Arriving In Colon, Panama
We were excited that the next stop on our 26 day cruise was to be Panama. Costa Rica and Guatemala had provided us with interesting insights into Central America. Our 6 hour tour of Panama for this day was along the Panama Canal Atlantic To Pacific and back again! We would go one way by train along the side of the Panama Canal and return by bus with a stop at the Gatun Locks.
We were up early the morning we arrived in Colon, Panama and were amazed to see the line up of ships just floating in the bay waiting to enter the Panama Canal.
We were interested to learn that the Panama Canal pilots take over for the ship captains to go through the canal (the only place where the ship captain gives up control).
About 36-42 ships per day are currently going through the Panama Canal Panama Canal Atlantic To Pacific or back. A major expansion is planned to open next year that will not only add capacity but will also allow much bigger ships to transit. Many noted that the economy is very good in Panama – the middle class is stronger than ever, unemployment is low and construction is happening everywhere. We heard that the Chinese are currently looking to build a competing canal in Nicaragua. Since a large percentage of current canal traffic is Chinese, it will be interesting to see what this will do to Panama Canal traffic and prices.
Panama Canal Atlantic To Pacific – Roundtrip In 6 Hours
We would learn how lucky we were when we got Arthur as our tour guide. He proved to be an entertaining font of knowledge who took advantage of the lack of traffic on this Easter Sunday to add more spots to our trip through the day. It was a quick bus trip to the train. We had opted for the more expensive train tour with the dome car that let you sit high up with windows all around.
We managed to snag a seat on the canal side and cleaned the window inside the train so we could take pictures from our seats as we passed along the Panama Canal Atlantic To Pacific. We quickly learned that there was also an outside platform at the end of the car if you wanted pictures with no windows.
The train tracks took us by Lake Gatun. This is the largest man made lake, created as part of the lake and lock design for the canal (see the history of the Panama Canal at the end of this blog). Much of what we saw transiting through the lake to the locks were commercial freighters transiting but we occasionally saw other pleasure craft.
In many parts, the lake water was very brown due to silt returning to the lake and canal in every rain due to the high number of trees being cut down for the new canal. Dredging was being done on a regular basis.
From the train in a number of spots, we could see the construction on the new canal with the terracing being done and the large equipment excavating. Arthur ensured that the bus detoured to let us see the large channels being built at both ends. Looking at the current state of the new canal, you would question if it will really be ready by next year.
Panama City Surprise
When the train reached the end terminus after travelling the Panama Canal Atlantic To Pacific we were met again by our bus. We left the train station and headed towards Panama City. This city looked bigger, more modern and much more colourful than you would expect having landed at the poorer port on the Caribbean side. You could also see the older part of Panama City modelled after Cartagena (Columbia originally included Panama).
The traffic was light, allowing us to transit out along the isthmus to look back at Panama City. As we had seen as we approached the Colon harbour that morning, there was a long line of ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal.
The huge yacht club looking back at Panama City demonstrated the growth of the rich class. But when you drove back through the outer edges of the city you could see the disparity on the other side of the tracks where the poor were selling their houses for continued development.
We were intrigued by the vast amount of street art decorating the city in bright colours!
Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal
Heading back the bus driver took us on the bridge over the water, that essentially joins the two halves of the country split by the canal. We could see all the way back to Panama City and see the work being done on this end of the new canal. After a u-turn we were heading back on the highway to the Caribbean side. When we reached the other side, we would get a similar glimpse of the work being done at the other end of the new canal.
Arriving at Gatun Locks, we were lucky to find four ships in the locks. Climbing up to the upper observation deck, we could see a huge freighter leaving and a massive RoRo (roll-on roll-off) car carrier being moved in the lock right in front of us.
The railway mules pulled the ship through the channel, the double lock doors closing behind it and the section emptying before the large ship moved to the next section. We had seen other locks in operation before but never had we experienced the massive size of the ships that passed so close before us this day.
It was a short ride back to the ship. We passed the massive tax free zone but had no time to shop due to our extra stops on this tour. Arthur was great, ensuring that we retained his gems of information about the Panama Canal Atlantic To Pacific with regular repetition and quizzes. We took his card for private tours if we return to Panama in the future.
More about building the Panama Canal:
The 51 mile Panama Canal goes through this tiny S-shaped country allowing you to see the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean and then set on the Pacific Ocean. It has been referred to as “the kiss of the oceans”. The transit through the canal takes 8-10 hours and saves 8,000 miles and 10 days for ships.
The building of this greatest man-made wonder suffered starts and stops. The original attempt was made by the French. De Lesseps envisioned another sea level canal like he had built for the Suez Canal but Panama was nothing like the Suez area. Dense rainforest, deep swamps, unstable hillsides and death by disease (yellow fever) plagued the early attempts. In 1889, France gave up after a $350 million disaster and having excavated 30 million cubic yards (but only 1/10 or what would be required).
The USA under Roosevelt became interested in the Panama Canal, driven by the need to be able to reposition battle ships from the west coast to the east coast much quicker. They had considered putting a canal in Nicaragua even with the high number of volcanoes. The decision to keep it as Panama was finally made when a major volcano erupted in 1902. The biggest challenge was that Panama was then owned by Columbia so the US needed to instigate and support a revolution to allow Panama to separate. The bloodless coupe ended in 1904 and the US bought the right to build the canal from the new Panamanian government for $10 million. Work began in 1902 and the canal was opened in 1914. The Panama Canal just recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, having operated year round and around the clock since 1963.
Two issues needed to be resolved before work could begin. The first was the lock design. Ultimately they decided to build a set of locks rather than the sea level canal that de Lessop had begun. The US brought John Stevens in to build the canal due to his extensive experience as a railroad engineer. His plan needed to consider the major challenges involved with moving the amount of earth that would be required for locks, the rugged mountainous stretches and the torrential rains and rising rivers (but no hurricanes in Panama!). He finally decided to use all of this in his “locks and lakes design” where rain and gravity would play a major factor in the lock operations. To this date, they have never had to use a single pump for the lock operations!
The second biggest issue was ensuring a successful ecosystem in which the workers would need to work (including their families). While over 20,000 people ultimately died from disease, Malaria and Yellow Fever were virtually eradicated in 18 months, allowing work to proceed with much less risk. Much was learned about mosquitos, how disease was transmitted and the timeline for infection.
After 4 years Stevens quit and was replaced by Goethals. The excavated earth was used to build the Gatun lock and when the Gatun lake was flooded a number of villages were buried under the water. It is said that enough earth was excavated in building the canal to build a Great Wall from New York to San Francisco! On May 20, 1913 the two steam shovels from either coast met and the canal was officially opened on August 14, 1914 (6 months early and under-budget by almost $23 Million). No one really noticed this major event because of the war starting.
Have you visited Panama and the Panama Canal Atlantic To Pacific? What should we see when we go back?