Photos of the Week: Ships Awaiting Canal Crossing – from the Air

The Panama Canal, of which I have written about before, is a marvel of engineering.  Not only the lock system but also the massive works required to create the channel and the man-made lake that serves as the holding pond for the ships in the middle of their passage.  Ships await passage in either side of the Canal, in the Atlantic or Pacific, as well as in that holding pond of a lake.

An uncle of mine was able to take two amazing pictures that capture “the scene” of ships waiting.  The ships look like ants – or tadpoles!

Panama Canal, ships, photo, sea, ocean

(Photo courtesy of M.J. Pabón)

Panama Canal, ships, photo, sea, ocean

(Photo courtesy of M.J. Pabón)

What do you think??



Four Decades of the Panama Canal

I have been to Panama a few times in my life as I have relatives who live there.  During those visits I have enjoyed Panama City itself, traveled to see El Valle, been to the beaches near Coronado, visited isolated populations on ecotourism visits, spent time on the beautiful island of Contadora (in the Pearl Archipelago) and visited the famous -and vital- Panama Canal.  As I scanned old pictures in a “digitization” effort, I realized I have visited the Panama Canal once every decade since the 1970s. Looking at my pictures from every decade made me think how differently I have “seen” the Canal over the decades that I have been visiting it – with the same eyes but with different “eyes”…

Paitilla in Panama City, Panama from the Casco Viejo (Old Town)

Looking towards part of Paitilla district from the Casco Viejo of Panama City

The Panama Canal – An Engineering Feat

Long the dream of many, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would require incredible engineering, and human effort and sacrifice – whether it had been built tapping the inland lakes of Nicaragua, creating a sea-to-rail-to-sea solution anywhere in Central America, or leveraging the narrowness of the Isthmus of Panama.  Eventually it was the Americans who got the Canal done.

Constructing the Canal was no small feat:  besides incredible engineering it also required the “skill” to not kill off your workers (many imported into the area) with the heat, yellow fever, and pure good ole hard work (no passing grade on keeping workers alive… over 5,000 died).  Construction required cutting to create the channel, creating a massive inland lake (Lake Gatún) to hold ships as they made the passage, and then setting up infrastructure for the people who would run and work the Canal (and live in the Canal Zone).

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

My first visit – through a kid’s eyes

During my first visit in the 1970s, as a kid, I was fascinated by the big ships that passed right by us at the viewing stand set up for visitors to observe the process of a ship going through the locks (in this case, the Miraflores Locks near Panama City).  This process involved raising or lowering a ship by using water (more on this later).  I remember the awe of being so close to a massive ship!  I remember my young cousin giving me the history of the Canal as he clearly had just learned it in school.  By looking at my pictures, I can tell I was more interested in little details than the whole.  For example, not one picture capturing the entire Miraflores Locks building.  It only shows as a backdrop to the locks. Another picture just focuses on the wheel of a “mule” (the tows that pull the ships along the locks) instead of capturing what a mule looks like, as the photo below shows.  (Clearly, my photography skills and camera equipment have evolved since 1978!)

Panama Canal, Panama, Canal Zone, engineering, mule, mule wheel, feat, marvel, locks, water, Panamax

The details that seem to have fascinated me

Back in the 80s – through an engineer’s eyes

Returning to the Canal in the 1980s when I was studying engineering, I was more curious about how the lock system actually worked.  Pretty neat to understand that water is at the core of the operation, and not just because this is about ships.  Water is part of the mechanics, if you will.  They could have cut deep into the mountains, removing them to create a sea level -ish passageway through Panama’s interior (a LOT of work).  Instead, the brilliant engineers came up with a solution that saved all that work by creating a high lake in the interior to allow navigation.  The challenge:  how to get the ships UP to the lake level and then back DOWN.  Enter, stage left, the locks.  The locks allow for the ships to be elevated to the lake and brought back down to the other ocean’s level as the following photos illustrate.

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

A ship approaches the Miraflores locks. Notice its height and the two mules pulling it along.

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

Where the ship is headed:  to the Pacific. Notice the two water levels on either side of the locks.

