Oil tanker in the Gatun Locks
Oil tanker in the Gatun Locks


Happy Birthday Panama Canal!

The Panama Canal turned 100 on 15th August 2014. This wonder of the modern world took a decade to build, and revolutionised global trade. More than one million ships have passed through since its opening.

The Canal has had a huge influence on Panama as a nation. The influx of immigrants during its construction has resulted in today’s very mixed and cosmopolitan population and it is now a major contributor to the country’s coffers generating more than $1.5 billion of revenue per year.

The French first attempted the construction of a canal back in the 1880s. At that time, the intention was to cut the channel through at sea level. However, with a mounting death toll and engineering difficulties the project was abandoned.

A new design, incorporating sets of locks at each end and a large flooded lake in the middle, was proposed by the Americans and the Panama Canal was successfully built between 1904 and 1914. This was the one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken and resulted in the loss of many lives (mainly through disease and accidents). The US took control of the ‘canal zone’ until it was handed over to Panama in December 1999.

The Canal is 48 miles long and typically takes 8-10 hours to pass through from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast (or vice versa) – although long queues of ships waiting to enter the canal can add substantially to the total time taken. The ‘short cut’ saves ships having to travel an extra 7,872 miles all the way around Cape Horn at the southern tip of The Americas.

Tolls paid are based on various factors including the weight of the vessel passing through the Canal and/or the capacity. The highest toll ever paid was by the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl, which paid a record $375,600 to sail through the Panama Canal. The lowest toll ever paid was by the American adventurer, Richard Halliburton, who swam through the canal in 1928. He weighed 150 pounds and he was charged the handsome sum of 36 cents! The average toll is $75,000.

With demand for the Canal continually rising – and the increasing size of ships – a $5 billion project to build new sets of locks is currently underway and due for completion in 2015. This will allow ships much larger than the current ‘Panamax’ vessels to pass through the canal.

There are many different ways of experiencing the Panama Canal, ranging from a simple visit to the museum and locks at Miraflores, to actually transiting the canal in a small boat, or riding the Panama Canal Railway to Colon and visiting the locks at Gatun and visitor centre which offers a great view of the construction site of the new locks.