Panama Canal area

Shutterstock/48413422/andrej polWhether travelling through the Canal, or just standing at its side, watching the vast ocean- going vessels rise and fall as they pass through the huge canal locks is a spectacular sight. In the middle of Lago Gatún is Parque Nacional Isla Barro Colorado, a popular destination for nature lovers and birdwatchers. On the eastern side of the canal, 2 km after Miraflores Lock, is the entrance to the Parque Nacional Camino de Cruces, which has several designated hiking trails including the Camino de Cruces colonial gold route which continues through Parque Nacional Soberanía as far as the Chagres River.

Background

The Panama Canal was created from the artificial, river-fed Lago Gatún, 26 m above sea level, which supplies the water for the lock system to function. Ships sail across the lake after having been raised from sea level by a series of locks on either the Atlantic or the Pacific approach. They are then lowered by the locks on the opposite side. As the crow flies, the distance across the isthmus is 55 km. From shore to shore the Canal is 67.5 km, or 82 km (44.08 nautical miles) from deep water to deep water. It has been widened to 150 m in most places. The trip normally takes eight or nine hours for the 30 to 40 ships passing through each day. On the Atlantic side there is a normal variation of 30 cm between high and low tides, and on the Pacific of about 380 cm, rising sometimes to 640 cm.

From the Pacific, the Canal channel goes beneath the Puente de las Américas and passes the port of Balboa. The waterway has to rise 16.5 m to Lago Miraflores. The first stage of the process is the Miraflores Locks, 1.5 km before the lake. A taxi to the locks from the city costs US$10. At the far end of the lake, ships are raised another 9.5 m by the single-step Pedro Miguel Locks, after which the 13 km Gaillard, or Culebra Cut is entered, a narrow rock defile leading to Lago Gatún. Opposite Miraflores Locks, there is a swing bridge. Gaillard Cut can be seen from Contractor's Hill, on the west side, reached by car (no buses) by turning right 3 km past Puente de las Américas, passing Cocolí, then turning as signed. The road beyond Cocolí goes on to Posa, where there are good views of the locks, the cut and former Canal Zone buildings.

Barro Colorado

For 37 km the Canal passes through Lago Gatún. Enough water must be accumulated in the reservoir during the rainy season to operate the locks throughout the three to four month dry season, since a single ship's transit can use up to 50 million gallons. (A high level reservoir, Lago Alajuela, formerly Madden Lake, feeds the lake and maintains its level.) In the lake is
Barro Colorado Island
, to which animals fled as the basin slowly filled. It is a formally protected area called the
Barro Colorado Nature Monument
and has been a site of scientific research for over 70 years. The excursion is highly recommended for seeing wildlife, especially monkeys, and includes a walk around a guided trail with over 50 points of interest.

Gatún Locks

Continuing north, 10 km southwest of Colón are the Gatún Locks (
Esclusas de Gatún
) with their neat, attendant town. Here is the
observation point
, perhaps the best spot in the Canal area for photographing the passage of ships. The most magnificent of the Canal's locks, Gatún integrates all three lock 'steps' on the Atlantic side, raising or lowering ships to or from 26 m in one operation. The flights are in duplicate to allow ships to pass in opposite directions simultaneously. Passage through the locks takes about one hour.

After crossing the lock, the road forks with the left-hand branch bridging the Chagres River just downstream from the graceful Gatún Dam - the largest earth dam in the world when it was built in 1906. Opposite the power plant is the
Tarpon Club
, a fishing club which has a very nice restaurant, disco and bar. A short distance further south is an attractive lakeside picnic area and small boat-launching area. The road goes on down the lake to Escobal and Cuipo through lovely scenery, good for birding.

Canal tours

Most people are surprised by the stunning beauty of the scenery around the Canal, and it is also interesting to see the mechanics of the passage. Full and partial transits can be organized through Panama Canal Tours .

Another way of seeing the Canal is on the
luxury daily train
, www.panarail.com
, which runs to Colón.

It's also possible to visit the
Miraflores Locks
and the
Miraflores Visitor Centre
, www.pancanal.com, which was constructed as part of Centenial celebrations at a cost of US$6 million. The museum is spread over four floors and includes a training simulator originally used for pilots transiting vessels through the Canal, it is a good half-day trip. The entrance price includes a documentary film in English and Spanish. There is a café and restaurant on site, the latter,
The Miraflores
was used in the movie
The Tailor of Panama
.

Lago Alajuela

It is a two-hour drive through picturesque jungle to Lago Alajuela, formerly Madden Lake, east of the Canal. The lake, used to generate electricity as well as to maintain the level of Lago Gatún, covers 50 sq km and is within
Parque Nacional Chagres
. The park can be reached by bus from Panama City. The Emberá in this area are friendly and seem to be coping well with the impacts of tourism on their lives - they also make excellent quality crafts, which are sold at very reasonable prices. It may be possible to stay within the village of Parara Puro for a small fee and with the permission of the community, giving a greater insight into village life. The Chagres area has great potential for wildlife watching and jungle adventure. Multi-day trekking trips into wildlife rich parts of the forest can be arranged with some companies in Panama City, as can tubing, rafting and abseiling within the watershed. If visiting the villages on the Chagres River on an organized tour make sure your company pays the correct visitation fee to the community in question - there have been several incidents of payment being withheld. On a similar note all trips made in the area should involve the employment of Emberá guides/assistants to ensure that these villages benefit from tourism on their lands. The Camino Real passes through the park.

A large area of rainforest between Lago Gatún and Lago Alajuela has been set aside as
Parque Nacional Soberanía
with many walking trails. The park is very popular with birdwatchers with just under 400 species recorded to date, and is reputedly one of the finest observation areas for birds in the world. It once held the world record for the most birds counted in a 24-hour period. The park has two fabulous trails for wildlife observation and also has an aviary for harpy eagles. Plantation Trail begins right at the entrance of the road that leads to the Canopy Tower and Pipeline Road is about 17 km long in total, accessed from the Gaillard highway running along the canal, just north of Gamboa, the old American dredging port. The now-abandoned coast-to-coast pipeline was built during the Second World War by the United States and hidden in the jungle as a guarantee of oil supply should the canal be sabotaged. The park has an information centre at the Summit Garden.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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