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A boat trip on lake Gatún offers a real haven for travellers in search of multicoloured toucans and howling monkeys. One would not suspect that within a few hundred metres of these lush and tranquil bays lay the world’s largest ships, preparing their crossing of an international masterpiece of engineering, the Panama Canal.
Overview of Panama’s Giant Canal
Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French visionary who had previously completed the Suez Canal, began the construction of Panama’s famous version in the 1880s to spare sailors the endless Cape Horn passage. However, it proved to be too difficult a task, for the company could not finish the massive challenge and went bankrupt in 1889 despite Gustave Eiffel’s locks system design intended to save the company.
Interested in the project even after several failed attempts from their predecessors, the Americans took over the site upon signature of a concession, later handed back over to the local government in 1999. Thus was born the Panama Canal we now know and whose centenary we celebrated on August 15, 2014!
Visiting the Panama Canal
Still today, the Panama Canal remains one of the most important examples of human transformation of nature. The visit of its locks should be added to any trip this Central American country. There are plenty of opportunities to view its splendour, as it stretches through 77 km in the heart of the isthmus, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by the Gulf of Panama and the Caribbean Sea.
The main tourist attraction is the Miraflores Visitor Centre, from which you can watch the captains brilliantly maneuver their vessels through the 1.7 km locks, located only a few dozen of metres in front of the museum’s platform. The incessant coming and going of the mulas, tiny locomotives that guide the enormous boats on either side of the reservoirs, is bound to impress you, all the more after having walked through the dynamic museum full of facts about the Panama Canal. You will discover among other things the vast human sacrifice of labourers caused by diseases and accidents during this gigantic endeavour that will always be remembered as an (almost) impossible undertaking.
Your chances of spotting a ship are high, with about 40 passings per day, especially in the morning and late afternoon, and sometimes even more often since the beginning of the expansion project that allows larger cargos like post-Panamax ships to go through the canal.
To enjoy an immersive experience, several service providers offer travellers the opportunity to witness a full or partial crossing on board a yacht with an incursion in the surrounding jungle. The video simulation presented at the Miraflores museum also gives a good idea of the thrills experienced during the epic journey!
Take advantage of your travels to Panama City to extend your stay in the many other interesting destinations around the country, like Boquete, El Valle or the San Blas or Bocas del Toro archipelagos, for example. To combine relaxation and discovery, you can too opt for an all-inclusive package in Playa Coronado, Playa Blanca or Gamboa. Book a flight to Panama City now!
Have fun along the Panama Canal!
Cover photo credit: Jennifer Doré Dallas