Saturday, March 17, 2012


Months have passed since I visited Panama, but I never wrote anything about it; sometimes letting the memories marinate for a while makes them that much richer to share. One of the mellowest and best trips I've ever taken. Though it seems cliché and obvious, the Panama Canal was one of the coolest things in Panama and one of the coolest things I've ever seen. Descending into Panama City upon arrival, I got a bird's-eye-view-sneak-peak at this astounding marvel of engineering. Panama City is on the Pacific Ocean side of the country and one can see beautifully laid out the entrance of the canal, the cranes of the port, and downtown Panama City. When I arrived in the capital, I immediately took a flight to another part of the country and made my way across land back to the city over my two weeks in Panama. This view was a teaser for the sheer awesomeness of the Panama Canal that awaited me at the end of my trip. After traveling the gorgeous Panamanian countryside for two weeks, my day to visit the Canal had arrived. I took a taxi from my hotel to the Miraflores Locks to spend some time seeing what all the fuss was about. I had no idea what awaited me.
The Panama Canal has three sets of locks, two sets on the Pacific entrance of the canal and one set at the Caribbean entrance of the canal. Panama is not flat from north to south through which the canal is cut and raising the ships 80 ft. above sea level is necessary to pass through and over the skinniest part of our continent. In order to do this, a relatively simple system of gravity fed locks was built. Though the idea of the system is simple, the project itself is far from simple and what it still achieves to this day with technology from the early 20th century is fascinating. In the above photo we can see one of the sets of doors and the water waiting to be fed through pumps to level out between the two chambers before the doors can open and let a ship through. Between the sets of locks at each entrance is a huge man made lake where can lazily pass through the canal with ease. The tricky stuff is fitting a ship with billions of dollars of goods through a tiny passage. The water for all the raising and lowering of ships comes from this enormous man made lake that spans the country.
Looks a little lame, I know, but the photos do not show the capacity of what we are looking at until we see it put in proportion by a massive ship. The Miraflores Locks consist of two passages side by side. In this photo we see one chamber full and the one just to the right of it is "empty". We can also see that the full chamber is at a higher water level than the sea level just beyond it where the ships enter and exit the canal.
Oh, the door is opening! What could be passing through?
A massive container ship with a tag-along sailboat squeezed in just behind it. There is a toll charged for each ship passing through the Panama Canal and it varies according to the purpose of the ship. The average toll is something like $110,000, and the small privately owned sailboats and ships pay far less. The highest toll ever paid is something like $400,000. Around fifty ships of all shapes and sizes pass through the locks every day carrying what they may to folks around the world.
Now the lock is filled by the water from the lake. A drastic difference is noticed in the ships elevation and we can now see the tiny sailboat following the cargo ship. After they pass through another set of doors, through Panama and off towards the Caribbean they will go.Oop! Looking the other way, another ship enters from the Pacific; the first set of doors opens to allow the ship to pass.
Rusty old Chinese ship making its way around the globe who knows how many times. This vessel is certainly no rookie to the Panama Canal. I wonder what it's carrying from the Far East.
Chinese guys obviously! Hey boys, have a nice trip!
The other side of the locks pass what is called a tandem. And for obvious reasons. Tandem is when two boats or ships pass in the same chamber. That white one looks a little like a pirate ship kinda.
Hmm, sort of looks like it's carrying prisoners. What's with the striped uniforms these guys have on? Is there a real prison ship sailing our seas every day? Likely no, however, suspicious.
Woah Nelly! That is a beyond enormous ship passing from Caribbean to the Pacific. I had to stay and watch this ship pass through, it was just incredible. The small silver vehicles that flank either side of the chambers are vehicles that guide the ships through the locks by being attached with cables to the front and rear of the ship. The cables are attached after the captain guides the ship to a holding area at each end of the locks where the cables are attached to the ship and then gently brought into the chamber.

The precision this requires is mind blowing. This massive ship is clearing the walls of the locks by about 1m on each side(approx. 3ft), and it's only six tiny guide vehicles ensuring that it stays exactly on track. Hitting the side of locks can result in a hefty fine, not to mention damage to both the ship and the lock. It doesn't even look like a ship in this picture, it mostly looks like solid land with containers on it. That is snug.
Sweet baby Jesus, that ship is like a floating city of stuff. Containers stacked five stories high, and more than ten rows deep. That's just the stuff on it! The ship itself was a thing of beauty in it's sheer size and capacity Watching this thing pass through is a highlight of any trip I've ever taken. Ultimately, I stayed at the Miraflores Locks for about six hours dorking out hardcore on the marvel that is the Panama Canal. I just couldn't get enough of what I was seeing. The Panama Canal is a true testament to humankind's ability to engineer and build things. Not just because of the canal itself, but of the sheer amount of life and life's things that pass through it. The Panama Canal is everywhere in our lives because nearly everything that arrived to our country on a ship has likely visited Panama. Panama is a unique and advantageous country to manage such an important piece of global commerce.
So as if all this isn't enough. . . There is a new set of locks currently being built to pass ships up to four times as large as the largest ones that pass through now. Wait, what? FOUR TIMES LARGER?!?!? How big can ships possibly be? Truly amazing. Panama plans to open the new locks in 2014, exactly 100 years after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.

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