The Panama Canal is often the centerpiece of a Costa Rica cruise, since the small country of Costa Rica only has one suitable cruise port on its Atlantic and Pacific coasts that can take large holiday cruise ships. The transit of the Panama Canal is something that many travelers have on their wish list of novelty achievements, like crossing the Atlantic Ocean or the equator on a vessel. But a transit of the Panama Canal is an unexpectedly riveting and unforgettable experience, far more captivating and beautiful than one imagines, and like the gorgeous coastlines of Costa Rica, should be seen from a smaller expedition vessel to appreciate the intimate details and diversity of the experience. When considering a Costa Rica cruise, make sure that you are able to anchor off some of the famous national parks, and make sure that the transit of the Panama Canal includes an emphasis on the natural beauty and engineering of the Panama Canal.
The Panama Canal is a 51-mile long cut through the Isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and saving a 10,000 mile voyage around the continent of South America. A careful look at a map reveals that the canal actually runs from the Caribbean Sea in the northwest, to the Pacific Ocean in the southeast. Orientation of sunrise and sunset can be confusing for the traveler, as the country of Panama actually runs east to west and not north to south as is often imagined.
The first attempt at building a canal across the isthmus began with the French in 1880, fresh and confident from their recent success in connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean with the sea level Suez Canal. But the Suez canal was cut through sand, and the isthmus of Panama is a rugged terrain with a backbone of unstable sedimentary mountains, subject to horrific tropical rainfalls, landslides, and flooding. With insufficient geologic and hydrographic study and preparation, they simply tried to cut a sea level canal along the Panama Railroad line that had been built to carry hurrying 49ers to join the California gold rush on the other side of the continent. The French attempt was a disaster in both money and lives, and it was abandoned after ten years.
Led by the determination of U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt with his visions of a global navy, the United States revived work on the Panama Canal armed with the wisdom and experience gained from the French failure. They realized the importance of solving the public health problems and eradicating the malaria mosquitoes before beginning work, and the importance of creating proper towns and living conditions for the officers and workers. But the key to the Panama Canal, which remains the most fascinating aspect today, was the damming of the mighty Chagres River to create a huge reservoir that could contain the highly variable flood waters, so that you actually sailed across the isthmus. This reservoir is called Gatun Lake, sitting 85-feet above sea level and feeding systems of locks to either ocean with nothing more than gravity. A great passage had to be cut through the mountains, and the fill from the Culebra Cut was used to build the great dam that created the reservoir.
Therefore, during most of the 9-hour transit of the Panama Canal cruise, you are cruising 85-feet above sea level between tropical hilltops that were flooded by the damming of the Sagres River. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) was given rights to five of these hilltop islands to study the effects on tropical wildlife and vegetation, and to this day a visit to Barro Colorado Island reveals the invaluable amount of tropical research and knowledge that has emerged from the Panama Canal.
The sights on a Panama Canal cruise are mind-blowing, and beautiful, but the most interesting part is certainly transiting the numerous lock systems. This is where you really want to be on a smaller ship, where you can watch the line-handling, the railroad “mules” hauling the ship, and the great floating doors winging shut. On a small ship you actually feel inside the locks themselves.
To fully experience the transit of the Panama Canal, start your Costa Rica cruise with a copy of David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas in hand, dive deep into the tropical world of wildlife and jungle as you travel through Costa Rica’s wild coastline, and then stay on deck as much as possible during your unforgettable transit of the Panama Canal. It will be the experience of a lifetime.
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