How to Explore the Panama Canal – Panama

Traveling to Panama without visiting the Panama Canal is like going to New York City without seeing the Statue of Liberty. There are many ways to explore the Panama Canal including dramatic canal-side observation facilities, a nearby fort reached via a bridge that lets your drive over the Panama Canal at Gatún Locks and, of course, you can cruise the canal. We did it all since one of us (guess which one) is certifiably canal obsessed.

Cruise Ships Miraflores locks Panama Canal - Princess Cruises Seven Seas Cruises

Princess Cruises Line’s Island Princess and Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Mariner enter the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal.

First, here’s how the Panama Canal moves ships from ocean to ocean. The Panama canal consist of six lock chambers. Three are on the Pacific side (there are two locks at Miraflores and a third at Pedro Miguel) and three locks are on the Atlantic side (all of them at Gatún). Massive Lake Gatún lies in the middle.

Ships enter the first three locks and are raised a total of 87 feet to reach Lake Gatún which they slowly travel across. Then they enter the second set of three locks which lowers them back to sea level. Think of locks as water-powered escalators.

Our time-lapse video, below, shows two cruise ships passing through the Miraflores Locks and will demonstrate how this engineering wonder works.

Another time-lapse video, below, shows a container ship being lowered through the Miraflores Locks.


At the top of the two lock chambers of the Miraflores Locks we are lifted 54 feet over mean sea level of the Pacific Ocean

At the top of the two lock chambers at Miraflores we are lifted 54 feet over mean sea level during our tourist transit on board the Pacific Queen departing the Pacific Ocean.

Panama Canal smack down: Miraflores vs Gatún Locks

The Miraflores Visitors Center (US$15 adult, US$10 children) includes a museum, snack bars and observation platforms that allow you to watch mega ships pass gracefully through the Miraflores Locks right in front of your very eyes.

Ship transiting Miraflores locks, Panama Canal Visitors center

A ship transits through the Miraflores Locks and past the visitor center and observation decks there.

The Miraflores Visitor Center is located just outside Panama City and is a popular stop for tourists. Their restaurant lunch buffet is said to be as terrific as the views. However, Miraflores isn’t the only way to get close to the action in the Panama Canal.

The Gatún Visitor Center (US$5, children free), located close to Colon on the Atlantic side, has an observation area over Gatún Lock which is the longest lock in the whole canal since all three lock chambers are together here. It’s a simpler facility but it’s also the cheapest observation point on the canal, you can get closer to the action here and it doesn’t get nearly as crowded as Miraflores which can be wall to wall at times.

Gatun locks visitors center, PanamaCanal

The small grandstand on the right lets visitors to Gatún Lock get close to the action.

really close

Massive ships pass THIS close at the Gatún Visitor Center.

There’s also a third observation option called the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center (US$15 adult, US$10 children). It’s the only place where you can get a good look at the work being done to build larger parallel locks. These locks will be the size of four football fields and able to accommodate larger so-called “New Panamax” ships which are so big they can carry 12,000 containers as opposed to the older “Panamax” ships which carry just 5,000 containers. 

Even after seeing the enormous machinery and massive engineering challenges involved in the canal expansion project it was still difficult to comprehend the scale of the work.

Panama Canal Expansion Project

The work being done to create much larger parallel locks at the Panama Canal is on such a large-scale that it’s hard to comprehend even when you’re standing there looking at it.

The expansion project, which has cost US$6.5 billion so far, was started in 2007 and is expected to be done in 2015 (though it’s already blown through one completion deadline). When the expansion is complete, this observation facility, with its sleek design, restaurant and short nature loop trail, will serve as a third canal observation area.

Cruise the Panama Canal

If you’ve got the time and the money (at least half a day and around US$135 per adult and US$85 per child) you can experience the Panama Canal by traveling through the locks on a tourist boat. On board guides do a good job of explaining the engineering wonders of the canal and the process of moving safely through the locks.

