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Last update: November, 2009

The Panama Canal is still one of the engineering wonders of the world – the "Mars probe" of the Wright Brothers’ days.

Even by today’s standards it is awesome to see a container ship gliding through massive locks and past a rain forest. Put the Canal in the context of turn-of-the-19th century technology and the feat of its construction is staggering.

But you cannot help noticing that the container and cruise ships squeeze through the locks nowadays with only inches to spare on either side. These are known as Panamax ships – built to the maximum beam and draft which the Canal can handle.

Many ships are too big for the Canal. These ships, known at Post Panamax, comprise only a small percentaje of the world’s fleet but the future promises ever more and bigger ships the cargoes of which, if they cannot transit the Canal, will seek other routes including the "dry canals" across other countries of the continent.

To ensure future competitiveness, the Panama Canal Administration is building an extra set of wider and deeper locks at a cost of $5.2 billion. The excavation work for the channels leading to the new locks is under way.

The possibilities of a waterway linking the Atlantic and the Pacific in this region had been well appreciated for four centuries before anyone started to dig. Spain’s King Carlos V ordered a survey of the canal route in 1524 but it was presumably decided that cutlasses would not be adequate for the job.

The French started a canal in 1880 under de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, but after 20 years of struggle with the jungle, disease, financial problems and the sheer enormity of the project, they were forced to give up.

In 1903 Panama seceded from Colombia and the U.S.A. signed a treaty in which the concession for a public maritime transportation service across the Isthmus was granted. The following year, the U.S.A. purchased the French Canal Company’s properties for $40 million and began to dig. On August 15th, 1914, the U.S. cargo ship Ancon made the first transit.

The story of this gigantic task is best told in the book, "The Path Between the Seas", by David McCullough. The story is also told dramatically in the murals of the rotunda of the Administration Building at Balboa Heights.

The Canal entered yet another phase of its history on Oct. 1st. 1979 when the process of handing the Canal to the Republic of Panama began, under treaties signed by Panama’s former head of Government the late Brig. Gen Omar Torrijos Herrera and U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

The Canal and all of its infrastructure in the former Canal Zone was finally under Panama´s control as the 21st century dawned.

To see the Canal at work—every year handling more than 13,056 bluewater ships, under the flags of about 70 nations—go to the spectator stands at Miraflores or Gatun locks. Bilingual commentators there are brimful of information and statistics.
The average toll for ships using the canal is about $90 thousand but many save about ten times this figure by eliminating the journey round the Horn. Record tolls: the container ship “MSV Fabien” which transited for $360,000 and Richard Halliburton who swam the Canal in 1926 and was charged 36 cents after his displacement tonnage was calculated.

The Canal is about 50 miles long and ships are lifted 85 feet in three lockages as they cross the Isthmus. The journey through the Canal takes about 8 hours and a ship is normally in Canal waters between 14 and 16 hours.


Tour companies will take you to Miraflores Locks to watch huge ships being raised or lowered 54 feet to the next stage of their journey, Pacific or Atlantic bound.

A magnificent new Visitor’s Center has been constructed here. Bilingual commentators will give you a running commentary. You will drive through the residential area, see the Administration Building and the Bridge of the Americas which spans the Canal and joins South America to Central and North America. For information as to when there will be ships in the locks each day call the Orientation Service at Miraflores, 276-8617.

For visitors who prefer a more relaxed approach to sightseeing there is the Miraflores restaurant in the Visitor’s Center which offers a spectacular view of the transiting ships as you dine. A film of the Canal’s operations is shown in the theater of the Visitor’s Center.

The Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side of the Canal also have comfortable viewing and bilingual commentators.

A partial transit offers a first-hand view of the Canal in operation. Call Canal & Bay Tours 209-2010.

Related Links

Panama Canal in depth section in Focus Panama
Panama Canal Authority website
The Canal section on Visit Panama website
Colon Free Zone's Adm. website


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