Panama Canal

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We have travelled a fair bit and seen some great sights but the Panama Canal will sit high on our list of amazing places.

We took a partial transit trip on it covering half of the canal and going through 3 locks with the huge container ships. This is not a cheap excursion (around £90 each). It takes 6 hours+ and includes a meal and guided commentary, but we thought it well worth the money.

It is incredible to believe that the canal was built 100 years ago and hardly anything has changed since 1914. Even the lock gates are original. It costs a huge amount for shipping to go through the canal. A large container ship will pay over $200000 and the largest ship ever to go through was a cruise liner and it cost $400000 in navigation fees. No wonder cruises are so expensive! On top of that the large boats have to pay for tugs and pilots to keep them in the deepest parts of the canal and to position them to get them through the locks. So why do they agree to pay such huge fees? Well the alternative route would take them 22 days to get from Pacific to Atlantic and transiting the canal takes 9 hours. To see these enormous vessels really brings home how much is transported by sea. We saw car carrying vessels that carry 6500 cars at a time. This means that the whole of Twickenham car park and more could be ferried away on one of these giants. Also huge container ships with containing piled up 11 high. The most impressive sight of the day was watching these giant boats navigate the locks, of which there're 6. Tugs get them into position and they are then attached to at least 6 tractors and are guided through. I have to say they don't look like John Doe type tractors, more like train engines, so it's an odd name. They cost $2 million each!!

I am full of admiration for the tractor drivers and pilots on board the vessels, that get them through the locks without touching the sides. The biggest of these boats (or are they ships – I never know what the difference is!) has only 24" clearance! For someone like me who managed to hit a post while driving out of Majestic Wine last December with at least 10 metre clearance, I cannot imagine the skill needed to do this. Perhaps I should suggest to Majestic Wine that they buy some tractors to help their customers out of the car park.

If you are going to Panama then a trip to the Canal has to be top of any To Do List. It's good to visit the Miraflores lock and watch these shipping giants from land but the Canal Trip is something very very special. It really is the most impressive engineering feat of the 20th century.

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