Day 749 of Traveling the World, Panama Canal. February 20, 2020.

One of the wonders of the modern world, from 1914 comes the Panama Canal. Its construction befuddled the French, who abandoned it in 1904, having lost tens of thousands of workers to the heat, malaria, and yellow fever in the jungle. The Americans took over then, solved the mosquito problem, built new housing for the construction workers, and finished the job in 10 years. Construction of locks was necessary to get over the uneven terrain, and cutting through the Continental Divide to form a passageway, in itself, took five years. It is an amazing experience, as you enter the first lock and slowly rise from sea level. The lane is 110 feet wide, and our ship is 106 feet wide! That isn’t the maximum possible width for a ship passing through these locks, though. We were told that the widest ship transiting the locks, which was a US warship, was just 11 inches narrower than the locks.

Our ship was attached to three locomotives on either side for part of the journey. The locomotives are called “mules” because mules were used in the past for other canals, but never the Panama Canal. Ships normally travel through the canal under their own power and the mules just keep ships centered in the canal rather than pull them through, unless a ship loses power. If it does, all attention is directed toward getting the ship through the canal as quickly as possible. In fact, in the wider areas of the passage, tug boats travel alongside a transiting ship just in case it needs any assistance in the passage. Any delay in the locks means a loss of revenue, so they get right on it.

Being a cruise ship, knowing almost two years in advance the day and time we would be passing through, Holland American was able to make a reservation to pass through. The price tag? A cool $35,000! Freighters and other ships don’t always know precisely when they need to enter, so they stay in the ocean “waiting room” until the ships with reservations go through; only then is it their turn! The Panama Canal employs about 10,000 people and brings in $2 billion annually.

There aren’t many “pretty” photos here (other than the last one, before the video), but when you realize what was accomplished in this feat of engineering, the photos are just amazing. The canal cut off a whole month of travel for goods going from San Francisco to New York, saving shipping companies millions of dollars per year. It opened up a whole new trade route. In the first photo, we are approaching the enormous Bridge of the Americas, shown up close in Photo 2. It cost the US $20 million in 1962. In the third photo, we approach our lane, the one on the right, as the red and white cargo container before us entered into the left lane. We watched that ship’s progress, gradually rising as the lock flooded, to track what our own fate would be minutes later. You can see in Photo 5 how close we are to the sides; just two feet leeway on either side, remember!

So now we are traversing the Miraflores Locks, and in Photo 8, on the right, is the Visitor’s Center, watching our ship’s progress through the lock. That was us, about 10 years ago, when we were traveling in Panama and watched a ship from the visitor’s center. Now, it was our turn. All of the visitors waved wildly, as did we, a tradition that shouldn’t be broken. After that is our passage out of the lock, and the video at the end of this blog shows these smaller gates opening to allow us our exit. The hill you see is Gold Hill, named by the French when they started a rumor. To garner support for their efforts in the first crack at building the canal, they claimed that there was enough gold in this hill to pay back all of their investors, with some left over! Not a word of this was true, and not one ounce of gold was ever excavated from this hill. Then there is the Panama Canal Railway passing by. Some ships dock in Gatun Lake for the day and allow their passengers to go ashore to explore the Panama Canal region via railroad. Following that is Gatun Lake itself, the large interior lake that feeds water to the canal. You can see a small pilot boat alongside our cruise ship. When they were adjacent, our ship put down a rope ladder for a pilot, technicians, and a lecturer to board our ship. At the end of the day, they exited via the same method.

The final photo is a delicious benefit of the morning entrance into the Panama Canal…a Panama Bun, being served by waiters all over the ship. They have a mandarin orange and cream center, and were heavenly. As we already mentioned, the final video is a little glimpse of one of the many gates and locks controlling the ins and outs of the canal. We entered the Miraflores Locks from the Pacific Ocean around 7:30 am and departed into the Caribbean around 5:00 pm, so it was an entire day’s process, but so fascinating to see the technology.

By the way, you might think that this journey was from west to east, but actually the canal runs northwest. When we exited the final locks, we were quite a bit north and 25 miles west of where we entered.