Panama: Gatun Locks

After Cartagena, our second port of call was Panama. My cold was getting worse at that time but the idea of seeing the Panama Canal made me feel giddy and well enough to wake up early the next day to witness our cruise ship cross the Canal itself. I thought that finally I can cross off the Panama Canal from my list.

It was a warm and balmy morning when we started our approach towards the Panama Canal. Other people have secured really good spots to watch our ship’s crossing of the Canal, but we still managed to find ourselves a decent spot to take photos and view the Canal.

It was a cool experience to witness the canal and locks at work. We watched and observed like Hawks, and we were fascinated to see the Canal at work. My grasp of engineering technicality is poor so I had to get the help of some sources to help explain how the canal works. The Panama Canal extends across the Isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

The Panama Water Lock System is considered one of the greatest engineering services undertaken at that time, purporting to the needs of the ships to save transit-time compared to the 8 thousand mile journey around South America.” (Source here)

We got to see how the canal works.


There are a total of 12 sets of locks in the Panama Water Lock System, among which only six massive pairs of locks are used by ships for transiting. Each of this water locks are 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide and is to be filled or emptied in less than 10 minutes. Each pair of lock gates takes two minutes to open.” (Source here)

See how tight the canal looks? The ship is pulled by electric towing locomotives called “mules.”


“The whole operation of the Panama Water Lock System works in six steps.

  • Approach towards the lower chamber of the canal locks
  • The valve of the first chamber opens and water flows by force of gravity from the higher chamber to the lowest one, bringing the water level to the sea level.
  • Gate opens, ship enters the chamber, and the gate closes behind it.
  • Valve of the next chamber is opened to increase the water level of the first chamber.
  • Next door is opened and the ship enters next chamber.
  • Water level is equalized and the ship finally exits the lock and enters Gatun Lake.” (Source here)

I think that a cruise is an exciting way to experience the Panama Canal. We certainly savored the experience of our cruise ship crossing the Canal.

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