A backpackers’ guide to the Panama Canal

Street crossing the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, with a huge cruiseship across the street
The “Coral Princess” taking a shortcut over the hills. In Cartagena / Columbia, we will meet the cruise ship again

They have cut a broad passageway into the dense vegetation. From above it looks like a busy highway, the cargo mainly consisting of twigs and leaves. “Why do they have to go so far? Wouldn’t the same be available much closer?,” Isa wonders and points to a little tree next to the ant street, only to discover that all its leaves have already been cut and taken away.

Leaf Cutter Ants in Panama Botanical Garden

The highway of leafcutter ants is situated in the Summit Botanical Garden just outside Panama City. It is only one of many national parks and ecological protection areas surrounding an even busier thoroughfare: The Panama Canal.

Charles V, King of Spain, was reportedly the first, in 1524, to suggest digging a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But for another three hundred years, goods, treasures and people would continue to cross the continental divide on winding jungle trails. The trek took at least four days, and that wasn’t the worst. There was always the danger of being robbed – not to speak of nasty tropical diseases. Alternatively, one could hike only over the highest part and then spend a week trundling down the Rio Chagres through tropical forest.

The Panama Canal Railway

interior view of Panama Canal Railway waggon

It was the gold rush in California that brought the first major changes. Thousands of treasure seekers had to be transported from the American East Coast to California – and back, with their treasures.

Panama Canal Railway sign

Finally in the 1850s, the first railway link between the oceans was built. It cost the (then) astronomical sum of 8 Million Dollars.

Soon after its opening the railway was carrying masses of passengers and freight, especially gold and silver. A lucrative business, considering that the railroad company collected a quarter of one percent of the freight’s value. A 1913 timetable boasts “wireless telegraphy and other up to date improvements” and “baggage-check up to New York from any station on the Panama Rail Road.”

The old railway had five stations along the 72 km route; today passengers can only board the train in Panama City or in Colon on the Atlantic side. Tourist leaflets promise a ride along the canal, but only twice during the one-hour journey do we have a brief glimpse of the canal. For the rest of the time the train runs along the scenic shores of the artificial Lake Gatun or through thick jungle.

Lake Gatun in Panama with ocean-going ships

A fleet of company minibuses is already waiting for our fellow travellers when we arrive in Colon, since most of them are employees of Samsung, Adidas and the like who commute daily between Panama City and the Colon Free Trade Zone.

Bathtubs for big ladies – the locks of the Panama Canal

“Please move on to the second floor viewing platform in order to make space for the other groups!,” a local guide rushes her flock of elderly Americans in new quick-dry outdoor shorts and spotless white sneakers. Pink stickers on their Polo-shirts identify them as crusaders travelling on the “Coral Princess”. From the upper level they (and we) have a good view of all three consecutive basins of the locks.

Different water levels at the Gatun Locks

Here on the Caribbean side of the Canal, the ships are lifted to the level of Lake Gatun, up to 29 meters higher than sea level, only to be lowered again to sea level on the Pacific side. On this side the height difference is split between two sets of locks, the Miraflores Locks and the San Miguel Locks.

An hour later, we see a huge cruise ship enter the lock from the Pacific side. Eventually it gets lowered down to the Caribbean. It is the “Coral Princess,” but the cruise ship groups are already back in their coaches and on their way to the brand new cruise ship marina in Colon.

The first attempt at building a canal over the Isthmus of Panama was undertaken by a French company in the 1880s. Lead by Canal veteran Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had already built the Suez Canal in Egypt, the company tried to dig a canal through to sea level without any locks (like the Suez Canal). But management failures and tropical diseases stopped the project. Finally, in 1903 a US commission made a new effort at building a canal at the Panama Isthmus. They successfully decided on a concept with locks on every side to lower and raise the ships over the mountain range. Instead of pumping up corrosive sea water, the locks use fresh water from artificial lakes.

Luxurious jungle: raining for the canal

green jungle in the Parque International La Amistad

Today, the amount of traffic that can possibly pass the canal is to some extent limited by the amount of fresh water available. We were surprised by the many national parks and rainforest protection projects in Panama. The rainforests are important in generating the necessary local climate for rain and thus fresh water. Of course the government is well aware of their economic importance. After all, most ships pay around 150,000 dollars in fees for the canal passage. The size of the locks poses another limitation. They can only accommodate “Panamax”-sized ships. At up to 294 meters long and 32 meters wide, the “Panamax” can carry a load just over a quarter of that of “Suezmax” ships.

Ever Refine container ship barely fitting in the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal

A new set of locks is scheduled to open in 2013. They will not only be larger, but also operate with a European-style water saving system. Nonetheless, the national parks will remain important, and the leaf-cutters can look into a bright future.

NB: Our individual travel to the Panama Canal was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.

1 Comment

  1. hey girls,
    nice no-frills blog and cdpc (cute delicious pie charts, on the transport costs you can still work). maybe a dumb comment but your background colors are very soothing… anyway nice having met you and good luck for your travels.

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