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The Panama Canal

77km (48 miles) long from Panama City to Colón

The construction of the Panama Canal was one of the grandest engineering feats in the history of the world, an epic tale of ingenuity and courage but marked by episodes of tragedy. When it was finally completed in 1914, the canal cut travel distances by more than half for ships that previously had had to round South America's Cape Horn. Today, the canal is one of the world's most traveled waterways, annually handling around 13,000 ships that represent 5% of global trade.

The history of the canal dates back to the 16th century, when Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered that Panama was just a narrow strip of land separating the Caribbean from the Pacific. In 1539, King Charles I of Spain dispatched a survey team to study the feasibility of building a waterway connecting the two oceans, but the team deemed such a pursuit impossible.

The first real attempt to construct a canal was begun by the French in 1880, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the charismatic architect of the Suez Canal. The Gallic endeavor failed miserably, however, as few had anticipated the enormous challenge presented by the Panamanian jungle, with its mucky swamps, torrential downpours, landslides, floods, and, most debilitating of all, mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. In the end, more than 20,000 perished.

In 1903, the United States bought out the French and backed Panama in its secession from Colombia in exchange for control of the Canal Zone. For the next 10 years, the U.S., having essentially eradicated tropical disease, pulled off what seemed impossible in terms of engineering: It carved out a 14km (9-mile) path through the Continental Divide and constructed an elevated canal system and a series of locks to lift ships from sea level up to 26m (85 ft.) at Lake Gatún. The lake, created after construction crews dammed the Chagres River near the Gatún Locks, was at the time the largest man-made lake in the world.

In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and President Omar Torrijos of Panama signed a treaty that would relinquish control of the canal to the Panamanians on December 31, 1999. It was a controversial move because most Americans did not believe that Panama was up to the task -- but those concerns have proved to be unfounded. As an autonomous corporation, the Panama Canal Authority has reduced safety problems and improved maintenance and productivity to the point where the canal basically runs itself.

It takes between 8 and 10 hours to transit the entire canal. There are three locks, the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, and Gatún, whose maximum size is 320m (1,050 ft.) in length and 34m (110 ft.) in width. Ships built to fit through these locks are referred to as Panamax ships, which set the size standard until the 1990s, with the building of post-Panamax ships (mostly oil tankers) that are up to 49m (160 ft.) wide. The Panama Canal Authority, seeking to avoid becoming obsolete, is constructing two multibillion-dollar three-chamber locks to increase traffic and allow for wider ships.

Miraflores Locks

The best land-based platform from which to see the Panama Canal at work is at Miraflores Visitors Center (tel. 276-8325; www.pancanal.com), located about a 15-minute drive from the heart of the city. The center is an absorbing attraction for both kids and adults, with four floors of exhibitions and interactive displays -- and a theater -- providing information about the canal's history and its impact on world trade, plus explanations of how the region's natural environment is crucial to the function of the canal. Ships can also be viewed from an observation deck. In fact, it's probably Panama's best museum. Tip: You'll have better luck catching sight of enormous Panamax ships in the afternoon around 2 or 3pm.

As you view ships in the locks, a monologue (in Spanish and English) piped through a loudspeaker, indicates what a ship is carrying, where it is registered, where it is going, and how much it paid; the speaker is cheerleader-like and tends to qualify the experience by saying such things as, "Can you believe they spent $200,000 to transit the canal, man?" There are also a snack bar and gift shop. The center is open daily from 9am to 5pm (ticket office closes at 4pm). Admission to the center's exhibitions and observation terrace is $8 (£4) adults, $5 (£2.50) children and students with ID, and free for children 4 and under; or $5 (£2.50) adults, $3 (£1.50) children to visit only the restaurant and gift shop.

Best of all, there is the Miraflores Visitors Center Restaurant (daily 11am-11pm; main courses $7-$20/£3.50-£10), where you can dine while watching colossal ships transit the locks just 100 ft. away. Lunch is the most popular time to eat here, so arrive early or make a reservation, and try to get a table as close to the railing as possible. At night, the locks are well-lit and provide clear views of the ships. The food is not bad either, but what you're really here for is the one-of-a-kind view.

Getting There & Departing -- City tours of Panama usually include a two hour stop at Miraflores, or you can take a taxi for $25 to $30 (£13-£15) round-trip for a 45-minute to 1-hour visit. However, keep in mind that the increasing price of gas is making transportation more and more expensive in Panama, so prices are subject to change. Agree on a price with the driver beforehand.

Transiting the Panama Canal

Visitors to Panama who are not part of a long-haul cruise can still transit the canal by boat on a journey from Panama City to Colón, or they can do a partial transit from Gamboa to the Pacific or vice versa. Beyond the thrill of transiting locks is the opportunity to get close to colossal Panamax-size ships en route from one ocean to the other. Partial tours are by far the most popular because they pass through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, and sail under the grand span of the Bridge of the Americas, which is enough for most visitors. Transiting a lock can take up to 2 hours, which can grow tiresome on full-transit journeys. In fact, unless you're an engineer or transiting the canal has been a life-long dream, you'll probably get bored on a full-transit tour. The companies below are all reputable and offer excellent partial and full transit tours of the Canal.

