The Panama Canal measures 80 kilometers of length, from Colon in the Caribbean to Panama in the Pacific. The Canal runs from northeast to southeast. An average ship takes around 8 to 10 hours to pass through the Canal. During this short travel, the passengers have an opportunity to watch the operation of one of the wonders of the modern world.
The main physical characteristics of the Canal are: Gatun Lake, a central artificial lake that is extended through most of the Isthmus; Gaillard Cut, an excavation of 13 kilometers through the Continental Division, which is extended from Gatun Lake to the Pedro Miguel Locks – the locks in both sectors of the Isthmus elevate the ships between the sea level and the lake level (the Gatun Locks in the Caribbean, and the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks en the Pacific); and the Balboa ports in the Pacific and Cristobal in the Caribbean. When the Canal was built, the Gatun Dam was the biggest earth dam ever, and the Gatun Lake was the biggest artificial lake of the world. The three locks were the most solid concrete structures ever built.
The ships ascend and descend about 26 meters through the three chambers of the Gatun Locks. Each chamber measures 33.53 meters wide and 304.8 meters long. The length of the Gatun Locks is close to 2 kilometers, including the approach walls.
It took 10 years to built the Canal with a labor force of more than 75,000 men and women and an estimated cost of $400 millions. The constructors had to face many problems like tropical diseases, the extraordinary geology of the Isthmus that made landslides a constant danger, the huge size of the locks and the excavation volume required, and the necessity to establish new communities, import every single material and organize the work in a way that has never been seen before.
The canal opened to the maritime traffic on August 15, 1914. More than 700,000 ships have passed through it ever since. An aggressive maintenance program has kept the Canal in optimal operation conditions, and even though the basic design continues to work as good as always, the channel has been straighten up, enlarged and deepened. And as the years pass by, the improvements made have accelerated the operations and reduced the reconditioning time from the locks.
The Panama Canal is currently undergoing an expansion to increase its capacity.