The Panama Canal has been called one of the wonders of the modern world, and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t one of the greatest engineering feats of all time.
(I would say it probably sits on that list behind the pyramids and ahead of whatever ridiculous project the bored oil barons in Dubai are working on this week.)
Consider some of the following statistics, and then consider what a pain in the ass it must have been to sail around the tip of South America if building the canal was considered a time saver.
The Panama Canal is 48 miles long and cost the U.S. $375 million. And that’s after the U.S. took over for the French, who had been working on it for years.
75,000 men and women worked on the canal, with 40,000 of them working at the peak of construction. 5,609 workers died.
204,900,000 cubic meters were excavated during the construction.
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Needless to say, it was a big project. It was also a big labor draw since the work was done under a cushy government contract, and pay was high.
Still, the workers were living in swamps and jungles, fighting diseases and landslides. It was not easy.
Thankfully, today you can visit the canal, specifically the famous Miraflores Locks, and you don’t have to get a job as a deckhand on some frigate to do it.
You can spend a day at the visitor's center, see the boats pass, tour a museum, and have a pretty phenomenal meal. And it’s all just a few minutes from Panama City.
It’s also pretty cheap. There are different rates for residents of Panama and tourists, but foreigners still only have to pay $8 for access to the various exhibitions and observation decks.
The main observation deck has stadium seating, and you get to sit right above the locks as one of the ships passes through the locks.
There are two sets of locks at either end of the canal, each with three chambers, and they are the mechanism by which ships are raised above sea-level to Gatun Lake, and then lowered back down to sea level after passing through it.
(And you thought the canal was just one big ditch, didn’t you?)
The locks are pretty cool to watch, and there’s a bi-lingual announcer who gives a sort of play by play over the loudspeaker as the locks fill and empty, and the ships pass through.
Although it’s not exactly watching the space shuttle launch in terms of excitement, it is an engineering marvel in action.
And, amazingly, the system used now is fundamentally the same one used to move ships from Atlantic to Pacific (and vice versa) when the Canal first opened in 1914.
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There’s also just an incredible volume of water used to fill and empty the locks: 52 million gallons of freshwater are used in every transit.
There are also some very cool exhibitions on the history of the canal, and the day-to-day lives of the people who built it.
But what is really cool about the canals is the Miraflores Restaurant located on the roof of the facility.
It has been ranked as one of the five best dining experiences in all of Panama by Frommers, and I would have to agree with them.
It’s a little pricey, but I mean, look at the view. There are terrific views of not only the canal but Panama City as well, and the buffet was incredible.
The restaurant is open until eleven at night, and it’s the night views you want to catch.
You can see the line of ships waiting to make the journey to the canal stretched out into the ocean, their lights forming a kind of oceanic constellation.
And you can watch all of this while enjoying some top of the line Panamanian food. Bet you can’t get that at a space shuttle launch.