Unlike the Suez Canal which is at sea level, the Panama Canal has several locks. The Panama Canal is 77 km long and crosses the Isthmus of Panama to connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
The French thought they could apply the same techniques used in the Suez Canal but failed miserably because of the technical difficulties (the excavation of the Culebra cut is too difficult for the means of the time) and the loss of human life (malaria, yellow fever)…. The project was then taken over by the United States and completed in 1914.
Today, there are still 3 lock systems from that time (very much improved), with 2 routes: Gatun (can be visited), Miraflores ( can be visited ) and Pedro Miguel. Because of the maximum dimensions of these locks, they are imposed to the boats crossing the canal, and these boats are called Panamax.
In addition, there are 2 new 3-way lock systems that can accommodate larger boats: Agua Clara ( can be visited) and Cocoli – doubling the capacity of the Panama Canal. The new dimensions accepted make it possible to accommodate the so-called “new panamax”.
We booked a tour on a small boat (Panama Marine adventures), allowing us to cross 2 locks (out of the 3): Miraflores & Pedro Miguel. It cost us 120$/person (more practical info here)
How it works in practice
As we are a small boat, we have to cross with a bigger boat. And the schedule of passage is determined the day before. At the passage of the locks, we enter a kind of “basin” (with 2 other boats).
The big door closes behind us. The water is evacuated through “holes” at the bottom, we don’t feel anything, we just see that we go down more and more opposite the “walls” of the lock. When we reach the same water level as the desired level, the big gates open (thanks to a hydraulic system) and we continue.
In this sense, you “go down”, but in the other sense, you “go up” – but it’s all done with water, quite simply.
The crossing is possible thanks to the water coming from the rivers and artificial lakes created for the canal (fresh water is discharged into both oceans). It is therefore necessary to have a lot of water and fortunately it rains a lot here (we have witnessed it).
When freshwater is dumped into the ocean, freshwater fish die and birds feast on it with every passing boat.
During the crossing of the locks, the very big boats have really little margin and are assisted by 8 locomotives, which do not pull them, but just allow the boat to go straight, without hitting the lock walls.
During the crossing of the Culebra Cup (very narrow), they are also assisted by other small boats that allow them to correct their trajectory and avoid accidents. All the boats crossing the canal are assisted, a canal pilot gets on board and steers the boat.
Boats cannot travel in both directions because of the Culebra Cup where only one boat passes at a time. Thus, during 12 hours, one can pass from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. For the next 12 hours, we can pass in the other direction. Thus, it is better not to arrive late, at the risk of having to wait 12 hours.
The crossing is quite painful because we have to wait for each other. The big boat behind us takes an eternity to position itself correctly and moves very slowly. For the crossing of only 2 locks, we took 6 hours. If we wanted to pass from one ocean to the other, it would have taken 12h!!
But we were very lucky, because on the next lane, a huge container ship, Panamax, passes the locks by itself and it is a unique spectacle.
And as soon as we are in the Pacific Ocean, the view is really incredible.
My opinion about Panama Marine Adventures
Despite the exorbitant price ($120/person), I find the service leaves something to be desired. The pick-up is only done in front of the hotels in their list, otherwise we had to go ourselves to a place quite far from downtown (10$ by cab anyway). As a result, we booked a room in one of the hotels on the list (Hampton by Hilton, Booking link), which I recommend.
There were about 300 of us on the boat and honestly, unless we crammed on the benches with strangers, there was not enough room, we had to stand most of the time.
The boat isn’t very well designed, with 2 floors “closed” and fully air-conditioned and only one floor (half of them in full sun) open. As a result, everyone fights for the chairs on the covered terrace.
The lunch included is little varied, we are called to eat in a precise order according to the color of our bracelets, we are given to each one a plate. For a tour starting at 11 am, we could have lunch only at 3 pm. Fortunately water and sodas are served at will during all the journey.
However, it seems to be the most professional and highest rated of all boat services. The comments (in English and Spanish) are really very good. The toilets are numerous and clean. The communication is at the top (pick-up times communicated the day before by email) and the pick-up on time. On request, the driver, instead of dropping us off at the hotel, dropped us off in front of the old town.
So come with some snacks, don’t expect a luxurious experience and be prepared to stand for a long time. Crossing the canal is very expensive for boats (even tourist boats), hence the high price.
For more practical information on how to visit the canal by boat, or by public transport, read my practical guide here
See also all our articles about Panama