Panama Canal

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Panama Canal (Panama)
Panama Canal
Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is an artificial, around 82 km long waterway with a summit level of 26 meters, the Isthmus of Panama in Central America cuts through the Atlantic with the Pacific connects for shipping and you make sure the trip around the Cape Horn or through the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of South America saved. Opened in 1914, the canal is one of the most important waterways in the world; around 13,700 ships (average for the years 2017 to 2019; 2011 to 2013: 14,300) pass through it every year.

The dimensions of the locks and fairways of the original canal were only sufficient for ships up to Panamax size until mid-2016 , for example container ships with 4,600 standard containers ( TEU ), which were only medium-sized ships by the standards of that time. Since the expansion, which began in 2007, was opened on June 26, 2016, ships with 14,000 TEU have been able to pass through it.

The volume of goods transported through the Panama Canal corresponds to around five percent of global ocean freight traffic. The canal generated almost eight percent of Panama's gross domestic product in 2013.


Map and longitudinal profile of the Panama Canal
View from Cerro Ancón (Panama City) on the Panama Canal

The canal is approximately 82 kilometers long, including the access canals. It runs between the cities of Colón on the Atlantic Ocean and Balboa , a suburb of Panama City on the Pacific coast . It is designed with two lanes throughout for oncoming traffic. The direction from the Atlantic to the Pacific on which this description is based applies in the opposite direction as well. The ships are lifted at Colón through the Gatun locks to the Gatunsee , which is dammed up at 26 meters above sea level , drive in dredged channels through the Gatunsee and the Río Chagres , cross a ridge in the Gaillard Canal (also called Culebra Cut) and are with them lowered the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, one after the other, to the Pacific again.

The channel is since its handover by the United States to Panama on 31 December 1999 the inalienable property of the Panamanian people and is (from the ACP spanish Autoridad del Canal de Panamá , Panama Canal Authority ' ) managed and operated. The ACP is an independent Panamanian authority with around 9,000 employees. It is bound by the Agreement on the Neutrality of the Canal , which is part of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties signed on September 7, 1977 between the United States and Panama . Therefore the ACP is obliged to allow the use of all ships, including warships , of all nations without discrimination and under the same conditions in return for payment of the transit fees.

Due to the locks and the Puente de las Américas , the size of the ships was limited to the Panamax dimensions until June 2016 . Ships, which are a maximum of 294.3 meters long and exactly 32.3 meters wide, had a distance of 61 centimeters from the walls of the lock chamber in the locks on both sides. Since the expansion, which began in 2007, opened on June 26, 2016, some of the Postpanamax ships have been able to pass through the Panama Canal. Since then, the largest permitted ship dimensions have been 366 meters in length, 49 meters in width and 15.2 meters in draft (New Panamax or Neopanamax).

The time required for the passage is influenced by the rush and the not so rare fog. For booked passages, it was an average of 15.2 hours for the entire route in 2011 and just under 11 hours from entering the first lock to leaving the last lock.

In 2011, 14,684 ships passed through the canal, 6,918 of which were Panamax- class ships . The transport volume was 322.1 million PCUMS (units of the Panama Canal Universal Measurement System); the fee revenues amounted to 1.73 billion  Balboa  (= US dollars). On September 4, 2010, the Chinese bulk cargo ship named "Fortune Plum" (lucky plum) sailed the Panama Canal as the one millionth ship since it opened.

The canal is particularly important for transports between the east and west coasts of the United States and for imports from Asia, insofar as they are transported to the east coast of the United States . The main users of the channel are therefore the United States and China. The amount of goods carried is 68% of all goods loaded or unloaded in US ports; for China 23% and for Japan 16%.

The price of the passage is calculated according to the type and size of the ship. A revised, complex table of charges has been in effect since 2011, which contains a large number of basic and ancillary charges, such as pilot, tug and locomotive charges. The base fees of 72 US dollars per standard container and 134 US dollars per passenger bed can be used as an indication of the applicable fees .

Panama Canal
Atlantic approach,
Manzanillo Bay
Port of Colón (Cristóbal)
Cristóbal Harbor
Atlantic train station, cruise terminal, cargo port and free trade area
Third or Atlantic Bridge
Gatun locks
3 chambers, +26 m
Agua Clara locks
(New building 2007-2015, savings locks with three chambers)
Gatun Dam ,
Río Chagres hydropower plant (22.5 MW), overflow channel
RÍo Gatún, causeway, Monte Lirio bridge
Río Chagres,
with hydropower plant (36 MW)
Gaillard Canal
(Culebra cut)
Continental divide, canal peak
Pedro Miguel lock
1 chamber (+9.5 m)
Cocoli locks
(New building 2007-2015, three chambers, savings locks)
Miraflores lake
Miraflores locks
2 chambers (+16.5 m), overflow channel
Balboa Harbor
Balboa - Diablo, Corozal Train Station, Albrook Intl Airport. (BLB)
Pacific approach
Navigable canal
(max.draft: 12m)
non-navigable waters
Dock, industrial or infrastructure zone
Direction of water flow
Ferrocarril de Panamá railway line
(Passenger and cargo stations)
City, village or settlement

Before the canal was built, the shortest usable sea connection from the east coast to the west coast of North America was through the Strait of Magellan . The New York - San Francisco sea route was shortened by the canal from around 25,000 to around 10,000 kilometers. The saving of 15,000 kilometers (8,100  nautical miles ), assuming a ship speed of 15 knots, corresponds to  a reduction in travel time of around three weeks. The abbreviation is naturally shorter for other routes, such as from / to Europe or from / to China.

The canal was added to the List of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1984.


The channel

Gatun lock, view from the uppermost chamber, the access channel in the back

The state of Panama extends about 700 kilometers along the ninth degree of latitude, so that the Atlantic and the Caribbean are north and the Pacific are south of Panama. Since the canal runs from the entrance on the Atlantic side in a south-easterly direction, this Atlantic entrance is more west than the Pacific exit near Panama City. In other words: Due to this geographic peculiarity, the Panama Canal leads in a west-east direction from the eastern Atlantic Ocean to the western Pacific Ocean.