The tourist boats are some of the smallest vessels that travel through the Panama Canal and it’s quite dramatic to be on board when the boat is squeezed into a lock along with massive cargo ships for the ride up (or down) inside the lock as water rushes in or is drained out.

Panamax ships in Gatun locks, Panama Canal

Cargo ships making their way through the Gatún Locks on the Panama Canal.

One-way canal cruises depart from either Panama City or Colon with bus transport one way. Half day cruises take passengers through three locks while full day cruises include all six locks taking you from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or vice versa.

We, of course, did the full day cruise through all six locks. You can take the trip through the Panama Canal from ocean to ocean in under 11 minutes in our video, below, from on board our Pacific Queen canal cruise tourist boat.

A free way to travel through the canal is to volunteer to be a deck hand on a small boat scheduled to move through the locks. The Panama Canal authority requires a minimum number of line handlers on all vessels traveling through the Panama Canal and many small boats simply don’t have enough hands in their normal crew. Captains looking for volunteers through the canal post notices at area marinas.

Sea dragon, Pangea expedition research yacht in panama canal

Though most of the vessels in the Panama Canal are enormous ships, some small craft like this pass through as well and they often need volunteers to be line handlers during the transit which represents a chance to make the journey for free.

Drive over the Panama Canal

The San Lorenzo Fort (US$5) is cool. The Spanish finished the fort in 1599 and its position at the mouth of the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean allowed the Spanish to stay vigilant against pirates who were on the hunt for the treasures the Spanish were hoarding.  Today you can see massive stone walls, turrets and domes plus great views down the Chagres. The fort was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

San Lorenzo Fort, Panama Canal

San Lorenzo Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, is accessed by driving over a section of the Panama Canal.

Fort San Lorenzo, Panama Canal

San Lorenzo Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Chagres River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, is accessed by driving over a section of the Panama Canal.

Getting to San Lorenzo Fort is even cooler than the fort itself because it involves waiting for the massive, metal gates at Gatun Locks to close then watching as a metal swinging bridge rotates to create a roadway over the canal. Then you drive over the Panama Canal.

Our truck gingerly entered the small bridge and we crept right past massive metal lock doors which were so close we could almost touch them as we passed. Water actually sprayed out from cracks and crevices in the doors which made the drive even more dramatic.

Drive over tha Panama Canal, Gatun Locks bridge

This shot was taken through the windshield of our truck as we drove onto a swing bridge over the Panama Canal. The thing marked 06 on the left is a massive metal lock door holding back tons of water so we can drive safely past.

Locked up on the Panama Canal

You can’t actually visit it, but there’s a prison on the banks of the Panama Canal. It’s called El Renacer Prison and Manuel Noriega, former dictator of Panama and nemesis to the US, calls it home.Though Noriega was on the CIA’s payroll at one time, he ultimately became the first foreign head of state to be convicted in a US court. The US wanted him so bad we even launched a short-lived but bomb-filled invasion of Panama to get this guy which pretty much destroyed the Casco Viejo area which is now the hippest neighborhood in Central America.

Panamanians call Noriega la cara piña (pineapple face) because of his famously bad complexion. Given the nasty stuff Noriega was involved in and the bad things he did to his own people (murder, money laundering, corruption, drug trafficking) you’d think they could come up with something meaner.

Panama Canal fast facts

  • More than 14,000 vessels a year use the 48 mile (80 km) long Panama Canal to cut 8,000 miles (13,000 km) and millions of dollars off their transport costs by short-cutting through the isthmus of Panama between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans instead of navigating the long and dangerous route through the Strait of Magellan or around Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America.
Regent Seven Seas Cruise Princess Cruise transit Panama canal Miraflores Locks

The largest cruise ships pay more than US$300,000 per Panama Canal transit.

