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Panama Canal - Orlando / Florida Guide

Florida Guide > Travelling

A contender for the eighth wonder of the world, the Panama Canal has been undergoing a major revamp, which should have coincided with its 100th birthday four years ago. However, the locks and basins were finally completed in June 2016, two years later and it can now handle larger ships.

The waterway revamp that it underwent at a cost of US$5billion has given it a new lease of life. It has meant new locks, wider shipping lanes and bigger ports. When the work was finally completed in 2016, the handling capacity of the canal will have doubled.

The Panama Canal is one of the architectural feats of the 20th century. At 80km long, it links oceans and spares traders from a treacherous 14, 000km journey around South America’s Cape Horn. It was on 15 August 2014, that this endeavour marked 100 years of operation.

The original canal took 56,307 workers over ten years to build. Before the upgrade it managed about 5% of worldwide shipments. This was around 14, 000 vessels which transported about 300 million tonnes of cargo through it every year. There are also an increasing amount of cruise journeys both through and into the canal. If you don’t have time for a full cruise transit, as this takes eight hours, then you can now have a partial journey. Some cruise lines now include an in and out trip from the Caribbean, you go to Gatun Lake before turning round and coming back out.

Although a canal doesn’t sound that exciting there’s much more to this Atlantic/Pacific shortcut than impressive ships and locks. The fragile rainforest that flanks it is home to a biodiversity of flora and fauna and the nearby Soberanía National Park is one of the largest bird sanctuaries in South America. Birdwatchers can spot yellow eared toucans, crimson bellied woodpeckers and the elusive harpy eagle. Cruise ships often overnight at Panama City which lies 25km south ready for the transit. The city is a blend of colonial Spain and modern USA.

The canal is a fascinating piece of engineering to see in action. There are three visitor centres. At Miraflores Locks you can observe the canal from three viewing platforms and a panoramic restaurant. The Expansion Observation Center, on the canal’s Atlantic side, overlooks the new locks’ construction and the nearby Gatun Visitor Center offers the chance to see the longest locks. If you are not on a ship then the Panama Canal Railway runs parallel to the waterway between Panama and Colón and the journey takes around one hour.

This is not a place you would choose as a destination but as a point on the route, you should try to see it.

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