On the Atlantic side, the entrance to Limón Bay (Bahía Limón) between the breakwaters of Colón and Fort Sherman (Fuerte Sherman) is considered to be the beginning of the canal. Limón Bay serves as a roadstead for waiting ships. Its southern end, 8.7 kilometers from the entrance, is also the beginning of the 3.1 kilometer long access canal to the Gatun locks.

In the Gatún locks, the ships are lifted to the artificially dammed Gatúnsee , which is 26 meters above sea level on average .

From the Gatún locks the Gatún Dam can be seen in a south-westerly direction , a 2,300-meter-long earth dam , in the middle of which an arched concrete wall with 14 large steel gates controls the outflow from the lake. Behind the dam is a hydroelectric power station that supplies the locks and controls of the dam with electricity. With the dam, the Río Chagres was dammed up to such an extent that the ships could travel long distances in Lake Gatun and the passage through the canal through the mountains did not have to be dug below sea level.

Gaillard Pierce, Centennial Bridge and Gold Hill (right bank)

In Lake Gatún, the canal follows the former bed of the Chagres River in a dredged and well- concreted fairway around 29 kilometers long. The fairway bypasses various islands, including the largest and most famous island, the Barro Colorado Island (BCI) with the Smithsonian Institution 's research station of the same name . Due to the intensive observation carried out by international researchers since 1946, the tropical rainforest on BCI is considered to be the best explored on earth. Smaller boats , such as the Panama Canal Authority service boats and private sailing yachts , can take a shortcut called Banana Cut through a narrow passage between two smaller islands in Lake Gatun .

The Gatúnsee merges into the still dammed part of the Río Chagres, which the ships follow for more than 8 kilometers to the place Gamboa . This is where the 13-kilometer-long Culebra Cut or Gaillard cut through the mountains of the continental divide begins . The canal was originally only 152 meters wide on this route, so that large ships could not meet each other. In 2002 the section was extended to 192 meters in the straights and 222 meters in curves. Since then it has been possible to drive in both directions at all times, which has resulted in time savings of more than 16%.

Shortly before the end of the Gaillard breakthrough, the Puente Centenario (Centennial Bridge), a six-lane cable - stayed bridge , crosses the canal at a height of 80 meters.

The Gaillard breakthrough ends at the Pedro-Miguel lock, which initiates the descent to the Pacific and leads into the also artificially dammed, only around two kilometers long Miraflores Lake.

The entrance to the Miraflores locks is on the other side of the lake, which is 16.5 meters above mean water level of the Pacific. Immediately next to the lock entrance begins the Miraflores dam, a 133 meter long concrete gravity dam with eight liftable steel gates to control the outflow from the Pedro Miguel lock and from the Río Cocoli, which flows into the lake.

After the Miraflores locks, a natural access channel follows the port facilities of Balboa and under the Puente de las Américas (Bridge of the Americas) into the Gulf of Panama. The Puente de las Américas has a clear height of 61.3 m above MHW - medium flood , which is why the height of the ships is limited to 57.91 m (190 feet) above the waterline. The beginning or the end of the canal on the Pacific side is marked by a buoy at Isla Perico at the end of a long dam. The distance from the locks to the buoy is a good 12 kilometers long. The dam serves less to protect against surging waves. Rather, it is intended to prevent the entry of mud through a current running along the coast.

In order to avoid misunderstandings with the numerous curves and changes of direction, all ships sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific are referred to as southbound (sailing south), those in the opposite direction to the Atlantic as northbound (northbound) .

The locks

Gatún locks, in front just above the water the extended vehicle bridges
Pedro Miguel Lock, at the far end of the Miraflores Lock Pier
Miraflores locks, the swing bridge on the edges of the picture
24 hour time lapse at the Miraflores lock

The Panama Canal has three lock systems, which are set up in pairs for oncoming traffic and as a precaution for maintenance interruptions:

  • The Gatun locks are located on the Atlantic side immediately after the access canal, which the ships lift with three lock chambers one after the other to the Gatun Lake, which is 25.9 meters (85 feet) above sea level. The ships go from one lock chamber directly to the next, the upper gate of one chamber is also the lower gate of the next chamber. The tidal range in the access channel is only 0.6 meters and therefore has almost no influence on the lock operation. The lake level in Gatúnsee also rises to a maximum of 26.5 meters (87 feet) above sea level, so that this difference can easily be processed by the upper lock chamber. The three chambers therefore each have a lift or fall height of almost nine meters.
  • The Pedro Miguel Locks are located at the exit of the Gaillard breach on the Pacific side with only one lock chamber with a stroke of 9.5 meters (31 feet).
  • The Miraflores locks can be found on the Pacific side on the access canal there with two lock chambers in direct succession and with a lift or fall height of a nominal total of 16.5 meters (54 feet). However, the water level of the Pacific here is on average 20 centimeters higher than that of the Atlantic in front of the Gatun locks and the tidal range is up to 6.55 meters. The Miraflores locks must therefore negotiate a height difference of between a minimum of 13 meters and a maximum of almost 20 meters (65 feet).

Dimensions of the lock chambers

Dimensions of the old Panmax locks:

There are therefore three lock chambers on both sides in each direction, a total of twelve lock chambers with the following dimensions:

  • The width of all chambers is 33.53 meters (110 feet).
  • The length of the chambers is mostly 327.66 meters (1075 feet). However, the top chamber of the Gatun locks and the chamber of the Pedro Miguel lock are only 304.8 meters (1000 feet) long inside, as they have double gates on either side, approximately 24 meters (80 feet) apart.
  • The depth of the chambers of the Gatun locks is 23.16 meters (76 feet), the chambers of the other locks are even deeper according to the greater lift. Since the water inlet and outlet of the chambers takes place through large openings in the floor, there must be enough space under the ship's floor for the water flows.
Dimensions of the Neopanmax lock chambers completed in 2016:
  • Width: 55 m
  • Length: 427 m
  • Depth: 18.3 m

Permissible ship dimensions

The permissible Panmax ship dimensions are therefore:

  • Width: 32.31 meters (106 feet); with special permit 32.6 meters (107 feet) if the draft is less than 11.3 meters (37 feet).
  • Length: 294.13 meters (965 feet) for passenger and container ships, otherwise 289.6 meters (950 feet); Ships that are longer than 900 feet (274.3 meters) must submit various documents such as cross-sectional plans, etc., before their first passage.
  • Draft: 12.04 meters (39.5 feet) TFW (in tropical freshwater - freshwater tropical conditions ), provided a number of technical details have been met. This draft still provides 1.5 meters (5 feet) of water below the keel and at least 0.6 meters (2 feet) of water above the keel, even with Gatun Lake's low water level of 24.84 meters (81.5 feet) in critical channel passages Lock thresholds.
  • Height: 57.91 meters (190 feet) above the waterline due to the passage under the Puente de las Américas ; in exceptional cases with prior approval from the Canal Authority up to 62.5 meters (205 feet), provided the tide is low in Balboa and no maintenance equipment is hanging under the Puente de las Américas.

