Taking a cruise through the Panama Canal is definitely on the bucket list, but since we haven’t done that yet we did the next best thing. The itinerary for our Caribbean cruise on the MSC Divina included a port stop at Cristobal on the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal. We picked a canal cruise for our shore excursion at that port.
Our excursion started with a bus ride to the Pacific side of the canal. It’s amazing how much you can learn on shore excursions, some of it completely unrelated to the excursion itself. Our guide on this trip spent the way over on the bus talking about Captain Morgan. Ever hear of Captain Morgan Rum? Yeah, that Captain Morgan.
After making a name for himself in the world of pirates, Captain Morgan led a crew of 10 ships to successful attacks on the riches of Panama not once, but twice. Initially pirates or privateers such as Morgan had the support of England when attacking Spanish ships or holdings. When the two countries signed a peace treaty they lost Englands’s support, but had assistance from the governor of Jamaica.
Eventually he was arrested and returned to England, but rather than getting executed he ended up getting knighted and returning to Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor. He lived in the once large and prosperous city of Port Royal, most of which (including the graveyard where he was buried) sank under the sea in a 1692 earthquake shortly after his death.
When our bus ride/history lesson ended, we boarded a boat in a harbor on the Pacific end of the canal. We found good seats on the top deck by the rail, poised for picture-taking during our transit of the canal, which included lunch on the boat. It was a misty, cloudy sort of day for the most part, but it didn’t rain.
At one point when we got up to take pictures a stubborn German women and her husband sat down in our seats. They tried to claim nobody was sitting there in spite of the fact that we had left water bottles by our chairs. The husband seemed a bit shamed by all the surrounding people telling them they should move, but the wife stubbornly stayed in place until she finally realized we were not going to cower off and sit somewhere else. She finally left grumbling something about how if you got up from your seat in Germany it was fair game for anyone else to take. And people think Americans are rude!
Our tour progressed down the canal to Miraflores Locks, which has 2 chambers. Boats enter the first chamber through the open back gate.
The gate shuts and then the water rises in bubbles from the floor of the locks until it reaches the level of the water on the exit side.
The front gate opens for boats to leave. The boat then makes a short transit to the next chamber, which raises it up to the level of Miraflores Lake, where the ships then pass through.
Along the way we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and the Centennial Bridge. These two bridges are both on the Pacific side of the canal, which is where our tour went.
The USA built the Bridge of the Americas, completed in 1962. To alleviate overcrowding of that bridge Panama commissioned a German company to build the Centennial Bridge which opened in 2004.
Pedro Miguel locks has just one chamber, raising us up to the level of the Gaillard Cut, where the lock builders had to cut a channel through the mountain. It’s also called the Culebra Cut.
We passed the continental divide, noted by a marker on the shore somewhere in the cut.
Our journey stopped at the Gamboa Division Dredging Pier around the middle of the canal just past where the river flows into the canal. We did not pass through Gatan Lake or Gatan Locks.
We passed by construction of the new larger lock, which when finished will allow ships as large as the Divina to sail through the locks. It is expected to open in 2016. The cruise ships that pass through now are limited to those small enough to fit in the locks. Holland America makes all their ships no wider or longer than what fits within the chambers of the locks, but many other cruise lines have ships far to big.
A railroad track parallels the canal across the Isthmus of Panama. While some container ships pass through the locks, others unload their cargo which then crosses by train and loads onto another ship on the other side. There is a considerable charge to ships passing through the canal. When the USA controlled the locks they barely broke even (The USA preferring as always to tax the average citizen to the poorhouse while plunging the country deeply into debt over making any profits from the nation’s assets.) Now that Panama runs the canal, they make a considerable profit from it. So it can cost less to send the cargo across by rail instead of sending the ship through the canal. Passengers can also ride the rails along the canal, which would be a fun excursion to do.
France started the canal in 1881, but stopped construction due to engineering problems and a high mortality rate of their workers due to disease. The US took over in 1904 and finished the canal in 1914. It is considered one of the wonders of the modern world.
Our busses met us at the Gamboa Dredging Division Pier. They have to dredge the canal on a regular basis to keep it from filling in or getting too shallow in places to pass. At the time of our tour traffic went one way in the morning and the other in the afternoon through the narrows of the cut. Ships lined up along the sides of the canal waiting for their turn to go.
Back on the bus we passed a prison, which the guide said was home to their most famous prisoner and former dictator, Manuel Noriega.
Copyright My Cruise Stories 2015
Panama Canal chart courtesy of SSQQ Travel