|Cruising through Gatun Lake on a sunny day|
For a general overview of the cruise and the trip report index, click here.
Date of Visit: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 (yes, 12/12/12)
I won't spend a lot of time on the history of the canal itself (you can follow the link in the next paragraph for more details), but suffice to say, it is one of the world's greatest engineering marvels, and upon its completion in 1914, revolutionized world trade by eliminating the need for ships to go around Cape Horn to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
When traveling from east (Caribbean Sea) to west (Pacific Ocean) through the canal, you begin at the Gatun Locks, just outside of Colon, Panama. Why the need for the locks? The canal traverses the mountains of the continental divide, which means an increase in elevation of 85 feet through the middle of the canal. Big oceangoing ships can't negotiate the elevation by themselves, so the series of locks raises ships to the canal's maximum elevation, and then lowers them back to sea level at the Pacific side, first through the Pedro Miguel locks, then the Miraflores locks. This site maintained by the Panamanian government has general information and illustrations on transiting the canal and the operation of the locks, along with the canal's history and special events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the canal's opening this year, for those who are interested.
Anyway, one big advantage we had was that our room had a balcony, so there was no need to wake up at the butt crack of dawn to jockey for position on one of the public decks (my advice - always go for the balcony if you can swing the extra cost. We woke up to this view of the jungle from our balcony, just as we were preparing to enter the Gatun locks.
The lake is a scenic waterway, with beautiful views of the surrounding jungle and mountains everywhere.
Culebra (Gaillard) Cut, where the canal passes through the difficult terrain of the continental divide. The cut was considered the most difficult and dangerous section of canal to construct due to the terrain, made even more difficult by the relatively primitive construction technology available in 1915. These photos were taken during our last trip in 2005, but demonstrate the narrow, steep section of the cut. The bridge is the Centennial Bridge, a relatively new bridge that carries the bypass of the Pan-American Highway around Panama City.
Shortly thereafter, we approached the Pedro Miguel Locks, a single-level lock that begins the process of lowering ships back to sea level. Here, you can see a construction area where the new, wider lock system is being built.
After passing Miraflores, the Panama City skyline can be seen to the south, and the Bridge of the Americas appears forward of the ship. The bridge was opened in 1962 to connect the two sides of Panama that had been cut-off by the canal, and originally carried the Pan-American highway until the Centennial Bridge bypass was built.
The strange looking building here is the Biomuseo, designed by architect Frank Gehry. The museum, still under construction but scheduled to open soon, will contain exhibits about natural history of the Isthmus of Panama and the biodiversity of the area.
See my previous piece on Panama if you'd like more information on the country itself.