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Panama Canal Cruising

Travel Tips

Panama Canal Cruising Janet and I recently completed a trans-continental cruise and we got the pleasure of going through the Panama Canal. With Manual Noriega safely locked-up is an American prison, it’s a safe and fun ride.  The Panamanian authorities are always on the lookout for drug smugglers, seeking suspicious ships (like the one below) that may be carrying marijuana:

We have first-hand experience with locks ourselves, as Janet and I took the kids on a cross-country barge boat trip in Ireland a few years back, a 45-foot floating mobile home, complete with kitchen, bathroom and head. As we traversed the Emerald Isle, we had to operate the locks ourselves and Andy and Jen became competent lockmasters, elevating us up to 15 feet at a time to bypass the weirs (waterfalls) that dot the ancient canals.

Transition Cruising

A great way to traverse the Panama Canal is on a “transition cruise”, which happens in the late spring and fall, when the ships shuttle between Alaska in the summer and the Caribbean for the winter. You can also go through the canal on the around the world cruises and cruises from the Caribbean to the west coast of South America. When riding a cruise ship through the Panama Canal, it’s best to have your breakfast on your veranda so you can watch your ships pass through the locks. Here is a view of the east entrance of the Canal Zone:


A Pricey Ride

The cost of the Panama Canal crossing for the ship is over $200,000 for the nine-hour voyage, a relative bargain when you consider that the fuel costs alone to go around Tierra del Fuego, a three week journey of ten thousand miles (with amazing rough seas off the tip of South America) and bulk fuel costs of over $800,000. (The cheapest fare was 36 cents, paid by Richard Haliburton when he swam the canal as a publicity stunt). 

The Panama Canal serves over 15,000 ships per year, with dozens of ships queuing-up in the pre-dawn darkness, and 138 ships scheduled on the day we went through the canal:


Because of the huge expense of traversing the Panama Canal, only about 28 million in revenue comes from cruise ships, with less than 150 cruise ships making the expensive passage each year.

A Man, a Plan, a Canal: Panama

Originally, Panama was a part of Columbia, and Columbia has little interest in helping global commerce, hindering the original canal plans.  The native Panamanians dislike Columbia and they successfully succeeded with the help of the USA in 1903.  Columbia was paid $25m for the land in 1921 and Panama became a sovereign nation, with the US granting full independence of the Canal Zone in 1999.  The US retains perpetual rights to defend the neutrality of Panama and ensure global commerce in perpetuity.

The Panama Canal is the engineering triumph of the 20th century, being built between 1904 and 1914.  The canal costs 450 million per year to operate, and it operates well-under it's full-capacity of 27,000 ships per year, with only about 15,000 ships using the canal in 2005.

Building the Panama Canal cost 25,000 souls their lives lost, mostly due to accidents (landslides) and disease (yellow fever and malaria).  Yellow fever was especially awful, with less than a 50% survival rate and punctuated with tar-like black vomit.

Pickled Construction workers

Disposing of the dead bodies was such a problem that they started pickling the corpses in oak barrels and selling them to medical schools.

In medical schools across the USA, barrels of pickled construction workers were neatly stacked in the dissection labs, a morbid side-benefit of the Panama Canal project.

The Bizarre Geography of Panama

Panama has a longitude roughly equal to the east coast of the United States with a layout like the letter “S” laid on its side.  As such, a westward passage through the Panama Canal actually travels in a southeastern direction:


The largest ships (called Panamax ships), barely fit through the giant locks, with just inches to spare and you can literally touch the side of the locks from your balcony. The ships queue-up by the dozen awaiting their turn to enter the Canal, and a Panamanian pilot takes-control of the ship, assisted by nearly a dozen tugboats.

The Panama Canal Topography

In order to facilitate the waterway, the Gatun Dam was created, creating the world's largest man-made lake and raising the waterline nearly to the top of the continental divide.


The new lake rose the water level to 85 feet, and there are three modest locks on each side of the lake, each about 30 feet high and measuring 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long.  Expanding the new Gatun lake through the mountains at the continental divide was also a giant demolition project, requiring more explosives than was used in every war in history up until WWII.

The first westward-bound locks are the famous Gatun locks, raising the ship 85 feet to Gatun Lake:


The “Galliard Cut” is where it was necessary to chop through the mountains of the continental divide, loose soil that remain problematic, even today. Here is a part of the Galliard Cut, where landslides still occur and bulldozers work constantly to prevent further landslides:


Expanding the Panama Canal

Some of the largest cruise ships (i.e. the QE2), some of the newer aircraft carriers and the mega-tankers cannot fit in the Panama Canal locks. Panama recently announced plans to create new, wider lock channels at a cost of over four billion dollars, a project that will not be completed until 2022.  The canal widening is a risky proposition since the existing Panama Canal barely makes a profit after subtracting the half-billion a year in maintenance costs.  There is also the threat of a China-sponsored plan for another trans-oceanic canal in Nicaragua, one that would further impact the traffic levels.

In the picture below we see the "mules" to the left of the ship, locomotive engines that replaced the original mule teams that guided the sailing ships though the canal in the early 20th century:


On the pacific side we have three locks, right next to the mountains of the continental divide.  This is the Pedro Miguel lock:


The final two locks gently lower the massive ships back to sea-level for the cruise into the Pacific ocean. This is a great shot of a Panamax ship stuffed into the lock with the mountains of the continental divide in the background:

Here we see the last lock before the pacific with the gates closed, awaiting the ship entry, after which the water is drained and ship passes into the Pacific ocean:

Panama City

On the southern side on the Panama Canal, the Pacific western-side entrance (which is actually east of the eastern-side entrance), Panama City can be clearly seen rising above the skyline, a gorgeous, gleaming city:

You can also see the Amador causeway, a breakwater to keep the silt from Panama bay from clogging the canal entrance.  It was built in 1917 from the rubble from the Galliard cut:

While Panama City appears to be a gleaming 21st century city, there are some slum areas with poverty, street beggars, high AIDS rates and high crime, with many gangs and drug-runners.  The minimum wage in Panama is only $300 per month, and the society is stratified between the upper-middle class the the poor, the haves vs. have-not conditions that have precipitated many revolutions.

If you visit Panama City, be prepared to be accosted by aggressive beggars who have no qualms about following you down the street and even into bathrooms, peddling Indonesian souvenirs with a Panamanian theme.  The only real bargain are the Panama hats, which at only $10 each are a great way to stay cool in the oppressive heat and humidity.

This is an excerpt from the book South America Insider Adventures by Rampant TechPress. 

This is the definitive guide for the U.S. American traveler who seeks to safely explore South America.  You can order it directly from the publisher and save over 30% at this link.

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