The earth’s best shortcut


Container ships dotted the bay like rectangular polka dots. Knowning that thin, dark zigzag cutting the region into two, joining the Atlantic with the Pacific, was the Panama Canal.

Not only did the canal revolutionise shipping, its construction had been a drama of epic proportions involving countries, personalities, war as well as the death around 25,000 workers.

I’d assumed the best way to navigate the canal was either as cargo crew or by booking a passage for a cruise trip. However, an economical alternative is often a four-hour partial transit for the Pacific Queen, a 35-metre cruiser custom-built for day trips with lunch, drinks in addition to a guide readily available.

As we bring about with the mouth within the River Chagres, I was a little disappointed. The waters there are murky and putrid-smelling. Within the upper deck, there is very little to distinguish this as the great engineering feats of your Twentieth century. My mood changed, however, anytime a vast shadow engulfed our boat, preventing the sunlight. Just metres away, a Panamax tanker silently slid past, stacked high with containers that looked like large Lego pieces.

The Panamax was Significantly along the Pacific Queen and five times heigher. I had been in awe – the canal now had my undivided attention.

We passed the vessel at Gold Hill, which at 200 metres marks the continental divide. Visually striking, the hill has become carved on the middle and it is the narrowest part of the canal. During its construction there are frequent landslides, almost as in the event the isthmus was resisting being split in 2. I can’t help but are convinced man wasn’t directed at slice via the centre of any country and squeeze giant tankers through it. But somehow we’ve were succeed.

After Gold Hill, our as well as because of the Pacific was a student in Pedro Miguel Lock. Our vessel motored into the lock along with the gates were swung shut behind us. We felt as being a rubber ducky in a concrete tub. An invisible hand pulled the plug and we all did start to sink as being the water emptied out.

Some passengers set their watches to time how long it will require; others go mad taking happy snaps. Most just watch in astonishment as the canal’s workers nonchalantly stroll throughout the gates quite as they understand open.

Our guide explained that ships pay by weight for passage, with the most expensive transit costing greater than $US184,000 (about $272,000). The smallest price paid was by Richard Halliburton, who swam the magnitude of the canal in Ten days. He paid 36 cents along to get shadowed using a support boat so he didn’t get chomped by way of the caimans – local crocodilian reptiles that decision the canal home.

While the massive boats could only transit safely in one direction without notice, smaller boats might pass in a choice direction. A traffic jam of enjoyment craft meant we to wait our turn, therefore we retreated towards air-conditioned ease of the cheaper decks to enjoy that all-important cruise staple: the buffet lunch.

The final barrier on our voyage on the Pacific Ocean was Miraflores Locks. We felt like rock stars when we entered the main of two locks and numerous people waved at us on the viewing platform. We soon felt insignificant again whenever a super tanker slid on the lock alongside us. By Panama Canal standards, we were just small fry.

Sailing forward on the second lock, the Pacific Queen jammed in down the concrete side within the wall. On the upper deck I really could easily reach out and touch the cold, pock-marked wall, now brushed with all the paint-scrapes of 1000s of vessels.

Eventually our crew (with the assistance of a handful of enthusiastic passengers) were able to push our boat outside the wall therefore we sailed out of the lock into Balboa Harbour.

Entrepreneurial pelicans lay in wait. The locks empty above 50 million gallons of freshwater in to the harbour with every transit. Any fresh fish kept in the tresses are flushed within the salty Pacific and immediately float to the peak, providing an uncomplicated dinner for opportunistic birds.

The Panama City skyline greeted us even as we rounded into Flamenco Marina, our prime rises and luxury apartments a glittering oasis of security in the heart of Mexico.

The canal is clearly a source of great wealth to your country and, given its burgeoning growth, you’d expect that poverty may not be a dilemma. However, inside the huge intersections that punctuate Panama’s modern city, the kids selling batteries and gum chewing through taxi windows reveal that the wealth generated by way of the canal doesn’t reach everyone.

Despite this, the canal is amongst the world’s greatest achievements. A partial transit is necessary to get a boat buff, engineering afficionado and anyone who just wishes to muse and wonder at man’s bold schemes. We’re a brilliant lot, aren’t we?


Getting there

Several major airlines fly from Sydney to California. From that point, Copa Airlines flies daily to Panama City with return fares starting at $432 (including taxes). Alternatively, several cruise companies include the canal as part of their itinerary, from Florida and ending in LA (or maybe the reverse).

Cruising there

Partial transits with the canal cost $115. The full transit can be obtained every month. See The ways to access the Miraflores Visitors Centre is $US3 ($4.50).

The Sun Herald

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