  • More than one million vessels have gone through the Panama Canal so far.
  • The existing Panama Canal locks can accommodate ships up to 106 feet (32 meters) wide by 950 feet (290 meters) long. Many ships are built exactly to these specifications and they are called “Panamax” ships.  When the expanded parallel locks are finished they will be able to take ships up to 160 feet (49 meters) wide and 1,200 feet (365 meters) long. Those larger ships are called “New Panamax” ships.
Miguel-lock_Panama-Canal.jpg Septe

It’s a tight fit for Panamax-size ships in the existing Panama Canal locks which is why billions are being spent to create new, larger locks to accommodate even larger ships.

  • Average transit time is between 8 and 10 hours.
  • 5% of the world’s maritime traffic goes through the Panama Canal.
  • The countries that ship the most goods through the Panama Canal are the US and China.
  • The concrete walls of the Panama Canal locks are 55 feet (17 meters) thick.
  • In 2013, 12,045 ships traveled through the Panama Canal generating US$1.8 billion in tolls.
  • Cruise ships pay US$134 per occupied berth which is over US$300,000 for a Panamax-size cruise ship. Container ships pay US$82 per full container and a Panamax ship can carry 5,000 containers. Vessels must also pay a myriad of additional charges and handling fees.
Zim New York entering Culebra Cut. Panamax sized container ships like this one can carry more than 5,000 containers. It costs full panamax cargo and cruise more than $450,000 in tolls and fees to transit the canal.

Ships like this one can carry more than 5,000 containers and pay more than US$400,000 in tolls and fees to transit the Panama Canal when fully loaded.

  • It cost US$375 million to build the Panama Canal including US$10 million paid to Panama and US$40 million paid to the French Canal Company for the rights to the canal which they’d originally started and abandoned.
  • The Panama Canal celebrated its 100th birthday on August 15, 2014. A lot of the original infrastructure, including the massive lock doors which hold back tons and tons of water, are still being used today.
Panamal canal giant lock gates doors

Lock doors on the Panama Canal are 47 to 82 feet (14.3 to 25 meters) high, seven feet (2.1 meters) thick and they’re hollow and buoyant which means that even though they weight up to 662 tons each it only takes a pair of 25 horsepower motors to move them. Did we mention that they’re also 100 years old?

  • Scientists learned the hard way that malaria is caused by mosquitoes, not bad air (mal aire), during the building of the Panama Canal. More than 5,600 workers died during the US completion of the canal and as many as 22,000 died during the failed French attempt at the canal, many of them from malaria.
  • In 2011 Gary Saavedra, a champion surfer from Panama, rode a static wave through the Panama Canal for more than five hours covering more than 40 miles (64 km) and setting a Guinness Book of World Records milestone for the longest wave surfed in open water.
Panama canal Mitre gates of gatun locks opening

Lock gates at Gatún opening to let a ship pass.

  • In 1928 Richard Halliburton, an adventurer from the United States, paid 36 cents for the right to swim through the Panama Canal. He’s still in the Guinness Book of World Records as having paid the lowest toll ever on the Panama Canal and it’s a record that’s likely to stand since swimming through the canal was promptly banned.
  • The United States had jurisdiction over the Panama Canal until full control went to Panama on December 31, 1999.
Centennial Bridge Panama canal Pedro miguel locks

Centennial Bridge in the background as a ship heads for the Pedro Miguel Locks during its journey through the Panama Canal.

  • The Panama Canal, which employs more than 10,000 people, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Still want to know more about the Panama Canal? Read “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullough, you big geek.

Princess Cruise Island Princess exiting Miraflores locks.

Princess Cruise Lines’ Island Princess exiting Miraflores Locks and entering the Pacific Ocean.

Bonus: There are two ways to sleep next to or even on the Panama Canal including in an abandoned US Army Radar Tower turned into a hotel on the banks of the canal and in Panama’s only houseboat hotel, right on canal waters. We’ll tell you all about that in our next post.


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Colombiamoda, Latin America’s Fashion Week – Medellin, Colombia

The star-studded Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City is about to begin (September 4-11). However, that mega-event is not the only fashion week on the planet. Every July one of Latin America’s largest fashion events happens in Medellin, Colombia. It’s called Colombiamoda and we were there this year to see the crimes against denim, butt enhancing undies, half-naked Latin models (of both sexes), knife-proof hoodies and one bona fide Brazilian supermodel.

