The Panama canal celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014. Reason enough to visit not only the canal.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary, the visit to the Panama Canal was like an immersion into the recent past where technology and a pioneering spirit shaped a new, industrialized world. There are plenty of fascinating books and documentary videos out there, describing the effort in building the canal.
When I arrived in Panama City, the legacy of a century of influence from the United States still felt present. This place looks nothing like Central America. Panama City is a clean, tidy place with a beautiful marina, shoreline walk, modern sky scrapers and historic downtown. There is everything you would expect from an average US city, such as shopping malls and fast food restaurants. Heck, even the US dollar is legal tender – although the people of Panama call it Balboa.
After a morning stroll through the old town, I hailed a taxi to go to the Miraflores locks. Being not far from the city of Panama, these locks and the visitor center were big enough to keep my busy for the better half of the rest of the day. The site includes a museum which allows a glimpse of the flora and fauna within the region. As I walked through the museum, I went from the ground floor up to the top floor. There a huge platform gives a good view of the canal operations. Watching huge container ships from that viewpoint was very impressive. One can only imagine how people must have been stunned by technology 100 years ago.
The second day was an early start, since I went to visit the Gatun locks. According to most travel books, the Gatun locks are bigger and more authentic. Due to the distance from Panama City, there are fewer tourist crowds than in Miraflores. All of this is true. However, there are exactly two vending machines – no other food and water supply is to be found within a 10 km radius.
A variety of vessels went through the locks: Submarines, police boats, and catamarans were among the odd vessels I spotted during my visit. After about four hours watching ships crossing the locks, I went to the building site where the new Panama Canal is under construction. It features a decent visitor center, with a pricey restaurant and a pricey souvenir shop.
More importantly, this site has a perfect view of the Gatun Lake, as well as the expansion building site. The dimensions of this construction area is gigantic. At the time I went there, the workers transported the new lock doors through the empty new canal. These steel doors are 31 meters (102 ft) high, 57 meters (187 ft) wide and 10 meters (33 ft) thick. From the viewpoint, the construction workers looked like small ants transporting huge Lego bricks.
There are a lot of environmental concerns against building this new, bigger Panama Canal. However, I got the impression that the authorities seriously try their best to accommodate both sides of the coin: Keeping the countries’ major income source attractive for shipping companies while preserving the nature as untouched as possible. This is very much needed since biodiversity accounts for the other major income of Panama: Tourism.