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PAN_Canal_ships.jpg (18836 bytes) Panama

The Panama Canal

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THE PANAMA CANAL (Dates for Canal transit below)
Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, arrived in Panama in 1881, and decided to build a sea-level canal along the Chagres River and the Rio Grande. Work started in 1882. 0ne of the diggers in 1886 and 1887 was the painter Gauguin, aged 39. 30 km had been dug before the Company crashed in 1893, defeated by extravagance and tropical diseases (22,000 people died). Eventually Colombia (of which Panama was then a Department) authorized the Company to sell all its rights and properties to the United States, but the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty, and the inhabitants of Panama, encouraged by the States, declared their independence on 3 November 1903. The United States intervened and, in spite of protests by Colombia, recognized the new republic. Colombia did not accept the severance. Before beginning the task of building the Canal the United States performed one of the greatest sanitary operations in history: the clearance from the area of the more malignant tropical diseases. The name of William Crawford Gorgas will always be associated with this, as will that of George Washington Goethals with the actual building of the Canal. On 15 August 1914, the first passage was made, by the ship Ancon.

The former Canal Zone was a ribbon of territory under US control extending 8 km on either side of the Canal and including the cities of Cristobal and Balboa. The price paid by the United States Government to Panama for construction rights was US$10mn. The French company received US$40mn for its rights and properties. US$25mn were given to Colombia in compensation for the transfer of the French company’s rights. The total cost at completion was US$387mn. Panama long ago rejected the perpetuity clause of the original Canal Treaty. In April 1978 a new treaty was ratified and on I October 1979 the Canal Zone, now known officially as the Canal Area, was formally transferred to Panamanian sovereignty, including the ports of Cristobal and Balboa, the Canal dry docks and the trans-isthmus railway, but the US still retains extensive military base areas.

Until the final transfer of ownership in 2000 the Canal administration is in the hands of the Commision del Canal, on which Panama now has majority representation. The coordination of the process of handing over the Canal to Panama is managed by the Inter-Ocean Regional Authority (ARI). According to 1996 figures, about 13,700 ships pass through the Panama Canal annually, providing US$100mn.

As the crow flies the distance across the isthmus is 55 km. From shore to shore the Canal is 671/2 km, or 82 km (44.08 nautical miles) from deep water to deep water. It has been widened to 150m in most places. The trip normally takes 8 or 9 hrs for the 30 ships a day passing through. An odd fact is that the mean level of the Pacific is some 20 cm higher than the Atlantic, but the disparity is not constant throughout the year. On the Atlantic side there is a normal variation of 30 cm between high and low tides, and on the Pacific of about 380 cm, rising sometimes to 640 cm.

From the Pacific, the Canal channel goes beneath the Puente de las Americas and passes Balboa. The waterway has to rise 16 1/2m to the Lago Miraflores. The first stage of the process is the Miraflores Locks, 1 1/2 km before the lake. At the far end of the Lake, the Canal is raised again at the Pedro Miguel Locks, after which the 13 km Gaillard, or Culebra Cut is entered, a narrow rock defile leading to Lago Gatun. Opposite Miraflores Locks, there is a swing bridge.

Panama Canal Transit Tour Dates
Click here for  complete Day Tour Description
Panama Canal Day Tour Dates
Click here for  complete Day Tour Description