In Panama City there are countless brightly painted, former American school buses driving around. For a small sum these 'Diablos Rojos' will take you to the Panama Canal. As one of the biggest engineering projects ever undertaken, the canal is also referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
At around 80 kilometres in length, the Panama Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. It was the French who first ventured to dig this canal, in 1880. It was hoped it would save merchant ships a journey around the whole continent (and thus save huge amounts of time and money). But things did not turn out as expected. During the project 22,000 workers died of diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, and work ground to a halt. In 1914 the Americans finished the canal off. They also made sure that the Panama Canal was in their possession and it was only in 2000 that the canal officially became the property of Panama.
To get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean the ships in the Panama Canal have to overcome a height differential of 26 metres. They do this on their journey by means of three sluices: The Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun sluices. An ingenious system ensures that the vessels descend by using the force of gravity. The total journey time through the Panama Canal takes around eight hours. Each year approximately 14,000 ships make use of it, paying huge sums in tolls for the privilege (an average of 100,000 Euros). Nevertheless, this is still much less than what the trip around the tip of South America would cost them.
The view of the canal and the gigantic sea tankers and cruise ships is most spectacular from the Miraflores sluice. This is about a half hour’s drive from Panama City. Here you’ll find a visitors’ centre complete with an observation deck, a restaurant with terrace and a souvenir shop. There are also various exhibitions, scale models, video presentations and interactive modules that explain how the sluices and the canal work. But these are mainly interesting if there is no ship traversing through the sluice. The ‘real work’ is always the most spectacular.
It is not simply its size that has caused the Panama Canal to be dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World. It also incorporates a number of clever tricks that make it a special canal. For a start, it is filled with fresh water. This was specifically done to make sure that the saltwater flora and fauna of the two oceans remain separated. In addition, the largely artificial Lake Gatun serves as a drainage basin. This ensures that rainwater and water from the surrounding rainforest ends up in the canal. Special electric locomotives on both sides of the sluice keep the ships in precisely the right position in the sluice. Partly because of this, ships’ captains have no control over their vessels while in the canal.