A little before 7am I was dropped off at Flamenco Marina within the Amador Causeway, checking in with Panama Marine Adventures for my Panama Canal tour. I had been anticipating this tour for months, knowing it would be a highlight of my trip. I was signed up for the full tour (from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic) which they only do once a month because it costs the company 4,000$ to traverse the canal and return back to Pacific.
Almost immediately after leaving the marina a pilot was dropped off onto our ship (he is in the small boat coming towards us). Pilots are used to navigate the helmsman through the bays, and the canal.
Puente de las Américas, completed by the US in 1962 at a cost of 20 million dollars.
Cranes move containers on to and off of Panamaxes (ships that move through the Panama Canal).
While in the locks small boats are prevented from moving too much with ropes, while big boats are hooked up to mules (yep, mules!). Boats need to be fairly stationary since the locks are so small and a boat, especially a large one, may otherwise damage the lock gates if they are not confined.
You will probably be disappointed to learn that these machines are mules.
At the Miraflores locks where the salt water mixes with fresh water when the lock gates open, the salt water fish are stunned by the new fresh water while the fresh water fish are instantly killed.
The effect is delicious sushi (sans rice) for birds to enjoy.
Retired Micheal from England and I, both solo travelers, befriended each other before the boat left the dock. We were a united front, so that no one took our prime seats on the stern (in the shade, with a perfect view). We took turns protecting what we claimed.
Micheal used to be a crane operator for an oil company so he was very knowledgeable company. Micheal's sole purpose of traveling to Latin America was to witness firsthand the operation of the Panama Canal.
There are three pairs of locks on the Pacific side and three pairs on the Atlantic side. The series of three locks raises the boat 26 meters to the height of Gatun Lake (a man made lake created by damming the Chagres river). The locks take about two minutes to open/close, and ten minutes to fill/release using a total 52 million gallons of fresh water to get from one ocean to the next.
As it turns out, because I have great travel luck, this year is the centennial celebration of the Panama Canal. It has been in operation 24 hours a day 7 days a week for the past 100 years.
It is absolutely incredible.
The lock gates are over two meters thick and weigh hundreds of tons.
Along the side of the current canal is construction for the new canal. The new canal (which is very controversial) is supposed to be completed next year although it doesn't appear that they are close. It has a different lock system, 60% of the fresh water will be recycled. The new canal will not replace the old canal but will increase the number of boats that can come through, and allow for larger vessels (almost twice the width).
Tugboats can be rented to assist large vessels through the canal, at the rate of 3,000$/ hour.
On average 6 million dollars worth of merchandise moves through the canal daily.
Vessels save hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel costs, and almost a month of travel since they would otherwise have to travel around the tip of Cape Horn in South America.
You just wouldn't believe how many workers waved to us, and they seemed happy to do so. I imagine their pay is pretty good, otherwise waving is part of their contract.
Six hours later we had reached Gatun locks, which will lower us into the Atlantic ocean. We were in front of a large boat and got to see how tightly some of these boats fit into the locks. The locks are 30 meters wide, and a boat is allowed to enter as long as there is 60 cm of clearance on both sides (and 1 meter on the bottom).
The locks are powered with electricity made by a hydraulic dam located on Gatun lake.
If I were a mule driver (caretaker?) this would be the best part of my day.
We made it to the Atlantic ocean!
This experience has been one of my favorite things that I have done in my entire life. Although it is possible to get a glimpse of the locks at Miraflores there is just no comparison to being a part of the process. The Panama Canal is amazing; it represents ingenuity, forethought, technology, tenacity, trade, and so much money. (Of course there is the bad, like the thousands of deaths that resulted during its construction, the change of the ecosystem with the Lake and the dam, the corruption, France's bankruptcy and failed attempt before the US took over, increased consumerism, the effect of the indigenous who live on the Chagres river... but I am not writing a book, just sharing my experience.)
We gave our pilot back and then boarded a bus back to Flamenco Marina. The entire trip was about 11 hours long. The tour company was super organized, and the food was surprisingly good, as well as the bilingual guide.
It was a really amazing experience, and a great way to wrap up my trip.