Thanks to all of you out there who keep coming back for more of this blog. We are closing in on 5,000 visits! I’m flattered!
I think when most people think of Panama, they think of the Panama Canal, so when you visit this place, one of the “absolute mandatory must dos” is a visit to the canal and the best place to do that is at the Miraflores Visitor Center. This is a great place to begin to understand the dramatic impact of the canal, both to Panama and to the world . At the visitor center you will be shown a short video highlighting some history of the building of the canal as well as an overview of how it works and a glimpse of the vision of the new canal when the new locks eventually open. The visitor center also has an interesting little museum. My favorite parat is a full size simulator of a ships bridge where you actually drive the ship through the canal, or in my case crash it and sink it right in the middle of the canal! Outside, right beside the Miraflores locks, is open air covered seating where you can watch ships actually passing through the locks. There is also a nice restaurant that overlooks the locks. It is not too pricy and the food is good. Try to get a table next to the window.
While you watch ships passing through the locks a running commentary is provided that explains all kinds of things like largest of the two locks at Miraflores takes 29 million gallons of water to fill it and that is all done by gravity in 10 minutes! Even today that’s a pretty impressive feat but this thing was opened for business in 1914! There are new locks under construction that will let the larger ships that will not fit in the locks, to transit the canal. These locks are scheduled to open in 2014 to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the canal but many say that timeline will be impossible to meet and that it may be 2016 before the new locks are working (sorry, the project manager in me just won’t die).
There are three sets of locks that make up the Panama Canal. When ships enter the canal they are lifted 26 meters (85 feet) to the level of Gatun Lake. After they pass through Gatun Lake, they are lowered back down to sea level to complete the transit. Ships are charged a transit fee based on their size, weight, and country of registration. If ships are registered in Panama, there is significant money to save in transit fees. In Canada, Paul Martin fell amuck of the Panamanian registry for a number of his Canadian Steamship ships. As Prime Minister, he took a lot of heat for not having them all registered in Canada and not some which were registered in Panama.
My brother recently took a cruise through the canal on the smallest of the Holland America fleet, the Statendam. They were told that the ship paid a reservation fee of $US 50,000 to guarantee them a time to transit the canal and the real transit costs were an extra $US 225,000. Now these numbers will probably seem a bit rich but when you consider a freighter needing to come from Asia to the east coast of the US. The canal will save days of sailing time. If they had to go around the tip of South America, you would have greater costs like fuel and wages and the scheduled time would be that much greater. Even at rates that seem so high, it is an automatic no brainer to pay the fees and transit the canal.
Anyways, Miraflores is the place to start to see the canal. If you want to see more, there are locks at Colon, on the Caribbean and a second set of locks not too far from Miraflores, on the Pacific side. Don’t come to Panama without checking this out!