At the viewing area

Friday, the day before the Carnival, we had a long but wonderful day at the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal.

We had hoped to leave by 08:00 but, as ususal, things had to be done and we only left at 09:00. Fortunately we were going along the highway towards Panama City and so did not have to endure the slow-moving traffic going north away from the City. We were headed for the Agua Clara Locks at the Caribbean Sea entrance to the Canal. When the Canal was opened it belonged to USA and remained so until 1999 when President Carter handed it, with all the facilities required for maintenance, over to Panama who now owns it and receives all payments for its use. This has made an incredible difference to the income of the country.

The viewing area and visitors’ facilities were not of the standard of those at Miraflores but then they are significantly older. I can’t find a date of when the visitors’ centre here was built but it is not as impressive or modern as the one at Miraflores Locks. That said it was still a wonderful experience to visit them and to once again admire incredible feats of engineering.

At the viewing areaAt the viewing area watching a ship come from the Pacific side

RestaurantThe restaurant where there are 360deg views

As we were on the same level as the Locks and not up on a high viewing platform, we were much closer to the ship which we watched going through the Locks. We were only able to see the new, large lock which coincided with those of Miraflores. There are 2 sets of locks at the Pacific end and only 1 set at the Caribbean end. The Canal is 52 miles or 80kms in length and takes, on average, 2 days for a ship to pass through from one end to the other. If a ship has priority though, it can do so in a few hours.

The construction of the Canal is of locks at each end with a man-made lake, Lago Gatún on the Rio Chagres, in the middle. This is more clearly seen at Agua Clara than at Miraflores at this end to see a ship which had come from the Miraflores Locks going through the Agua Clara Locks and into the Caribbean Sea. Although this end of the Canal is usually referred to as the Atlantic end it is actually a branch of the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, into which these locks open. With the original set of locks there are 2, one for traffic from each direction, whereas the new locks comprise one at each end so there is a system in place for the allowance of ships either way at certain times. Eg it may only be opened for ships from the Caribbean Sea for a period of 4 hours and then this is reversed.

Tugs bring ship inTugs pull and direct the ship

Gates closingGates closing behind the ship


Water level dropped a lotWater level dropped

Cruise ship enters old lockA small cruise ship entering the original locks. In the foreground is the new lock and the 2 reservoirs

Lago Gatún is at a lower level than either of the Oceans so when entering the Canal the locks lower the water level and on exiting it is raised. An interesting fact is that the original locks all raise and lower the water through gravity but the new ones have a system of water stored in 2 reservoirs beside the lock and it is recycled back and forth.

Cargo ship enters locksThe Rio Chagres can be seen entering the lake at left

A short movie was also shown here in a regular design theatre and it was only about the new locks and not all the history as at Miraflores. It was interesting to learn that a referendum on whether or not to build the new locks was held and, with the public’s support they went ahead. To build the 2 locks took almost 10 years but the work was a lot easier as they didn’t have to cut through the Culebra Range and the equipment was a lot more modern. In the pedestrain walkway is a plaque to honour those who built the new lock. It is dated 26 June 2016 which would have been my father’s 100th birthday!

Memorial plaqueThe Memorial Plaque to honour the workers of the new lock; dd 26 June 2016 (apologies for the shadow)

We left Agua Clara and drove to Fort San Lorenzo, going over the new Puento Atlantico suspension Bridge, which opened in 2018 replacing the old bridge built in 1942. The building of this fort began in 1595 when the Spanish explorers needed a way to get gold from Peru to the Atlantic Ocean and for it to be stored safely. They would transport it overland from Panama City to the mouth of the Rio Chagres. Over the next number of years the fort was attacked by pirates including Sir Henry Morgan and Admiral Edward Vernon both of England. The Spanish managed to rebuild the fort on higher ground overlooking the river mouth and also added a castle. Although the fort and castle are now in ruins it is still possible to define various parts of it and the views over the river mouth and the Caribbean Sea are beautiful. We found the site well maintained and sign posted with explanations on the various parts of the fort and castle. At the entrance to the fort area was a tree with the longest branch we had ever seen. I shall let the photos tell the story.

Climbing the hill to the Puento Aylantico BridgeApproaching the Puenta Atlantico Bridge

Vicky standing by a map of the fortMap of the fort

Arch at the fortThe entrance arch to the fort

Cannons at the fortSome of the original cannons 

Vault for arms and ammunitionA vault for arms and ammunition

4 vaults and the cistern4 vaults and the cistern

Tree with very long branchSee the long branch off to the left. One can sit on it

The Spanish also developed the town of Chagres which for many years was the most important port on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus but it too had been abandoned. 

We finished our day by going to Shelter Bay Marina which is where, as is the case with most small craft waiting to go through the canal, Lyn and Tyrone’s boat was moored until they were able to sail it through and on to Vista Mar Marina.

Yachts in other part of MarinaYachts in Shelter Bay

Lyn Tyrone on yacht in Panama CanalLyn and Tyrone arrive in Miraflores after going through the canal

It took rather longer to get back home as we were now travelling away from Panama City on the highway. It was a Friday, the first official day of Carnavales and everyone was going on holiday.