Miss Colombia Paulina Vega Dieppa ColombiaModa

Colombiamoda in Medellin draws the hip and fashionable, including the reigning Miss Colombia, Paulina Vega Dieppa.

Latin America’s fashion week

The 25th annual Colombiamoda event included 670 brands, 6,300 buyers (1,700 of them from other countries) all coming together to generate around US$250 million worth of business.  More than 15,000 visitors also took part in Colombiamoda, including the reigning Miss Colombia, Paulina Vega Dieppa, during the course of the three day event.

Many of those visitors were drawn to Colombiamoda for the chance to see a real, live fashion show on a runway with models and everything.

Supermodel Izabel Goulart Studio F pasarela Colombiamoda

Brazilian supermodel, and former Victoria’s Secret Ange, Izabel Goulart only walked in one runway show but she made it count.

Run away runways

The Spanish word for “runway” is pasareles. At Colombiamoda 2014, the Spanish word for runway supermodel was Izabel Goulart. This Brazilian beauty was a Victoria’s Secret Angel from 2005 to 2008 and though she (and her endless legs and six-pack abs) only took part in the Studio F show at Colombia, during her brief time on the runway she easily blew all of the other models away.

Izabel Goulart Victoria Secret supermodel Colombiamoda

Brazilian supermodel Izabel Goulart showing how it’s done on the runway at Colombiamoda.

We really liked the addition of live musical performances during some of the runway shows at Colombiamoda, particularly the high-energy performance by ChocQuibTown, a Grammy and  Latin Grammy-award-winning Afro-Colombian hip-hop funk band from the Choco region of Colombia, during the GEF show. Check them out in our video below.

Butt-enhancing undies & (mostly) naked models

While Latin fashion is certainly influenced by global trends and international designers it does sometimes march to its own peculiar drum as we saw when we toured the hundreds of vendor stalls at Colombiamoda where individual designers and companies show their goods.

Day-glo colors were a big trend in everything from jewelery to workout gear. Even more eye-catching were the butt-enhancing undergarments for sale for both men and women (though mostly women).

Beatriz Camacho runway fashion show Colombiamoda

Kim Kardashian, eat your heart out. Just one example of butt-enhancing undies on show at Colombiamoda in Medellin.

While North American fashionistas remain obsessed with answering “no” to the question “does my butt look big in this?” certain Colombian fashionistas are obsessed with the opposite.

Stand after stand displayed padded and reinforced underwear built to give the wearer the illusion of more junk in the trunk.  And we’re not talking about just a bit of padding and lift. Some of these elasticized, elaborately engineered contraptions seemed designed to essentially strap two pillows to your sorry flat ass.Think of it as the downstairs equivalent of the push-up bra.

Not surprisingly, the swimwear and underwear/lingerie areas were the most crowded thanks to the fact that 99% of the booths had live, mostly naked models of both sexes. The most sophisticated brands and styles didn’t trot out a hottie, but almost everyone else (including lingerie makers with inscrutable names like Jacky Form and St.Even) had at least one man or woman standing around looking bored.

Lingere Colombiamoda

There were plenty of half-naked models of both sexes at Colombiamoda.

Colombiamoda beefcake models

Plenty to look at here, but don’t miss the expression on the woman’s face in the background.

Indigenous design

In the swimwear section we came across Pitahaya Swimsuits where, in addition to models, they had two fully clothed indigenous Kuna women sitting in chairs busily working away on the bright, geometric, hand-stitched designs they’re famous for. Designers at Pitahaya Swimsuits, a Colombian company, incorporate panels of fabric stitched by the Kuna into their cool, contemporary swimsuits.

Kuna inspired swimwear

Indigenous Kuna women hand-stitching bright and intricate traditional patterns that are then used in designs by Pitahaya Swimsuits.