A ship with exactly the permissible width and length therefore has a distance of 0.61 meters from the canal wall on both sides and 5.33 meters from the lock gates of the shorter chambers at the bow and stern. The ship class which is adapted to these permissible ship dimensions is called Panamax . Ships that exceed these dimensions are called post-Panamax ships.

The luxury cruise ship Queen Elizabeth 2 was constructed in such a way that it just fits into the locks of the Panama Canal ( Panamax class). The successor, Queen Mary 2, is significantly larger and has only been able to pass the Panama Canal at low tide since the expansion was completed.

The permissible ship dimensions for the new Neopanamax locks are:

Length: 366 m (400 m for non-self-propelled ships); Height: 57.91 m; Draft: 15.2 m; Deadweight : 120,000 DWT / 13,000 TEU

Lock gates (Panmax)

Double gate in the Miraflores locks

The top two chambers of Gatún Locks, Pedro Miguel Lock and the top chamber of Miraflores Locks have double lock gates approximately 80 feet (24 m) apart at either end for safety reasons. The Gatún locks have six gates in each direction, the Pedro Miguel lock four gates and the Miraflores locks five gates in each direction, a total of 15 gates or a total of 30 gates in both directions. Each gate has two V-shape towards the upper water -closing door leaves, which during the lowering of the lower water pressed against each other by the rising water pressure and sealed. Each gate wing is 19.81 m (65 feet) wide and 2.13 m (7 feet) thick. Its upper edge is designed as a walkway for the lock personnel. The lower part of the gate wing contains hollow bodies that give it so much buoyancy that it can be moved relatively easily. The height of the gate leaves, depending on where they are used, varies from 14.33 m in the upper gate of Gatún locks to 25 m in the Miraflores locks (between 47 and 82 feet) and their weight between 320.96  tons and 600.73 tons ( 353.8 and 662.2  short tons ). Originally, the gates were moved by a steel arm attached to a horizontal wheel with a diameter of 6 meters in the walls of the lock chambers, similar to the connecting rod on the drive wheel of a steam locomotive . Two 19 kW electric motors were sufficient to move a gate leaf, which could also be moved by one of the motors in an emergency. The gate leaves have been moved hydraulically for several years.

Water inlet and outlet

The parallel lock chambers are separated by a 60 foot (18.29 m) thick concrete wall, with a staff passage, cable duct and sewer at the top. The side walls are 15.24 m thick at the base and taper towards the top to around 2 meters. In the lower part of the three walls run the inlet and outlet pipes of the lock chambers, which initially have a diameter of 6.7 m (22 feet) at the inlet, which is reduced after 97.5 m (320 feet) to 5.49 m ( 18 feet). Ten elliptical cross-connections under the floor of the chambers are alternately connected to the side and central tubes. They each have five openings in the floor of the lock chamber, so that the water can flow in and out through 100 openings in the floor with little turbulence.

The lock chambers are filled and emptied solely by the force of gravity, there are no pumps for this. It takes about eight minutes to fill or empty a chamber, that is, to raise the water level from the lower water level to that of the upper water level and vice versa. The lock process with entry and exit of the ships takes much longer than the 8 minutes mentioned. Typically 101,000 m³ of water run out of the chamber or into it. The locks have no savings basins. However, the connection between the parallel locks can be used to save water. A lock in the sense of a passage through all locks is said to consume 197,000 m³ of fresh water (52 million US gallons).

Tow locomotives (not at the Neopanmax locks)

Muli in the Miraflores locks

A quick and safe passage through the lock system is ensured by the rack railways attached on both sides . Depending on the size of the ship, four to eight rack-and- pinion locomotives (tow locomotives ,mules ”, named after the pack animals) drag the ships through the locks and stabilize them against the currents in the lock chamber at the water inlet and outlet. They can drive from one lock chamber to the next on ramps that are up to 45 degrees steep. The rack railway system and locomotives were designed by Edward Schildhauer, the engineer responsible for designing the electrical equipment for the locks, and built and delivered in Schenectady , New York, at a cost of US $ 13,000 each. In order to achieve better traction, special racks based on the Riggenbach system are used. The new locomotives in service in 2012 were ordered from Mitsubishi Corporation in 1998. They weigh around 45 tons (50 tons) and have two drive units, each with 290 hp, compared to the 170 hp of the previous model. Small ships, on the other hand, are guided in the traditional way with hand-held lines .


The water loss through the locks is compensated by the Río Chagres, with the Gatunsee acting as a buffer storage. Since increasing traffic inevitably leads to greater water loss, the upper reaches of the Río Chagres was dammed by the Madden dam to Lake Alajuela in 1935 in order to be able to store the large amounts of water from the rainy season for the dry season. Should the water level of Gatunsee nevertheless fall below the low water mark of 24.84 meters (81.5 feet), which is decisive for the maximum draft of the ships, the permissible draft will be gradually reduced by 15 cm, if possible with a three-week notice.

Extremely high inflow can largely be discharged through the large gates of the Gatún dam and through the large pipes in the locks so that the water level in Gatún Lake does not rise above 26.5 meters (87 feet). At long intervals, however, the Río Chagres carries so much water that both the Alajuela and Gatun lakes reach their maximum fill level. Shipping traffic on the Panama Canal had to be interrupted for 17 hours from December 8th to 9th, 2010 - for the third time in the canal's 96-year history.



