Panama Canal, Views from a Cruise Ship

The Liberian oil tanker Socrates enters the Panama Canal, empty of cargo.

The Panama Canal was completed by the United States in 1914.  The French worked on the canal for 13 years, but gave up after they incurred 22,000 deaths and the construction firm went bankrupt.  Completed by the USA in 10 years, it is considered one of the seven engineering marvels of the world.

Short History of the Panama Canal

The French design did not incorporate locks, rather they wished to simply dig a long deep canal, similar to the Suez Canal. This poor design, poor equipment, malaria, yellow fever and financial shenanigans all led to their failure.  All 800,000 stockholders lost their entire investment.

When the French worked on the Panama Canal, and until 1903, Panama was part of Columbia.  In 1902 the United States Congress voted in favor of building the Panama Canal.  However, the financial terms proposed to Columbia were deemed unacceptable, and were rejected.  President Theodore Roosevelt responded by sending warships to both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of Panama and coaxed Panama to revolt and gain their independence from Columbia.  Panama declared independence from Columbia in November of 1903 and bada-boom, bada-bing the United States reached agreement with the new country of Panama and canal work soon began.  About 5,000 more lives were lost during the next 10 years of construction, mostly from disease.  Control of the Panama Canal zone was handed back to Panama on December 31, 1999.



Our Panama Canal Crossing Begins

Before the sun rises our cruise ship is met by a pilot boat for guidance.  New highway construction across the canal can be seen in the background of the above photo.

A crew boat pulls along side of our ship and 25 canal workers hop on board the Norwegian Sun cruise ship.  These are the workers familiar with how to handle the ropes to the train cars that will pull us through the series of locks.  For the entire crossing, control of the Norwegian Sun is handled by a Panamanian captain. The entire crossing will take most of the day, so these workers only handle one ship crossing daily.  About 40 ships a day, most of them smaller, will make this passage.


The crew boat pulls away from our ship after unloading 25 workers to help us complete the crossing.


This is a photo of the one major existing bridge across the canal.  The new bridge is of the same design.


Two Panama Canals

Of course everything is getting larger and faster in the world of transportation.  To accommodate the larger shipping vessels, a bigger, deeper canal was required and dug alongside the existing one.  All the animals in the new construction area had to be captured and relocated.  This included 103 snakes. 

This new canal allowed for ships with more than double the shipping capacity of the current vessels.  The bigger transport ships can now carry 14,000 cargo containers.  Each of these shipping containers will be met at their destination by an 18-wheeler to carry the goods to a warehouse. 

The canal charges by potential ship volume and charged about $450,000 for our cruise ship to pass.  The fee is much more for these mega ships.  Our fee included an additional 15% for assurances of a prompt crossing.  All fees must be paid 48 hours in advance. The ships paying the least depend upon first come, first served.  These ships can have up to a seven day wait for crossing during high season.  Panama deposits about a billion dollars profit into their treasury annually from the canal revenue.  The alternative route is a dangerous and cold 5,000 mile, two week trip around the southern tip of South America.

View of a mega sized container ship floating through the new, larger canal.


New vs. original Canal size.  Note the new rolling closures instead of swinging gates.


Panamax is a shipping term used since 1914 in reference to the strict maximum size allowed for a shipping vessel to pass through the Panama Canal.  Since 2016, 102 years later, larger New Panamax or Post Panamax vessel dimensions are allowed.  A TEU above equals a 20-foot shipping container


Entering the Locks

Our cruise ship approaches the first series of locks

Our cruise ship approaches the first series of locks

The Panama Canal is only possible due to the 200+ inches of rain the area gets annually which continually feeds the water used in the locks. So the fact that we had some rain during our passage was not out of the ordinary.

Notice the small row boat at the end of the pier above. This row boat carries the first guide rope which will be passed to the cruise ship.  All the people in the lower right of the photo are on deck 12 of our cruise ship listening to a narration of the events of the day.  We are obviously entering on the left and boats heading the opposite direction are on the right.

A view of the canal from the top deck


Our ship is about to enter the first lock

When the water behind gates 05 and 06 is at the correct level, the gates above will open allowing us in.  After flooding the lock with 15 feet of water, we will then inch our way into the next lock while being pulled by eight GE built train cabs, or mules as they are called, on cog tracks.  In the second lock above, it is apparent the water level is much higher.  A large container ship can be seen in this next lock ahead of us with minimal clearance on each side.

The mules are not powered by wheels on a track like a regular train.  There is a cog track in the middle of the train tracks providing reliable power for the trains.  In the photo above, water can bee seen pouring through a leak in the doors in the gates next to us in the right-hand canal.  Over 100 years after the completion of the canal, much of the same equipment and same design is still being used.  GE used the very best materials possible, like nickel plated brass.

The train cab above will soon start up the steep incline to the next level of the locks, requiring the worker to brace himself during the climb, as seen below.  The process of letting cable out or reeling it in is manually controlled by the driver.


A train worker braces himself during trip up the steep incline to the next lock

Panama Prison Blues

Everyone familiar with both kinds of music, country and  western, will know the words to the famous Johnny Cash song, Folsom Prison Blues:

I hear the train a comin’ rollin’ round the bend
I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
Well, I’m stuck in Folsom Prison and time keeps dragging on
While a train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone

(as a big coincidence, our ship’s final destination in Chile was indeed ‘San Antone,’ Chile)

So while serving time, the Folsom prisoners could hear the horn whistle blow, announcing the freedom of the train passengers traveling so near but so far.  Along this Panama Canal route is the very prison where General Manuel Noriega served his final years in prison on murder charges.  Before transferring to this Panama prison Noreiga had served 24 years in USA and French prisons.  Not only was Noriega able to hear the whistle from the nearby train, but he was also able to see luxury cruise ships pass only a few yards away.

