With only a distance of 50 miles to bridge, The Panama Canal connects Panama City on the Pacific Ocean with Colón on the Atlantic Ocean across this narrow isthmus of land before the continent widens into South America from Colombia.
Before the canal opened, the shortest way from the USA from its East coast to West by sea was to navigate south around the treacherous and notoriously rough seas around Cape Horn. Given that crossing the canal saves some 12,000 miles, it was seen as a truly vital step in the progress of world trade.
Started by the French and then later completed by the Americans in the early part of the 20th century, the first ship finally crossed from Atlantic to Pacific in 1914. With an ambitious project of expansion due to start in 2016, the Panama Canal will once more be a focus for anyone fascinated by one of the world’s most extraordinary modern-day engineering feats.
The idea of creating a crossing from ocean to ocean was nothing new, following in the footsteps of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa who was the first conquistador to discover the Pacific Ocean in 1513 by travelling along the Camino de Cruces on foot.
Today the canal follows a passage through three sets of locks and two artificial lakes, Gatún and Mira Flores, which rise to 26 metres above sea level and back down again, to cross the continental divide using locks operated by gravity rather than requiring any artificial pumps.
For many people, this is the single most famous landmark in Panama and a reason alone to visit this beautiful country, although we very strongly recommend you see much more of the country too while you are there! Easily reached from Panama City, you can visit of course the locks at Mira Flores or take a partial or complete transit of the canal itself by boat.
It is quite awe-inspiring to see the vast ocean liners being manoeuvred with mere inches to spare into the lock gates before they continue on to Gatun Lake. Continuing along the canal takes you through Soberania National Park which is a wonderful stretch of pristine lush rainforest and haven to some stunning birdlife. You could also take to small canoes here, an even better way to explore the park for birds and mammals.
If you follow the canal through to its conclusion on the Caribbean coast at Colon, you will find yourself able to explore ruined fortresses at Portobello and San Lorenzo, strategic posts during the days of Spanish rule and repeated targets for pirates who were keen to intercept the Spaniards’ plunder of Inca and Aztec gold.
Then take the train back to Panama City to complete your exploration of the awe-inspiring Panama Canal that crosses this small country from Pacific to Atlantic Oceans. We will be delighted to discuss with you the best way to explore the canal and the surrounding regions with one of our expert guides.