The talisman in the upper chamber of the Miraflores locks

According to the traditional rules of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP), the passage takes place in the order of arrival. This can result in waiting times of several hours, and in the case of a lane being closed due to repair work on the lock chambers, even several days. For this reason, 24 passages per day (out of a total of around 40 possible passages) can be booked in advance using a complex procedure, and a 25th passage is auctioned by the ACP.

The Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP) has 291 pilots and 36 tugs available for shipping , while 100 locomotives are in use in the locks (as of May 2012). The ships must comply with a number of technical regulations that are proven before the first passage. A pilot is compulsory in the canal, a passage is accompanied by up to three pilots at the same time. In front of the locks, a group of pasacables (roughly: ship fasteners ) is taken on board, who establish the line connection to the locomotives and monitor them until they exit the lock. In the narrow and curvy culebra cut, large ships are usually supported by one or two tugs. The maximum speed is determined by the ACP for the various sections of the canal depending on the circumstances, usually at 6 kn (11 km / h).

Passage fees

German container ship passing the canal

The fees for a passage are calculated according to a complex fee table that has been in force since 2011, in which a distinction is made between the type and size of the ship, whether it is loaded or under ballast and which contains a variety of basic and ancillary fees, such as the fees for Pilots, pasacables, locomotives and tugs. The base fees of 72 US dollars per standard container and 134 US dollars per passenger bed can be used as an indication of the applicable fees . For a container ship with the maximum possible 4,600 TEU, there would therefore be a basic fee of 340,400 US dollars plus the mentioned ancillary fees. For a cruise ship designed for Panamax dimensions like the Coral Princess or its sister ship Island Princess with 1,970 passenger beds each, a basic fee of 263,980 US dollars plus the booking fee for the passage and other ancillary fees is paid, making a total of almost 400,000 US dollars -Dollars apply (as of April 2012). For comparison: The Queen Elizabeth 2 had to pay only 99,000 US dollars for her Panama Canal passage in 2003 before the fees were switched to the number of passenger beds.

Also prior to the introduction of the new fee schedule, the highest price for an auctioned passage was US $ 220,300 for a tanker , which enabled it to pass a queue of 90 ships in August 2006 and avoid a seven-day waiting period to close a lock. The normal fee would only have been $ 13,430.

The lowest fee was paid in 1928 for Richard Halliburton (1900–1939), the first person to swim through the Panama Canal. The globetrotting journalist and adventurer left New Orleans for Mexico in April 1928 . There he walked in the footsteps of Hernán Cortés and climbed the Popocatépetl . The crowning glory of his tour through Central America was to use the Panama Canal as a swimmer. The US Canal Authority agreed, with the proviso that they could only allow one “watercraft” to “pass through”. Halliburton was therefore measured and classified according to the ship's tonnage and was allowed to implement his plan for a fee of 36 US cents, the lowest fee ever paid. In eight daily stages he mastered the route including all locks.


The Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP) maintains a traffic control center, the hydropower plants on Gatún and Madden dams, the thermoelectric power plant of Miraflores, its own power, water and telephone networks as well as various ships for the maintenance of the canal, including a large grab excavator and a suction dredger and a drilling platform for the preparation of blasting. Four floating cranes with a capacity of 75 to 386 tons are used, among other things, to maintain the lock gates. Two drinking water treatment plants at both ends of the canal not only supply the ACP, but also large parts of the surrounding cities. A shipyard is used for the maintenance and repair of the ACP's watercraft.


The Rosemar in front of the Puente de las Américas

The main crossings of the Panama Canal are

  • the Puente de las Américas , a four-lane road bridge at Balboa that was put into operation in 1962 and replaced the Thatcher Ferry , a ferry that operates almost at the same point
  • the 2004 opened Puente Centenario , a six-lane motorway bridge near the Pedro-Miguel lock
  • the Puente Atlántico, a four-lane road bridge at the Gatún locks that opened in 2019, is 1,050 meters long and designed as a cable-stayed bridge with two pylons.

The swing bridge in the Miraflores locks has existed since 1942, and is hardly used today because of the nearby fixed road connections.

At the Gatún locks there is a single-lane movable bridge for smaller vehicles across the lower entrances . Just like the gate wings of the lock gates, it has two bridge parts per entrance, which are located in niches along the lock walls when shipping, like the open gate wings, but can otherwise be turned into the driveway like a closing gate.

Close to the Puente Centenario, two high-voltage lines cross the canal, each with a span of 1.8 kilometers.

Expansion of the canal from 2007

Lock construction on January 25, 2016
Ship sizes in the Panama Canal before and after expansion compared to other waterways

After years of discussion, the plans for the expansion were announced in April 2006. A constitutional referendum was held on October 22, 2006, with 78 percent of voters voting in favor of expanding the canal, with a 43 percent turnout. The result is binding on the government due to the Torrijos-Carter Treaties of 1978.

The Panama Canal has been expanded and expanded since 2007. For this purpose, a new, three-stage lock system was built on both sides, the Atlantic and the Pacific side, in addition to the existing locks, the chambers of which are 55 m wide and 427 m long. The new Pacific lock system bypasses both the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks with extended access canals. The two new locks were designed as savings locks with three savings basins per chamber. In addition, the fairways in Gatunsee were widened and deepened and the Culebra Cut deepened. The old locks are still in operation. On the Atlantic side, another road connection will be created by a cable-stayed bridge with two pylons. Construction began in 2013, with a planned construction time of 3.5 years. The opening took place on August 2, 2019.

The expansion began with a grand opening on September 3, 2007, the 30th anniversary of the agreement to return control of the Canal from the United States to Panama. In the presence of the former US President Jimmy Carter , numerous Latin American heads of state and around 40,000 onlookers, President Martín Torrijos , the son of Omar Torrijos , detonated more than 13 tons of explosives. In the first construction phase, around 47 million cubic meters of earth and rock had to be removed. 40,000 workers were involved. The new locks were flooded on June 11, 2015 on a trial basis.

