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Locks of the Panama Canal


Cruise by giant Panamax ships transiting the Panama Canal


Fishing in the backwaters of the Rainforest


We often see Capuchin monkeys... and roaring Howler monkeys!


Sloths are a common sight



Along with world-class fishing in Lake Gatun, friendly expert guides,  a great fishing boat...  what seperates our tours from just a day fishing is WHERE you will be fishing... is a combination of the Panama Canal – the eighth wonder of the World – and  along the shores of one of the world’s most pristine and protected rainforest watersheds, teeming with  wildlife.    Yes,  we do actually go on on the Canal, passing giant ocean ships as they transit the Canal...  en route to our own selected favorite fishing locations amongst the rainforest covered islands and mainland.

We have reprinted some interesting information on the Panama Canal and Lake Gatun below.  (source:  IPAT,  Panama Bureau of Tourism).

Panama Canal
Located in the narrowest part of the American continent and the lowest region of the Panamanian isthmus; it was built by the United States of America from 1904 to 1914 and is still one of the most amazing engineering marvels of the world. The Canal provides easy and reliable crossings from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back for more than 750 thousands vessels. Ships all over the world are built to fit the three sets of double locks that are part of this 80 Km (50 mi) long water way, which can be visited any time. 

Canal History
Even since 8,000 B.C. the Isthmus of Panama has been utilized as a transit route when man wanted to migrate up and down the American continent.

A sea level canal crossing the Isthmus has been a dream ever since Vasco Nuñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513.

In 1534, the King of Spain, Charles V, ordered the first studies for the construction of a canal trough a section of the Isthmus. Altough this idea never materialized, the Spaniards built roads paved with stone that were used to transport, by mules, tons of gold and silver coming from Peru and ound for Spain. Traces of these roads still remain today and can be visited.

In 1880, French companies directed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, began construction of the Panama Canal.  But after seven years of fighting diseases and the indomitable problems of the jungle terrain, de Lesseps was forced to abandon the project.

In 1903, the province of Panama declared its independence from Colombia and immediately signed the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty which authorized the United States to start construction of the Canal in 1904.  It was completed and started operations on August 15, 1914 when the U.S. cargo ship  Ancon made a historic first transit while the war was raging in Europe.

Canal Functioning
The Panama Canal is 50 miles (80 km) long from deep water in the Atlantic to deep water in the Pacific  and runs from northwest to southeast, with the Atlantic side entrance around 33 miles (54 km) North and 27 miles (43 km) west of the pacific mouth.  The straight-line distance between those two point would only be 43 miles (69 km).

A ship takes approximately 8 to 10 hours to pass through Canal while being lifted step by step to a height of 85 feet (26 m.) in three sets of locks - Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores. Each lock chamber is 110 ft. (33.53 m.) wide and 1,000 ft. (304.8 m.) long.  Most of the trip through the canal is done with nature´s help, as the ships are lifted up by water from sea level to the lake, from where they are lowered to sea level again.  Ships going from the Atlantic to the Pacific approach the Canal through Lemon Bay passing the Cristobal breakwater.  This span is 6 miles (10 km) long and 450 ft. (152 m.) wide and takes you through some sea level mangroves.

Gatun Lake, through which ships travel for 23 miles is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.  It covers an area of more than 163 square miles (425 km²) and was formed by an earth dam across the Chagres river.   When navigating the lake you can see scores of small islands, wich really  are the tops of former jungle hills.  The level of the lake is controlled by use of 14 gates in the Gatun  Dam spillway.A hydro-electric plant at the dam provides part of the energy needed by the Canal. The operation of the locks consumes a prodigious amount of fresh water.  Each time a ship passes through the waterway, about 52 million gallons of water, mostly from Gatun Lake, must flow into the locks and out to sea.  In all Panama Canal locks, chambers are filled and emptied by gravity, water flowing through a series of 18-feet diameter tunnels allowing the filling and emptying of a chamber in 10 minutes.

The workforce of the Panama Canal Commission is made up of approximately 9,000 U.S. and Panamanian citizens.

