Before coming to Panama, all I really associated with the entire country was the canal. Now after being here for a couple of weeks of which I’ve spent time on the beach, diving with sharks off an island in the same underwater mountain range as the Galapagos and staying in Latin America’s tallest building for Katrina’s birthday. I now know the country has a lot more to it!
As they say – “when in Rome, do as the Romans” – well in Panama I followed the many tourists to Miraflores Locks close to Panama City to see this amazing 98 year old feat of engineering in action. It was incredible.
I’m a big kid when it comes to these things. I’m fascinated by big stuff whether it’s buildings – like the Trump Tower I’d earlier be escorted to the top of – or planes, trains and automobiles type things. I wish I could have been an engineer but sadly I’m not really blessed with the mathematical nor scientific skills so it’s the consultants life for me!
The canal itself spams the isthmus of the American continent at its narrowest point and is vital to world shipping – without it much of the world would find Chinese manufactured goods more expensive to come by while boats would take the more dangerous and costly trip around Cape Horn or by railway across the States.
As we arrived at the Locks which host a slightly pricey museum ($8 for full entry and $5 to just watch the boats pass through the locks) a ship almost as large as the canal can take was midway through its passage. The canal is actually being expanded to accommodate larger and more lucrative ships – 80% of Panamanians (I think) were in favour, nice to see democracy at work!
The Miraflores locks are the last set of 3 locks from the Atlantic to the Pacific side of the canal. The ship must descend by about 54ft to reach the bottom. I was in awe watching the ship process through. Locomotives are attached the the ship on either side, slowly keeping the vessel in line, something I hasn’t expected but cool to watch especially when they descend like a roller-coaster to meet the level of the ship.
The spectacle of the boat passing through wasn’t just of interest to the tourists but it seemed much of the crew of the ship turned out to wave and watch as their office squeezed through tight walls of rock.
I’m equally fascinated by the whole organisation of the process. Ships often reserve their slot through the canal over a year in advance with the passage costing an average of $54k. A Disney cruise ship recently paid over $300k to pass through. From Panama City it is possible to see the ships queuing to make the passage. If you miss your slot, you’re I’m trouble. An empty tanker vessel once paid over $200k to skip a 90 ship (3-4 day) queue when typically the trip would have been 20 times less. FYI, the lowest fee paid for the trip through the canal was $0.36 in 1928 by Richard Halliburton, he swam.
C.15,000 ships per year use the canal and this is expected to triple following expansion works making the locks 60% wider and 40% longer. Even at the cost of $5.5bn it’s not a bad investment!
If you ever find yourself in Panama – I strongly recommend you see this.