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

The ship exits the locks after both sides of the locks were at the same level. Notice now the height of the ship!

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

With the ship gone, the locks begin to close and the right side will fill up again so the next ship can enter that “chamber”

By the way, the Pacific coast of Panama and the Atlantic coast are not at the same level (something I have never fully grasped) so locks would have been involved even if the lake had not been used as a solution…  Water from the inland lake is used in this process.

My third visit in the 1990s – through the eyes of history

When I returned over 10 years later, the center of my attention was the historic event about to happen:  completing the transfer of the Canal Zone from the U.S. (in whose hands it had been since the days the Canal was being built) to sovereign Panamanian territory and administration.  As I entered the Canal Zone, I recalled its look and feel from my prior visits when perfectly manicured gardens and tidy streets were all around giving this tropical place an American feel.  I remember seeing the houses where Canal employees lived and it seemed a little bit of a paradise, even if more hot and humid than Paradise (with a capital P!) would likely be…

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

An old mule on display

Parts of the Canal Zone had begun to switch already to Panamanian hands ahead of the 1999 final turnover by the time I came that decade.  It was interesting to see how you could tell what parts were still in U.S. hands and which were not.  I also remember the concerns at the time of whether the Canal would be managed well by the Panamanians and whether that was a smart decision on both sides back when the treaty was signed in the late 1970s.  Only time would tell…

My most recent visit – eyes under the stars

Time passed and I returned in 2007 but the visit was a little different than my prior ones.  Though I did visit family my main reason to go to Panama was work.  I was attending a meeting for 3 days in one of the buildings of the Canal Zone that had become part of a business park – one of the many remnants of the time when the U.S. administered the Canal.

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

Former Canal Zone administration building in the business park where my workshop took place

By then, the Canal had been completely under Panamanian control for 8 years and -guess what – it seemed all those concerns about Panama managing the Canal were way off.  The Canal Zone felt vibrant, with areas converted to commercial use or tourist destinations, with the Canal’s locks bustling with activity, and with plans for the Canal’s expansion already underway to support super tankers that went beyond Panamax (the maximum size for a ship that can go through he Canal).

I was not really planning to visit the Canal itself at Miraflores to witness the crossing of a ship as I had seen that already. However, the workshop I was attending had a surprise in store:  it organized an evening out at a restaurant located on a building right at Miraflores where from its terrace up high, you could see the ships making their way in and out of the Canal.  Not only was seeing this from up high pretty neat, we got to see this at night which was also a first for me.  So despite the slight rain and it being my fourth time seeing the Canal, the experience was new and I enjoyed the great vantage point.

The 2010s visit – what eyes will I bring?

I have not seen where the expansion project is these days but I assume that the next time I go (I am due for the trip of this decade), I will get to see the expanded Canal (at Miraflores, this means a new third “lane” for the wider ships) and I hope it will be from up high again with a cocktail in hand to cheer the amazing place that has been and will continue to be this engineering wonder.  ¡Salud!

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

The hundred year old Miraflores building

Ever Changing Panama City, Panama

Last night, I made it to Panama for my 5th visit. I have relatives here and have always enjoyed coming to see them and enjoy the country.


This time, I made my trip coincide with my mom also coming over to visit my aunt – but as a surprise to my mom!  One of my cousins picked me up from the airport and took me to my aunt’s where the surprise took place.  My mom’s reaction was priceless!  Of course, every one of my Panama-based family members were in on the surprise and, though it was getting late in the evening, they could not leave until they saw “the moment”.  Well worth it.

The flight to Panama

Fortunately for me, there is a nice direct flight from Atlanta that takes 4 hours.  The plane was close to full but I had exit row (score!) and the seat in exit row that has no seat in front of it so zero feeling of being in a sardine can – the usual feeling in most American airlines.  The flight was smooth except that it it took between 10 and 15 minutes for a gate to be cleared for the plane to park.  Then another 5 mins to open the plane door.  Not sure why something so simple took so long.  But perhaps I was just antsy for “the moment”…

Panama City – A City Changed

Today, my relatives took us around showing how much Panama City has changed.  My parents hadn’t been here in about 10 years but I had been here 2 yrs ago.  For them the change was much more dramatic as areas of the coast line in the city have radically changed.  Instead of the waterfront small airport that used to take us and others to the Archipiélago de las Perlas (Pearl Islands), now there is a massive -and nice- mall and construction between it and the water!  The skyline is beginning to look more like Dubai’s than anything else with high rises everywhere both finished and under construction.  Massive construction boom. Paitilla, a waterfront area where even Trump built a tower, was already growing back in the late 1970s but it has, seemingly, growth logarithmically!