The financial expense was difficult to predict. Critics put it at around 8 billion US dollars, which corresponds to around half of Panama's annual gross domestic product . Alberto Alemán Zubieta, head of the ACP, put the expansion costs at $ 5.24 billion. Financing should be ensured through advance higher channel fees and loans. The canal authority anticipated income of 4.8 billion euros by 2025. The amount of the costs was mainly controversial because, among other things, a reduction in pensions was discussed. The delay in expansion resulted in additional charges of $ 2.39 billion, of which $ 227 million was approved.

Ecological concerns were raised against the expansion of the canal. The water requirement of the enlarged canal with possibly enlarged reservoirs would be greater and could mean a considerable intervention in the landscape. Although this is no longer in a natural state, it has been a distinct cultural landscape since pre-Columbian times and in particular due to the canal construction until 1914 . Not least because of this, it is an important ecological habitat and an important source of fresh water for the city of Panama . The new canal locks are therefore to be designed as economy locks with several chambers in order to minimize the total water requirement. Allegedly, no enlarged water reservoirs should be necessary.

The US scientist and engineer Bert G. Shelton contradicted the latter in an article published on January 5, 2011. In it he pointed out that several methods were known to reduce the amount of water required, only two of which were incorporated into the project. Shelton states that if additional criteria were applied with the same or slightly higher cost, the capacity of the canal could be significantly expanded and thus its profitability could be increased, the salinisation of Gatun Lake prevented, the maintenance costs reduced and the construction of additional reservoirs avoided. Among other things, he criticized the construction of a dam over a well-known tectonic fault line, which if broken could endanger the important connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and trigger an ecological disaster. Shelton suggested that it was primarily large financial interests that were responsible for sticking to a preconceived and, in his view, deficient design while at the same time misinforming the public.

The canal expansion was ceremoniously put into operation on June 26, 2016. The first ship that was allowed to pass was the container ship Cosco Shipping Panama sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands .

Trees of the tropical rainforest, which was flooded when the canal was flooded for the first time, have also been sawed off underwater by divers since 2013 and lifted to the surface with buoyancy aids to make room for ships next to the previous shipping channel. The water-saturated logs, such as ironwood , with typically 60% water content, are denser than water, are pulled ashore in pieces, sawn and sometimes dried in Germany and processed into furniture.

History of the canal


In 1513 the Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa and a group of followers were the first to cross the isthmus. The idea of ​​a connection between the Atlantic and Pacific by a canal in the Central American province of Darién was suggested by Emperor Charles V in 1523 . In 1527 , Hernando de la Serna was commissioned to look for a suitable way to build a canal.

The first project was worked out in 1529 by the Spaniard Alvarado de Saavedra Colon . In the centuries that followed, a number of politicians and scientists dealt with the question of building canals. At the beginning of the 19th century this was particularly true of Alexander von Humboldt , who explored Latin America from 1799 to 1804. In 1827, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe prophesied that it would be the "youthful state" of the United States that would build a canal. After gold was found in California , a license for a railroad connection was granted in 1848. 1849-1853 gold diggers used a river-land route through the Isthmus of Panama .

First attempt at building a canal

Historical map of the Panama Canal and the Nicaragua Canal

After the financial success of the Suez Canal in Egypt , which opened in 1869, it was assumed in France that a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific would be just as easy to build. These ideas took shape when the Société Civile Internationale du Canal Interocéanique was created in Paris in 1876 , followed by French law in 1879 by the Panama Canal Society, of which the 73-year-old Count Ferdinand de Lesseps , the builder of the Suez Canal, was appointed . The Panama Canal Company took over a concession from the Colombian government, the so-called Wyse Concession , acquired in 1878 by the Société Civile Internationale du Canal Interocéanique , and began work in 1881, which lasted until 1889.

Founding share of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique from 1880
Debt of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique from 1883
Trade routes through the planned Panama Canal (map from the gazebo 1881)

A lockless canal was to be built over the Isthmus of Panama with a length of 73 kilometers. The excavation should not exceed 120 million cubic meters. A public company , the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique, was set up for financing and promised to be as profitable as the Suez Canal shares. $ 287 million was invested.

Construction of the canal, 1888

During the construction work, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique repeatedly issued new bonds with great journalistic effort. The constantly increasing financial requirements could not be satisfied with this. Similar to the construction of the Suez Canal, a lottery should bring in the necessary capital. In the French National Assembly, the necessary legal authorization was initially highly controversial. The Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique overcame the opposition in 1888 by bribing more than a hundred members of parliament in the form of cash payments. Objective reporting on the technical and financial inadequacies of the project was thwarted by bribing journalists and influencing newspaper publishers by the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique , and the public and investors were systematically lied to. In 1887, under the pressure of the poor financial situation, Ferdinand de Lesseps revised the plans and signed a contract with the engineer Gustave Eiffel to build a lock canal by 1890. The cost of the lock canal was estimated at 1.6 billion gold francs . Due to planning deficiencies, incorrect geological surveys, poor organization, bribery, innumerable technical difficulties and mishaps, the French finally gave up for financial and political considerations and stopped work in 1889.

On December 15, 1888, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique became insolvent . Because of the company's non-commercial business purpose, the construction of a canal, it was treated as a non-bankrupt company according to the legal regulations at the time, which ruled out bankruptcy proceedings. The collapse sparked the Panama scandal, one of the greatest financial scandals of the 19th century in France, and resulted in heated public disputes and politicians resigning.

The construction work resulted in the migration of over 100,000 workers to the region, most of whom never returned home (the original reports on this migration are now classified as World Heritage by UNESCO ). During the construction period from 1881 to 1889, 22,000 workers (7.5 human lives per day) died in the swampy landscape of yellow fever and malaria , the pathogens of which were still unknown. On the advice of French doctors, when the canal was being built in 1883, the posts of the workers' beds should be placed in buckets of water to protect against malaria. The buckets, however, became breeding grounds for the malaria mosquitoes , the disease spread rapidly, and that was one of the reasons why construction had to be canceled. There were crosses around the construction site; Corpses were shipped to Europe in vinegar barrels so that more crosses did not have to be placed. [Receipt?]

