Monday, August 4, 2014

The Panama Canal, an Engineering Challenge

To say the Panama Canal was an engineering challenge at the time of construction, is a gross understatement. This became obvious during my visit to the Miraflores Locks while vacationing in Panama.

View of the Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal

To watch humongous cargo ships go through the locks is also a sight worth seeing.

Cargo ship ready to go through the Miraflores Locks. Panama Canal.

Facts about ships passing through the Panama Canal Locks

  • As the ships goes through the locks, there is only 2 feet of clearance on each side of the ship, this is real close to the edge.
  • Ships are assisted by an on-land buggy making sure the ship does not ram into the sides.
  • The ship sails on its own power through the locks; they are not being pulled nor pushed through it.
Here is a video showing one of the ships I witnessed going through the locks.


  • When the ship enters the Panama Canal, they go through 3 series of locks.
Panama Canal Profile showing all the Locks in the canal.
  • The purpose of the locks is to raise and lower the ship from sea-level to the inland lake level which is 85 feet (26 meters) above sea-level and then back down to sea-level.
  • The entire process of raising or lowering the ships from sea-level relies only on gravity which is the amazing thing. The picture below shows the start of the process as shown in an animation at the museum. 
Figure showing a set of Locks - Panama Canal
  • Each lock drains or refills in 8 - 10 minutes so the announcer said at the Visitor Center, he even added that it drains faster than your home bathtub. I don't know about that but considering the amount of water each lock holds, 8-10 minutes is amazingly fast. Notice the ship level on the water on the pictures below.

Cargo ship waiting to go through the Miraflores locks - Panama Canal

Cargo ship at the lower water level ready to go through the Miraflores locks - Panama Canal


Some Facts about the Canal

  • The canal is 50 miles (80 km) long as compared with sailing around South America which is 8000 miles (12,875 km) in additional travel.
  • A ship takes about 8 hours to travel the entire Canal.
  • The total number of ships that traveled through the Canal in 2013 was 13,669 which average to 37 ships per day, a very busy canal. 
Map showing location of Panama Canal


What to Expect during your visit to the Miraflores Locks

  • It costs $15(USD) per person to enter the Visitor Center at the Miraflores locks. This however also allows you to enter the museum, see a film documentary, and access to the viewing area to watch ships going through the locks, not a bad deal.
  • The viewing area has 3 stories, I suggest you watch the process from at least two.
  • Allow an entire day for your visit. The scheduling of the ships going through the Canal can change without much notice. Although the canal runs 24-7, ships are only allowed to go through the canal in one direction at at time. This means all the scheduled ships going from the Atlantic to the Pacific could run in the morning schedule and the ships waiting to go in the other direction, Pacific to the Atlantic, run in the afternoon, except that morning starts after midnight and afternoon starts after all the morning ships have cleared the canal. So we arrived at 9am and the morning ships had already gone by, we had to wait until 2pm to see the first ship going by in the other direction. However it was worth the wait and besides this gave us a chance to see the documentary movie and take our time seeing the museum which is very interesting.
  • The visitor center also has a variety of places where you can eat and sit inside where you will appreciate the air conditioning and shade from any rain because it downpoured while we were waiting and then it abruptly stopped, typical of the tropics.

What you will see in the Panama Canal Museum

Your entry to the Visitor Center includes entry to the museum.
  • History
 I really enjoyed the museum because the history of the canal has been well documented and represented.
  • Bugs
The museum has samples of some of the bugs the early excavators of the canal found in the jungle. Let me first say, they are huge!! I mean they were HUGE! I am not used to seeing bugs this large and I can assure you that I would not have wanted to see them live even if not all dangerous because I am sure there were plenty of dangerous ones. After all, countless of people died while working on the canal mainly from diseases. I think if you ran into one of these things live, it would give you nightmares for many days. I did not enlarge the photos and I wish I had placed something near them to give you an idea of size because they were huge.


Bug sample at the Panama Canal museum
Bug sample at the Panama Canal museum


Bug sample at the Panama Canal museum
Bug sample at the Panama Canal museum

  • Simulator
The museum has a very neat simulator of a ship going through the canal with you on bridge. This simulator offers unique views of the surroundings as you by the locks; it is a very neat feeling. Check out my recording of the simulator experience.

  • Expansion
The museum also shows information about the current expansion of the canal scheduled for completion later this year, 2014. One the main reasons for the expansion is to allow bigger ships to go through the canal. Here is a picture showing the comparison of the size of ships. We are talking MEGA-ships will be able to go by, don't you think?

Figure showing comparison of ships that will be able to go through the new canal expansion.

Interesting Historical Facts about the Panama Canal

  • The Panama Canal was the second of its type when work began in 1880. The Suez Canal was the first canal in the world, completed in 1869.
  • The French built the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps was in charge of the construction. It is for this reason that he felt building the Panama Canal could be done easily and without many problems. He envisioned a sea-level canal connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.
  • History shows after 20 years of digging, the French failed to build the canal while in the process many people died from diseases. The French (Ferdinand de Lesseps) grossly underestimated the difficulties of building a sea-level canal in a very hilly jungle terrain. South America is very mountainous with one of the spines of the Andes going through Panama. At its lowest point the terrain is still 360 feet (110 meters) above sea-level. So his idea was to dig it all up, level it and dig a trench that would be at sea-level connecting the oceans. After all, the thought it was just a matter of digging; however digging a trench in sand is not the same as digging a trench in a hilly jungle.
  • Panama was part of Gran Colombia (1810-1830) instigated by the US Panama began a revolution seeking its independence from Gran Colombia (granted in 1903) and then gave the rights to the US to build the canal the French failed to accomplish.
Map of Gran Colombia

  • The US did finish the canal in 1914 and this included having perpetual control of the canal and its immediate area which over time caused a lot of tension and anti-American sentiment.
  • In 1977, the US signed a treaty with Panama starting the process of handing over complete control of the canal to Panama by 1999. The treaty also established the canal as a neutral zone even during time of war and both countries agreed to defend it.

In summary

I can say visiting the Panama Canal is worth it. It gave me a greater appreciation for the effort it took to achieve such an engineering challenge. You got to love those engineers then and now. I am very glad I went to see it.

I hope you enjoyed this post as I enjoyed sharing with you my visit to the Panama Canal. Please like this post in Google Plus and leave me a comment or question.

If you are planning of going to Panama in the future, read this post A few things to know when visiting Panama.

Wishing you Happy Travels in your neighborhood.

Vilma L-Anderson

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