This may be sultry Central America but the water traffic is lined up with Swiss precision on the Panama Canal. At the Gatun Locks, hulking Chinese containers jostle tiny Panamanian tugs and sleek cruise ships like ours. The mechanical `mules’ trundle along their ledges like motorised tanks, securing our ship. Celebrity Infinity slips into the slimy lock chambers with barely any room to spare. On deck, our panama-hatted contingent gasps at the series of locks that punctuate our transit. Lies, a Dutch guest, likens it to “a roller-coaster ride in slow motion.”
Beside us are quaysides lined with cranes building the post-Panamax set of locks in parallel, and dredgers digging out the new shipping lane. For now, we are travelling through the original three sets of locks, with Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side leading to the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks the Pacific end. The locks lift the ships to the level of Lake Gatun, 85 feet above sea level, and then lower them again on the Pacific side. Lake Gatun, created in 1914 by the damning of the River Chagres, was the largest dam and artificial lake of its age.
Today, this crocodile-coloured canal is a transitional world that links not just two oceans, but several civilisations and a jungle of creatures conveniently close to the shore. Just along the River Chagres are indigenous Amerindian communities still plying their dugout canoes much as they did in Christopher Columbus’ day. As we slip along the waterways, the hulking oil tankers and container ships give way to jungle canopy, scarlet macaws and encounters with the tattoed Embrera tribe. But then we are propelled from primeval jungle to pulsating metropolis. Across two more sets of locks awaits the Pacific Ocean and the gleaming skyscrapers of Panama City, capital of one of the world’s most vibrant economies. It’s these paradoxes that make a Panama Canal voyage such a strangely satisfying adventure.
From cruise ships to container ships, more than a million vessels have passed through the Panama Canal, one of the engineering wonders of the world. Even for seasoned cruisers, the Panama Canal remains a voyage to savour. Celebrity Cruises are not alone in seeing the Panama Canal as a once-in-a-lifetime voyage. Steve Gayda, the cruise director, concurs: “I’ve done the Panama Canal 50 times but it’s always different, always amazing, depending on the shipping, the light, the wildlife, the deck you’re on – and going under the soaring Bridge of Americas still gives me a thrill.”