While the country’s promotion slogan proclaims that Panama is “more than a Canal,” the country surely embraces one of the world’s most important waterways, an engineering triumph that traverses Panama at the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Approximately 50 miles long, it took 10 years to build the canal, which was officially inaugurated on Aug. 15, 1914 with the transit of the ship USS Ancon.
Right now, Panama is putting the finishing touches on making the “Big Ditch” even bigger. Work is close to complete on the canal’s multibillion-dollar expansion, which will widen and deepen the existing waterway and add two locks, in effect doubling the canal’s cargo capacity. When digging a wider ditch, Smithsonian scientists worked on their own project and unearthed fossils of 10 new animal species including miniature camels and horses, a rhinoceros and a giant bear-dog. The Panama Canal continues to amaze.
Administrators in charge of staging the “New” Canal’s coming out party report that this famous waterway debutant will be just shy of meeting and greeting new transit traffic in 2014, the year of its 100th anniversary. All signals are go for the first quarter of 2015.
VISITING THE CANAL
At Miraflores Lock
The Miraflores Locks has the most accessible viewing point for watching the colossal tankers and ships transit the canal; it is also the lock closest to Panama City. The observation platform allows great views up-close with bilingual guides providing a running commentary when ships are in transit. Part of the Miraflores complex includes the Miraflores Visitor Center, whose four exhibition halls cover the history of the canal in detail with information on watershed conservation, statistics, topographical model and simulator as well as a pilot’s view of the canal; there is also a short documentary film in English and Spanish. On the second floor is the excellent Miraflores Restaurant and Bar featuring not only good food but the best views in the house of the canal in operation.
At the Gatun Locks
At the Atlantic Ocean end of the canal and a short drive from Colon, an elevated platform guarantees superb views of the entrance to the canal, passing ships, the docks and shipyards of Cristobal and the surrounding tropical forest. A bilingual commentary is provided over a loudspeaker. Also, visitors are permitted to walk across the low bridge in front of the first lock chamber—particularly great when a boat is waiting to transit below.
Making the Panama Canal Transit
But, of course, the best way to appreciate the size and scope of the canal’s operation, as well as to enjoy a top deck view of the natural wonderland the whole watershed embraces, is to go through the canal itself. A full canal transit tour (seven to eight hours) starts at the port on the Pacific side, where day-trippers board for breakfast as the excursion boat heads to the Miraflores Locks that lifts passengers above sea level in two steps to enter the Miraflores Lake. At the Pedro Miguel Locks, all craft are raised once again to sail into the Galliard Cut—slicing through the Continental Divide, this was the toughest part of the canal to dig and the most dramatic to see—that opens up into the enormous Lake Gatun. At the Gatun Locks, travelers are then lowered to sea level to disembark at the port of Cristobal for the return to Panama City by motorcoach or rail. More departures are offered on the partial canal transit, a 4- to 5-hour outing, whose itinerary is basically the same, with the exception of the vessels turning around at Lake Gatun. Sailings are offered on Thursday, Friday and Saturday during the high season (January through March), and Saturday only during the rest of the year. All sailings come with lunch, soft drinks and narration by very knowledgeable guides.
Two companies offer partial and ocean-to-ocean transits of the Panama Canal. Panama Marine (pmatours.net), which offers the full transit on the third Saturday of the month, except in May, and Canal & Bay Tours (canalandbaytours.com), which makes the full transit on the first Saturday of the month. Both offer partial transits every Saturday, as well as additional departures during January/February/March.
DAY-TRIPPING AROUND THE CANAL ZONE
Founded by Americans in 1923, the 300-acre Summit Botanical Gardens are an easy visit from Panama City. The lush tropical environment is home to more than 15,000 tropical plants, many of which are sign-posted along the gardens’ trails, as well as a zoo, with animals and birds native to the tropics. Along well-maintained trails, of special interest is the compound housing endangered harpy eagles, the world’s largest predator bird that stands about three feet tall. Tours are available through the harpy eagle rotunda, and visitors will also find on site Baird’s tapirs making themselves at home around the watering hole on their own private grounds.
Soberania National Park, a 55,000-acre rainforest park protecting much of the Panama Canal watershed and extending along the eastern bank of the canal and ending at Lake Gatun, offers a remarkable diversity of wildlife just 30 minutes from downtown Panama City. Here, 1,000 mammal, 79 reptile and 55 amphibian species make themselves at home. This is one of the most accessible wildlife areas in Central America, and along well-maintained trails, one meets sloths, coatimundis, toucans and kinkajous. Among birdwatchers, the park’s superstar attraction is the Pipeline Road, where more birds have been sighted in a single day (385 species) than anywhere else in the world. For days at a time, birders tuck into the privately owned, hilltop Canopy Tower (canopytower.com), elegantly fashioned into a boutique hotel from a former U.S. military radar tower and a major birdwatching site in its own right. The favored place to stay by all visitors who want a wide rainforest experience is the nearby Gamboa Rainforest Resort & Spa (gamboaresort.com), which occupies a splendid tropical setting overlooking the Chagres River and the canal. The resort treats guests to a pool, spa, an aerial tram that rides through the jungle canopy, lake fishing expeditions, hiking and boating activities.
Chagres National Park protects the watershed of the Chagres River basin, which supplies 80 percent of the canal’s fresh water, as well as drinking water for Panama City. It’s made up of rugged tropical landscapes, Lake Alajuela and the Chagres River, and its local inhabitants include several Embera Indian communities that welcome visitors to their villages. The park shelters 500 bird species and five species of resident cats; however, on boating trips by kayak or canoe, the river otters, crocodiles and caimans are the sure sightings.
Barro Colorado Island, a 166-sq.-mile biological reserve in the middle of Lake Gatun, offers an excellent introduction to tropical ecology. The flora here are almost as magical as the fauna (120 mammal species including monkeys, tapirs, coatis, anteaters, peccaries, ocelots and 385 species of birds) that occupy the island’s hilly forests; since 1946, the island has been administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. A tour (organized by local tour operators) will include a boat ride on the Panama Canal and a rainforest hike with a naturalist, all of which must be reserved far in advance because visitor numbers are limited.
CANAL SITES IN THE CAPITAL
• The Panama Canal Museum, located in Casco Viejo and housed in an impressive French colonial building that started life in 1874 as the Grand Hotel and later served as the central post office, offers an excellent overview of the Isthmus, railroad and the waterway itself. Tours in English are available, but must be booked in advance.
• The Administration Building on Cerro Ancon doesn’t have a very impressive name; however, it is the headquarters of the Panama Canal Authority, and its dramatic murals in the rotunda depict the construction of the Panama Canal. The murals were painted by William B. Van Ingen, a New York artist who also created murals for the Library of Congress and the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.
➤ It took 10 years for the U.S. project team to complete the canal, using a workforce of 75,000.
➤ The canal uses a system of locks that raise ships 85 ft. from sea level to the level of Lake Gatun.
➤ Some 13,000-14,000 ships use the canal each year.
➤ Nearly 4.5 percent of global seagoing trade passes through the waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
➤ A typical transit of the canal by a cargo ship takes approximately eight to 10 hours.
➤ A boat traveling from New York to San Francisco saves 7,872 miles by using the Panama Canal instead of going around Cape Horn.
➤ For clients interested in the canal, there is no better book to recommend than “The Path Between the Seas”