From the Bahía de Panamá on the country’s Pacific coast, the canal runs at sea level approximately 6km inland to the Miraflores Locks, where ships are raised some 16.5m to Lago de Miraflores. About 2km further on, ships are raised another 10m to the canal’s maximum elevation of 26.5m above sea level, after which they enter the Gaillard Cut. This 14km slice through the shifting shale of the continental divide was the deepest and most difficult section of the canal’s construction and was plagued by devastating landslides and loss of life.
The canal channel continues for 38km across the broad expanse of Lago Gatún, once the largest artificial lake in the world. Covering 420 square kilometres, it is tranquil and stunningly beautiful; until you see an ocean-going ship appear from behind one of the densely forested headlands, it’s difficult to believe that this is part of one of the busiest waterways in the world. At the lake’s far end ships are brought back down to sea level in three stages by the Gatún Locks, after which they run 3km through a narrow cut into the calm Caribbean waters of Bahía Limón.