I had always wondered about the workings of the famous Panama Canal, a remarkable success in architecture and engineering that remains a wonder of the modern world 100 years after completion. I could never quite grasp how it could be 100 years old, how someone could dream it up as a wild possibility – connecting the oceans – and turn it into a reality, pre the days of modern construction machinery and computer technology.
Of course the more you look into its back-story the more you realise how much trial and error, loss of money, failure, and even thousands of deaths went into the construction of this landmark. The canal was to take over 3 decades to complete and would cause not only monumental changes in international trade and in Panama’s economy (the canal currently makes $4millon a day), but it also proved a serious topic of international division and disillusionment within Panama, as the idea was dreamt up by the French (de Lesseps), completed by the U.S. and only on the eve of the millennium was it finally handed over to Panama by Jimmy Carter after essentially years of American occupation and Panamanian exploitation (before then there was a 5km barrier around the canal that was out of bounds to Panamanians).
After discovering the mass of history and politics behind this feat of man’s capabilities, the canal began to hold more and more intrigue to me and as soon as I had booked my flights to Panama City I couldn’t believe I was going to have the opportunity to see it first-hand and finally get my head around the actual logistics of its operation.
Panama City is located on the country’s Pacific Coast where the Miraflores locks mark the canal’s entry point for ships coming from Pacific waters. However, here you can’t get up close to the locks to see the cogs of machinery at work, so travelling 50mins to Gatun locks on the Atlantic side provides a much clearer understanding as you can watch the process from metres away with a good vantage point. Here boats as big as 33mts wide (known as Panamax) are called in from a wait of around 14 hours in the artificial Gatun lake, having already paid their hefty sum for right of passage in cash at least 48hrs in advance. Standing on the observation platform I observed the spectacle for over an hour as boats were guided into the canal (captains legally have to hand over control to the Panamanian authorities to pass through the locks) and I watched the water rise and fall (the canal is 26mts above sea level) and the gates slowly open and close, a seemingly seamless process. Once through, the boats have an 80km crossing with 2 more locks, and imagining the alternative option of sailing around the entirety of the continent puts the utter importance of the construction into perspective.
Catching the old 1850’s gold train from Panama City to Colon is a real experience and unique way of getting to Gatun locks, as it crosses the isthmus with great views of the boats cruising the canal from the observation carriage.
What really astounded me from my visit was that a whopping total of 26 million gallons of water is transferred by gravity for each lock crossing, a vast amount of water and an immense amount of waste. For this reason Panama are in the process of an expansion of the canal which is currently about 80% complete, with the aim of a more economical and environmentally viable operation which should save around 7% of current water losses through a recycling system. I guess I’ll just have to head back to Panama to check it out once it’s complete – any excuse to go back!