Cruising the Panama Canal
October 21, 2011
It’s been called the “eighth wonder of the world.” It’s one of the best innovations built by man in the past century and it’s the Panama Canal. This short 51 mile waterway has revolutionized the business world. It’s reduced travel time by nearly 8,000 miles and has quickly become one of the most popular travel destinations. While incorporating Spanish and Native American cultures the surrounding area of the Panama Canal will entice you to do some serious exploration!
The French were the first to attempt construction of the Canal in 1880. However, the Canal’s progress was impacted by disease, financial and engineering problems. By 1900, the French abandoned the project and left Panama altogether. In 1903, Panama gained independence from Colombia and quickly strengthened relations with the United States. In 1904, the United States purchased the French Canal Company rights and properties for $40 million. Started by President Teddy Roosevelt, construction took 10 years, finally opening for business on Aug. 15, 1914.
On average, it costs $35,000 to transit the Canal, but here are two fun facts: the cheapest fare was 36 cents, paid by swimmer Richard Halliburton. On the other extreme, the most expensive fare is held by two sister cruise ships: Coral Princess and Island Princess both at $245,000. These ships are specially designed to transit the Canal, leaving a few feet on either side.
The United States maintained control of the Canal until 1999, when it was returned to Panama. Currently, there are two lanes of boat traffic, but construction is underway for a third lane, which would accommodate much larger ships. Construction should finish in time for the Canal’s centennial in 2014.
The best part of the Canal is that there are no engines; everything is done manually. There are three sets of Gatun Locks, on the Caribbean side, which elevate you into Gatun Lake. Sailing through the manmade lake will take you to the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks where you descend into the Pacific Ocean. Overall, it takes about eight hours. I recommend a balcony stateroom, so you can get a personal view of the transit without having to fight for rail space on deck.
Upon exiting the Canal on either side, you can disembark the ship and explore Panama. You will be welcomed by the Embera Indians, who will share their traditional music, song and dance. In the Colón market, on the Caribbean side, you have the opportunity to buy some handmade crafts and embroidery. Overall, they are a peaceful people. Be advised that as part of their culture they wear very little clothing. In fact, they do not interact much with the Panamanians; they live by their own laws. On the Pacific side, Panama City is a bustling metropolis, mixing in Caribbean, French and Colonial architecture to create a melting pot of cultures. Consider a cruise that includes a two-day visit to Panama. You can get the best of both worlds on either side of the Canal. The Panama Canal is something everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. Now it’s time to pull up anchor and head north of the border!
Michael Leonard is a Spanish major at UW-River Falls.