October 2017

After reading David McCullough's book on the Panama Canal, "The Path Between the Seas" Craig has wanted to go to Panama. He didn't just want to go through it on a cruise ship but really see it. We signed up for a 6 day Road Scholar tour.

We flew from Tucson to Houston to Panama City. 14 hours. It cost more to fly to Panama than it does to Europe but how else can you get there? The Road Scholar people met us at the airport and took us to the hotel

It was a nice large hotel with a balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the start of the canal

Day 2

They got us up for breakfast at 7:00 or earlier every day. The first day we had a meeting to get orientated and to meet each other and then got on the bus. We were to see Panama City today.

We first took a tour of the old US military canal zone area in Panama City. The agreement to turn the canal over to the control of the Panamanian government was made in 1977 and completed December 31, 1999. Before that time the US controlled area was called the Canal Zone and went the whole length of the canal for 5 miles on each side. The ordinary Panamanians was not allowed in the canal zone. The area was strictly controlled under an Apartheid segregation of whites and blacks. Residents were divided into “gold roll” and “silver roll” workers: gold roll workers were exclusively white; silver roll workers were mainly black.

At one time over 100,000 US military personnel were in Panama. This was the main Panama Canal administration building.

There were 48 people on the tour. For this first day we were on 3 different smaller buses

This green area below was the size of one canal lock.

We next went to the old city, Casco Viejo. It was settled in 1673 after the destruction of the original city which was founded in 1519.

We visited a museum first and then walked through the streets of the old section.

Rey, our tour leader, told us all about it as we went.

Playing baseball on the beach. They have tides of 8 to 12 feet. The tide was out.

I bought a lime iced slush

It was her 17th birthday

I asked if I could give them $1 for a photo. He said "how about $2?". "Okay" I said. He was a local indian and then he went on and told us all travelling the world and about having kids in Germany.

These were ships anchored in the harbor waiting for their turn to go up the canal.

Panama hats of all kinds are a popular tourist purchase

The new modern city is across the water. It has all been built in the last 20 or so years.

We went to a nice restaurant for lunch

We then visited the Biomuseo and learned all about the history of Panama. The building was designed by famous architect Frank Gehry.

Then it was back to the hotel for a lecture on the canal and dinner.

Day 3

All 48 of us were now on a larger bus. We first went on the Pan-American Highway over the Bridge of the Americas. It was built in 1962. Before that Panama was divided into east and west with only ferries connecting it. Now Panama City is so expensive that most people live over the bridge to the west and commute to the city. The traffic was terrible going into the city but we were fortunate to be going out of town. We were to find that traffic anywhere in the city is very bad.

We stopped at a view point looking over the entrance to the canal. There was a monument to Chinese workers.

We drove west and north and back over the canal on the Centennial Bridge.

Panama City is a very modern city. However once you leave the city it is obvious we were in a third world country. Many of the properties are occupied by squatters and the buildings are run down and there was trash everywhere. It made for an interesting bus ride.

We stopped at the Madden Dam in the jungle in the mountains east of the canal. It was built in 1924 to provide a reliable water source for the canal and for Panama City. It formed Lake Alajuela. It is used to maintain a proper level in Gatun Lake which forms the main part of the Panama Canal and to provide electrical power. It is on the Rio Chagres which forms the canal all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Some police on a motorcycle kept a watchful eye on us.

We next stopped at a rest area in the jungle as we headed west toward the canal. It was on the original Camino de Cruces trail that was used by the Spainards in the 1500 and 1600s.

Our sharp eyed guide spotted a 3 toed sloth in a tree as we were going down the highway. We stopped in the middle of the road and we all got off to take photos.

We met the canal and crossed over the River Chagres again to the town of Gambo for lunch at a very fancy resort hotel.


We then went south along the west side of the canal.

We stopped at the French cemetery in Paraiso. About 25,000 French workers died from disease and injuries during the failed attempt of the French to cut a sea level canal from 1880 to 1888. Some are buried here.

This is a profile of the canal

When the dam was built starting in 1903 the Gatun dam was built on the Chagres River where it emptied into the Caribbean Sea. At time it was built it formed the largest man made lake in the western hemisphere. It is at an elevation of 85 feet. Locks were built on the Atlantic side to raise the boats to lake level. Then a cut was made through the continental divide and more locks were built on the south end to bring the ships from the lake level back down to the Pacific.

There are two sets of locks on the canal on the south end. Going south there is a single step lock at Pedro Miguel, then a small man made lake and then a two step lock at Miraflores. We stopped along side of the road north of Pedro Miguel and then went on to the visitors center at Miraflores.

The visitors center was wonderful. They had a video, a museum and a restaurant where we had dinner.

This is a view of the visitor center that I would take later when on the canal.


The museum had some great models

This was a simulated boat bridge that was a simulation of going through a lock.

The original USA canal was built between 1903 and 1913. These lock doors are the originals that were designed and built in 1903 and still function perfectly. The original locks are two lanes wide and both lanes are used to raise and lower the boats.

5 locomotives guide the larger ships through the locks.

East of this lock is the approach to the new locks that we will see on day 5. This is a huge container ship that will not fit through the old locks.

It takes about 10 hours for a ship to go through the canal. Each step of a lock takes about 45 minutes to enter, fill or empty and then exit.

We had dinner here and watched the ships as it got dark. Then we returned to Panama City and our hotel.

The locomotives have to go down a steep grade as the level drops.

Day 4

Through the canal.

Notice that Panama City, which is on the Pacific, is further east than Colon on the Atlantic side. The canal runs north and west going from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

We rode the bus for about 5 minutes to the dock to meet our ship.

