Rite of Passage : The Panama Canal is 51 miles of ‘the greatest liberty man has ever taken with nature’--and a prized jewel in the cruise-lover’s crown.

Times Travel Writer

The Atlantic begins here, the Pacific over there, and between them lie 51 miles of deep ditch, aged machinery, steamy jungle, epic engineering, malarial history and murky politics. Every 45 minutes or so, another big boat floats past in the humidity, bearing oil or bananas or lumber or tourists through a 110-foot-wide passage of concrete and steel. This is the jewel that so many cruise-lovers are so eager to wear in their crowns.

The Panama Canal, which opened 80 years ago last month, is also the public-works project that English writer James Bryce called “the greatest liberty man has ever taken with nature,” a short-cut that saves about 8,000 miles of South American circumnavigation on the journey between New York and San Francisco. That position makes it arguably the most valuable piece of real estate in the Western hemisphere, and it’s no surprise that the world is watching to see how the U.S. and Panamanian governments handle their obligations to transfer ownership and operation of the canal on Dec. 31, 1999.

What may strike some people as peculiar is the canal’s parallel life as a tourist attraction.


After all, American tourists are seldom seduced by engineering prowess alone. (Who would seek out the Hoover Dam if it weren’t convenient to Las Vegas? Who goes to Alaska to see the oil pipeline?) Cruise customers most often seek out creature comforts, coastal panoramas of uncompromised nature and prime shopping opportunities, none of which are found at the Panama Canal. Yet instead of viewing the canal as an obligatory stop for cruise lines, cruise passengers embrace passage as a badge of worldliness, a chance to spend eight or 10 hours steeping, quite literally, in history.

The hour may be early, and the air outside may be moist, but cruisers merrily crowd the decks when the heavy machinery and narrow locks come into view. Some of these cruisers neither know nor care how the engines in their automobiles work at home, but they’ll gather in throngs to marvel at the idea that the gates of these locks are driven by the sputterings of a mere 40-horsepower motor.

My canal ship came in last May. It was a newly reconditioned 20-year-old vessel called the Star Odyssey, and it needed to be in Alaska for the summer glacier-watching season. To get it there and lure passengers on the way, the Star Odyssey’s keeper at Royal Cruise Line arranged a 15-day cruise, beginning in Aruba, calling at Curacao, the canal, Puerto Caldera (Costa Rica), Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The ship was 674 feet long and 83 feet wide--which would give the captain about 13 feet of leeway on either side as we slipped through the canal’s locks--with 404 passenger cabins and a capacity of 750. We had 10 decks, a casino, a swimming pool, a spa, a sauna, a weight room and aerobics area, a show lounge, a movie theater, five bar areas and a dining room large enough to accommodate all passengers in one sitting.

The average age was between 65 and 70. (“Philadelphia” was among the films screened on the cruise, but many of the 600-plus passengers on my cruise, thinking of another movie from another time, kept referring to it as “Philadelphia Story.”)

One reason for the advanced average age was simple economics: A 15-day cruise requires hefty amounts of time and money. Another was that Royal cruises tend to attract older, more affluent travelers who have cruised with the line before.

But another crucial reason was the canal itself. Unlike most Caribbean or Mediterranean itineraries, it included many days without port calls--eight, in all. A day at sea is a thing of beauty to a veteran cruiser, an unbroken expanse of time, rich in possibilities for subtle variation on pacifying routines. And then there was the central element in the canal itinerary, the busy ditch itself.

“It’s the greatest wonder in the world,” said Roy Hamby, a veteran cruiser.

Talking with Hamby and others, I realized one key to the canal’s popularity: For some of us schooled since World War II, the canal was a matter of about 12 paragraphs in an 11th-grade textbook. Those educated before World War II--that is, most of my fellow passengers--learned about the canal as “the eighth wonder of the world.” For those voyagers, a canal itinerary is a chance to lay eyes on something they’ve been curious about for five decades.

First, however, we laid eyes on Curacao, a Dutch island whose capital city, Willemstad, has built much of its economy around cruise ship tourism. We strolled past a few blocks of smartly painted Dutch architecture, an old synagogue, an outdoor market under brightly colored canopies and tourist shops where vendors attempted to peddle old license plates for $5 each. We resisted, returned for another evening aboard ship, and gathered the next day to hear the ship’s lecturer, Frank Buckingham, run through some Panamanian-American history.

