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The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a fresh-water, lock-based canal measuring 50 miles in length and traversing northeast to southwest. Its water is obtained from a vast watershed that covers 2,134 sq miles and encompasses three different provinces: Panama, Colon, and Cocle.

Acting as a freshwater elevator, each vessel is lifted 85ft above sea level to reach the height of Gatun Lake, before being lowered back down to sea level on the Canal’s opposing side. This process is completed using a series of locks on both ends of the Canal.

The Canal is comprised primarily of the following:

  • Five Sets of Locks — Agua Clara, Cocoli, Gatun, Miraflores, and Pedro Miguel. Gatun, Miraflores, and Pedro Miguel Locks date back to the initial construction period, whereas Agua Clara and Cocoli are the Canal’s two newest additions and were completed in 2016. Gatun and Agua Clara are located on the Atlantic and Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, and Cocoli reside along the Pacific.
  • Three Embarkment Dams — Gatun, Madden, and Miraflores. Gatun Dam, which resides adjacent to Gatun Locks, was built between 1907-1913 and is responsible for impounding the water that flows from the Chagres River, which, in turn, creates Gatun Lake. The dam measures 738ft at the water's edge, making it the largest of the three dams. Madden Dam was built between 1932-1935 to increase the holding capacity for each of the three locks and help regulate the flow of water into Gatun Lake. It impounds the water from the Chagres River, forming Lake Alajuela in the process. Miraflores Dam is the smallest of the three dams and resides just northeast of Miraflores Locks, between Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks.
  • Gatun Lake — covers 163 sq miles (442.12 km²) and was once the world’s largest man-made lake. All vessels transiting the Panama Canal pass through Gatun Lake en route to their final destination.
  • Gaillard Cut — a thin 8.5 mile (13.7 km) section connecting Pedro Miguel Locks with Gatun Lake. Carved through the continental divide, this section is also referred to as Culebra Cut due to its abundant curves; Culebra in Spanish means snake.

The Panama Canal Treaty

On September 7, 1977, then U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian President Omar Torrijos, signed the Panama Canal and Neutrality Treaties, which, collectively transferred full control of the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999, and guaranteed its permanent neutrality.

All U.S. military facilities and installations in the Panama Canal Zone area were to revert to Panamanian ownership. The Canal Zone extended 5 miles (8 ㎞) on both sides of the canal, though it did not include the cities of Panama or Colon. Those who grew up in the Canal Zone were known as “Zonians.”

Transfer activities, however, began as far back as October 1979 when the Canal Zone was abolished, as stipulated in the Carter-Torrijos Treaty. US government administrative, civilian and military institutions began a gradual draw-down, which continued until the transfer was completed in 1999. When it was over, 95,293 acres (386 ㎢) and 5,237 buildings were returned to Panama, ending a military presence that lasted nearly 90 years.

Beginning in 1979, the Panama Canal was placed under joint US-Panamanian control and managed by the Panama Canal Commission. In 1999, when full control of the canal was transferred to Panama, the Panama Canal Commission was abolished and replaced by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which continues to manage the canal to this today. The ACP, an autonomous government body, was created to assume sole responsibility for the management and operation of the Canal.

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Names to Remember

Philippe Buneau Varilla - was the last chief engineer under the French construction effort, who closed the sale of rights and properties to the United States for $40 million. Panama appointed him plenipotentiary ambassador to the United States to negotiate a Canal treaty in its name, and he returned to Panama with the treaty in 1903, which then paved the way for the Canal construction. Panama later considered him a traitor due to the terms of that treaty, which Panama considered most unfavorable. US Secretary of State John Hay was his counter-signer.

President Theodore Roosevelt - under him the Canal project acquired life. After the Spanish American War, Roosevelt felt the need to permit the US Navy to sail between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. His only trip outside the United States while president was to Panama, to inspect progress of the Canal project.

John Stevens - the second chief engineer during the construction effort. A US railroad man appointed by Roosevelt, he recognized yellow fever was the project’s worse enemy and stopped all construction for one year until it was brought under control. He also devised the train car system to clear dirt and rock out of the construction site.

