By any estimation among the grandest public works projects in the history of humankind, the Panama Canal is an engineering triumph that forever transformed global trade. Construction began in 1904, lasted 10 years, cost some $350 million to build and claimed nearly 30,000 lives due to disease and accidents. But that sacrifice and hard work unlocked a route for ships that united two oceans and changed transportation around the world.
Currently serving more than 150 countries with ships that reach thousands of ports worldwide, today the canal is undergoing an expansion that will double its capacity and should be completed in 2015.
Travelers can enjoy the canal in several ways, beginning with the excellent Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, a museum that tells the story of the incredible engineering feat through its exhibits. There are also one-hour sightseeing cruises along part of the canal to the famous Miraflores Locks, where you can feel the ship get raised up to pass through the locks. More ambitious explorers can take the whole fascinating trip along the 48 miles (77 km) of the waterway through all of the locks.
Full-transit cruises are offered and ply the entire 48-mile (77-km) length of the canal in just under 10 hours, most of which is spent waiting for the locks to empty and fill. Many travelers are happier with a half-canal trip that traverses only one lock, or even shorter tours around Lake Gatún. Don’t miss the Miraflores Visitors Center, which gives an introduction to the importance of the canal, as well as close-up views of the ships passing through the canal being raised and lowered through the locks.