The Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

We finally got to see the Panama Canal, the Pacific side where the Miraflores Locks are situated.

This has been on my bucket list since well before that terminology became part of everyday speech. The only name I remembered was that of Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps. I had always understood that he had been the one who got it built but when we visited the Museum I learnt that was quite wrong. Today, we visited the Miraflores Locks which are at the Pacific end of the canal just north of Central Panama City. Miraflores means “behold the flowers” or ‘watch the flowers” and there are certainly a wide variety of flowers in Panama that the construction workers would have seen. We started with a 2 hour drive from San Carlos. Once again we had to use the Inter Americana and it was both under repair and a new route was being built so there were some delays but it was not too bad.

When we arrived we found the parking lot very full with a number of tourist coaches and it took us a while to find a space but, Lyn usually has luck in this department, so we found a very convenient one. Miaflores Visitors’ Centre was built in 2000 and is a beautiful place to visit.

At the visitors centreOutside the Visitors' Centre

Our first part to explore was the viewing deck up on the 4th floor and we could see so much. It was a very large area so there was plenty of room for all the tourists who were there. We were treated to a most interesting view from both the activity in the canal itself to the surrounding natural scenery. Looking into the distance we could see mountains which were all formed through volcanic activity millions of years ago. One of these is Ancon Hill, the highest mountain in the area, which gained importance when Sir Henry Morgan ransacked Panama City. On its summit is the largest Panamanian flag ever made. Just looking at them made one wonder how the labourers, who dug out the rocks to open the mountainous land and allow the River (Rio) Chagres to flow West as well as East, the only river in the world to now flow into 2 oceans, managed without the machinery of today.

On the viewing platform wirh LynOn the viewing deck

Ancon HillAncon Hill. (I have marked the flag with a tiny red dot. The photo was taken on another day}

Right below us was the set of new widened locks which were built to transport the larger ships that have been built over the years. We couldn’t see the original locks from where we were standing but we could see the ships moving each way. These locks could only accommodate ships with a maximum load of 5 000 containers whereas the new ones, 1 set at each end of the canal, can now take ships with a load of up to 13 000 containers. In the museum we learnt that the new, widened canal was opened on 26 June 2016 which would have been my father’s 100th birthday!

Canal with mountains in the backgroundNew locks with Admin Offices and mountains in the background. The rails in the front are for the Mules

As we watched, a ship loaded with Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) came through the first of 2 sets of locks. Between them they lower the ships to the level of the Gatun Lake which was developed by the designers and builders of the canal from the Rio Chagres. After about an hour just watching the activity on the locks, including seeing the electric mules  guiding the ship, to the excellent organisation of having ambulance and fire brigade in place for the LPG ship which was carrying hazardous materials, we went to the museum.

LPG ship goes thru the canalThe ship loaded with LPG

Info on the working of the locksThe original locks worked on gravity whereas the new ones have renewable water supplies

This was 4 floors of well-presented and extremely interesting information. It started with the fact that it was as early as 1537 when the King of Spain sent soldiers and explorers to see if it was possible to create a waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean to remove the necessity for ships to sail right around South America and Cape Horn with its treacherous seas. Also an extra 18 000 miles would be avoided. They were not successful as the jungle was so thick and there were mosquitoes and other disease carrying insects. More people died during the building of the Panama Canal than in any other known construction project, mainly from Yellow Fever and Malaria.

Photos taken in the Museum

Animals birdsSome of the animals and birds the construction workers would have encountered

The Culebra CutThe Culebra Cut

Example of a lock gateExample of an original lock gate. It is huge

Canal swimmerHe paid only 36cents to swim the 82km canal

Enter Ferdinand de Lesseps from France in 1884. Coming off the success of building the Suez Canal he was sure he could create a sea level canal in Panama. What he had not prepared for was the roaring Rio Chagres and the mountainous Culebra range. After 8 years and spending millions of US$, losing up to 500 employees through death and achieving very little he and his brother were found guilty of fraud and corruption and jailed for 5 years.

The project lay dormant for 10 years before the Americans decided to complete the construction. The causes of the devastating loss of life through Yellow Fever and Malaria had been identified by Dr William Gorgas and large scale pesticide spraying took place. The chief engineer, John Stevens redesigned the canal from one of sea level linking to a series of locks and the development of a large lake, Lake Gatun, created from the Rio Chagres. The project was completed in 1913 and the Canal opened on 13 August 2014. Unfortunately, the start of the 2nd WW meant that the completion of this 50mile (82km) feat went almost unnoticed.

One very important part of the construction that I have not mentioned was cutting through the Culebra Mountains which separated the 2 coasts. This was an arduous task of breaking through approx. 9miles (13.5kms) of solid rock  involving up to 6000 men working 24/7 from either side meeting in the middle in May 1913. Today this section is known as the Culebra Cuttings.

We ended our time here attending an excellent 15min film on the history of the Canal at the I-Max Theatre.

I Max theatreThe I-Max Theatre

Waiting for the I Max theatre to openWaiting for the theatre to open

On the way home we stopped to buy Empanadas, a Panamanian speciality, for lunch and Tyrone arrived home to cook us dinner on the gas braai (barbecue). A wonderful end to a great day.

About Me

I was born into the early part of the Baby Boomer generation, the 3rd of what came to be a family of 6 daughters. Although both our parents, who are now deceased, had been raised in rural Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) and the 2 eldest daughters were born in a country town, the other 4 of us were all born at home in Durban. Read More

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