The infamous Panama Canal, a storied wonder of man’s ability to make his own geography, has a lot of history. This is no simple boat path. We visited the canal with our guide, Renee, to learn about this site’s elevating appeal.
On the surface, the Panama Canal is a 48-mile man-made pathway that allows ships to cross from Pacific to Atlantic and back, reducing a 3-week trek down to 8-10 hours. Boats pay a toll according to their size, with recreational yachts paying a few hundred bucks and a fully-loaded cargo ship forking over more than $400,000. Tourists visit the Panama Canal especially to see the large ships pass through, but where’s the entertainment factor?
How about boats going up and down stairs made of water. Ever seen that before?
Renee informed us that the canal’s man-made Gatun Lake is about 85 feet above sea level. Boats ascend and descend this height through a series of “locks,” or chambers that fill with water. Imagine walking into an empty swimming pool. Next to you is a full swimming pool that empties half its water into yours. You’re now floating halfway up the pool and a door opens in front of you. You swim over to arrive in a new pool, also filled halfway up. The door you swam through closes behind you. Another full pool next to you empties halfway to make you float all the way to the top. The door opens up ahead of you and you’re good to go. On the other side, repeat the process in reverse. Stairs up, plateau across, stairs down. Now expand this thought to 26 million gallons of lake water per boat, per trip.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to make stairs out of water.
We stopped at Pedro Miguel, the second series of locks on the Pacific side, where a cargo ship was raising the final 8 meters before crossing Gatun Lake. After capturing it on camera from afar, we learned workers were performing maintenance on the canal and there wouldn’t be any more ships passing while we were there. That took away from seeing the locks in action, but the visitor center at Miraflores, the first set of locks, painted an excellent picture with its displays and taught us about the canal’s nearly 100-year history.
The visitor center offers three stories of interactive exhibits that tell the dramatic story of the building of the Canal and a bird’s eye view of ships climbing and descending the Miraflores locks. There’s plenty of other action around here, if you want to hang around for a bit after touring the Panama Canal. The annual Cayuco ocean-to-ocean kayak and running events in April present unique opportunities. No other place in the world can you go from Pacific to Atlantic and back, just like that.