Panama Canal

One of my favourite cruise itineraries is through the Panama Canal; this wonderful man made channel with its many locks joining the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Unless you have experienced this trip it is hard to imagine how on earth these large ships manage to get through the series of locks unscathed with literally only inches to spare.

Technical Detail & History

The country of Panama forms a land link between the North and South American continents. The Panama Canal, which cuts through the country joins the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and is a vital link for international sea trade. Every year some 14,000 ships negotiate the locks of the Canal. First opened in 1914, the Canal is 82km (51 miles) long, with a minimum depth of 12m (39ft). Thousands of workers, mostly from the Caribbean, worked the Canal and cost US $380 million. After sharing the Canal with the USA for many years, Panama took complete control from year 2000.

Charles I of Spain was the first person who had the idea of building a canal through the Isthmus of Panama in the 16th century. It took until 1880 for that idea to take shape when Ferdinand de Leseps led his team into the futile job of attempting to dig the canal at sea level through Panama. The massive engineering project overwhelmed the French. In 10 years the mosquitoes causing Malaria, landslides and other horrific accidents cost 22,000 lives and caused the French to abandon the project.

The United States of America was anxious for trading reasons to have the job completed. For example the distance from New York to San Francisco by sea would be cut from 14,000 miles to 6,000 miles using the canal. They came up with a design that used a series of locks which would raise and lower ships from and back to sea level at each end of the canal. This ingenious plan reduced greatly the amount of material that had to be removed from the land in between. A dam across the Chagres River created Gutun Lake eliminating 15 miles of waterway that would otherwise have had to be constructed. One of the most challenging parts of the construction was the Gaillard Cut, 9 miles in length, where a 300 ft wide channel with a depth of 40ft was excavated through mud and solid rock. As part of the project two road bridges were built; the Centennial Bridge and the Bridge of Americas. Unfortunately another 5,600 lives were lost before the whole project was completed in 1914.

There are three locks on either coast of the Canal; double lanes allow simultaneous passage of two ships. On the Caribbean side the ship is gradually raised a total of 85 ft and then you continue through the Gutun Lake and the canal itself. Most of the ‘Panamax’ type cruise ships (technical term for cruise ships that can negotiate the canal) only allow a few inches on both sides of the ship to get through the locks – assistance is given by attaching heavy cables from the ship to mechanical ‘mules’; small locos which help to guide the ship safely through the series of locks. The same procedure is followed in reverse at the other end; through the Pedro and Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side.

Professional Advice

Most Panama Canal cruises include the attractive beach resorts of the Mexican Riviera along with Costa Rica with its wonderful rain forests and natural beauty and wildlife. A call at Cartagena in Columbia is very often included with its fascinating turbulent history. The itinerary also often includes Aruba in the Caribbean with its great natural bridge and beaches.

Please contact me for comprehensive advice concerning Cruises to this area and the vast choice of tailor-made land and cruising packages I can recommend and book. 

Click for Panama Canal  Map

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For further information and advice concerning all types of holidays and cruising (including tailor-made packages) please contact Simon on Tel: 01475 540350 or email:

Photo: Mirafores Locks (RG) 49

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