BIRTHDAYS come, and go, but it is hard to ignore this month’s 100th birthday of the Panama Canal in Central America.
What’s more the canal is set for a new era with the construction of another lock for today’s mega ships – too big to fit into the present canal for a short cut between the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans.
australiancruisingnews.com recently had a prime viewing position on the deck of Azamara Quest as a Panamanian pilot was welcomed on board to guide the luxury cruise ship through the canal.
Our 10-day cruise from Miami (Florida) sailed to Cartagena (Colombia), and Panama with eco-friendly Costa Rica as the next country on our itinerary. But it is the Panama Canal that is the real drawcard for everyone on board.
Its sheer scale makes the canal transit so thrilling. Everything is vast from the ships to the locks with towering walls and mighty gates, enclosing chambers where millions of litres of water pour in and out to raise and lower the vessels transiting the canal.
Panamanian port officers attach ropes to “mules” – the mini locomotives that ride along on rails beside the canal – to keep Azamara Quest in a straight line while moving through the canal’s Gatun, Pedro Miguel, and Miraflores locks.
The mechanical clatter of “mules”, the constant activity on the ship’s bridge, the musty smell of the lock chambers, the bird song and howling of monkeys in surrounding jungle, and the sighting of crocodiles sun-baking on nearby banks, all add to the experience..
Regarded as an engineering marvel, the Panama Canal shaves thousands of km off sailings around the treacherous Drake Passage at the tip of South America.
Within 10 hours – it passes in a flash – Azamara Quest sails slowly through the 80 km canal. Passengers are transfixed as our cruise ships is raised 26 metres above sea level by a succession of three locks to the man-made Gatun Lake, then crossing the 24-km lake before returning to sea level via the canal’s descending locks.
Our gregarious Portuguese Captain Jose Vilarinho – says it is a decade since he last transited the Panama, “and it is as exciting today as it was then. Perfect!” he enthuses.
The canal is operated by the Panama Canal Authority, and every year about 14,000 ships sail through it.