It was built as a luxury yacht in 1913 for JP Morgan and later owned by Al Capone to run booze during prohibition. It was originally called the Isla Morada. It was later confiscated by the US government and served as a mine sweeper during WWII. It is a wooden boat but has been upgraded with some fiberglass. I could not get a photo of it when we boarded but took this one as we disembarked.

We went out into the ship channel and up into the entrance of the canal. We had to go under the bridge.

It is so humid that my Nikon would fog up every morning as we exited the hotel. I took most of the early photos with my little Canon point and shoot until the fog in the Nikon dried up.

This is the museum from the water.

And our hotel

All boats that go through the canal need a trained pilot to steer the boat. Here comes ours.

Under the bridge

This is the southern entrance to the new locks. The old locks were 110 feet wide and 1050 feet long. The new locks, built to handle the Panamax large container ships and cruise ships are 180 feet wide and 1400 feet long. We will see them up close on the Atlantic side.

The logistics of going through the canal is interesting. The canal is owned by the Panamanian Government. It is a large contributor to the GNP. Numbers varied but they gross over $2B a year and the profits are over $1B. All the arrangements are made through brokers. You must have reservations and even with them you might wait a week to go through. Priority to go through can be purchased however. Ships pay determined by their size, weight and cargo. They also have to pay extra for the pilot, ground handlers, rope handlers and tug boats. The average large boat fee is around $200k but the largest boats can pay up to $1M. A small sailboat under 50 feet pays about $800.

Entering the Miroflores locks. There are two lock levels here.

She is just pretending to throw the ropes.

The ropes are thrown to a man on the shore to tie up the boat. In this lock however we were tied to a larger tour boat.

There was also a medium sized freighter and a tug boat in the lock with us.

As we went through the canal we saw boats of all types and sizes. Here is a Norwegian cruise ship.

The locomotives, or "mules", kept the large ships away from the walls. The ships moved on their own power.

Out of the Pedro Miguel locks we went under the Centennial Bridge.

The capacity of the canal is not limited by the locks. It is limited by the width of the Culegra Cut. This was the highest elevation of the original mountains of the continental divide across the isthmus. Cutting down the mountains to the height of the lake was the most difficult part of constructing the canal. It is still only 750 feet wide after several widening projects and it prevents large ships from going both directions at once. Ships were going north in the mornings and ships on the northern side had to wait to come through in the afternoons.

Our pilot

This ship accompanied us for most of the day.

Looking back through the cut.

A large car carrier

The largest ships can carry over 13,000 20 foot containers.

After crossing the lake we passed by the Gatun dam.

We then entered the northern Gatun Locks. The large ship was in the locks next to us.

Those are blades for power generating windmills.

We went through with a tug and a small private sailboat in front of us and a large ship behind us.

This is the rainy season in Panama but we were fortunate to only be rained on briefly for a few minutes.

All the ropes were neatly put away.

They are constructing a bridge across the northern end of the canal.

We docked in the city of Colon

It was crowded with people. We went directly through the town and on to our hotel.

Day 5

Today we are going to visit the new locks in Colon, have lunch and an afternoon to relax and then take the train back to Panama City.

There is a nice community of Islam residents.

The new Agua Clara locks were completed in 2016. They are only a single lane wide and boats go both directions in the locks. To conserve water there are holding reservoirs to the side of the locks. When the locks are emptied the top 20% of the water goes into one reservoir, the second 20% in the second reservoir and another 20% in the third reservoir. The remaining 40% goes out into the ocean. When the locks are then filled the water from the reservoirs is put back to help fill the lock. This saves lake water.

This is a Pacific side but they looked the same.

I carefully watched to see the water level go up and down. It did not look like it was moving to me. I asked a visitor center guide and she insisted the reservoirs were raising and falling. Later I kept pestering her and she checked and found out they were not using the reservoirs at that time but were sending the water directly out. That saves about 6 to 8 minutes.

The old locks used swinging gates. The new locks use huge sliding gates. This is a photo that was on the wall showing the gates. They were made in Italy.


Many ships were waiting out on the lake to go through the cut.

The new locks needed new larger tugs. However they do not use the locomotive mules.

On the way back we saw the approach to the bridge. It looked to go nowhere.

These were originally canal zone barracks for US troops. After 1977 they were occupied by Panamanian troops. During the 1989 US invasion of Panama, "Operation Just Cause", they were bombed. They also bombed Panama City. This was done to remove Panamanian general, and dictator, Manuel Noriega from power.

These homes are nice. They were originally built for US servicemen's families.

This is our hotel in Colon. It was a rebuilt US military building and made of solid concrete.

After a couple of free hours we were on the train back to Panama City. The train was an engineering feat itself. It was built before the canal in 1850 to 1855. This was even before we had the railroad across the USA. It was built to help people cross over the isthmus to go to the California gold rush. It was built by Americans. It went through impregnable jungles and many lives were lost. It was originally a narrow gauge but was changed to standard gauge in the 1950s. The route was changed somewhat when it was used extensively during the building of the canal. The canal could not have been built without the railroad.


We were crammed into an observation car. It was way too crowded for me.

I went downstairs and had a great time talking to a Russian guy who now lives in Brooklyn, his Panamanian girl friend and a young guy from Switzerland. We were al interested in discussing AI (Artificial Intelligence).

Our guide Rey and I went to the next car with an outdoor observation platform.

The train ride is 50 miles long and took about an hour. There were sections where it went directly along the canal.

We stayed that night is a huge modern hotel in downtown Panama City. We had a farewell dinner with entertainment. Jan and I got to dance with the dancers. A great way to end the tour.