Notice the three guard towers in the photo of Noriega’s prison


Exiting the Locks

As we exit the locks and head into the man-made Gatun Lake, an empty Liberian oil tanker enters the locks going the opposite direction.  A close up of this tired old vessel is pictured at the beginning of this blog.

Notice safety double gates are at each end of the locks

There are two gates at each end of the canal locks.  This is a precaution should a runaway ship hit and smash through a gate.  Without a second gate, this catastrophic event would unleash a flood on the land downstream of the locks, draining the massive man made Gatun Lake.

Canal exit through safety of double gates


Panama City, Panama

Panama City, Panama is one of the more attractive cities you will ever see. Very modern with many glimmering high rise office and condominium buildings located just beyond their massive shipping port.

Panama City, Panama come into view


A zoomed in photo showing the unique and modern architecture of the Panama City skyline

Maersk is the world’s largest shipping container company.  One of their trademark baby blue ships is loaded with Maersk shipping containers preparing for passage through the canal.

With so many cruise ships passing by Panama City’s glistening modern buildings, it is ironic that there is no port to accommodate the passenger cruise ships.  Thus far, Panama has stuck to the lucrative container ship traffic.


19 thoughts on “Panama Canal, Views from a Cruise Ship

  1. Excellent description and commentary! I have been through locks in other places,but the Panama Canal appears to be unique in several important ways. Thanks for the chance to vicariously share your trip!

  2. Great reporting.
    In comparison I thought of South Jersey tolls on the Garden State Parkway. In either direction, and just about every town, the State of New Jersey places a toll to fill up their bank account with toll money so one can go see the water.
    10 degrees here today (1/14). You aren’t missing a thing here weather wise.
    Safe journey.

  3. Harold, this one was especially interesting for me. I’ve never been through the canal, so the details of such an engineering marvel were a real treat for me to take in. Thanks!

    I was shocked with the cost of passage. For the Panama Canal, I wonder what the payback period was?

    • Hi Dave, we are interested in the same things, finances and the engineering aspects. Panama had to borrow money to finance the $5.5 billion construction costs. This excludes the interest payment costs. As best I recall there seemed to be an estimated 10 year payback period. Those Panamanians who voted against to the project insisted the assumptions on the anticipated growth in the shipping industry were too optimistic. The Chinese are in discussions to make a competing canal in Nicaragua.
      Thank you for continuing to read my travel adventures.

  4. All I can say us Wow! Excellent information! ! Thanks for providing information! ! and photos!
    Amazing how they do this!!!!

  5. Great photos of the canal zone, Harold. As always, I really enjoyed the commentary as well. We were through the canal about 10 years ago while the larger locks were still under construction. The revenue stream is fantastic for Panama.

    I think I mentioned to you that there is a great read on the building of the canal. It is called THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS by David McCullough. I highly recommend it. It is not only a great history, but it reads like a novel. It is really informative on the French failure (and all the contributing factors) as well as the US success in building the canal.

    Hope your adventure is going well. I’m looking forward to future blogs. Is Machu Picchu next?

    • We have been to Machu Picchu but I have not yet written the BLOG. We enjoyed it, but eating a guinea pig at a roadside grill was really exciting too. Both experiences to have dedicated upcoming blogs.

  6. hi Harold: thanks for your detailed description of the locks. also it was informative to know that there is an 85′ difference between the two oceans. I too enjoyed enjoyed the history and was reminded of how much of a risk taker Teddy Roosevelt was. again, I’m thankful for your great storytelling in your pictures.

  7. HI Harold, Another great blog and I have to ask you how you are keeping up with your blog while on a cruise ship? The wifi costs are horrendous and slow so how are you keeping current? We couldn’t do it. Good for you!

    • The Internet is an issue when at sea. We have been in Chile and Peru for a month or so, heading to Lima for our next cruise. We will purchase a 90 minute Internet package and use it sparingly. Sometimes an Internet access is one of the options when selecting a ‘cruise package’. Looking at our itinerary, we will be “at sea” next Sunday morning when I generally post, so I’m not sure what I’ll be able to do.

  8. I remember Grandmother explaining all this to me when she went. It’s nice to have pictures with the descriptions. We’re you the only one taking pictures from the top? They were so good without anyone in the way!
    Crazy there’s a prison so close to the main track tourist area. When we toured St. Augustine a “millionaire” who built a hotel there paid to have the prison moved a mile out of town and painted pink to disguise it. Haha but it’s right next to the Fountain of Youth! He didn’t think people would be interested in that part of history.

    • Hi Suzette, while the prison is close visually, a person would have to jump off of the ship and swim ashore to get closer. Although there seems to be in me a desire to jump off of a boat, I doubt I would ever do so… I think once I hit the water I would immediately know it was a bad idea.

  9. Harold just great information, we are taking a cruise to the Canal startling out this Sunday. What type of camera gear would you suggest? Thanks

    • When traveling I leave my prime lenses at home and travel with zooms. The one I use most frequently is the Sony 24-240mm. It helps if you have some camera or lens stabilization. A polarizing filter helps with sun glare. Good luck, the decks can get crowded on the cruise ships but people come and go so spots eventually open up.

      • Thanks I was thinking about leaving my 70-200 home for this trip. This was great all around information!!! Pack a 24-70 & 70-200. Again thanks

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