Although there is more to Panama than its canal, the man made marvel was the whole reason I wanted to go to Panama. My fascination with the canal was nearly two decades old, ever since my Grandpa sailed from New Zealand to New York in the mid 90s.
The Panama Canal is 80 kilometres long, stretching from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colon on the Atlantic side. The huge feat was finished in 1914 by the USA, after a failed attempt by the same French team who completed the Suez Canal. Over 22,000 people died of Yellow Fever and Malaria while the French were trying to build the canal so one of the first things the USA team did was rid the area of these diseases.
The Canal is made up of six locks, raising all ships to Lake Gatun which is 26 metres above sea level. The first two locks on the Pacific side are the Miraflores Locks and then there is another one at Pedro Miguel. The Gatun Lake is then transited. This lake was the biggest man made lake before the Hoover Dam was completed. Finally ships need to go through the three Gatun locks before they are out into the Atlantic.
The Canal sees 42 transits per 24 hours. Anchorage time before transiting can be 24 hours. Each transit uses 200 million litres of water which means in the space of a day the Panama Canal uses more water than New York City uses in a month. Even with so much of the lakes water used, Lake Gatun never runs out of water and is sufficiently refilled by rainfall.
The Canal is currently under expansion. The project, now with a completion date of 2015, will make the new locks 40% longer and 60% wider. Currently only Panamax ships, which are ships built to the canals measurements, can pass through. The expansion will allow bigger ships (Post Panamax, 35% of the worlds ships) to transit. This will mean more income for Panama since transits are paid according to weight. In 2010 the canal brought in $2b worth of revenue for the country. The heaviest ship ever to transit, the Norwegian Pearl, paid $412k. The lowest fee? A guy swam through the canal, paying 36 cents.
The most popular tour is the partial transit but I thought coming all this way to complete only half the canal would be silly. So I timed my stay in Panama with the once a month full transit. This takes over 10 hours and is aboard a little boat which tags along in the locks with bigger ships. It's a long day but I was lucky enough to find a good crew. Of course, at $180+ for the transit I wasn't hanging out with backpackers. There was a Canadian guy who was doing the transit with his mum as part of her 'bucket list'. There was Michael, an attorney slash realtor from Arizona who decided to visit Panama for a few days while down in Costa Rica at his condo. And then there was Ashok, a retired physican slash stock market guru, and his lovely physican wife Bharti. We had plenty of laughs in the sunshine on deck and after arriving back into Panama City Ashok and Bharti took Michael and I out to an Indian restaurant for dinner. The transit was cool to do, but these guys made my day.
On this trip I've been lucky enough to do things I've dreamed of doing for a long time. That evening when I arrived back at my hostel with windswept hair, a slightly sunburnt nose and a bag of Indian to last me the next day, was beaming from ear to ear. Panama Canal transited!