Less than 20 years after the adventurer Balboa discovered Panama’s unique geographic position in 1513, the Spanish were already contemplating a canal. But it was the 19th-Century French builder of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who gained the necessary rights from Colombia (which then controlled the land that is now Panama) and started work in 1881. De Lesseps’ Suez desert techniques failed miserably. He underestimated the difficulty of the digging, and didn’t make the connection between mosquitoes and illness, which led to widespread malaria and yellow fever and contributed heavily to an estimated 20,000 deaths among canal workers. De Lesseps resigned in disgrace, and for more than a decade the construction site sat largely idle.

Once the 1898 Spanish-American War highlighted the need for an Atlantic-Pacific Navy shortcut, however, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt resolved that a Panama canal would be a good card for him to hold. By 1903, Roosevelt had secured a treaty with newly-independent Panama, giving the U.S. jurisdiction over a 10-mile-wide canal zone. The work began again.

After a decade, another 5,609 deaths and more than 232 million cubic yards of digging, the canal opened to international traffic in August, 1914. Americans reveled in their accomplishment, but Americans were actually a small part of the work force: Author David McCullough has estimated that as many as 50,000 construction workers labored on the canal, most of them descendants of the slaves who were brought from West Africa to the West Indies over several centuries. Surrounded by unstable earth and tropical humidity, many of them worked 10 hours daily, six days a week, for 10 cents an hour.

Eighty years later, remarkably little has changed in the canal’s workings: Water rises and falls in three locks, and ships--mostly container vessels and cruise liners--putter across a man-made lake, paying weight-based tolls that last year added up to not quite $400 million. Almost all those ships bypass Panama’s ports, which means that thousands of travelers have seen Panama but never set foot on its territory.

The canal is such a popular attraction that some of those ships have no need to use it, but do so anyway. Since 1985, Regency Cruises has been sending cruise ships on seven-day, Aruba-Jamaica-Costa Rica-Colombia itineraries that advertise a canal transit in the middle of the voyage. The Regent Star steers into the Caribbean end of the canal, passes through the first set of locks, makes a U-turn on sprawling, man-made Gatun Lake, and then leaves the way it came. This utterly purposeless seven-hour maneuver has made the seven-day route so attractive (most canal cruises are 14 days) that the Regent Star retraces that path weekly from October to April.

What does a canal cruise passenger do with all those days at sea? I compiled a catalogue. Play ping pong. Lie in sun. Sit in sun. Read romances. Scan the sea for dolphin fins. Drink in shade. Drink in sun. Moisten oneself with a mister. Play cards for fun. Play cards for money. Take dancing lessons. Listen to lectures on trans-Atlantic cruise history. Eat healthfully. Eat continuously. Sleep. Play bridge. Reminisce about previous cruises, other cruise lines, favorite routes. Talk about who’s been dancing with the captain. Read David McCullough’s definitive history of the canal, “The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914.”

The calm approaches surreal dimensions. One day up in the fitness center on the top deck, with the Caribbean Sea sprawling outside in all directions beyond the picture windows, passenger Harrie Hess climbed into a fancy rowing machine in the middle of the otherwise idle room and settled into a rhythm. He was burning, the machine said, 502 calories per hour, but his labors seemed much greater and more mysterious: With each stroke, Hess’s rowing machine emitted another fake water-splashing sound, splosh, splosh, splosh, and our 28,000-ton ship slid farther forward.

On canal day, the fourth day into the cruise, we woke early and scrambled to the rails in darkness. Around us lay a landscape simultaneously grimy, industrial, deeply green and intensely humid. Clouds were low and thick, the port buildings were boxy and utilitarian, and the water was still enough that birds could be heard twittering in the trees ashore. Directly ahead lay the 110-foot-wide, 1,000-foot-long passage of Gatun Locks, with walls of concrete and slowly swinging gates of steel.

“Isn’t this exciting?” said a woman on deck.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” asked another.

While we watched guide lines being tossed and engines being revved, rising waters pushed our ship skyward. A Panamanian canal pilot had boarded to confer with the captain and take over the ship, as canal rules require, and with him came a lecturer who immediately took to the public-address system, beginning a daylong disquisition on the canal’s history and operations. The sodium-vapor lighting that allows 24-hour operation of the locks. The 26 million gallons of water it takes to lift a cruise ship 27 feet in Gatun Locks. The stunt that daredevil journalist Richard Halliburton pulled in the 1920s, swimming through the canal and incurring a 36-cent toll. (Swimming is banned now.)

