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Panama: Miraflores Locks

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Miraflores Locks | Panama | Americas

[Visited: November 1997, April 2013]

Even though I had been there before, I looked forward to visiting the Miraflores locks again when I was back in Panama. On my previous visit, the Panama Canal was still in the hands of the US, just a few years before the handover on December 31, 1999. After the US had constructed the Canal between 1904 and 1914, it had exercised control of the strategically very important maritime connection. But the history of the Panama Canal started in the 16th century. The Spanish were transporting huge amounts of gold to Europe, and used the isthmus to get their cargo from the Pacific (coming from the west coast of South America). There was a trail from the Pacific to the Caribbean, and the Spanish started thinking of cutting a canal across. But it would last until 1881 for the French to actually start digging a canal under the supervision of engineer Lesseps, who had constructed the Suez canal before. However, the Panama Canal proved to be a much bigger challenge, for one because of the harder circumstances, and the French had to abandon the project after 10 years, having lost around 22,000 workers and invested USD 287 million. Tropical diseases, mostly malaria and yellow fever, coupled with accidents were the main cause of the failure. The Americans bought the equipment, and finished the job in 10 years. The Panama Canal is not the type of canal you might expect: it is a string of canals, locks, and lakes, spanning 77 kilometres. Nowadays, the Panamanians are in control themselves, and are about to widen the locks, so they can accommodate modern-day huge cargo ships.

Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Coming from the Pacific, these ships are ready to pass through the Miraflores locks

While on the way to the locks, I found myself digging around in my memory, trying to recover the images of my first visit more than 15 years before. We were in time for the morning ships; one was right in the locks, while two locomotives were pulling the second, larger ship forward. We walked up to the visitor deck on the top floor; unfortunately, it is not possible to come close to the locks themselves as they are fenced off. There was a small crowd on the deck; fortunately, we were still able to find a place with a good view. Below us, we could see the doors of the locks that seemed infinitely small compared to the huge ship towering above them, open; the two silvery locomotives towed the ship very slowly forward, until it was completely inside, and the doors could be closed behind it. Now, the front doors were opened; some 100 million litres of fresh water coming from upstream filled the space, slowly pushing the ship upwards. By now, the other ship was on its way out towards the second set of locks at Pedro Miguel. Behind those, we could see the Centennial Bridge; after that, the Gaillard Cut where the Panama Canal was constructed through the highest elevation of the entire canal.

Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Two locomotives pulling a ship through the Miraflores locks

Just as we were considering to watch the 10 minute video, we saw two more ships slowly arriving from the direction of the Pacific with the Bridge of the Americas in the background, guided by several towboats. We walked down the stairs, watched the informative video, and when we came up again, we still had ample time to see the same process of opening doors, towing ships, filling water, lifting ship, and slowly moving forward, again. Apart from the top floor, there is a smaller observation deck on the first floor, from where you have a better idea of the sheer size of the ships. These two vessels were smaller than the giants we had seen just before, they were a different kind of ship. In the background, a constant voice explaining in two languages what we were seeing, and giving us the relevant statistics. The entire passage takes between 8 and 10 hours, but of course means that ships do not have to sail around the entire South American continent and across the Drake Passage and Cape Horn. After the ships had left the locks, we went down again, visited the small museum with all kinds of artifacts about its arduous and, eventually, triumphant history. Just like I had been after my first visit, I was in awe at what is considered to be one of the biggest engineering works in the world.

Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Two ships ready to continue their journey from Pacific Ocean to Caribbean Sea at Miraflores locks
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Locomotive going up to the higher level of Miraflores locks
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Two ships on their way through the locks at Miraflores
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Ship entering the next part of the Panama Canal at Miraflores locks
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Ship waiting for the next lock to open at Miraflores
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Two silver-coloured locomotives pulling a ship through the Miraflores locks
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Ship at the Miraflores locks waiting to be lifted to a higher level
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Ship proceeding to one of the locks, waiting to be lifted
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Ship at the lock right in front of the main building of Miraflores
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Giant ocean ships waiting to be lifted in the locks
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): View over the Panama Canal at the Miraflores locks
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): Silver-coloured locomotives running up the rails
Picture of Miraflores Locks (Panama): White-washed main building overlooking the Miraflores Locks

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