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Panama Canal

Panama Canal: Part Two - Gatun & Local Culture

Photo of Indian woman and craft item goes here.Part Two:

Diary of a

Canal Transit

Photo of the Silver Shadow anchored in Gatun Lake goes here.







Silver Shadow's journey through the Panama Canal; sights along the canal; and native Indian tribe encounters are among the activities detailed in this canal diary.*

By Susan J. Young

Continued from Part 1 (to read Part 1 first, click here).

Gatun Lake

Silver Shadow continued its voyage across scenic Gatun Lake, which extends 61 kilometers or 37.8 miles from the Gaillard Cut to the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side. 

Photo of Gatun Lake and its many islands goes here.

This lake -- which has many little islands -- covers an area of about 423 square kilometers or 104,000 acres.  

It was formed by the construction of the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River.

The two wings of the dam and the spillway have a combined length of 2,400 meters or 7,874 feet. 

The earthen dam is neary 800 meters or 2,624 feet wide at the base. The dam is about six meters or about 20 feet above the normal level of Gatun Lake.

Photo of Gatun Lake goes here.

Crossing Gatun Lake is was a highlight for me. Cruisers will enjoy natural scenery with few man-made intrusions -- other than the normal ship traffic coming the other direction.

One observation for this stretch? 

Given the lack of wave action and the closeness of the scenery, I felt I as if I were on a river cruise, an interesting sensation on an ocean vessel! 

Photo of the Gatun Yacht Club goes here.At about 2 p.m., the Silver Shadow anchored in Gatun Lake.  Passengers disembarked for shore trips.

The diverse options included a jungle walk, a lake cruise for spotting wildlife, and a canal tour, among others. 

Photo of Panamanian dancers goes here.


We opted for the complimentary Silversea Experience. It entailed a relaxing few hours with a folkloric show at the rustic, lakeside Gatun Yacht Club.

Guests on this experience were handed tropical drinks as they disembarked from the tender and took a seat at the club.

Silversea had engaged local dancers from Panamanian groups and native Indian tribes to showcase their cultural heritage.

Photo of dancer goes here.

Photo of beautiful childen in native costumes goes here.The lavish dresses and elaborate jewelry of the Panamanian dancers were quite spectacular to behold (see the photo at left.*)

We also felt the young women also had beautiful facial features (see the photo at right*)

A highlight of the program was a chance to understand a bit more about the local Indian tribal members. That said, the line's shore excursion literature described the Indian dancers as "scantily clad." More correctly put, some female dancers were bare breasted.

While this was no problem for most of the Silver Shadow's well-traveled guests who have experienced cultural differences across the globe (including us), we later heard one guest complaining to the onboard purser's desk. 

A simple solution for the future? Perhaps a bit more straightforward shore trip literature simply might suffice -- to avoid "surprises."

That said, my mother and I thought the entire program was superb. The Indian entertainers -- who were also skilled artisans -- had sweet dispositions, enjoyed dancing for guests, and were quite at ease with their bodies, their culture and, frankly, the odd "dress" of those cruisers surrounding them! 

Photo of Indian group performing at the Gatun Yacht Club.Dark bark stains created intricate designs on the dancer's flesh. Their costumes were colorful. And they had beautiful jet-black long hair.

These female dancers were accompanied in their dancing by a male musical group from the same tribe (at left*). Their instruments were skillfully made from jungle materials.

In addition, we enjoyed dances by another tribe, the Kuna Indians. We noticed that one of the dancers looked like he was more from Norway than from the tropics.

Then the commentator explained that this tribe has the highest rate of albinoism (white skin pigment and pink eyes) of any culture anywhere in the world.

After the program, the Indians sold hand-crafted wares at individual stands spread throughout one side of the yacht club grounds. Photo of Indian woman and craft item goes here.The quality of the weaving and the selection of handicrafts were first-rate.

And the sellers were not aggressive -- all in all, very sweet people.

Fortunately, U.S. dollars were readily accepted. I bought a $5 bracelet (probably selling for $25 or more back home).

Shown at right,* the proud Indian dancer and artisan who had made my bracelet cheerfully posed for me with another exquisite creation her family had made.

Photo of Gatun Lake goes here.As it neared 5 p.m., I took a brief stroll around the lovely grounds of the lakefront club to peruse the facilities.

Photo of swimming area within the canal goes here.




A lifeguard stood duty but had no takers for the roped off swimming area (see photo at right*) that was actually part of the canal (within the lake). He spoke good English and chatted with me.

At 5:30 all guests were back onboard Silver Shadow. By 6 p.m., the tenders were secured and the ship headed for the entrance to the Gatun Locks, leading to the Atlantic side.

Gatun Locks  

As the sun began to set, Silver Shadow sailed toward the  Gatun Locks.   Photo of the Gatun Lake at sunset goes here.

 Photo of Gatun Lake sunset goes here. 





The Gatun series of locks lowers the ship 26 meters or 85 feet from Gatun Lake to the Atlantic Ocean. Each lock channel is 300 meters or 984 feet long.

The lock walls range in thickness from 15 meters or 49 feet at the base to 3 meters or just under 10 feet at the top.

The lock gates themselves are made from steel.  They measure an average of 2 meters or 6.5 feet thick, 19.5 meters or 64 feet in length. They stand 20 meters or 65 or so feet high.

As the sunlight faded, it was fruitless to take exterior photos at Gatun Locks. It was simply too dark. 

No worries, though,  we could view our progress on this last part of our canal journey via the en-suite television system. 

Photo of the Gatun Locks as shown on our suite television system goes here.At left*, you may view a nice night shot of the ship entering the locks -- as taken from Silver Shadow's  video camera.

By 7:30 p.m., we were beyond the canal and sailing in open ocean en route to our next port of call, Cartagena, Colombia.

It had been a day to remember.



Photo of ship in the Miraflores Locks goes here.For the Future

During the past few years, the Panama Canal Authority has undertaken a series of multimillion dollar upgrades.

The authority recently purchased new locomotives and tugboats; converted the locks from mechanical to hydraulic controls; and replaced the locks track system.

Now, the $5.25 billion expansion program to construct new and larger locks to accommodate post-Panamax vessels is also under way. That will essentially double the canal's capacity.

When it opened nearly a century ago, the Panama Canal was an engineering wonder. With what's planned for the future, the canal should remain so for decades to come.

More Information?

For information on Silversea Cruises' Panama Canal voyages for 2008 and 2009, visit www.silversea.com.

For information on other cruise lines visiting Panama, visit the www.cruising.org site of Cruise Lines International Association.

For information on the Panama Canal, visit the official Panama Canal Authority site at www.pan-canal.com.

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