Just having returned from a cruise through the Panama Canal, I can truly say that it was at once not what I expected and, at the same time, even more than expected. There is a history and a mystery to the Panama Canal which makes it an adventure unlike any other you may never experience.
Perhaps you learned about the Panama Canal in grammar school and how it reduced the sea travel time between the Americas and Asia and Australia. Strategically, it was a military asset for whichever country had control over it as it controlled the sea lanes and ship and troop movements.
You might also have learned somewhere along the way that it was a difficult undertaking and that the U.S. involvement enabled its eventual construction after failures by the French and others in the early 20th century. Many people died during the building of the canal from accidents and malaria. The invention of DEET was necessitated because of the canal.
Looking at the geography on a map one has no appreciation of the difficulty that the terrain in the Panama region posed to 1900s engineers and planners. The thickness of the jungles. The need for locks to account for changes in elevations. Intense heat and humidity. Remoteness.
The canal itself is large enough that there might be several ships in its lanes at once. In many parts, it isn’t just a two lane “road”. Existing lakes serve as holding points for ships as they wend their way through the jungle and the waterways, both natural and man-made. The number of ships anchored at the entrance to the Canal from the Atlantic and Pacific sides at any one time can number in the hundreds. Each waiting their turn to enter the canal per schedule.
Every ship, no matter the size or country, freight or passenger, is steered by a Panamanian captain who boards each ship at one of the entrances to the canal. The journey took us 5 hours from one end to another. The journey is slow, quiet and transformative. The pace is dictated by canal traffic and serves to provide a break from the “get there quickly” mentality of freight lines and cruise ships.
The canal is industry to Panama. Our ship of approximately 1000 passengers paid more than $100,000 to Panama for the journey through the canal. One hundred years plus after its construction, it is still one of the most amazing feats of modern engineering and is still a lynchpin in world commerce.