The Panama Canal is a 77-kilometre ship canal in Panama that connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. There are locks at each end to lift ships up to Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal, 26 metres above sea level. The current locks are 33.5 metres wide. A third, wider lane of locks opened in 2016.
France began work on the canal in 1881, but had to stop because of engineering problems and high mortality due to disease. The United States took over the project in 1904, and took a decade to complete the canal, which was officially opened on August 15, 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Drake Passage or Strait of Magellan. The shorter, faster, and safer route to the U.S. West Coast and to nations in and around the Pacific Ocean allowed those places to become more integrated with the world economy.
During construction, ownership of the territory that the Panama Canal now passes through was first Colombian, then French, and then American. The US continued to control the canal and surrounding Panama Canal Zone until the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties provided for handover to Panama. After a period of joint American–Panamanian control, the canal was taken over by the Panamanian government in 1999, and is now managed and operated by the Panama Canal Authority, a Panamanian government agency.
Annual traffic has risen from about 1,000 ships in 1914, when the canal opened, to 14,702 vessels in 2008, the latter measuring a total of 309.6 million Panama Canal/Universal Measurement System (PC/UMS) tons. By 2008, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through the canal; the largest ships that can transit the canal today are called Panamax. It takes 6 to 8 hours to pass through the Panama Canal. The American Society of Civil Engineers has named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
There are several ways you can experience the canal, it will depend on your level of interest. For the curious visitor, there are two museums devoted to it: the Canal Museum at Casco Antiguo, featuring Panama's history as a crossroads of cultures, oceans and a bridge between continents and a second museum is located at the Miraflores Locks. This museum shows the technical aspects of the Canal. You can observe the transits at the balcony of the restaurant on the top.
At the northern end are the Gatún Locks, 10 kilometres south of Colon. They might not be as impressive as the Miraflores Locks near Panama City, but if you want to see where the ships enter and leave on the Caribbean side as opposed to the Pacific side, here it is. On the positive side, it is much quieter which gives you a better experience to be enjoyed without the crowds that visit from Panama City as a daytrip.
Another way to experience the Canal is to cross it. Either partial crossing which takes four hours or complete crossing which might be done in eight, in both cases it is recommendable to hire a guide that is knowledgeable in history of the Panama Canal.
An interesting twist on viewing the Panama Canal is to travel the length by train. The Panama Railroad was first built in 1855 and then rebuilt in 1909 during construction of the Panama Canal. For many years the railway provided an invaluable link between the Atlantic and Pacific. Ocean to Ocean by railway, the trip will take one day and transits through the tropical jungle.
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