The last time someone dug a trench through the Isthmus of Panama, the result was declared the greatest wonder of its age. It’s being done again–mountains toppled, earth moved by the millions of tons, oceans connected–and the wonder this time is that anyone notices.
The new locks also operate differently. While the old chambers feature miter gates–which open and close like double doors–the new gates, made in Italy, slide in from one side, like a pocket door. The freshwater from the lake above will rush in and out through cavernous, curving culverts that, as workers complete the finishing touches, feel like something from King Solomon’s Mines. Basins next to each lock will store water for a single reuse, reducing freshwater usage by 7% per passage. The same new locks are also being installed on the Atlantic side, but in the midsection of the isthmus all ships will continue to steam along the original waterway, which has been upgraded.
Curves in the famous Culebra Cut, named for the mountain ridge the original canal had to be cut through, are being widened to ease turns for the bigger ships.
Metal communication towers are going up behind the picturesque lighthouses that string the length of the canal, along which 625 new lights are being installed.
Everything is bigger and more efficient–but also a bit less interesting than in the old canal, like a dull I-95 compared with the kicks of Route 66. But superhighways are what the Seven Seas have become. The number of cargo ships worldwide has more than quadrupled over the past 20 years, to 50,000 vessels carrying $13 trillion in goods each year. In a world economy bound together by supply chains–cars to China, sneakers to Houston–sea travel long ago ceased being leisurely. The canal takes reservations months in advance, collecting a 15% booking fee on a toll that often runs to $400,000 but guarantees passage in no less than 18 hours.
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