The current Panama Canal Expansion project was approved by the people of Panama via a referendum in October in 2006 at the extraordinary cost of approximately $5.2 billion dollars.  The widening of the Panama Canal began in September 2007 as a means for doubling the capacity of the inter-oceanic passageway to meet the world’s growing commercial demand.  Though slightly delayed, this unprecedented expansion project is due to be completed by the beginning of 2016.

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Due to the girth of Post-Panamax ships being too large to fit through the existing chambers of the Panama Canal, two new sets of locks are being located alongside the existing ones – one on the Caribbean side at Gatun Locks and one on the Pacific side at Miraflores Locks.  The new locks are being constructed in a channel started by the U.S. in 1939 but later cancelled due to World War II breaking out.  The new locks will be 30% larger and are intended to double the capacity of the Canal by accommodating Post-Panamax ships and the increased commercial demands resulting from enhanced global trade.

The implications of the project are enormous. The width of Panamax ships is 106 feet, the length is 965 feet and the maximum capacity is about 5,000 containers. In comparison, post Panamax ships that account for approximately 60% of the world’s shipping are 160 feet wide by 1,200 feet long. Most importantly, they have the capacity of carrying nearly two and a half times as many containers at 13,000. And if Panama had not approved the widening of the Canal it stood to lose a lot of business as the post Panamax ships traveling from China to the U.S. would have been forced to transit the wider Suez Canal.

When the new locks are ready for the world, ships arriving from the Pacific and passing under the Bridge of Americas will come to what is essentially a toll plaza where smaller ships will go right and the larger ones will go left. And the gigantic chambers are wide enough so that the famous “mules”, which are the mechanical locomotives that employ heavy duty cables to guide the ships through the existing locks, will no longer be necessary. The 20 feet of additional space in the new locks combined with rubber bumpers will enable tugs to guide the ships through the Canal, which is the normal process with other canals.

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The new locks will also operate differently, mainly due to the different type of gates being used. The miter gates in the old chambers open and close much like double doors. However the new gates, which were made in Italy, slide in from one side, much like a pocket door. One of the fringe benefits of the new system is that the usage of freshwater which comes from man-made Lake Gatun is reduced by 7% for each passage. These news locks are also being installed on the Atlantic side at Gatun Locks.

Historic Panama Railway and Gatun Locks / Panama Canal Expansion Visitors Centers Tour

At Latin Adventure Tours we offer a private tour that starts out on the Historic Panama Railway and then goes to the Gatun Locks and the Panama Canal Expansion Project Visitors Center to view the expansion work being done on the Caribbean side. During this fascinating tour, visitors have the opportunity to witness history in the making by experiencing firsthand the expansion project at Gatun where a new additional set of locks is being constructed.  Then enjoy an informative and interesting video about the history and construction of one of the world’s greatest man-made wonders – the Panama Canal. This is the opportunity of a lifetime to experience something only very few will be able to do. And you better do it soon since the Canal Expansion Project is scheduled to be completed by the beginning of 2016!