Second construction phase and completion

Construction of the Panama Canal: the so-called Culebra Cut, 1907
The Kroonland on February 2, 1915, the largest passenger ship to ever cross the canal to date
The German tanker Vistula in front of the Culebra Cut, 1931
The battleship Missouri in a lock on the Panama Canal on October 13, 1945 en route from the Pacific to New York . In the interwar period and during World War II, American battleships were built so that they could still pass through the canal locks.

In 1894 a rescue company , the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, took over the continuation of the theoretical work and in 1902 sold the entire complex for 40 million US dollars to the United States , which could use about 40% of the practical work done up to that point. Senator John Coit Spooner had convinced President Theodore Roosevelt that the opportunity had now come to join the project that had stalled in Panama. With the "Spooner Act" passed in 1902, Congress paved the way for this.

The United States had previously worked on various canal projects to cross Central America, but had not come to any practical result. The plans for the Panama Canal competed with plans for the Nicaragua Canal . However, this was not realized because its investors favored the Panama Canal. Colombia refused, the Panama conflict arose . After purchasing the Wyse concession , the United States demanded that Colombia cede the Panama Canal area.

In November 1903, US troops landed, occupied the area and proclaimed the independent state of Panama . The US government believed that this would enable the construction of the canal, which was considered absolutely necessary for strategic reasons, to be achieved more quickly. On November 18, 1903, the US Secretary of State John Hay and a former employee of Ferdinand de Lesseps , the French engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla, agreed a state treaty - the so-called Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty  - on the use of a canal zone the width of ten miles, five miles either side of the canal route, their occupation and their unrestricted control. The United States controlled a canal zone with an area of ​​84,000 hectares. But they had to guarantee Panama's territorial sovereignty . The contract also provided for the payment of 10 million US dollars and an annual payment of 250,000 US dollars in gold starting in 1913.

On May 6, 1904, President Roosevelt named John Findley Wallace chief engineer, who resigned after a year. The light railroad could not transport the accumulating soil. In addition, the construction was made difficult by great bureaucratic effort - every decision by Wallace had to be confirmed by the Isthmus Canal Commission (ICC).

In April 1905, the canal construction was entrusted to engineer John Frank Stevens . He realized that the main difficulties were the illnesses and so he had to improve the living conditions of the workers first. With his commitment, he earned their respect, so that he was able to face the real challenge with planning the logistics and setting up the organization. When he was done, he resigned surprisingly and to Roosevelt's displeasure, stating that he had fulfilled his contract on the floor. It said that he should work on it until he could say with certainty that it would succeed or fail. The reasons for his termination are controversial. It is believed that he understood that he was the best man for planning but not for execution. Another anecdote says that he simply got through the part that was interesting for him and the real challenge, and that it just bored him to do it. In a letter from his successor to his son, it is said that Mr. Stevens had organized the construction so perfectly that there was actually nothing for him to do except to maintain the organization.

In April 1907, Stevens left the Canal and the work was continued by Major General George Washington Goethals , with particular support from US President Theodore Roosevelt. One of the reasons why Roosevelt chose him was because, unlike his predecessor, he could not resign as a military man. The cost of the canal, now built with locks and reservoirs, amounted to 386 million US dollars. During the construction work 1906–1914, 5,609 workers died from accidents and illnesses (about 1.9 deaths per day). In total, the construction therefore claimed around 28,000 lives.

On August 3, 1914, the small freighter Cristobal, a twin screw steamer, was the first watercraft to pass the Panama Canal in full length. Because of the outbreak of the First World War - on the same day - the opening ceremonies were canceled and only rescheduled in 1920. On July 12, 1920, US President Woodrow Wilson officially opened the waterway to shipping.

Political problems after completion of the canal

The fact that the United States retained sovereignty over the Canal and the Panama Canal Zone , a strip of land along the Canal, has repeatedly created tension between the US government and Panama. In 1935 and 1936, the first revisions of the corresponding agreements took place, which, among other things, provided for an increase in the annual payments by the United States to Panama to US $ 430,000 and the granting of a land corridor through the Canal Zone to Panama and the United States the right to intervene .

In 1955 there was another revision in which the annual rent was increased to 1.93 million US dollars. There was also an increase in wages for Panamanian workers in the Panama Canal Administration. Panama also received the right to tax workers in the Canal Zone, with the exception of US citizens.

In 1960, following complaints from the Panama government , US President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced a 9-point program that included improved working and living conditions in the canal zone and the construction of a water pipe to supply the capital, Panama City.

On September 17, 1960, US President Eisenhower announced that from now on the Panamanian flag, together with that of the United States, would be hoisted in the Canal Zone as an expression of Panama's nominal sovereignty over this area. The first hoisting of the Panamanian flag took place on September 21, 1960 on the Shaler Triangle .

In 1964 there were violent clashes between civilians and the US Army in the flag battle between the United States and Panama .

In 1977 US President Jimmy Carter negotiated the Torrijos-Carter Treaty with General Omar Torrijos , according to which the canal was to be returned to Panama by the year 2000, which then happened on December 31, 1999 at 12 noon. Since then, the canal has been administered by the Panama Canal Authority (Span. Autoridad del Canal de Panamá - ACP ). The authority is autonomous, but its board is appointed by the Panamanian President.

On July 15, 2013, the authorities stopped a ship that was supposed to transport two containers with (presumably) rocket equipment from Cuba to North Korea - hidden under sugar sacks. Panama's President Martinelli said: “You cannot simply transport undeclared weapons through the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal is a canal of peace, not war ”.

Plans to replace the Panama Canal with another Central America Canal

In connection with the disputes over the Panama Canal in 1964 , plans were again discussed to pierce Central America at another point, since there were limits to expansion of the Panama Canal and its traffic capacity was exhausted at the end of the 1960s. Punctures in Mexico , Nicaragua / Costa Rica , Panama and Colombia were considered . In all cases, the new canal to be built should be built without locks, as the difference in level between the Pacific and Atlantic was kept to be minimal.

All the projects briefly listed below would take five to ten years to build and would cost billions of dollars to build.


