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Panama Canal

An old drawing from when the canal was built. On the left you can see the Atlantic, which lies in the north of Panama. From there you first drive to the large Lake Catún and then through a canal through the mountains. The city of Panama appears on the right of the map, where the canal goes into the Pacific.
The largest ships that still fit in the lock near Panama are called Panamax ships. You can see how tight it is.

The Panama Canal is a canal in Central America. This waterway runs 80 kilometers through the small country of Panama. Ships can sail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, and vice versa.

Thanks to the canal, the ships save the long way around South America. This route around the notorious Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America would be 15,000 kilometers longer. Besides the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal is the most important canal in the world.

The first Spaniards came to the area around 1500. They realized that it wasn't far from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Because of the jungle, the path was still not easy. A railway line was built in the 19th century. It wasn't until 1900 that people had the courage and the money to build a canal. Construction began in 1905 and the canal was finished in 1914, so it is now over 100 years old.

Over 14,300 ships a year use the canal. By 2016 it had been made wider and deeper. Since then, today's huge ships have also been able to cross the canal. Such a giant ship can carry up to 14,000 large containers.

What does the path through the canal look like?

On the Gaillard breakthrough, the second major part of the way.

When a ship comes from the Atlantic, it goes to the city of Colón in the first part of the canal. With a lock it rises to a reservoir, the Gatunsee. This lake used to be a river. The water was dammed up by a dam so that a reservoir was created there. It is 26 meters above sea level.

Then the ship drives across the lake, but on a precisely defined route. It has to be, because only there is it deep enough. The big ships in particular have to be steered very precisely: in some places they don't even have a meter of water below them. If the helmsmen aren't careful, they'll ram the bottom.

Later the ship goes through the Gaillard puncture. This is a real canal, through a mountain range. Then there is another lock that leads down into another reservoir. Another sluice further you finally pass the city of Panama and into the Gulf of Panama. This is already a bay in the Pacific.

A trip through the canal like this takes over 10 hours. You also have to wait at the entrance, sometimes for several hours. In some narrow places, ships cannot sail side by side. Therefore, the ships are allowed to go in one direction first, and then the others in the other direction.

Usually the ships announce when they want to cross the canal well in advance. Then don't wait that long. You have to pay your fee in advance anyway. Depending on the size of the ship, the canal trip can cost up to $ 300,000.

Originally, only ships up to 80,000 tons could travel through the canal. This meant that the largest freighters had to travel around the southern tip of America. So the channel brought less income. That is why the canal was deepened and widened. Since June 2016, ships with up to 200,000 tons can travel through the canal. Some are almost 300 meters long.

Who Owns the Channel?

A photo from 1913. The workers are queuing up at a railroad car. There they get their wages.

Initially, the French tried to build a canal. The sewer construction began in 1881. About ten years later they had to stop again: the bosses had made a lot of mistakes. For example, they wanted to get by without locks so that the ships could move quickly through the canal. But that would have meant digging away a lot more soil.

In addition, the bosses underestimated the dangers of the jungle: Over 20,000 workers died, mainly from diseases such as malaria. Over 800,000 French had given money for the canal in order to get rich later. In reality, they lost their money.

In 1903 the United States interfered. They made Panama an independent state. Until then, the area was part of Colombia. Then the US signed a treaty with Panama. The area around the later canal was to belong to the USA forever. This time they had more experience, and in 1914 the first ship was able to sail.

There have been demonstrations against the United States in Panama since 1964. Finally, Panama and the USA signed a new treaty: after a certain time, the canal area should belong to Panama. That happened in 1999.

  • Map with the canal. You can see well below that it is well above sea level because of the locks.

  • This old map shows how the Panama Canal shortens the sea routes.

  • When a lock was built over 100 years ago

  • A ship in front of the Gatun lock

  • Bridge at the Pacific end of the canal, the "Bridge of the Americas"


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