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Ocean to Ocean – Traversing the Panama Canal

Posted by Ellen Jameson on 15/01/2017
Ocean to Ocean – Traversing the Panama Canal Featured Photo

A message from Brian Jones, Managing Member of Simply Holiday Deals. “Recently Ellen Frazer-Jameson went on an exciting venture with Norwegian Cruises sailing through the Panama Canal and into Gatun Lake. She has been gracious enough to share her adventure with our community. From all of us at Simply Holiday Deals, we would like to thank Ellen. We hope you enjoy her story below.”

The Panama Canal lays claim to a place on the list of great journeys of the world, featuring as it does on the Wish List of so many new and seasoned travellers.

For that reason, the vast majority of passengers on board a recent Norwegian Cruise  sailing through the Canal and into the Gatun Lake were determined not to miss the experience, even though it took place at ridiculous o’clock.

One week out of Miami on the Norwegian Pearl having already visited the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire and till ahead ports of call in Colombia and Costa Rica, the Panamanian Canal was the undoubted highlight of the 11 day cruise.   

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photo provided by Ellen Jameson

Our Norwegian Captain announced the arrival of not one, but two pilot boats to navigate his 93,500 tonnes, 965 feet ship through the hundred year old Panama Canal. The historic canal, fascinated man with the idea, but not execution, of building a route that would join the Atlantic and Pacific, as far back as when the Spanish arrived on the land mass back in the early 16th century.  Now it is hailed as an international trade route and maritime shortcut that saves time and costs by transporting a world of goods via the 80 kilometer waterway. A man-made passage through the two oceans at one of the narrowest points of the Isthmus of Panama and the American continent. Since its official opening in 1914, more than one million ships from all over the world have transited the canal. And more make the journey every day. 

This year an eagerly awaited expansion opened offering two gigantic new lock complexes one on the Pacific and one on the Atlantic thereby facilitating an improved route alongside the previous ones. The gigantic engineering feat upgrades shipping patterns in the region with the Canal as an ever greater driving force for global trade. 

The United States managed the canal from its official opening in1914 up to the start of the millennium in 1999 when Panama took over full operation, administration and maintenance of the canal. The latest expansion consolidates Panama’s position as the most important transportation center in the Americas.

As our ship, the Norwegian Pearl prepared to take its place and join the never-ending 24 hour stream of vessels traversing the canal; the passenger’s enthusiasm and sense of awe made the journey into an adventure. We were informed by Norwegian Cruise Line officials that all toll and license payments – totaling a quarter of one million dollars for their 2,000 passengers – have to be completed and paid into a Panamanian bank 24 hours before the vessel is allowed to start its passage – cash or banker’s orders – no checks. 

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photo provided by Ellen Jameson

Sleepy passengers, many still in pajamas and clutching steaming cups of coffee, crammed the rails up on deck to claim the best view of entering the first set of lock gates. 

Awaiting our turn in the narrow entryway to the first of three concrete locks that will take our cruise ship from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the view of the surrounding area is lush, tranquil and isolated. Raising majestically on the first bed of rapidly swirling water, we are elevated 85 feet to the top of the water mountain.   

The interoceanic waterway uses a system of locks with two lanes that operate as water elevators.  In these lanes the ships are transported from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake, 26 meters above sea level. This process allows smooth crossing through the Continental divide, and then lowers the ship to sea level on the other side of the Isthmus.

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photo provided by Ellen Jameson

The water used to raise and lower the vessels in each set of locks is obtained from Gatun Lake by gravity and poured into the locks through a main culvert system that extends under the lock chambers from the side and the center walls.

The lock is 427 meters long and 55 meters wide, the size of four football fields. Once inside the concrete channel our main understanding of the hydro power propelling us forward is by observing the ships laden with towering steel cathedrals of cargo and goods in containers who entered the lanes before us.

Emerging from the locks, Gatun Lake resembles a maritime car park with shipping vessels moored as far as the eye can see. This sight reinforces the wonder of hydropower and produces in observers an exhilarating sense of achievement. Man conquers the mighty oceans.

Before night falls the Norwegian Pearl will cross back though the lock gates – but for those who desire is to see more of the countryside, there is an unusual shore excursion.  

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photo provided by Ellen Jameson

Passengers who stayed on the ship as it cruised Gatun Lake, missed a close up view of the hydro operations construction station – a series of tracks and trains and giant engineering machines. 

Continuing our land based excursion we boarded a small motor launch to travel the  tree-lined waterway of a nature park. Sloths hang lazily from trees and river creatures and birds can be seen up close in their unspoiled natural habitat.

Our destination, a settlement deep in the rainforest where an indigenous tribe maintain their culture and traditions as they live, work and raise families in the manner set down by their ancestor’s centuries ago. Only difference is that now the tribes are protected and supported by the government. We were invited to participate with the brightly attired women and smiling children in a tribal dance and admire their colorful, beaded jewelry and hand-made crafts.  The forest also conjured up a monumental rainstorm that battered out a tribal beat on the thatched roof of the large wooden community center. The tribe were friendly, open hearted and some of the younger family members made the effort to communicate in English, one of the subjects they are taught in the extensive government funded school programs.  

Having waved goodbye to the tribe who lined the forest paths to bid us farewell, our tour guide dropped us at the local port of Colon to await the return of the ship.

The bi-oceanic journey through the Panama Canal proudly confers a sense of achievement on travelers.  As well as producing another tick on the bucket list. 

Panama Canal.  Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt the Panama hat and the fridge magnet.  And to cap it all –   a chance to quote one of the most famous palindromes ever

 A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL –   PANAMA – forward and back – it’s the same!