Even if The Trip to Panama had never been written, Panama would still be known by most people for its world-famous canal. Nearly 100 years after its construction, it still is the most important trading route in the world, connecting mostly Asian producers with consumers in the Western hemisphere.
As that trade is steadily expanding, with more and more freight to be shipped, there is also need for an expansion of the Panama Canal. Mostly unheard and unseen by visitors, construction work has started in 2007 and will be finished in 2014 to allow more and heavier traffic. In about a year, the capacity of the canal will have risen dramatically. By now, a hauler can transport up to 4500 containers. About 20 percent of the ships of the world extend the maximum size of the Canal which is known as Panamax: 305 meters long, 33.5 meters wide and 12.8 meters deep.
The Queen Mary II is an example of a ship built custom-fit for the canal. And the Queen of the Sea often takes the passage as a tourist highlight. From 2014 on, ships of the size of 427 meters length, 55 meters width, and 18 meters depth will be able to pass Lake Gatun. A freighter of that size would be able to transport up to 12000 containers – and still, there would be ships too big for the canal. Even now, it is quite a spectacle to view how the gigantic ships are lifted to the right level at the Miraflores locks – or at their counterpart on the eastern side of the canal, the Pedro Miguel locks.
From Panama City to the Miraflores locks, where the gigantic cargo ships are lifted by 75 feet from the level of the Pacific to the level of Lake Gatun, it is no more than a 20 minute ride by car – that is if you are facing heavy traffic. Once there, a visitor center, a museum and loads of tourists – school classes as well as foreign guests await the visitor. Most of them are, however, not coming for the museum or the shop, but for the spectacular view of ocean liners and freighters passing the narrow docks. If you miss out the visitor center on your tour through Panama, they have a nice virtual tour on their homepage.
The Canal belongs to Panama since the end of 1999 when its builder, the United States of America, consigned it to the country. Since that date, revenue stays in Central America; and prices for transits have risen by 400 per cent. The average fee now is 300.000 USD, the maximum price is half a million dollars. It is calculated, amongst others, by the size and weight of a ship, and charged from cruise liners who offer the crossing as a tourist attraction as well as from container vessels. The trend of prices is rising, and there is no competition that could push prices downward, as the Suez Canal does not offer a safe passage and the North West Passage is not yet an option.
If you plan on crossing the Panama Canal, you will find tour operators selling the experience for around USD 100 for the 9-hour-tour. Crossing with your own boat will be a bit more expensive, but it is possible: Count on a USD 4000 fee and make sure you have a canal pilot and a motor. Becoming a Panama Canal Pilot is the number one career aspiration of Panamanian boys, so this should be no problem at all. Don’t worry about looks: You can come with your Pirate flag hissed, they will let you through anyway, that is, if you pay. If your mission is not too urgent, you can take the risk and come without pre-booking. Count on some waiting time, however. Most freighters book their passage a year in advance, but where is the fun if you do that? If you decide to book a slot, however, make sure you are there on time. Depending on traffic, being five minutes late might mean you have to wait for another two days. Freighters always add some extra time and risk waiting rather than missing their booking, so learn from the experienced. Most of the time, the canal is quite busy. Think about a mid-sized airport with two terminals and you can imagine how busy. As the Panama Canal is a lake with predetermined routes on which the freighters follow their journeys, it is possible to avoid paying the fee and experience the canal feeling anyway. Just head for the next village or hotel, hop on a tourist boat and enjoy the ride on the shallow parts of the lake where you’ll have the chance to meet howler monkeys (Beware! They like to throw stuff such as their own excreta at tourists) and Capuchins jumping on your boat, as well as crocodiles recharging in the sun. 90 percent of the surrounding of Lake Gatun is green wilderness, impenetrable, bursting with life, and promising adventure. Welcome to the jungle.