The Panama Canal – more than just a shortcut between two oceans

One might not think of the Panama Canal as an eco-destination, but this human-made marvel is much more than just a long, artificial ditch connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Did you know?

What many don’t know is that due to the geography of Panama, the Canal doesn’t run east-west, but actually north-south. And it’s not one continuous 80 km/50 mi long canal, as much of the journey is on Lake Gatun and the Chagre River. Lake Gatun was formed in 1907 when engineers dammed the Chagre River in the first stages of building the Canal. The only parts that actually look like a canal are at the two ends near Colon in the north and Panama City in the south.

The history of the Panama Canal

Started by the French in 1881, the Canal project was abandoned only 8 years later due to high costs and an unexpectedly large mortality rate, mostly from tropical diseases. The United States took over in 1904, and on August 15, 1914, the SS Ancón was the first ship to sail the whole length of the Panama Canal.

Since then nearly one million ships have passed through its gates. The cruise ship Norwegian Pearl paid the highest toll, $375,600 in 2010, and Richard Halliburton paid the lowest, 36 cents, when he swam its entire length in 1928. But probably the most impressive and also tragic Canal fact is that it cost around 30,000 lives to build it.

Besides this human tragedy, there was also a down-side for nature, as connecting two separate marine eco-systems (the Atlantic and Pacific oceans) allows for evasive species to travel along with ships between the oceans in either direction and might lead to the extinction of a long-established species. Unfortunately environmental consciousness did not exist in the beginning of the 20th century and is sometimes still overruled by money-mad business people (see the current construction of the Nicaragua canal) nowadays, so now we have to deal with the consequences.

Get up close to the ships at the locks

The Miraflores Locks on the Panama City end of the Canal are the best place to learn about the Canal construction and get a sense of the magnitude and scope of the amazing engineering feat. The on-site museum is a great source of information and you can even stand on the bridge of a mock ship and watch a video that simulates a passage through the Canal. When you’re done, step outside on the observation deck and watch the show in real time as huge floating leviathans (pulled by special trains that run along the side of the locks) squeeze through the narrow channel leaving what looks like inches of space on each side.

Panama Canal ship in Miraflores lock

Massive container ship passing the Miraflores Locks near Panama City


The new locks, which will open this spring, will accommodate even bigger ships, which will almost triple the cargo volume from 5,000 containers to 13,000—per ship. The best place to watch these new locks are at the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center in Gatun on the Caribbean end of the Canal. About one hour’s drive from Panama City, visitors can enjoy views of the waterway from a platform 50m/150 feet above.

Overlooked green gems along the Panama Canal

Though most people visit the Canal for its engineering wonders, it’s also one of the most ecologically diverse and heavily studied nature areas on the planet.

Join the researchers at Barro Colorado Island

Located in the middle of Lake Gatun, this is one of the most-studied areas of tropical forest in the world. In fact, the Smithsonian Institute has a permanent research center here, and National Geographic chose the island out of a hundred amazing jungles on Earth as the site for its documentary “The World’s Last Great Places: Rain Forests”. As this is a protected area, visitors must arrange for an official tour (click on the “For reservations” link at the bottom), which includes transportation to and from the island, a 3-hour guided hike, and lunch. You will learn about current research, the natural history of Barro Colorado, and experience some of the 1,200 plant species and 115 mammal species on the island, which include bats, monkeys, agoutis, tapirs, coatimundis, sloths, and peccaries.

Explore Soberania National Park while hiking the Camino de Cruces and the Old Pipeline Road

A huge 22,100ha/55,000a. wilderness preserve, Soberania’s humid forests of cotton trees, royal palms, orchids, mahogany, and wild plum are home to hundreds of species of wildlife. The park is also known for the large variety of bird species. In fact, the Audubon Society has set numerous world records for the number of birds sighted here.

While in the park, take a stroll down the Camino de Cruces. Long before the Canal was built, the Spanish used this trail to move gold from mines in the Pacific coast to their ships in the Caribbean.

Another great hike in the Soberania National Park is the Old Pipeline Road near Gamboa. Nowadays it’s actually more a wide trail than a road, though you might find a few cars passing you (mostly from researchers) on the first part. It’s a bird lover’s dream, so keep a watchful eye, be patient, and listen carefully to spot some of the magical birds that live along this road. This was where I saw my first quetzal, and though it was only a female (the males are way more impressive, with their long, colorful tails that these birds of paradise are famous for), it made my day. The further you get into the 17.5 km/10.5 mi-long trail (one way), the more you’ll see, so take your time and enjoy.

Take a boat tour on the Canal

One of my favorite ways to experience the Canal is a boat tour/fishing trip on Lake Gatun and its many rivers and tributaries canopied in dense jungle vegetation. Just off the main shipping route, you’ll find yourself surrounded by lush green rainforest. We caught a good number of bass here and fried them up in our apartment at Los Cuatro Tulipanes in Casco Viejo where we were staying. Back on the main canal, you get to travel alongside large container ships as they navigate the lake. It’s kind of awe inspiring when you saddle up to these amazing ships in your tiny boat.

Panama Canal river arm

Quite river arms await the one who explores the sides of the Panama Canal


Panama Canal fishing

Local kid at the dock fileting our catch of the day from a river arm of the Panama Canal

Of course the Canal and its environs are just a few of Panama’s wonders. So check out Panama’s other gems to get more inspirations for your next trip there.

Have you been to the Panama Canal area yet? Share your experiences in the comments!


Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

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