A Land Divided - A World United - The Panama Canal

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It has been called "the big ditch", "the bridge between two continents" and "the greatest shortcut in the world". One look at the immensity of the Canal, and you will understand why a French company with a labor force of 10,000 men went bankrupt trying to excavate it. The project, while conceived in 1534 by Charles I of Spain, began in 1882 and ended seven years later in disaster with over 22,000 people dead from disease and pestilence. The United States took over the assets of a French company in 1902 and began the process of finishing the canal.

It is a epic story, appreciated best by transiting the canal by ship, viewing what many historians say changed the face of the industrial world. This 51 mile water tollway shaved over 7,900 nautical miles off the distance between New York and San Francisco.

Sailing the Panama Canal not only offers a rich detailed and fascinating history narrated by an on-board Canal historian; it is the natural beauty that surprises most of all - an ever changing panorama of jungle clad hills, shimmering Lake Gatun, the high arched span of the America's Bridge, and of course the intricate workings of the locks and gates themselves.

As you approach the canal from the Atlantic you travel through 7.2 kilometers of dredged channel. Your ship then proceeds for a little over 11 kilometers slightly westward before reaching the Gatun Locks. Huge ocean liners are lifted, as if they were toys, 85 feet by three sets of locks, to the level of Gatun Lake. This lake resulted from damming the Chagres River and broaching the Continental Divide. This combined with the Gaillard Cut was a feat equal to digging a trench 10 feet deep by 55 feet wide from New York to California.

Passing through Gatun Lake to the mouth of the Gaillard Cut and down the 13 kilometer channel, you arrive at the Pedro Miguel Lock, which has a drop of 31 feet. This lock borders Miraflores Lake, about 55 feet above the level of the Pacific. Your ship continues about 2 kilometers through Miraflores Lake and reaches two Miraflores Locks. These locks lower your ship to Pacific tidewater levels. Leaving the Miraflores Locks you continue 4 kilometers to Balboa on the Gulf of Panama.

From the deck of your ship or your own private balcony, you'll marvel as the locks open one into the other. The locks are double to allow one ship to be raised while another is being lowered. The lock chambers on the Panama Canal are 1000 feet long and 110 feet wide. Transit time through the canal is usually seven to eight hours. As a counterpoint, there is the natural wonder that surrounds the man-made one; a lush, virgin rain forest; impenetrable and inviolate, except for the canal. Imagine yourself watching the sun rise in the Atlantic and set in the Pacific. Visit Mayan ruins and colonial cities.

You can watch cliff divers plunge from dizzying heights or hike in a cloud forest where hummingbirds dart in greater numbers than crows back home.

Early in 2000 the United States turned over 100% control of the canal to Panama after jointly sharing its protection and control since 1977. The final cost of the canal US$336 million dollars which is less than the cost of the new cruise ships that pass through.

While transiting the canal is an incredible experience, remember your cruise, depending upon itinerary, will also take you to places like Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica; Cartegena, Columbia; Santa Cruz; Zihuatanejo and Hualtulco, Mexico or perhaps Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Oranjestad, Aruba or possibly Willemstad, Curacao and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

Engineered as carefully as the Canal itself, these cruises combine just the right number of exciting ports with long, leisurely days at sea. And no matter which direction you go, you'll discover a remarkable collection of wonders, both natural and man-made.

Sid Kaplan

Cruise Vacations Guide

Sid Kaplan has extensive experience in the travel business. He owned and operated a large retail cruise only agency in Canada and his wife has 25 years experience working for major cruise lines. Their website is Cruise Vacations Guide which offers advice and tips to those looking to create memorable cruise vacations. Shore excursion and land tour information is also provided. Cruise, hotel, car rental and vacation adventure booking online.

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