Colonel William Crawford Gorgas - a US Army officer stationed in Cuba, he was brought to Panama to solve the yellow fever problem. Upon discovering that it was caused by mosquitoes, he took sanitation steps to eliminate breeding spots. This was perhaps the single most important triumph in the Canal’s successful conclusion.

George W. Goethals - after John Steven’s abrupt resignation in 1907 as chief engineer, Roosevelt appointed Goethals, an Army colonel, to oversee the project. Under his leadership, the army of workers found needed discipline. We owe to him the happy conclusion of the project in 1914.

The visitor's center at Agua Clara Locks, in Colon, rests on a hilltop overlooking Gatun Lake at the Locks' southernmost end. It provides unparalleled views of Gatun Lake, Gatun Dam, anchorage, and of vessels as they depart from or enter into Agua Clara Locks. Though much further away from the Locks' control tower and chambers than its predecessor at Gatun Locks, this new visitor center is much more refined and comes complete with two dining options, a projection room, and a gift shop. Vessels departing from or entering Agua Clara Locks pass directly in front of the visitors center, offering visitors wonderful photographic opportunities.

For more information, we recommend you visit their website.

Situated just 10-15 minutes north of Panama City, Miraflores Locks contains two chambers and is the Canal's southernmost set of locks. A visitor center, complete with a museum, restaurant/bar, souvenir shop, and auditorium, resides just in front of the locks' control tower, providing visitors with close-up views of the locks and vessels during transit. Visitors have the option of viewing the Canal from two distinct locations: the roof, which offers scenic views of Miraflores & Pedro Miguel Locks, Miraflores Lake, Centenary Bridge, and surrounding area or, the second level, which has comfortable, shaded seats and provides similar views. Pamphlets and other printed material about the Canal are provided upon entering.

Getting to Miraflores Locks

Google Map - Miraflores Locks Google Map - Albrook Bus Terminal

Buses to Miraflores Locks depart regularly from the Albrook Bus Terminal and take only 15-20 minutes. Buses that read "Miraflores" will take you to the visitor center's entrance, whereas buses that read "Forestal" will drop you off along the main road that passes in front of the Miraflores Locks; from there, you'll need to walk 5-10 minutes to reach the visitor's center. (After passing through the entrance gate, continue walking until you cross over the steel bridge—the Miraflores Dam will be off to your right. Stay to your left and proceed until you reach the large staircase/elevator that leads to the main entrance. Metro buses to Miraflores Locks depart every 30–45 minutes.)

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Pedro Miguel Locks, which consists of only one chamber, resides just north of Miraflores Locks on the northernmost part of Miraflores Lake. Unlike Miraflores, there is no visitor center. However, there is a large parking area in front of the locks, allowing visitors to get a close-up view of the vessels as they enter into and out of the locks' chamber.

Getting to Pedro Miguel Locks

Google Map - Pedro Miguel Locks Google Map - Albrook Bus Terminal

Buses to Pedro Miguel Locks depart regularly from the Albrook Bus Terminal and take only 20-25 minutes; you must take the bus that reads "Forestal." They will drop you off along the main road that passes directly in front of the locks.

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Partial and full Panama Canal transits are offered regularly, though their schedule depends on the time of year. The months between November–April are considered high season, with daily transits being the norm.

Partial transits depart from Isla Flamenco/Amador and include a trip under the Bridge of the Americas; through Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks; through Gaillard (Culebra) Cut; under the Centenary Bridge; and on to Gamboa, where you will disembark.

For those on full transits, your journey will continue northbound. You will first pass Barro Colorado Island, off to your left, which is the largest forested island in the Panama Canal Waterway and home to the Smithsonian Biological Station. Shortly thereafter, you will enter Gatun Lake, en route to Gatun Locks. After departing Gatun Locks, you'll proceed to Colon to disembark.

Most partial and full transits depart from Panama City, however, on occasion, your tour will consist of a southbound transit. In this case, you will be transported, by bus, to Gamboa or Colon, where you will begin your tour in reverse order.

Panama Canal Transit Companies