Panama Marine Adventures (tel. 226-8917; www.pmatours.net) offers partial canal transit with a shuttle leaving from the Flamenco Resort and Marina on the Amador Causeway at 10am and going to their Pacific Queen, docked at Gamboa. Trips leave every Saturday year-round, and every Thursday and Friday from January to April. The company offers full transit of the canal one Saturday every month (check the website for dates) leaving at 7:30am, first passing through the Miraflores locks and finishing at the Gatún Locks; the company provides transportation by vehicle back to Panama City. Partial transit, which lasts 4 to 6 hours depending on traffic, costs $115 (£58) for adults and $65 (£33) for kids under 12; full transit costs $165 (£83) for adults and $75 (£38) kids under 12; it lasts 10 to 12 hours. The price includes all transportation, a bilingual guide, and lunch and soft drinks. The Pacific Queen has a capacity of 300 passengers.

Canal & Bay Tours (tel. 209-2009 or 209-2010; www.canalandbaytours.com) is a pioneer in canal tourism, offering transit aboard one of two boats, the refurbished Isla Morada, a wooden boat with a capacity of 100 guests, or the Fantasía del Mar, a steel boat with a capacity of 500 passengers. The company offers full-day transit of the canal the first Saturday of every month for $165 (£83) adults, $75 (£ 38) children under 12; and partial transit every Saturday for $115 (£58) adults, $60 (£30) children under 12. Canal & Bay has full transit and partial transit (you pick) the third Tuesday of every month from January to April. Tours leave at 7:30am from the Flamenco Marina, docking in Gamboa or Gatún, depending on the tour. They also offer Saturday-evening "Rumba in the Bay" tours of the Bay of Panama, leaving at 9:30pm from their pier, with live music and an open bar.

Panama Yacht Tours (tel. 263-5044; www.panamayachtours.com) specializes in partial and full transit aboard one of their luxury yachts -- however, their niche is private trips, usually corporate and school groups. The company owns six yachts ranging from 18 to 37m (58-122 ft.) for 1 to 100 people, with prices starting at $3,500 (£1,750), not including food, beverages, and dock fees. Clearly, this is an expensive option, best for groups seeking to escape the "cattle call" sort of trip. Private transits leave early from Gamboa and transit southbound, arriving at the Flamenco Marina at 4:30pm; the other leaves from Pier 19 in Balboa at 7:30am for the northbound journey to Gamboa (travelers return to Panama City via land). Private transits require at least 1 to 2 weeks' advance notice. They also offer fixed departure tours similar to the ones above costing $115 (£58) for adults and $65 (£33) for kids for partial transit and $165 (£83) and $75 (£38) for full transit, plus 5% tax.

Ancon Expeditions (tel. 269-9415; www.anconexpeditions.com) also offers full and partial transits of the canal. Ancon offers early morning hotel pick-up to the Port of Balboa, where you'll board a passenger ferry. Partial transits cost $95 (£43) for adults and full transits cost $150 (£75). Full transits are offered the first and third Saturday of every month with one additional Thursday departure in January, and partial transits depart every Thursday and Friday from January through March and every Saturday year round. After transiting, a bus will take you back to your hotel.

The Panama Canal Railway

The Panama Canal Railway (tel. 317-6070; www.panarail.com) is the most picturesque mode of travel between Panama City and Colón. It gives passengers a chance to relive the experience of the California Gold Rush. The railway was first built in 1855 to meet the demands of forty-niners seeking quick passage from the east coast of the U.S. to the west. It later was rebuilt along more or less the same lines to transport workers and equipment during the building and maintenance of the canal. The train was relaunched in 2001, and features executive and tourist service and renovated coaches modeled after their 19th-century counterparts, with carpeted floors, wood paneling, and blinds. The trains have air-conditioning, and there are open-air viewing platforms. The journey lasts about an hour and borders the canal, racing through lush rainforest, past canal locks, and along slender causeways across Gatún Lake. Round-trip fare is $38 (£19) adults, $19 (£9.50) children; one-way fare is $22 (£11) adults, $11 (£5.50) children. The Corozal Train Station in Panama City is located in Albrook, and is a $2 (£1) taxi ride from downtown Panama. The trip takes 1 hour.

The major issue for do-it-yourself travelers is departure times. From Panama City, the train leaves at 7:15am, with the return trip leaving Colón at 5:15pm -- meaning round-trip travelers need to hire a taxi at the Colón station to get to attractions like Portobelo, which can be expensive. Killing an afternoon in the city of Colón is out of the question. Consider riding the train one-way at the beginning or end of a journey to or from the Caribbean (in other words, after staying at the Meliá Panamá Canal or at a Portobelo hotel). Cruisers docking in Colón are offered this journey, but the ships charter an entire train for their passengers. Groups of 10 or more should call ahead of time to make reservations.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.