When Krystina, Erin and I took our annual New Years trip to Panama, everyone was surprised we went to the Canal. In fact, I had to push Erin and Krystina to go. While it is easy to assume that the Canal would top and visitor to Panama’s “to do” list, my generation seems to miss the point.
When contemplating a visit to the Canal, one conjures up the image of a boring, educational school field trip. Not exactly what most 20-somethings want to do on a much deserved holiday break. In truth, that’s what we thought we’d get with our visit to Miraflores Locks, one of the three lock systems that form the Panama Canal.
Miraflores ended up to be just the opposite: a fun filled morning in Panama City. The modern visitors center imparts at the same time information and fun; those visiting can watch a surprisingly entertaining video on the history of the canal, meander through the canal museum and drink a cold beer while watching ships pass through from an observation deck.
The canal and lock systems are fascinating in and of itself. The 82 kilometer ship canal connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific, cutting across the Isthmus of Panama. The canal took 33 years to build, which was finally completed in 1914. Simply carving through Panama was not a panacea for allowing hastened ship travel between the two oceans. The Pacific sea level is actually higher than that of the Atlantic, and Panama’s narrow terrain included a high center. For ship travel, overcoming a feat of height is no easy task. Enter the lock system: ships enter the canal at sea level and once inside the locks, the watertight system is sealed. Slowly, a valve allows water to enter the lock through an adjacent second chamber. Once the water levels have equalized, the lock doors are open and the ship can proceed to the second chamber. The process is repeated, equalizing the sea level and allowing the ship to continue on it’s journey through Gatun Lake and on to the Pacific.
The whole system and movement of ships across varying sea levels was surprisingly captivating to learn about and actually watch. Visitors to the Miraflores Locks can see boats passing through the system all day, with ships traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic in the morning and vice versa in the afternoon.
All in all, the trip to the Miraflores Locks was the biggest surprise of our trip to Panama. On a vacation filled with sun and sand, our educational excursion made us appreciate the history of the Canal that put Panama on the map.
Getting to the locks requires a car, but those without can hail a regular taxi to do the job. Complete package access to the facility costs only $8 for tourists and is money well spent. Allow about 2-3 hours at the Canal to really enjoy the experience. You won’t regret it.
Miraflores Locks, Panama City, Panama, open daily year round. Ticket office 9 AM- 4:30 PM, exhibitions 9 AM- 5 PM, restaurant 12 PM- 4 PM, $8 entry fee
for more information visit: http://www.pancanal.com/eng/anuncios/cvm/index.html