The Panama Canal

There is one thing everybody knows about Panama – the Panama Canal. If you visit Panama, you need to visit the Panama Canal. The Canal Project was started by the French and later on finished by the United States in 1914. The canal is an artificial 82 km (51 mi) long waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean through the Isthmus of Panama. A set of locks on each end of the canal lifts the ships up to Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake is an artificial lake 26 m (85 ft) above sea level, created to reduce excavation to connect both ends of the canal.

The original locks are 34 m (110 ft) wide and every set of locks has two of them, for travel in each direction. The Miraflores and San Miguel Locks are within about 2 miles of each other on the Pacific side of the canal. On the Atlantic side, you have the Gatun locks.

Because of ships becoming bigger and bigger, the Panama Canal couldn’t handle them anymore. With the Panama Canal Expansion Project, two more locks were built, one on each end of the canal, to allow the ever bigger ships to pass through. The new locks are 180 ft (54.86 m) wide, deeper and longer. Because of this bigger ships, the existing channel through Gatun Lake got excavated deeper as well. (Official Panama Canal Expansion Project Pictures)

Miraflores Locks & San Miguel Locks

The Miraflores Locks are about a 45-minute drive away from Downtown Panama City. There is a visitor center which provides a lot of detailed history of the canal. On the higher floors of the visitor center is a terrace with great views of the canal and a restaurant.

About 2 miles down the Panama Canal you will find the San Miguel Locks. These locks are part of the original Panama Canal and not used by the New Panamax ships. There is no visitor center at the San Miguel Locks and the whole place is fenced in. However, you can see the “Puente Centenario” in the background.

 

Gatun Locks

The Gatun Locks are located on the northern end of the canal and connecting it with the Atlantic Ocean. AGUA CLARA VISITOR CENTER was constructed at the new set of locks. You find here information about the history of the original Panama Canal as well as of the expansion. The visitor center is located near the south entrance of the Gatun Locks. Here ships enter from Gatun Lake and get lowered to exit to the Atlantic Ocean or vice versa.

To get to Gatun Locks and Colon you can take “Transistmica” or the “Autopista Panama – Colon” which is a toll road. Autopista is the fastest way but if you have time and want to see some of the countrysides of Panama take the Transistmica up to Colon. Check the map, as there are no signs how to get to the Gatun Locks from either of the roads. (This might have changed now with the opening of the new locks).

A highlight at the Gatun Locks is the crossing over the actual locks. You can drive over the locks which open and close to let ships in and out. It is absolutely worth doing it and if there is a ship in the locks, you are so close to almost touch them. On the other side, you can visit Shelter Bay Marina and Fort San Lorenzo. Make a left and head south after you crossed the old section of the locks and you get to another small bridge crossing the Chagres River. Here you can see the hydro-electric powerhouse which is used to create electricity to operate the Panama Canal. The water from the power plant runs into the Chagres River which runs north-east to the Atlantic Ocean. At the mouth of the river, you find Fort San Lorenzo.

Fort San Lorenzo

Fort San Lorenz is a historic place with ruins of an old fort. It used to be the main Atlantic port on the isthmus of Panama. A small fee is charged to enter the area of the fort.

Colón

Colónis the closest town to the Gatun Locks and located on the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the capital of Panama’s Colón Province. Colón used to be a not very safe place to go, especially as a tourist. When I wandered around the Downtown area of the city with my DSLR, I got even warned by local people that this place is dangerous. However nothing ever happened to me, neither did I feel unsafe at any point of my visit. The houses and buildings look run-down and some of them look like they will collapse any second, but people are still living in them. In 2014 a massive restoration and reconstruction project got started. the First Baptist Church of Colón, Panama, is one of the buildings whose renovation has been completed.

 

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