Panamá Canal’s Gatún Locks: Beyond the Visitor Center


Picture 4

The Panama Canal consists of three set of locks, two at the Pacific Ocean side and one at the Atlantic side.  The two locks at the Pacific side are the Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Locks.  At the Atlantic side is the Gatún Locks.  Navigating from the Pacific Ocean a ship will first find the Miraflores Locks (Picture 2) after passing under the Bridge of the Americas (Picture 1).  These locks have two stages, meaning the vessel will rise twice before leaving the locks.  Next is the Pedro Miguel Locks (Picture 3) which have one stage, thus raising a vessel once.   These two set of locks place the vessel in the Gatún Lake; the vessel then navigates the lake, passing under the Centennial Bridge (Picture 4).  After crossing the lake, the vessel reaches the Gatún Locks which have three stages.  Here the locks lowers the vessel three times into Bahía Limón and the Atlantic Ocean.

The best known and more visited locks of the Panamá Canal are the Miraflores Locks which are close to Panamá City and have the Miraflores’ Visitor Center that includes four exhibition halls and a restaurant. The Gatún Locks also have a Visitors Center and observation deck. Many tourists do not visit the Gatún Locks for being farther away from the city. However, they are closer than ever to Panamá City thanks to the new highway to Colón.  Travel time to Gatún Locks is about one hour from the city.  Personally, I prefer the Gatún Locks’ Visitor Center because the observation deck is almost on top of the locks and the vessel seem close enough to touch them.

Picture 7

The Gatúm Locks work in conjunction with the Gatúm Dam, needed to create the Gatún Lake.  The dam is composed of a really large earth dam (Picture 5), a spill way (Picture 6) and a hydroelectric generation plant (Picture 7). Basically, engineers used the rocks and dirt fill from the excavation of the canal, specifically the Culebra Cut.  The Gatúm dam spans 7,500 feet, is 2,700 feet wide and 105 feet high.  The spill way has a concrete dam and a channel; it was constructed to control the lake level. It measures 738 feet long and have 14 gates to control the water flow.  The hydroelectric generation plant produces the electricity needed to run the Gatún Locks and the spill way gates.

Gatún Lake

The Gatum Dam is usually overlooked when visitors go to the Gatún Locks. They are located on the opposite side of the canal from the Visitor Center.  That means you need to cross to the other side of the canal to visit the dam.  Unlike the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, there are no large bridges to cross it.  Now, you do not want to miss this!  At the Gatún Locks, you can cross the canal using the swinging road bridge.  This small bridge opens when the stage is either lowering or raising a vessel.  During that time cars cross the one lane bridge, in one direction at a time.  The bridge swings out of the way as the stage locks swing open (see Gatún Locks – Set 2).  Don’t leave the Gatún Locks without crossing the swinging road bridge.  The video shows the swinging road bridge as we returned to the Visitor Center’s side.

Once on the other side, the road takes you to the spill way, to another one lane bridge over the spill way channel.  The road continues over the earth dam where you have a beautiful view of Gatún Lake.  I hope this article will help you on your next trip to Panamá and the Gatún Locks.


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