Panama Canal Information

Panama Canal


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The Canal de Panamá is approximately
80 kilometers long between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This waterway was cut through one of narrowest saddles of the isthmus that joins North and South America.
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 Most Popular Cruise Destination_About Panama Canal. Traversing the canal locks takes about nine hours--leaving plenty of time on your cruise to explore Caribbean and South American ports.

The Canal uses a system of locks -compartments with entrance and exit gates. The locks function as water lifts: they raise ships from sea level (the Pacific or the Atlantic) to the level of Gatun Lake (26 meters above sea level); ships then sail the channel through the Continental Divide.

Each set of locks bears the name of the town site where it was built: Gatun (on the Atlantic side), and Pedro Miguel and Miraflores (on the Pacific side).

Panama Canal how it works

The lock chambers or steps are 33.53 meters wide by 304.8 meters long. The maximum dimensions of ships that can transit the Canal are: 32.3 meters in beam; draft -their depth reach- 12 meters in Tropical Fresh Water; and 294.1 meters long (depending on the type of ship).

Panama Canal and How it Works Video

The water used to raise and lower vessels in each set of locks comes from Gatun Lake by gravity; it comes into the locks through a system of main culverts that extend under the lock chambers from the sidewalls and the center wall.

The narrowest portion of the Canal is Culebra Cut, which extends from the north end of Pedro Miguel Locks to the south edge of Gatun Lake at Gamboa. This segment, approximately 13.7 kilometers long, is carved through the rock and shale of the Continental Divide. At this point of the canal, where the engineers cut their way through shale and bedrock to cross the Continental Divide.
Its name (Culebra Cut), is from the Spanish word for snake; the canal curved like one until it was widened.

Map of Panama Canal

Ships from all parts of the world transit daily through the Panama Canal. Some 13 to 14 thousand vessels use the Canal every year. In fact, commercial transportation activities through the Canal represent approximately 5% of the world trade.

The Panama Canal has a work force of approximately 9 thousand employees and operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, providing transit service to vessels of all nations without discrimination.

Electric-powered "mules" cabled to the ships provide precise directional control, with clearances as low as six inches between the ships and the walls of the locks.

A typical passage through the canal by a cargo ship takes around nine hours. 14,011 vessels passed through the canal in 2005, with a total capacity of 278.8 million tons, making an average of almost 40 vessels per day


The canal consists of two artificial lakes, several improved and artificial channels, and three sets of locks. An additional artificial lake, Alajuela Lake, acts as a reservoir for the canal. The layout of the canal as seen by a ship transiting from the Pacific end to the Atlantic is as follows:

From the beginning of the buoyed entrance channel in the Gulf of Panama, ships travel 13.2 kilometres (8.2 mi) up the channel to the Miraflores locks, passing under the Bridge of the Americas

Picture of Panama Canal from Bridge of Americas

The two-stage Miraflores lock system, including the approach wall, is 1.7 kilometres (1.1 mi) long, with a total lift of 16.5 metres (54 ft) at mid-tide

Cargo ship at Miraflores Locks

The artificial Miraflores Lake is the next stage, 1.7 kilometres (1.0 mi) long, and 16.5 metres (54 ft) above sea level

Miraflores Locks Visitor Center

The single-stage Pedro Miguel lock, which is 1.4 kilometres (0.8 mi) long, is the last part of the ascent with a lift of 9.5 metres (31 ft) up to the main level of the canal

The Gaillard (Culebra) Cut slices 12.6 kilometres (7.8 mi) through the continental divide at an altitude of 26 metres (85 ft), and passes under the Centennial Bridge

The Chagres River (Río Chagres), a natural waterway enhanced by the damming of Lake Gatún, runs west about 8.5 kilometres (5.3 mi), merging into Lake Gatun

Lake Gatún, an artificial lake formed by the building of the Gatun Dam, carries vessels 24.2 kilometres (15.0 mi) across the isthmus

The Gatún locks, a three-stage flight of locks 1.9 kilometres (1.2 mi) long, drop ships back down to sea level

A 3.2 kilometre (2.0 mi) channel forms the approach to the locks from the Atlantic side

Limón Bay (Bahía Limón), a huge natural harbour, provides an anchorage for some ships awaiting transit, and runs 8.7 kilometres (5.4 mi) to the outer breakwater

A cargo ship transiting the Gatún locks northbound is guided carefully between lock chambers by "mules" on the lock walls to either side. The total transit from the Pacific entrance channel to the Atlantic breakwater is 76.9 kilometres (47.8 mi). The maximum tidal range on the Pacific side is from +3.35 metres (+11.0 ft) to -3.20 metres (-10.5 ft); hence the lift at Miraflores varies between 13.1 metres (43 ft) at extreme high tide and 19.7 metres (64.5 ft) at extreme low tide. The tidal range on the Atlantic side does not exceed 60 centimetres (24 in).  Mean sea level at the Pacific end of the canal is on average about 20 centimetres (8 in) higher than at the Atlantic end.

Limón Bay, on the Atlantic side, is a sheltered anchorage protected by a seawall; however, the space inside the bay is no longer adequate for the number and size of ships using the Panama Canal, and many ships wait at anchor in the open sea outside the bay. The anchorage on the Pacific side is open although it is protected by the enclosed topography of the Gulf of Panama.

Operating since 1914 and considered one of the wonders of the world, this fifty-mile waterway transports ships by raising them from sea level to more than 85 feet via a series of gravity-powered locks.

Panama Canal Tours

Miraflores Locks Visitor Center

30 minutes from Panama City

Exhibition halls are open 9am to 5pm. The ticket office closes at 4pm.

Admission Charged.

