The Panama Canal – What time to visit?
A visit to Panama is incomplete without a trip to the incomparable Canal. It wad completed in 1910 by the USA following on from a failed attempt by the French who lost 22,000 men to malaria during the construction.
In my opinion the most enjoyable way to visit the canal is by having lunch at the wonderful Miraflores lock. We were told by a Panama Canal Pilot that the ships pass through the canal from Pacific to Atlantic in the mornings, from Atlantic to Pacific in the afternoons and in both directions in the night (I never did find out why).
The job of the Pilot is very interesting. (Although after 20 years in the same job our friend had lost a bit of enthusiasm. The Pilots board the ship and ‘take total control’ while it is traversing the Canal. They do not actually touch the ship’s controls but the captain has to perform every command they make to ensure that there are no accidents.
The Canal is 50 miles (80 kilometers) long and it takes 8 hours from end to end.
The Miraflores locks are near to Panama City and are the last (of two) locks on the Pacific side of the country. There is an impressive museum and viewing centre that details the history of the Panama Canal and the restaurant on the second floor. While we were there there were a comfortable number of people there to make an good expectant atmosphere without it feeling overcrowded.
Upon arrival we were told that entry to the visitors centre is free if lunch was taken in the restaurant. We were told that the next ship would arrive (or so we thought) at 15:00 in 1 hours time and we picked an outside table with an excellent view of the huge lock. The lunch itself could be taken as a la carte or an extensive buffet. We opted for the buffet and started with the salad, then devoured the main coast thinking that we would eat dessert after the ship has passed through the lock.
The excitement started to build at 4:45 as we prepared the camera and started looking in both directions (maybe there was a late running canal from the morning schedule?) but there was not a ship in sight. Our Spanish is not very good and we did not want to look stupid in front of the tourists and locals and made the executive decision to take deserts and order more wine at 15:30.
16:00 came and passed, a few people who must have seen the ships pass through the canal before left for the day.
At 16:30 there was some movement on the Atlantic side but a long way away – was this the promised ship? As the minutes crept by the cargo ship came fully into view moving at walking pace. 30 minutes later it reached the lock and was attached to 6 railway tugs (3 on each side) that would guide the vessel into place and keep it still while the water emptied from the lock to the level of the water in the next compartment.
The whole process of moving through the locks takes about 30 minutes per ship and just like London buses two more ships arrived soon afterwards to complete a very memorable afternoon. (By Paul)