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On Visiting The Miraflores Locks Of The Panama Canal

The ditch that changed the world.

Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal
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MIRAFLORES, Panama- Visiting the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal is kind of like going to the zoo and looking in the lion enclosure. There will inevitably be that one big lion in there with the massive mane and the bulging delts and whip-like tail … You know, the one that’s just laying there in the sun … just laying there and laying there … and laying there. Sometimes it flicks a tail at a fly. Sometimes it twitches an ear. You wait and you wait and you wait just in case it gets up and roars or eats something. You know it’s going to do something eventually — it can’t just lay there forever, right?

Right now, there’s a bunch of people sitting around looking at a Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. The sun is glistening off the shimmering little waves in the channel below. The fields and hills in the distance are radiating with a full spectrum of green. It’s pretty and all, but, you know, when is it going to do something?

Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal

Then, just like when that lion in the zoo jumps to attention when he hears the lock on his enclosure rattle and knows it’s feeding time, the PA crackles with an announcement that a ship is about to arrive. We all scurry to the corner of the observation deck and look out to the north.

There, we found a massive freighter slowly being led into the almost impossibly narrow breadth of the locks. It looked far too big for where it was going to go, but I watched as the ship was slowly guided to the mouth of the tight little channel by tug boats, and once there it was attached to a pair of locomotives on both sides of the lock which starting pulling it through with mere feet to spare on either side.

Timelapse of the ship going through the locks:

The ship was called the Morning Linda and was hauling a load of German cars to Ecuador. It was a 68,000 ton vehicle carrier and it stood way up out of the water, towering over the locks below. The crew of the ship all spilled out to its observation decks to watch its passage through one of the most iconic thoroughfares of the maritime world. One particularly friendly crewman was on the upper deck waving vigorously to us onlookers, filming us as we filmed him. The more hardened workers looked out with arms akimbo as they chatted as their ship slowly inched forward. The Panama Canal is a spectacle for everyone.

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But the Panama Canal is actually only a canal for segments of the way across the 82-kilometer isthmus from Panama City to Colon. It is more like a relay system with canals ingeniously connecting various rivers and lakes — some man-made, some not — rather than something like the Erie Canal, which is a full-on canal for 565 kilometers.

Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal

The original idea to construct a canal across Panama became an obsession almost immediately upon Europeans showing up in the Western Hemisphere and discovering the fact that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were separated by a very, very thin strip of land. In 1534, Charles V, the King of Spain, ordered a survey to figure out if a canal could be made. In 1698, Scotland had their Darien Scheme. A hundred years later Spain was back at it with a plan to build a canal. 150 years after that the British said they were going to actually do it … but quit before they even got started.

An overland route was cut across Panama in the mid 19th century, allowing ships to relatively quickly relay cargo from one side to the other, and the US would open the Panama Railroad in 1855 (which is still in use today for multimodal shipments).

But this simply wasn’t the canal that was really desired.

So in 1881 the French began digging.

But they couldn’t cut it.

Then in 1904 the US took over what the French began … and 10 years later — after 380 years of planning, obsessing, trying — there was finally a canal across Panama.

In just 11 hours a ship could cross from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and vice versa.

The opening of the Panama Canal immediately disrupted trade patterns, put legions of Patagonian sheep farmers out of business, and made Panama an instant global player. The canal was also a key driver of Panamanian independence, with the US paying off Colombia $25 million to relinquish its claim.

The locks of the Panama Canal are really the big show here. They are located on both sides of Gatun Lake, which was created by the damming of the Chagres River and Lake Alajuela. Ships are lifted 26 meters up to the height of the lake on one side and then lowered back down to sea level on the other. They are arranged as a series of three steps on each side. The ship pulls in, the doors are closed behind it, water is poured in raising it up to the level of the step, and then it moves on to the next one … and the inverse on the way back down.

Timelapse of the Miraflores locks in action:

The canal loses 52 million gallons of fresh water to the sea with each ship that passes, which has left Panama with a fresh water problem that has been exacerbated in recent years by rampant urbanization, more sophisticated farming methods, mining, and, many say, climate change.

These locks were one of the most impressive feats of engineering to ever be accomplished when they were first opened in 1914, but today they appear archaic, almost anachronistic — the ships are still pulled through the channel by ropes attached to silver locomotives, the locks are still just concrete doorways that open and close as they’ve always had. While the width of the locks have been widened and another lane was added, they are basically putting on the same show that they were over a century ago. The technology seems to have changed very little, and this is what really impressed me as I watched ships passing through the Miraflores locks. There was just no reason to upgrade any of it. There was something about this that I liked.

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Filed under: Panama, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3716 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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