The Mexico planning provided for a breakthrough at the isthmus of Tehuantepec from the mouth of the Coatzacoalcos River on the Atlantic along the river to the Gulf of Tehuantepec . With conventional working methods, the canal should be 266 kilometers long, more than three times as long as the Panama Canal. The United States also considered in the 1960s, as part of Operation Plowshare, blasting with the help of nuclear charges , which would then have resulted in a canal length of 150 miles.

Nicaragua / Costa Rica

As early as the middle of the 16th century, Spanish colonialists were considering a canal along the San Juan River between what is now Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the south. The American railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) earned part of his fortune through the gold rush by bringing adventurers and prospectors from the east coast of North America - via Nicaragua - to California in the 1840s and 1850s. At that time there was no rail link through North America. Vanderbilt secured the rights to build a canal and route through Nicaragua for his Accessory Transit Company.

Napoleon III also considered building a canal through Nicaragua . France's last emperor (1852–1870). His intervention in Mexico from January 1862 to March 1867 ended in defeat and the execution of the French in 1864 as Emperor of Mexico used Maximilian I .

The cut through Nicaragua was planned parallel to the border with Costa Rica and should cut through the southern part of Lake Nicaragua, the conventional route would have been 270 kilometers and a route with the help of nuclear blasting 225 kilometers. The Nicaragua Canal would have cut the border with Costa Rica and would also reach the Pacific in the area of ​​Costa Rica. Nicaragua wants to revive the plans with a law of July 3, 2012. This law grants a Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. (HKND) the rights to build and operate the canal for an initial period of 50 years (renewable for a further 50 years). HKND or its owner, investor Wang Jing, will own 49% and Nicaragua 51% of the shares.

In the summer of 2014, HKND announced the routing of the El Gran Canal , from the mouth of the Río Punta Gorda on the Caribbean coast to the mouth of the Río Brito on the Pacific side, and announced that the construction work should start in 2014. With the planned route, the canal should have a length of 278 kilometers and a width between 230 and 530 meters. The Canal Company's office at the International Finance Center in Hong Kong closed in April 2018.


For Panama there were two possible new canal routes that were measured:

  1. A channel from the Gulf of San Blas on the Atlantic Ocean with a length of 64 kilometers
  2. A canal route from the Atlantic to the Bay of San Miguel on the so-called Sasardi-Morti route with a length of 97 kilometers


The canal project in Colombia envisaged a breakthrough using the Atrato and Truando river beds and should have a length of 153 kilometers. The People's Republic of China and Colombia have been negotiating the construction of a railway line as "dry competition" to the Panama Canal since the beginning of 2011 . Another alternative would be across the San Juan River, which flows into the Pacific. However, this requires the division of a mountain and would then only be of use to smaller ships.

See also



  • IL Maduro's Souvenir Store (Ed.): Souvenir of Panama and the Canal . Maduro's Souvenir Store, Panama 1918 (English).
  • Jörn Brossmann: The expansion of the Panama Canal . In: HANSA . No. 11 , 2007, ISSN  0017-7504 , p. 72-75 .
  • Richard Hennig : The History of Central American Canal Enterprises . In: Conrad Matschoss (ed.): Contributions to the history of technology and industry . tape 4 . Springer, 1912, ZDB -ID 2238668-3 , p. 113–146 ( full text online ).
  • Rolt Hammond, CJ Lewin: The Panama Canal . F. Muller, London 1966 (English).
  • David Howarth: Panama Canal. Explorers, pirates, technicians . Hestia, Bayreuth 1989, ISBN 3-7770-0410-3 (Original title: The Golden Isthmus . Translated by Reinhard Federmann, with a contribution by Michael P. Sommer).
  • Hans Hummel: The goal is England . Biography of Ferdinand de Lesseps. Vorwerk, Berlin 1939, DNB  574050345 .
  • David G. McCullough: They divided the earth . Adventure and history of the building of the Panama Canal. Droemer Knaur, Munich 1982, ISBN 3-426-03657-6 (Original title: The path between the seas . Translated by Wolfgang J. Helbich).
  • Emil Maurer: The Panama Canal yesterday and today . Goldmann, Leipzig 1943, DNB  575031492 .
  • Gustavo A. Mellander: The United States in Panamanian Politics . The intriguing formative years. Interstate Publishers, Danville Ill 1971 (English).
  • Gustavo A. Mellander et al. a .: The Panama Years . Editorial Plaza Mayor, Río Piedras Puerto Rico 1999, ISBN 1-56328-155-4 (English, focus on history).
  • Alexander Missal: Seaway to the Future . American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin 2008, ISBN 0-299-22940-8 .
  • A. and H. Säuberlich: Roller coaster in Panama . Tow locomotives on the rack. In: Lok Magazin . Volume 41, No. 252 . GeraNova, 2002, ISSN  0458-1822 , p. 64/65 .
  • Hans-Georg Glasemann: The French Panama Canal Company and other Central American transport projects . Norderstedt: BoD - Books on Demand, 2019, DNB  1182714420 .



  • Marie Galante . Spy movie. 1934.
  • Adventure in Panama . 1942 (with Humphrey Bogart et al.).
  • Panama Canal. Documentation on the history of the construction of the Panama Canal, USA 2011
  • National Geographic documentary about the development of canal construction up to the Panama Canal
  • Impossible Engineering: Panama Canal Overhaul , Science Channel Documentation (2017)

Web links

Commons : Panama Canal  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Panama Canal  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikivoyage: Panama Canal  Travel Guide

