Whenever we discussed skipping countries in Central America, Gerry was always adamant that he must get to Panama. There were two reasons. First of all he wanted to drive to the "end" of the panamerican highway and so to the southern and easternmost country in Central America. Second, he wanted to see the Panama Canal, this feat of engineering that he had heard about for so long. On our first visit to Egypt in 1985 we visited the Suez Canal, site of Ferdinand de Lesseps great success, so now we had to visit the other great canal of the world and the site of de Lesseps great failure.
It wasn't too long after our arrival, therefore, that we drove over to the Miraflores locks, the southernmost of the three sets of locks that raise ships from the Pacific and lower them to the Caribbean and vice versa. Being the closest to Panama City, Miraflores has the most sophisticated facilities for visitors and we spent a fascinating few hours there including an hour at the beginning and an hour at the end of our stay watching huge ships transiting the locks. The largest ships that the canal can accommodate are called Panamaxes, and to watch one move through the locks is awesome. It is really hard to believe that they will fit — there is only about a couple of feet of clearance on either side — but everything works like clockwork. The ships are lashed to three electric locomotives on each side (two at the prow, two in the middle, and two at the stern) that ensure that the vessel doesn't damage the lock basin. The ships move into, between, and out of the locks under their own steam, but not under the command of their own pilot. They are obliged to take on a specialist canal pilot whose training lasts more than a decade. But for the spectator, probably the most impressive part of the operation is the speed with which the lock basins empty and fill. It takes about ten minutes whether emptying or filling and it is quite breathtaking watching these humongous ships sink or rise at such speed.
Miraflores is fascinating but in is only one of the three sets of locks. Pedro Miguel, a little further inland from Miraflores doesn't have any official visitors' center but the locks are visible from the highway that passes nearby and there are parking places available for those who want to stop and watch. We stopped one evening on our way back to Panama City from Gamboa an outpost of the Smithsonian STRI. But in our view neither of these is the best place for seeing the locks at work. That is at Gatun the northernmost locks where the visitor's viewing gallery is so close to the lock basin that you feel as if you can reach out and touch the ships.
We also took the time to read about the canal and learned all about the French company headed by De Lesseps, the Compagnie Francaise du Canal Interoceanique. The company's former headquarters in the old historic city is now an excellent museum that we had to visit twice to have time to see it all. We were very glad that we had spent the previous year learning Spanish because almost all of the museum was in Spanish. It's strange sometimes how different parts of one's life come together in the most serendipitous way. We had for many years driven by the Goethals bridge that spans the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York, but we had to come to Panama to learn that Goethals was the engineer in charge of the last seven years of construction and the first governor of the canal zone.
The canal itself wasn't the only engineering feat of interest. The picture above shows the latest such work. The Panamanians had long felt aggrieved at the fact that there was only one bridge across the canal, the Bridge of the Americas, which we had crossed when arriving at Panama City. Now that the canal is in their control they have done something about it and built this attractive bridge to span the canal further north. The bridge had its official opening just a week or so ago in mid August so that the outgoing Presidenta, Mireya Moscosa, could cut the ribbon. It will not be used, however, for several months because the connecting highways are not ready.