The Panama Canal: A Great Place to Travel from Atlantic to Pacific

Since its construction, this waterway has reduced marine travel times and now attracts over 900,000 visitors each year, or almost a quarter of all foreign visitors to the country.

The Panama Canal: A Great Place to Travel from Atlantic to Pacific
The Panama Canal: An Engineering Wonder. Credit: Sertv

The Panama Canal, a 78-kilometer-long engineering marvel, runs through the narrowest part of the Panamanian isthmus. More than a million ships, of many countries, sizes, and cargoes (including submarines) have transited the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again, increasing global trade and economic interaction thanks to the canal's convenience and low cost.

A ship using the Panama Canal to cross from one ocean to the other saves two million dollars, as well as time, instead of going around Cape Horn, through the Strait of Magellan in Antarctica, which used to be the natural passage. The whole operation is based on gravity and uses a system of three lock complexes with a third lane added because the ships come up from the level with bleachers. Visitors can visit a restaurant and a museum.

Other attractions in the Panama Canal area include the Emberá indigenous group, approximately 130 plant varieties from the nearly two thousand that Panama has, and several butterfly varieties from the approximately 16 thousand registered in the sea up to 26 meters, the altitude at which the Gatun Lake is located, and then descend to the other ocean.

This more than century-old waterway transports 5% of the world's freight and 16% of the cargo of the United States, which, along with China, Chile, Japan, and South Korea, is the waterway's primary user.

Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, 35 to 40 vessels of up to 900 feet (274.32 meters) in length travel through the route each day, producing $5 million in transit fees. This flow has turned it into a major tourist attraction, with 900,000 people visiting the Miraflores Locks area each year, including two thousand diurnal and fourteen thousand moths or nocturnal species. A boat tour along this route is also available.

Panama Canal before and after

Originally inaugurated on August 15, 1914, several expansion projects have been completed. By increasing the locks to 427 meters long and 55 meters wide (the equivalent of the size of four soccer fields) through an investment of five billion and 250 million dollars, the Panama Canal can now receive larger ships than the current ones, which are called Prepanama and Postpanama. The first ones were built with technology from the early 20th century, and the second ones, which are bigger, were built more recently.

In the first case, they can carry up to 5,000 containers and meet the size requirements originally established by the canal to be used; the Postpanama can carry up to 12,500 containers, but each vessel pays $600,000 in tolls to transit this route.

Towed by train on its route, the ships take eight to ten hours to cross from coast to coast, a journey that people can make on the passenger railroad, which departs in the morning from Panama City to Colon, a 55-minute trip, and returns in the afternoon to the capital. One might think that it would be more economically viable to move a container by train than by canal, but it costs more by land.

The train was originally built to transport North American managers who operated the canal and businessmen from the Colon Free Zone. The canal cruise season begins in October, and each cruise pays between USD 340,000 and USD 370,000 to use it because an occupied bed costs USD 134 and an unoccupied bed cost USD 108.

The Panama Canal Authority administers this project, which employs 11,000 people, and charges an average of US$4.52 per ton, although it varies according to the type of cargo: general, refrigerated, dry grains, vehicles, and oil. Hazardous cargo pays a surcharge.