The Panama Canal, like Caen Hill Locks but wider!

Caen Hill Locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal in Wiltshire isn’t considered one of the modern-day wonders of the world but maybe it should be…

One of our favourite things to do with the little old parents in the UK is to visit local canals near where we live for an afternoon stroll on a sunny day. At beautiful Bradford on Avon we can watch narrowboats going through the 7ft wide lock. On a bigger scale, Caen Hill has a flight of 29 locks that manuever the barges upwards by 237 feet over a 2 mile stretch, it can take the narrowboat 5 – 6 hours to traverse the locks. A system of large side ponds back pump water to the top of the flight to enable daily operation.

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The UK has an extensive system of canals that were once used during the Industrial Revolution to transport large, heavy cargo. These canals are lovingly restored and many holidaymakers enjoy leisurely mini weekend barge cruises. When we visited the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal, Mr E got chatting to two Americans who thought the UK had large ships sailing through the canals to save them time going around the coast, he politely explained how narrow our canals actually are! Check out this UK Canal website for more details.

During our visit to Panama City, I will admit seeing the canal wasn’t at the top of my to do list. ‘It’s just a canal with locks like we have in England but bigger’ was probably my thinking..plus I was dazzled by big modern shopping malls, casinos and cinemas that Panama City had to offer. It was quite a shock seeing this wealthy Cosmpolitan city after living in Mexico for the last 7 months!

However I couldn’t have been any more wrong about the Panama Canal, watching the ships was actually really great. We visited in the morning and then returned on the same entry ticket to view the ships again during the afternoon.

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I had read that people thought the $15 entry fee at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre was a big pricey and it might be if you’re on a budget, but we thought it was good value for a tourist attraction. The centre has a museum which tells you about how the canal was built, there’s a mini cinema that shows a short 3D film on the canal, there are 3 viewing balconies to watch the passage of ships through the locks twice a day from 9 – 11am and 3 -5pm while cheery tour guides give you loads of interesting information over the tannoy about the process.

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I sat happily watching the ships, sketching the locks while Mr E listened to the  all the information, so get ready here are the Panama Canal facts:

The Panama Canal was built to allow ships trade passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the narrow Panamanian isthmus, thereby avoiding the lengthy dangerous journey around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America.

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The Canal is a system of waterways, artificial lakes and three sets of locks that raise the ships up by 85 feet to the Gatun Lake  On our flight into Panama from the plane window, we were able to follow the 50 mile stretch of the canal from the Colon entry on the Atlantic side to the locks and Bridge of the Americas in Panama City on the Pacific side.

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The Panama Canal has two shipping lanes using a system of 3 locks, these compartments are 110 feet wide with entrance and exit gates. Water empties or fills into the chamber by gravity, this is controlled by huge valves in the side culverts that allow the ship to rise or lower depending on which way the ship is maneuvering through. Railway engines called ‘mules’ keep the lines tight so the ships stay level in the lock as there’s about only 2 ft clearance!

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About 14 thousand vessels from all over the world use the Canal every year.

The charge to transit through the canal has to be wired 48 hours in advance, no need for the crew to have petty cash! The cost varies depending on its size, the fee for cargo ship Valparaiso was $163,000. Large cruise liners will be charged about $400,000.

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The French started to build the canal in 1881 but failed due to engineering problems and thousands died from malaria.

In 1903, Panama granted the United States the rights to build the Canal. It was finally completed and opened for operation in 1914. Although USA handed the canal back to Panama in 1999, America Dollars are used throughout Panama and there is a thriving community of expats who enjoy substantial incentives by relocating there.

Panama City is a now thriving city of multi ethnicities, people emmigrated from The West Indies, China and The Carribean to Panama to obtain work building the canal.

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The Panama Canal is a major tourist attraction and important source of Panama’s thriving economy.

Engineering work is underway to expand the canal to allow even wider vessels to pass through a new 3rd lane of locks. Meanwhile work has started in Nicaragua to build a competitor canal allowing super tankers to transit the Central American isthmus.

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We would have liked to have taken a partial tour by boat through the canal to the Gatun Lake, however the tour costs were really expensive. But we enjoyed seeing this modern-day engineering achievement and can certainly tick that off our ‘wonders of the world’ to see list.

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