The Panama Canal is an amazing combination of ingenuity, engineering and sheer mastery.
I recommend that you first start with a visit to the Panama Canal Miraflores Visitor’s Center. The three story center has a museum and theater so that you can understand the history of how the Canal was created and how it operates.
In a nutshell, because of the difference in water levels between Gatun Lake and the two oceans a boat/ship must be lifted or lowered via a series of water locks.
At the center there are also two observation decks located directly next to the Miraflores locks. Here you can see a “mule” pulling one of the large ships through the locks.
By large ship I mean ginormous container vessel. There are mere inches between the land and the ship as it travels through the locks. It is an incredible sight to see.
The next day we arose early and made our way to the boat we would board to take us through the locks.
Did you know that Panama is the only place in the world where you can see the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean?
Once on board we traveled across the open waters of the Amador Causeway and under the Bridge of the America’s. This bridge connects North and South America.
Soon after a specialized Panamanian pilot met and boarded our boat to guide it through the Canal.
Because our boat was on the small side we shared the journey through the lock with a larger container ship as well as the tug boat that helped to guide it.
Two guys in a row boat hooked the front of the ship to the “mule” that would pull the large ship through. I would not want that job. One wrong move….
Here is a closer look at a small train or “mule” . They get their name from the real mules that used to cross the isthmus of Panama.
The total length of the lock is 1,050 feet (320 m) long. A mere football field is just 360 feet long.
The boat/ship is raised a total of 85 feet via water entering the locked canal.
There is a double set of two giant metal doors that close the lock. They are 47 to 82 feet (14.33 to 24.99 m) high, depending on their position, and have a thickness of 7 feet (2.13 m). The walls of the concrete are between 45 to 55 feet (14 to 17 m) thick at the bases. Less strength is needed at the top and they taper down in steps to 8 feet (2.4 m) thick.
It is easy to understand why the locks were one of the greatest works of engineering in the world when they opened in 1914. Until the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930’s there was not another concrete construction of comparable size.
Each lock chamber requires 26,700,000 US gal (101,000 m3) of water to fill it from the lowered to the raised position. This is done via three large water culverts that carry the water from the lake to the sea and vice versa. Cross culverts run under each lock. The water is moved by gravity and the lock takes just eight minutes to fill. Given that on average an Olympic sized pool takes three days to fill it truly is an amazing experience. You can visibly see and definitely feel the boat being lifted by the rushing water.
Passing by the visitor center where we had stood just the day before.
It was truly a thrill when passing by great ships.
We only traveled halfway through the series of locks. A complete journey can take between eight to twelve hours.
We docked just after crossing under the beautiful Centennial Bridge.
It truly was the journey of a lifetime and a wonderful memory made.
Have a wonderful weekend!