Modern elevators and stairs are both available

The Panama Canal is a unique experience which can't be reproduced anywhere else in the world. See 5,000,000-ton vessels rise and drop more than 50 feet as they make their way over Panama from one ocean to another, and learn about the history and future of this marvel of modern engineering.  There is an educational museum and a theater inside. There is a restaurant that opens at noon. The best time to view large ships transiting the canal at this point is by 10:00AM. The large vessels move through by appointment and use the morning time slots.  There are viewing platforms and a bi-lingual narrator is sometimes available to give details involved in getting ships through the Panama Canal.  The exhibition halls and short film presentation are excellent.

EXHIBITION HALL 1: Canal History. It portrays the background, technological innovations, and sanitary initiatives that went hand in hand with the construction of the Canal. This exhibition hall honors the hundreds of men and women who made this achievement possible.

EXHIBITION HALL 2: Water: Source of Life. It emphasizes the importance of water, conservation of the environment, protection of the Canal Watershed, and the diversity of fauna and flora. It underscores the ACP's commitment to the sustainable management of this resource and the interoceanic region.

EXHIBITION HALL 3: The Panama Canal in Action. This exhibition hall depicts in an entertaining manner how the Canal operates and allows visitors the experience of being inside a navigation simulator and one of the lock culverts.

EXHIBITION HALL 4: The Canal of the World. This hall provides information on the importance of the Canal to world trade, describes the trade routes it serves and the main commodities, identifies its main users, and allows visitors to get acquainted with the different types of vessels that transit the waterway. In addition, it presents some of the criteria studied to guarantee the future competitiveness of the Panama Canal and benefits to the Republic of Panama.

Gatun Lake

After Lake Mead, this is the world's largest man-made lake.  Gatun Lake forms the central part of the Panama Canal.

Gatun Locks Visitor Center

48 miles from Panama City

Gatun Locks, at the Caribbean end of the canal, are the canal s largest and busiest. There is a wider time frame for observing ships as they move through the locks at Gatun than at Miraflores because there are two sets of locks that ships pass through at this Atlantic terminus, and only one set at Miraflores (resulting in one way traffic there).

Though you must climb several flights of stairs, the visitors grandstand at Gatun is large and  comfortable.   On arrival at the locks, there will be the option of  short audiovisual presentations on the history of the canal and the mechanics of its operation.

When our train from Panama City arrived at Colon, we found no taxi drivers willing to take us on a simple one-way trip to the locks; they'd much prefer we hire them for several hours or a full day. I'd met two other Americans on the train, and the three of us negotiated a set price of U.S. $40 for a trip to and from the locks with the driver waiting with us for two hours or so. (It's a 20-25 minute drive each way.)

Panama Canal Railway

Opened in 1855, the 47-mile Panama Canal Railway was the world's first transcontinental railway. Once badly deteriorated, it has been rebuilt into a steel superhighway capable of hauling trainloads of double-stacked shipping containers at 60 mph. Rails are of the continuously  welded type of the heaviest weight, the same as those currently used on North American railroads.

Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum

Avenida Central between Calle 5 and Calle 6 tel. 211-1995 or 211-1649

9:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m. Tues. - Sun., closed Mon.

Small Admission Charge.

Opened in 1997, this history museum chronicles the planning, construction and present-day operation of Panama's landmark canal.

Bridge of the Americas

Spanning the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, this 5,007-foot-long arch bridge connects both North and South America and serves as an important part of the Inter American Highway.

Centennial Bridge

The Centennial Bridge is located 15km (9 miles) north of the Bridge of the Americas, and crosses the Gaillard Cut close to the Pedro Miguel locks. New freeway sections, connecting Araijan in the west to Cerro Patacon in the east via the bridge, significantly alleviate congestion on the Bridge of the Americas.

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The Panama Canal is still one of the engineering wonders of the world;
the ''Moonshot'' of the Wright Brothers days....

Even by today's standards it is awesome to see a container ship gliding through massive locks and past a rain forest. Put the Canal in the   context of turn of the 19th century technology and the feat of its construction is staggering. The possibilities of a waterway linking the Atlantic and the Pacific in this region had been well appreciated for four centuries before anyone started to dig. Spain's King Carlos V ordered a survey of the canal route in 1524 but it was of presumably decided that cutlasses would not be adequate for the job.
The French started a canal in 1880 under de Lesspeps, builder of the Suez Canal, but after 20 years of struggle with the jungle, disease, financial problems and the sheer enormity of the project, they were forced to give up.
In 1903 Panama seceded from Colombia, and the U.S.A. signed a treaty in which the concession for a public maritime transportation service across the Isthmus was granted.

The following year the U.S.A. purchased the French Canal Company’s properties for $40 million and began to dig. On August 15th, 1914 the U.S. cargo ship ''Ancon'' made the first transit.
The story of this gigantic task is best told in the book, ''The Path Between the Seas'' by David McCullough.
The story is also told dramatically in the murals of the rotunda of the Administration Balboa Heights.
To see the Canal at work (every year handling more than 13,056 bluewater ships, under the flags of about 70 nations)  go to the spectator stands at Miraflores  or Gatun locks. Bilingual commentators there are brimful of information and statistics.


The average toll for ships using the canal is about $48,000.00 but many save about ten times this figure by eliminating the journey round the Horn.
Panama Canal Record tolls:
Coral Princess which transited for $226,194.25
and Richard Halliburton who swam the Canal in 1926 and was charged 36 cents after his displacement tonnage was calculated.

Cruise Ship entering Miraflores Locks
Cruise Ship at Miraflores Locks Visiting Centre Panama Canal

Cruise Ship at Miraflores Locks Visiting Centre
Electric-powered "mules" cabled to the ships provide precise directional control, with clearances as low as six inches between the ships and the walls of the locks.

Cruise Ship Leaving Miraflores Locks Panama Canal

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