As the day progressed, we crossed broad Gatun Lake (one of three artificial lakes created in the canal zone by the harnessing of the Chagres River; it now includes an island wildlife reserve), rose to 87 feet above sea level, floated past the Continental Divide, then waited our turn to pass through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks. Somewhere out of public view, cruise line officials paid the ship’s canal toll--about $80,000.

Our Panamanian pilot, Felipe Francis, quietly sipped orange juice and paced the bridge, calmly delivering orders and small talk in English and Spanish, depending on the language of the nearest subordinate.

He was in his early 30s and grew up near the canal. He had now spent seven years steering ships through it and expected to spend another 30 years doing the same.

In many ways, the canal’s future depends on the resolve of thousands of others like him. Especially since Panamanian riots over U.S. control of the canal in 1964, the U.S. has been under pressure to yield its control of the canal. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter agreed to December 31, 1999, as the date for Panama to take control, following a 20-year transitional period to be supervised by a binational Panama Canal Commission. Since then, canal officials have endured the 1989 U.S. invasion and imprisonment of Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, watched the ominous deterioration of nearby non-canal equipment that is now overseen by the Panamanian government and seen the local economy shaken by the departure of dollar-bearing American troops and civilian workers. Then last May, Noriega’s old party prevailed in the presidential elections. Canal Commission officials are quick to offer reassurances about the maintenance of the facility, the training of workers (Panamanians now make up about 88% of the canal work force) and the likelihood that tolls will remain stable. But the bottom line is that no one can be sure.

Nevertheless, on May 12, 1994, the canal worked fine for us. George Baker of Rialto, Calif., one of the passengers who came because of the itinerary, told me he had cruised on the Black Sea, off the Baltics and on the Amazon. “The canal,” he said, “impressed me about as much as any of them.”

Soon we were back to familiar patterns: a day at sea, a day in port, another couple of days at sea, and so on, as the ship called along the coasts of Costa Rica, Mexico and California.

I went back to my catalogue of things people do on a canal cruise: Down in the pool, five women paddled through an exercise class. At a railing nearby, a man watched, smoked cigarettes and sipped beer. Inside, a crowd convened for bingo, and half a dozen gamblers slouched and leaned in the casino. In the Penthouse Lounge, afternoon tea was served.

From stem to stern, we idled, and daydreamed of jungles steaming and Theodore Roosevelt scheming.

GUIDEBOOK: Cream of the Locks

Cruising the canal: Many cruise lines offer Panama Canal cruises. Royal Cruise Line’s Star Odyssey, the ship I cruised on, next passes through the Panama Canal in November. That itinerary begins Nov. 21 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and includes port calls at Key West, Fla.; Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, Mexico; Grand Cayman; Ocho Rios, Jamaica; San Blas islands, Panama; the canal, and Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica. It concludes Dec. 5 in Acapulco. Fares for the 14-day cruise are $3,015 to $8,127, depending on the level of accommodation, including air fare from Los Angeles. For more information: For details on canal cruises, contact a travel agent.

Panama Canal: Ocean to Ocean Stepping up the Locks

The 50.7-mile canal contains a series of locks that cuts across Panama linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Traffic on the canal keeps it open 24 hours a day, all year round. Here is how the locks operate. *

1. A ship sailing from the Atlantic Ocean enters the canal at Limon Bay where a harbor pilot boards the vessel and takes over the controls. The pilot then leads the ship to the Gatun Locks.

2. Once the ship enters the locks, large steel gates close behind the ship. 3. Water is then pumped into the lock, raising the water level. Once the water in the lock reaches the level of the next lock, the gates in front of the ship are opened and the “mules” pull the ship into the second lock. On descending locks, water is released.

4. This process is repeated until the ship reaches the Pacific Ocean. *

Gatun Locks The locks look like giant steps leading ships into Panama’s emerald interior. A series of three locks lifts the ship 85 feet from sea level to Gatun Lake.


“The Mules” Ships are pulled up and guided through the locks with the help of small locomotive tractors, or “mules”. The “mules,” which are connected to the ships with cables, run on tracks on concrete islands along the canal.


The Gaillard Cut This manmade channel cuts through eight miles of hills, spanning the Continental Divide. The channel is roughly 500 feet wide and, at its shallowest, 39 feet deep. *

Cutting It Short The Panama Canal cuts travel distance between New York and Los Angeles by more than half.