Individual evidence

  1. Transit Statistics. Panama Canal Authority, accessed July 12, 2020 .
  2. Transit statistics. Panama Canal Authority, accessed June 15, 2014 .
  3. a b After nine years of construction: the larger Panama Canal is ready . Münchner Merkur , June 26, 2016, accessed June 26, 2016.
  4. ^ Frank Binder: Canal strike slows growth in Panama. In: Daily port report from August 6, 2014, p. 2.
  5. Deutsche Seeschifffahrt February 2014, pp. 30–33: Oh how expensive is Panama. (P. 32).
  6. Different lengths between 76 and 82 kilometers are mentioned, depending on where exactly the end points are set and how the curves in Gatúnsee are measured. A path measurement on Google Earth showed 81.7 kilometers.
  7. This is the Canal on the website of the 'Autoridad del Canal de Panamá' / Panama Canal Authority.
  8. Article 315 of the Panamanian Constitution
  9. a b c d Annual Report 2011 on the ACP website
  10. ^ Treaty concerning the permanent neutrality and operation of the Panama Canal . (PDF)
  11. The ACP achieved a total turnover of 2.3 billion Balboa, as it also has income from electricity and water supplies. The net profit from all activities was 1.229 billion Balboa
  12. FAQ Tolls and Transit on the website of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá / Panama Canal Authority
  13. a b ACP fee table ( Memento of August 8, 2016 in the Internet Archive )
  14. ^ A b Hydroelectric Plants in Panama . July 5, 2015. Archived from the original on January 26, 2013. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
  15. More precisely: 85 feet = 25.9 meters
  16. a b c d e FAQ Physical Characteristics on the website of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá / Panama Canal Authority
  17. a b c d El Canal Actual ( Memento from 7 July 2012 in the Internet Archive )
  18. When assessing the savings, the V-shaped profile of the incision must be taken into account: every deepening of the incision also means an expansion of the profile and thus a multiple of the excavation required.
  19. See the photo in El Canal Actual ( Memento of July 7, 2012 in the Internet Archive ), p. 17
  20. Panama Canal Authority - Culebra Cut Widening Completed (November 7, 2001)
  21. Panama Canal Authority Reduces Time Vessels Take to Travel the Canal by more than 16 Percent (November 21, 2002)
  22. The canal and its structures were planned, built and described in the Anglo-American system of measurement , mostly using smooth numbers for the measurements in feet , which when converted into meters (1 foot = 0.3048 meters) consistently lead to strange-seeming crooked numbers.
  23. FAQ No. 3 on PMSML - Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level
  24. Samuel F. Hildebrand (1939): The Panama Canal as a Passage for Fishes ...
  25. The length of the chambers is often given indiscriminately as 1000 or 1050 feet.
  26. (description of the locks on page 169)
  27. Art. 52 ff Regulation for Navigation in Canal Waters (PDF) on the website of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá / Panama Canal Authority (outdated, creation date: January 16, 2008)
  28. Salt water has a higher density than fresh water and therefore a higher bearing capacity. TFW is defined in the Regulations for Navigation as: Tropical fresh water of Gatun Lake, density .9954 gms / cc, at 29.1 ° Centigrade (85 ° F)
  29. OP Notice to Shipping N-1-2012 (Rev. 1) - Vessel Requirements, 2. Size and Draft Limitations of Vessels ( Memento of May 10, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) on the website of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá / Panama Canal Authority
  31. The double lock gates are clearly visible in Google Earth and on various photos.
  32. a b Locks Design in A History of the Panama Canal; on the website of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá / Panama Canal Authority
  33. George W. Goethals: The Panama Canal; The Locks ... February 10, 1911. At:
  34. Sketch of a lock chamber of the Gatún locks in Goethals: The Panama Canal.
  35. 33.53 meters wide × 327.66 meters long × 9.2 meters stroke = 101,075 m³
  36. The size of the ships has no influence on this.
  37. 1 = 3.785411787 liters
  38. Annual report 1998 . ( Memento of May 11, 2013 in the Internet Archive ; PDF) Mitsubishi Corporation, p. 18 (English).
  39. Art. 53 Regulation for Navigation
  40. El Canal Actual ( Memento of 7 July 2012 in the Internet Archive ) contains impressive photos of the greatest possible drainage from the dams on p. 19 f.
  41. NASA
  42. Taking into account special features such as groupings of smaller ships in a chamber, etc.
  43. OP Notice to Shipping N-7-2012 ( Memento of May 11, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) on the website of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá / Panama Canal Authority
  44. Monthly Canal Operations Summary - may 2012 (PDF) Advisory to shipping No. A-10-2012; on the website of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá / Panama Canal Authority
  45. El Canal Actual ( Memento of July 7, 2012 in the Internet Archive ), p. 14 f
  46. ^ Section Two, Steering and sailing rules, Rule 5.7
  47. Récord en pago de peajes y reserva. In: Panamá, April 24, 2007.
  48. Cupo de subasta del Canal alcanza record. ( Memento from October 20, 2011 in the Internet Archive ). In: Panamá, August 25, 2006.
  49. ^ Richard Halliburton: New Worlds to Conquer . Garden City Publishing, New York 1929.
  50. ^ El Canal Actual ( Memento of July 7, 2012 in the Internet Archive ), p. 19
  51. ^ El Canal Actual ( Memento of July 7, 2012 in the Internet Archive ), pp. 22/23
  52. El Canal Actual ( Memento of July 7, 2012 in the Internet Archive ), pp. 17 f, 23/24
  53. ^ El Canal Actual ( Memento of July 7, 2012 in the Internet Archive ), pp. 21/22
  54. ^ El Canal Actual ( Memento of July 7, 2012 in the Internet Archive ), pp. 24/25
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  56. New Bridge ( Memento from March 29, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) (January 2013)
  57. ^ Abre al tránsito vehicular Puente Atlántico construido por el Canal de Panamá - Canal de Panamá. Retrieved September 14, 2019 (Spanish).
  58. ^ Proposal for the Expansion of the Panama Canal (PDF) on the ACP website
  59. VINCI wins the contract to build the bridge over the Atlantic estuary of the Panama Canal. Retrieved September 14, 2019 .
  60. ^ Abre al tránsito vehicular Puente Atlántico construido por el Canal de Panamá - Canal de Panamá. Retrieved September 14, 2019 (Spanish).
  61. Neue Zürcher Zeitung Online (September 4, 2007) "13 tons of explosives to celebrate the day"
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  66. ARD Tagesschau Online (October 23, 2006): The Panama Canal is being expanded ( archive)
  67. ^ Die Welt Online (October 23, 2006): The Panama Canal is being expanded
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  70. The job of the underwater woodcutter | Galileo | ProSieben, published September 10, 2016, accessed February 9, 2019 - video (9:51).
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This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on July 14, 2012 .

Coordinates: 9 ° 4 ′ 48 ″  N , 79 ° 40 ′ 48 ″  W.