In the accessories section, mostly full of death heels and clunky jewelery, we saw another noteworthy vendor. Arte & Tejido works with the Gases del Caribe Foundation to employ women in a coop to weave bright, traditional bags in modern Latin designs like Frida Kahlo’s face, day of the dead skulls, etc.

Frida Khalo bag Colombiamoda

A partnership between designers and traditional artisans produces these bags with modern motifs but old techniques.

Slash-proof style

There wasn’t much in the way of clothing or accessories for men, but one booth stood out. Miguelo Romano is a collaboration between businessman Michael Puscar in Medellin and designer Neil Gallagher in Brooklyn (he helped launch Lucky Brand and designed for Diesel).

Miguel Romano urbanwear

Michael Puscar of Muguelo Romano clothing at Colombiamoda next to one of his slash-proof pieces of clothing.

They’re producing cool-looking, hoodies, polo shirts and more using a fabric which they swear cannot be penetrated by a knife. Part of the inspiration for a line of slash-proof clothing came from the fact that Neil himself was stabbed when he was 19.

Seriously distressed denim

Never have we seen so many crimes against denim as we did at Colombiamoda. Stand after stand after stand showed faded, washed, ripped, torn, shredded, be-dazzled denim turned–against its will and better judgement–into hot pants or high-waisted jeans or (oh, God) jump suits in skin-tight varieties or “Can’t Touch This” baggy varieties which made Eric exclaim “oompa loompa!”.

Distressed Denim Colombiamoda

Oompa loompa!

Crimes against denim

No crime was too heinous to commit against denim at Colombiamoda in Medellin.

Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week may have Colombiamoda trumped when it comes to supermodels, big name designers and general glitz and glam, but Colombiamoda does deliver one thing that you’re not going to get at fashion week in New York City: a friendly, fun, party atmosphere with food and drink vendors and live music and a general Latin fiesta vibe which celebrates the world of fashion without the fashion fascism of US and European fashion events.

Distressed denim and big butts for everyone!

And now, a few more from the runway shows of Colombiamoda 2014..

Agua Bendita swimwear pasarela Colombiamoda Kika Vargas pasarela Colombiamoda Renata Lozano runway fashion show Colombiamoda Studio F runway fashion show Colombiamoda Beatriz Camacho pasarela Colombiamoda Beatriz-Camacho-ColombiaModa-2014


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Photo Essay: Chiva Buses Get Festive for the Flower Festival in Medellin, Colombia

Festive buses, called chivas, are a staple in Medellin, Colombia and in the entire Antioquia region. They were introduced in the early 1900s when a bus chasis was imported from the US and modified to carry agricultural products as well as people. The first basic models were quickly livened up with bright colors and even given nicknames from their drivers. Today, chivas are an artistic point of pride used as everyday transportation and available for hire as chauffeured party buses.

As if the chivas that roam the streets of Medellin, Colombia aren’t festive enough, during the annual Feria de las Flores Flower Festival, held in the city every August, owners kick it up a notch by adding flowers galore. Here’s what it looked like as drivers put the finishing touches on their chivas before they are paraded through the streets of Medellin in 2014.

Chiva Chivas and flowers Medellin Colombia Decorating a chiva Medellin Flower Fair Chivas y Flores Chivas y Flores Medellin Colombia Colombia Chivas flower fair Chivas y Flores parade Medellin flower fair Chivas y Flores parade Chivas in Medellin Chiva Colombian bus Desfile de Chivas y Flores Medellin Desfile de Chivas y Flores  la Feria de las Flores Medellin

Flower Festival Medellin travel tips

Every year the Flower Festival in Medellin brings in thousands of tourists and hotels fill up fast. During last year’s Flower Festival we managed to get a room at 61 Prado Guesthouse and we highly recommend it to any traveler who likes spotlessly clean and comfortable rooms at reasonable rates (US$35 for a private double room with bathroom) in a homey environment just a few blocks from Medellin’s famous metro system. Here’s a great primer for the 2014 Flower Festival including parade routes and more in English.


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