Panama City Part II – The Panama Canal

These vague memories float around in my head of learning about the Panama Canal growing up, how malaria plagued workers during construction for instance.  I probably watched an episode on the construction off the Discovery or History channel more recently too.  So while I’m not actually sure where this mild obsession to see the Panama Canal came from, it had a deep hold and there was no way I was crossing from Central to South America without witnessing it for myself.  Plus, it’s an engineering marvel. I’m an engineer. By default this should appeal to me, no?

The big day was finally here.  A 15 minute taxi ride and there it was…the Panama Canal!  Constructed between 1881 and 1914, the Panama Canal provided ships the possibility of no longer having to sail the more dangerous southern routes.  I won’t lapse into the history and politics of how the canal came to be – that’s what Wiki is good for – but the more fascinating pieces for me are the past and present politics behind creating a canal in Panama and not Nicaragua (which arguably makes more geographic sense), how the US maneuvered to acquire the rights after the French attempt at sea-level locks ran out of money, the sheer volume of earth that had to be moved and that while workers from somewhere around 90 different countries contributed to the construction, most came from Barbados and Jamaica (random).

For $8 visitors can walk through the museum, view a video and stand on a platform to view ships passing through the Miraflores Locks.  By timing your trip right and getting there right when it opens around 9am (what I did) or later in the afternoon (maybe 2-4ish?) it is possible to watch the giant cargo ships go through the circuit.  Early in the morning they were moving in the direction from Pacific to Atlantic.  Within less than an hour, a cargo ship could pass through the two locks and begin moving up the canal towards the Atlantic Ocean.

Where do I even start…the positive, I’ll try some positive.  The museum was decent for being on the smaller side.  They provided information in both Spanish and English, which is always appreciated.  They also sold churros.  Which were delicious.  Alright, I’m out.  It’s not that seeing the canal in person was underwhelming so much as I realized I’m more interested in how it was constructed and the history rather than the current operation.  I’ll go with that.  I found the video they showed to be nearly pointless.  It was full of pro-Panama clips and more about how they’re operating the canal now and doing it better than anything very detailed regarding construction or operation.  To be fair, it was less than 15 minutes in length; hardly enough time to touch on anything in depth.

It was definitely impressive to see these massive cargo ships loaded up with containers.  What are they filled with?  Where is it’s destination?  They paid how much to go through this canal (some in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range)?! How is this affordable?  Somehow this is the best option as Panama is currently building a new set of larger locks to allow even wider ships filled wth even more cargo through this gateway.

Mules guiding this ship from lower lock to upper lock

The following picture sums up the tone that was set for this experience.  Though, I’m not sure it even does justice capturing the pushing and elbowing in the humid morning heat.  Don’t let my experience discourage you from visiting, of course.  Plenty of folks surrounding me seemed very pleased with what they were witnessing (maybe they don’t need personal space like I do).

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