Water, Canal & Woods
Due to the vital importance of water for the Canal's operation and the direct inter-relation between the rainy tropical forest and the pluvial precipitation, wooded areas that were been converted surround the Canal into satate managed national parks and biological reserves.  In addition to ensuring the water supply, these protected areas are also used for eco-tourism as well as for scientific research.

The Chagres National Park covers 320,000 acres (129,000 ha.)of rainforest that provides 40.0% of the fresh water that goes into the inter-oceanic waterway. The Soberania National Park of 55,000 acres (22,104 ha) is a perfect example of tropical forest  boasting an amazing biodiversity.

More than 150 species of birds can be found of this area and the forest contains over 200 unique plant and animal species.  Another well known feature of the Park is the Las Cruces Trail, also called "the jungle road" or "Madden Road".  It was the main trade and passenger traffic route from 1530 to 1855.  This trail, a predecessor to the Panama Canal, was also used by fortune seekers traversing the Isthmus during the 1849 - 1850 California Gold Rush.  What is left today is only a six-mile trek through the tropical forest.   It can easily be walked, especially during the dry season.

In the largest section of the Canal (Gatun Lake), the Barro Colorado Island was declared a biological reserve in 1923.  It offers a great variety of plant and animal life, especially monkeys, and has become a worldwide recognized site for scientific research.  Since 1946 it is under the administration of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Services and Facilities
The Waterway Orientation Service, operated by the Panama Canal Commission, welcomes visitors at the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the Isthmus seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  A special pavilion provides a vantage point for viewing transiting ships. 

Bilingual guides will give you all the details, information and statistics. At the visitors center, a topographical model and  pictures provide more information about the operation of the Canal.

At the Gatun Locks, on the Atlantic side, there also is a pavilion open to visitors from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm.  However, there are no guides available.

Others places of historical interest around the Canal.  On the pacific: Stevens Circle, the port of Balboa, the Crafts Plaza in front of the Balboa Theater, the Administration Building with its beautiful high dome ceiling and mural paintings depicting the digging of Gaillard Cut at Gold Hill and the Summit Botanical Garden where there is an interesting display of animals found in the surrounding rainforest, and trees and plants are identified with small signs.  The Garden also provides picnic and playground areas.


Interesting Facts about the Panama Canal

  • The cargo ship Ancon was the first vessel to transit the Canal on August 15, 1914.
  • A boat traveling from New York to San Francisco saves 7,872 miles by using the Panama Canal instead of going around Cape Horn.
  • The highest toll paid for a transit through the Panama Canal until 1995 paid by the Crown Princess on May 2, 1993; it was US$141,349.97.
  • The lowest toll paid was US$ 0.36 and was paid by Richard Halliburton who crossed the Canal swimming in 1928.
  • The San Juan Prospector was the longest ship to transit the Canal; it was 751 ft. (229 m.) in length with a 107 ft. (32.6 m.) beam.
  • The Hydrofoil Pegasus of the United States Navy did the fastest transit of the Canal by completing it in 2 hours and 41 minutes.
  • Each door of the locks weights 750 tons.


Interesting websites about  the  Panama Canal & Lake Gatun
For maps of the Panama Canal, including beautiful historical renditions. See especially the '1904' colored map.

Best book on the history / construction of the Panama Canal
A Path Between the Seas , by Pulitzer prize author McCullough. Other good Panama book recommendations as well at our sister site

Time-lapsed radar image of previous hour of the Panama Canal
Gives idea of cloud cover, but also nice detail of canal, lakes. Provided by the Panama Canal Authority.

Live webcams of the Miraflores and Gatun Locks
Very cool. Be sure to also see the time-lapsed 'movie' links below.

Super animation showing how a ship moves through the Canal
Another very cool site.

Travelogues of 19th century 'isthmus crossers'
Fascinating, well written acounts from the famous (Mark Twain, Lesseps, others) and not so famous, describing their journey across Panama. Posted on this great site chockfull of info on the Panama Railroad as well as the Canal.