Paitilla in Panama City, Panama from the Casco Viejo (Old Town)

Looking towards part of Paitilla district from the Casco Viejo

Our relatives tell us that most have sold but start of new buildings has slowed down a bit with the current economic environment.  Many unit buyers are actually foreigners from Venezuela (escaping some lunatic there perhaps?), Colombia, and others.  A new area called Costa del Este has been developed on the former city dump and in neighboring swampy areas.  It took years to clear out and refill.  Now, it teems with new construction – high rises and nice gated neighborhoods.  Two of my cousins live in Costa del Este and I can’t blame them.

I had been taken on this same tour 2 yrs ago when I last visited but it was neat to see small changes, such as in the Casco Viejo (Old Town), the old part of town that reminds me so much of Old San Juan except the latter has been renovated extensively and kept up quite nicely.  This time, I could tell there was more progress on the re-do of the old buildings, some which go back to the 1600s and 1700s.  It is already beginning to shape up as a fantastic part of town and will be superb once the works are mostly done.

Around the Casco Viejo (Old Town) in Panama City, Panama

Around the Casco Viejo, typical street

Around the Casco Viejo (Old Town) in Panama City, Panama

Around the Casco Viejo

Around the Casco Viejo (Old Town) in Panama City, Panama

Around the Casco Viejo

You already have restaurants and some hotels (the Hotel Colombia is an impressive architectural piece).

Hotel Colombia in the Casco Viejo (Old Town) in Panama City, Panama

Hotel Colombia

Around the Casco Viejo (Old Town) in Panama City, Panama

Juxtaposition of old-and-older in the Casco Viejo

I got to enter the National Theater which I had never seen before and it was splendid.  We also got to enter the courtyard of the Ministry of Foreign Relations where they have done a great job of semi-enclosing the courtyard to protect from rain but yet kept it somewhat open, especially towards the ocean.  Talks and other events are held there and I can see why it would be a great setting.

Indoor at the Teatro Nacional (National Theater) in Panama City, Panama

Inside the National Theater

Foreign Ministry courtyard in Panama City, Panama with a large fan

Courtyard at the Foreign Ministry. Notice the HUGE ceiling fan!

We also drove to Puerto Amador (Fort Amador, formally a key intelligence center and bunker of the US military and, after the Panama Canal turned over, of Gen. Noriega).  Now it bustles with eateries, shops, some condos, etc.  I had been there in my last visit at night and it is definitely a good place to go to at night.  Nice conversion of a former military facility to a place for folks to enjoy.

We drove through the old city center where many great stores are located.  I remember visiting Panama when I was younger and my aunt going there to buy things from this or that “ethnic” store.  For example, the Indian stores had great linens. (Indian, as in descendants of people who came from India).  There is also an area of Chinese run stores (ethnic Chinese but Panamanian).  This area looks a bit more run down than I remember and I couldn’t get a sense of how safe it is…  Especially after my relatives said that the street called “Sal si puedes” (“get out if you can”) is particularly dangerous.  I suspect that it may be no worse than many inner cities in the U.S. and that an adventurous traveler (not traveling alone) can likely make it through and “get out”.

So, after a lot of driving around, I am back at my cousin’s house to shower and get ready for happy hour at my aunt’s before heading out for dinner.  Not really sure what we are doing tomorrow but I am sure it will involve lots of driving around.  We have all visited the Canal before (3 times for me) so I doubt we will be doing that this time.  Looking forward to another day here and happy to be back in Panama!


See how we covered from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific coast in this trip ->  click here!

%d bloggers like this: