into the Caribbean Sea on the Atlantic side.
A surreal panorama of dawn breaking on Panama City was the first the first thing I saw on the Panama Canal passage.
Small but powerful tugs abound near the locks to assist the vessels into the locks, if needed.
The Miraflores Locks is perhaps the most famous due to its proximity to Panama City. Tourists and residents in the city can take a short drive to see the locks processing a ship without having to actually board a ship.
The water used for the Miraflores (and all the other) Locks is poured by gravity from Gatun Lake using a culvert system from the side and center walls.
I enjoyed various views of the canal from the balcony of my cabin.
But when it came to viewing the locks, I had a more expansive panoramic view from the top deck, while standing on a chair with friend Cindy.
Passing through the large Gatun Lake presented more stunning vistas with its abundance of small, uninhabited, thickly forested islands. The lake itself is a man-made, forming the water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, allowing ships to pass from both directions.
A new, wider lane of locks is currently under construction and is due to open in 2016.