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Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is considered one of the engineering wonders of the world, and each year thousands of tourists flock to Panama to watch the massive ships move through its complex lock system. Nevertheless, its true wonder lies in its contribution to world trade and shipping.

Just 50 miles (80 kilometers) long, this shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans allows more than 14,000 vessels ferrying nearly 280 million tonnes of trade goods between the Eastern and Western nations to pass each year.



The idea of finding a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific was almost simultaneous with the discovery of the narrow isthmus of Panama in the 16th century. The first plans for a canal were drawn up in 1539 by King Charles V of Spain, but the project only became feasible more than 300 years later with the construction of the Panama railway.

The railway was used to ferry goods between vessels on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and became instrumental in choosing Panama as the site for a water transit route.

Construction on the canal began in 1880 by the French under Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had just successfully completed the Suez canal in Egypt. However, conditions in the dense, mountainous jungles of Panama proved far harsher than the flat, sandy desert of Egypt.

Brutal working conditions, yellow fever and malaria claimed an estimated 22,000 lives before the project finally went bankrupt in 1889.

Principal Canal Users (By Country):

    • United States
    • People’s Republic of China
    • Japan
    • Chile
    • South Korea

In 1904, the project was taken over by the United States under Theodore Roosevelt, after orchestrating Panama's move for independence from Colombia the previous year. The discovery of mosquitos as the carriers of yellow fever and malaria allowed for disease prevention, and work moved quickly under improved conditions, although it would claim another 5000 lives before completion.

By 1914, the Canal, a complex system of dams and locks, was open for transit, and ships that once were forced to travel to the southernmost tip of South America cut 7800 miles (12,500 kilometers) from their voyages.

It remained under full U.S. administration until 1977, when a treaty was signed to hand over control of the Canal to Panama by 1999, with the U.S. reserving the perpetual right to military intervention to protect its economic interests in the key shipping route.

In 1999, all responsibility for the Canal was transferred to the government of Panama under the Panama Canal Authority, a semi-autonomous government agency.

The Canal Today

The Panama Canal has three sets of locks – Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores – each of which has two lanes. These locks serve as lifts, elevating vessels 85 feet above sea level from the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans to Gatun Lake.

Fed by gravity from Gatun Lake into each set of locks, the water enters the locks’ chambers through a system of drains that extends under every lock chamber from the center and side walls.

An average of 55 million gallons of fresh water is used, and takes about eight minutes to fill each chamber. After sailing through the Continental Divide, vessels are again lowered to sea level on the opposite side of the Isthmus of Panama.

When first built in 1914, planners had allowed a margin for cargo ships to grow, setting the ‘Panamax' benchmark for vessel size. In the last 20 years, however, some bulk carriers such as natural gas and oil tankers, called ‘post-Panamax', have far exceeded the width of the locks, and must rely on alternate shipping routes to deliver their cargo. Projections showed that if Panama did not move quickly to capture this new market, it could risk losing its key position in world shipping.

A proposal to expand the Canal to accomodate larger shipping vessels was put to a referendum in September 2006, and approved by an 80% majority. The expansion, set to be completed in 2014, will double the waterway's capacity, with a third set of locks added to loosen congestion in the busy canal and make room for the latest generation of colossal container ships. Innovative water-saving basins will be put in place to reuse the freshwater that fills the locks, avoiding the need for dams or artificial flooding.

Key Facts*

    • The Canal unites the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at one of the narrowest points of both the Isthmus of Panama and the American continent.
    • The Canal is 50 miles long (80 kilometers)
    • The Canal operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
    • Each lock is 33.53 meters (110 feet) wide by 304.8 meters (1,000 feet) long
    • The maximum dimensions of ships that can transit the Canal are: 32.3 meters (106 feet) in beam; 294.3 meters (965 feet) long (depending on the type of vessel); and 12 meters (39.5 feet) of draft (depth reach) in Tropical Fresh Water
    • There were 14,011 oceangoing transits in 2005
    • More than 922,000 vessels have transited the waterway since the Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914
    • On average, a vessel will take between eight to ten hours to transit the Canal; including waiting time for passage, 24.58 hours
    • The Canal transports 4% of world trade (measured in long-tons) and 16% of total U.S.-borne trade
    • 68% of Canal traffic originates in or is destined for the United States

Principal Trade Routes:

    • U.S. East Coast – Asia
    • Europe – West Coast South America
    • U.S. East Coast – West Coast South America
    • U.S. East Coast – U.S. West Coast
    • U.S. East Coast – West Coast of Central America
    • East Coast of South America – West Coast of South America Europe – U.S. West Coast and Canada

*provided by the Panama Canal Authority

Other Useful Links:
Panama Canal Authority: English / Spanish
Live Cameras on the Canal Locks
History of the Canal's construction: English / Spanish
Canal Treaty: English / Spanish
Expansion Project Overview: English / Spanish
Expansion Proposal - detailed: English / Spanish