THE PANAMA CANAL, A WONDER OF OUR MODERN WORLD
1914 and listed as one of the seven wonders of the modern world by the
American Society of Civil Engineers, the Panama Canal has long been a
destination for curious visitors. Now that the $5.4 billion project to
double the waterway’s capacity in order to accommodate even bigger
ships as they transverse the 77-kilometers between the Pacific and the
Caribbean Oceans is complete, a new era begins for intrepid travelers
interested in experiencing this historic wonder of our modern world.
is an easy country for North Americans to travel in. Panamanians are a
warm and friendly bunch, the American dollar is used as currency and,
while the official language is Spanish, English is common in the
business and tourism sectors. Walking along the boulevards in downtown
Panama City, you are surrounded by towering luxury hotels, nightclubs,
casinos and shopping malls. You cannot help but marvel at the
prosperity of this small country which aspires to be the jewel of
During an early morning cab ride to the Panama Canal’s Miraflores
Visitor Centre, I felt an energy on the streets of the capital, Panama
City. Everyone was jaywalking, causing my taxi driver to brake hard and
swerve to avoid pedestrians. When I asked him why everyone was in such
as rush, he replied, “Everyone is just late getting to work.” It seems
Panamanians, while retaining some of their Latin American laissez
faire, are a bustling and busy bunch.
There are many who believe that crossing the Panama Canal on a luxury
cruise ship is the best way to see it. However, I’m of the opinion that
to truly appreciate this remarkable feat of modern engineering you must
visit the Miraflores Visitor Centre and the Canal Expansion Observation
Centre in Colon, the Pacific entrance to the Canal located 43
kilometers north of the capital city.
The Miraflores Visitor Centre is situated directly in front of the
first of the three sets of canal locks that raise and lower ships from
the Pacific Ocean to Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake, which sits some 26 metres
above sea level, is a man made lake formed by the building of the Gatun
Dam to provide the locks with water. It allows vessels to travel the 24
kilometers across the Isthmus of Panama, the highest point of the
The four-story Visitor Centre has large observation decks on both the
ground level and on the fourth floor that give you a drone’s eye view
of the Canal locks operations. From the observation decks, you can
watch as tugboats guide the ships to the entrance of the locks. The
current Panamax class cargo ships have a tonnage of 52,500, a length of
289 meters and a beam of 32 meters. These ships only just fit into the
locks with about 20 centimeters to spare on each side of the Canal
walls. Their captains having relinquished control, the ships are then
tethered to four small electric diesel locomotives - two on each side
positioned at the bow and stern - nicknamed “mules”. Mules, followed by
rail and now the Canal, were the first method of moving interoceanic
cargo across Panama. Their use dates to Spanish Colonial times, over
500 years ago.
For over a century, the drivers of these locomotives have been
responsible for controlling the movement of ships through the locks
using voice commands. No modern technology such as GPS is used. It’s an
extraordinary ballet performed on parallel rail tracks located along
both sides of the lock. The locomotives pull the ships forward with
their individual tether lines, maintaining full control of the vessels
and keeping them from touching the canal walls. It’s impossible to
grasp the complexity of this task while watching from on board a
vessel; you need to see it for yourself from the Visitors Centre.
The Panama Canal locks are now over a century old and not a lot has
changed over the years. What you experience at the Visitors Centre is
very much the same as it was when the Canal first opened in 1914. The
double wall gates to the locks are hydraulic driven and the water is
gravity fed to fill the locks to raise the ships. The only difference
is that the locomotives were powered by steam in the past, rather than
electricity. The simplicity of the operation is remarkable, considering
the high-tech age we live in today.
On the ground floor of the Miraflores Visitor Centre there is a large
theatre that offers a 3D movie on the building of the Panama Canal. The
film introduces you to Mr. Canales, a character that shares the history
of the canal with viewers. Spanish and English versions are presented
alternately each hour throughout the day.
Above the theatre, there are four large exhibition halls each focused
on a different aspect of the Canal. The first of these is the History
Hall which chronicles the challenges faced in building the Canal. Here
you learn about the backbreaking work of building the Canal and the
equipment used to move the tons of earth removed from the site during
the early 1900s.
The second hall, the Hall of Water, covers the importance of water,
environmental conservation and sustainability to the canal watershed
and locks. After all, without water, the Canal would not exist.
The Canal in Action hall demonstrates how the Canal operates using an
interactive simulation that puts visitors on a virtual ship’s bridge.
The exterior view video screens allow you to pilot your ship through
Panama. A favorite with children, this simulation has you riding up the
locks from the Pacific, sailing under the Bridge of the Americas and
crossing the Canal to finally descend into Caribbean waters. Without a
doubt, this will keep kids engaged during your visit.
Lastly, The Canal in the World hall explores the importance of the
Canal to world trade. Here, you learn how many countries ship goods
through the Canal as well as the types of cargo they ship. You learn
about how China is the most frequent user of the Canal and that US
Eastern seaports their final destination. The global perspective
provided by this hall is a testament to the impact the Canal has had on
Included in the Visitor Centre is a sit-down restaurant and gift shop
so be prepared to spend 3 hours minimum on site if you intend to get
the most out of what’s on offer.
Afterwards, head to the new Gatun Lake Visitor Center which was built
at the height of the treetops and provides panoramic views of the new
locks and the expanded Canal. There you will find more exhibits, a
theatre presentation in English, a gift shop and a café. Surrounding
the facility is four hectares of rainforest complete with wild monkeys
The Canal is operational 24 hours a day. However, with a transit time
of 8 -10 hours, most ships enter before 10am. The best time to visit is
early morning to see the ships enter from the Pacific Ocean or late
afternoon to view eastbound vessels as they exit the Canal.
centuries, cargo from the Orient and South America has crossed over
the Panamanian isthmus and the newly expanded Canal represents the
“can-do” drive of the 3.5 million people of Panama. This optimistic
attitude has also contributed to a growing tourism industry which
provides visitors rich Spanish Colonial history, Caribbean beach front
resorts and endless summer weather. This is Central America’s must
visit destination, offering culture, leisure and one of the world’s
wonders of engineering.
Centres: Miraflores Visitor Centre is open everyday except Christmas
Day. It is open from 9 AM to 4:30 PM and admission is US$15 for adults
and US$10 for children. Admission to the Gatun Lake Visitors Centre is
US$5. Children under 12 are free.
Transportation: Taxis from Panama City to Miraflores Visitor Centre are
US$7 for locals. As a tourist, you will be asked to pay upwards of $20.
Negotiate the fare before entering the cab. Bargain and stand firm at
US$10 which is a fair price.
Accommodations: There are plenty of luxury hotels and resorts in and
around Panama City. I recommend the smaller boutique hotels located in
the old Spanish historic district of Casco Viejo.
by Lui Ming Quan.
- Old Spanish
historical district of Casco Viejo is where you will find smaller
boutique hotels during your visit in Panama City
- Large cargo ships traveling east bound at the Miraflores Visitor Centre, Panama
Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal is where you can watch ships be raised and
lowered from Pacific Ocean to Gatun Lake
From the observation deck of the Miraflores Visitor Centre, you can
view Panama class cargo ships pass through the locks
Quan is a luxury fashion and travel writer who delivers exceptional
stories from the style capitals of the world. Be it art, music, cinema
or architecture, he explores the influences on personal style while
traveling well and covers the best in luxury hotels and resorts, fine
food and wine and of course shopping.