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The Eighth Wonder of the World!

(from The Panama Canal brochure, the Panama Canal Office of Public Affairs)

Runs both ways from northwest (Atlantic entrance) to southeast (Pacific entrance)

50 miles long, cut through the Isthmus between North American and South American continents

Average transit time: 8 to 10 hours

Average time total spent in Canal, including waiting to transit: 24 hours

Principle features include Gatun Locks on the Atlantic and Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks on the Pacific, the ports of Balboa on the north Atlantic and Cristobal on the south Atlantic side, the man-made Gatun Lake in-between, and the Galliard Cut, an eight-mile excavation through the Continental Divide

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!
(Can you read that backwards?)

Welcome to the eighth wonder of the world and one of humankind's greatest engineering achievements. Opened to traffic eighty five years ago on August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal took ten years, the labor of more than 75,000 men and women, and almost $400 million to complete.

Monica and Mikel
I came here today with Mikel (pronounced Michael) Andrade, whom we met on the bus from El Salvador to San Jose. He was on his way back after volunteering with a youth program for 3 months.

This canal is marvelous and intense. We visited the Miraflores Locks, 30 feet above sea level, which houses an observation deck where we watched the ships transiting at the end of their course from the Atlantic to the Pacific. While we were watching, a small sailboat, a giant cruise ship, and a big tanker traversed the locks.

The ships go into the lock, steadied by "mules," some on each side, which keep the ship from bumping the concrete sides of the lock. After a ringing alarm bell, the water in the lock drains out, solely through gravity, taking 8 minutes to drop 30 feet. When the cruise ship dropped, people next to us were yelling, "Rose! Jack!" (from the movie Titanic) because it really looked like the ship was sinking. Check out the difference in these pictures!

and after... (I'll never let go...)
Next, the seven-story gates open and the ship, now at sea level, is free to pass through the end of the lock and under the Bridge of the Americas into the open sea having avoided circling all around South America. There are three locks on the Atlantic side, and three on the Pacific side. Ships passing through the locks are raised and lowered 85 feet, from sea level to sea level, and all the water in the lakes and locks is "agua dulce" or "sweet" rainwater due to the nine-month rainy season in Panama.

A model of the canel
The Spaniards, in 1534, were the first to envision a canal across the 50-mile-wide Isthmus. On mule trails, they would carry gold from the conquered Peru, back to Spain, but were never able to build a canal. In 1850, with the California gold rush peaking, U.S. business interests began a railroad across the Isthmus, and thirty years later, the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, idealized a plan to build the canal, which failed. In 1903, Panama declared independence from Colombia, and Panama and the United States agreed on a treaty where the U.S. would construct the canal. See Kavitha's update on more U.S. involvement in Panama next week.
Meet Mikel

20 years old

Heritage: Panamanian, African-American

Siblings: Eira, 18 and Jariel, 16

Life story: Took some time off from college to volunteer with youth programs in El Salvador, hoping to continue schooling at technical college in Panama City and at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. Dad gained US residency in Florida, so Mikel holds dual citizenship: Panamanian and American. Dad was retired from Panama Canal Commission as part of handover on December 31, 1989. Lives in Canal Zone, but house is soon going up for sale and may soon move, either to the southern United States or to another place in Panama.

Can you imagine this historic period? The builders of the canal triumphed over landslides, tropical diseases like yellow fever and malaria, and they had to deliver, by train, every last nail, hammer, and board to the digging site and then transport every shovel full of dirt back out.

President Jimmy Carter, in 1977, signed treaties with the Panamanian government to gradually hand over control of the Canal to the Panamanians by noon on December 31, 1999. The Panama Canal Commission has an administrator, a deputy administrator, and a Board of Directors, made up of five US citizens and four Panamanian citizens. On December 31, 1989, the post of administrator changed from being held by a U.S. citizen to being held by a Panamanian citizen, while the deputy switches from being Panamanian to U.S.

As we speak, the more than 7,500 employees who directly work with the Canal and another 5000 people who make their living off the Canal are slowly getting laid off or retired, including Mikel's father, who's now in Tennessee looking for alternate work. They had to move from the full second floor of their house to a half of the house, to avoid paying higher rent and property fees, and as Mikel put it, "People don't want the Americans to leave. The minimum American wage is around $6.25. The Panama minimum wage is $1. We won't be able to make as much money, and you know how cheap it can be here in Panama." He worked a summer job for 30 hours/week at $3.40/hr, and now his prospects for earning that kind of paycheck are drastically reduced.

Monica at the Canal entrance
"My dad will have to start paying so much more on our house," Mikel told me. His house is in the Canal Zone, an area owned by the Panama government but constructed and built by Americans. "It will go up in value to $75,000, and we can't afford that. His pension doesn't even come in till 5 or 6 months."

I was wondering why the Panama currency includes regular American dollars, as well as quarters, nickels, dimes, and 50 cent pieces, both American and Panamanian. Someone told me it's because ships pay the canal fees in cash. Tolls were started in 1974, to help with the costs of the canal. Average toll for ocean going commercial vessels? $35,691. Highest toll paid? $153,662.66 paid by Rhapsody of the Seas on May 23, 1997. Lowest toll paid? 36 cents, paid by Richard Halliburton for swimming the Canal in 1928.

As of this point, there have been more than 700,000 transits through the waterways, from small little sailboats to giant cargo ships like we saw. Truly an inspiration to watch and truly a marvel of design, engineering, and human ambition, the Panama Canal is an amazing construction that has shortened the voyages of ships passing from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Bon Voyage!

Check out the map we made showing the Canal on the Odyssey Maps page!

For a GREAT website on the Panama Canal, click here!


Kevin - How To Get From Here To There?...
Kevin - Chinese Food and Snow Cones in the Heart of Panama
Kevin - Kids' Version - 25 Cents for a Taste of Heaven
Kavitha - Beware What You Order! Food in Central America
Abeja - Anatomy of a Border Crossing
Shawn - A Tech Man Cries "Uncle!"
Slayings in Colombia "Uncle!"

Meet Monica | Monica's Archive
Meet Monica


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