1) History – construction.
The PANAMA CANAL runs for 48 miles across the Isthmus of Panamá
A significant event that influenced the construction of the Panamá Canal was the discovery of gold in California around 1849, which made it very important to be able to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. To serve this need to cross the isthmus, the Panamá Railway was constructed and opened in 1855.
The original construction of the Panamá Canal had innumerable problems. One of them was health-related, for which a man named William Gorgas was appointed as chief of sanitation in order to protect the tens of thousands of workers. Given that these workers were from all over the world, it set Panamá as a place of with many different ethnic groups, a status that it keeps until the present.
The building of the Canal required approximately 47,000,000 cubic yards of excavation, creating, in part, the Gatún Dam and Gatún Lake, both of great size, and which are essential for the Canal to function.
Since 1999, the Canal is fully run by Panamanian “Autoridad del Canal de Panamá” (ACP). The Canal was completed and formally opened on August 15, 1914 (which is also the date of the founding of the city of Panamá), so the country is celebrating the Canal centennial this 2014. The first ship that crossed the Canal was the “Ancón”. In different ways (primary among them the engineering necessary to complete the canal), the Panamá Canal was named by UNESCO as one of the Eight Wonders of the World. The significance of the Canal is also due to its importance for the worldwide commerce, in which Panamá has played a very important role since the 15th century, when all the gold was passed through from South América to Spain, which history tells us happened 400 years after Balboa first crossed the Isthmus of Panamá.
Today, the Panamá Railway is one of the attractions must visited by tourists, traveling from the city of Panamá to the city of Colón on a daily basis, as well as transporting thousands of tons of freight containers from the large ports of Manzanillo (Atlantic) and Panamá Ports (Pacific). This is of great importance in the world, taking freight into and from the ships going into the Panamá Canal.
The Panamá Canal has 3 pairs of locks:
Miraflores (Pacific Ocean)
Pedro Miguel (Pacific side)
Gatún (Atlantic Ocean)
Currently, these locks are 110 feet wide, but with the expansion under construction due to be completed in 2015 or maybe a bit afterwards, the Canal will have capacity for bigger ships, the "Post-Panamax", saving millions of dollars to maritime companies. Each year, 14,000 ships transit the canal. The expansion of the locks are expected to double or triple that in the future. The approximate time for a freight ship to transit by the Canal is 25 hours.
2) Visiting the Canal:
Visitors are always attracted to visit an exceptional worldwide tourist site, so in response, tour operators and cruise lines have designed several ways by which visitors can enjoy every aspect of it, from the original construction to the great ongoing expansion (which is expected to cost over $US 5 billion).
The best known are:
By a Panamá Canal cruise, which stops at the Gatún locks (Atlantic Ocean) and where visitors are taken to different places in Panamá. Or, they continue to Europe, through a complete Canal transit.
Local visitors go to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center in the city of Panamá. The entrance fee is about $10, which includes access to the 4 story museum, a 10 minute video and all the time you want at the center, watching the ships passing by at a very short distance of about 30 meters from you. You can easily take pictures or interact with ship passengers as they transit. This is an exceptional experience. You can also enjoy eating lunch at the restaurant by the terrace as you watch the ships pass by. The best time to visit is from early morning through 3 PM, when the fluidity of ships are better.
Others like to visit the Gatún locks, if they are in the area, which are a little smaller but equally informative. There is a restaurant available in which you can be eating and watching the ships at the same time. If you go before the new lock doors are installed, you can view history by seeing these new locks. After they are installed, they will be inside the canal forever.
If you go via a small cruise ship or have your own yacht, you can enjoy stopping at Fort Amador, better known as the “Causeway”, which is the entrance of the Canal at the Pacific Ocean. There is also a nice hotel by the Canal, and several picturesque restaurants and shops to enjoy during your stay. If not, you may enjoy just a visit here, and experience an “oasis” on your trip. There's the ocean on both sides and the nicest breeze. You might like to ride a bicycle or skateboard for exercise, and then, complete your experience with a yummy ice cream (after all that exercise). Due to traffic, it may take you about 45 minutes to get to the Causeway from the center of the city. (On Sunday there is much less traffic.)
Locals love to go to the Pedro Miguel locks and park their cars while watching the ships crossing the Canal. This is an open area that's also free, and you can stay for as long as you want, as long as you comply with requirements of cleanliness, security, and no radios.
Take a trip by train. Especially if you have children, this is a wonderful and fun way to see the Canal. It takes 1.5 hours, and you can purchase coffee or pastries on board. It´s air conditioned and very pleasant. The train departs the city of Panamá at 7 AM, and returns at 5 PM. Upon your arrival into the city of Colón, you might like to contact (in advance) a professional tour operator to take you to the Free Zone, the Gatún Locks Visitor Centrer, or the Meliá Hotel and Visitor Center and enjoy a pay-day at a pool and lunch, or just hang around the pool. If you visit Colón, always take a tour operator in advance, with references, as the train station is an isolated area, and not recommended if you do not know the area.
Partial or full Canal transit is another good option, in the city of Panamá. Boats leave from Fort Amador (Causeway) and you can book in advance. Tours include lunches and snacks. The partial tour is 4 hours (from Panamá to Gamboa), and full tour is 8 hours, from Panamá to Colón. From there, they bring you back via special and comfortable buses, through a modern express highway between the two cities.