Watching Paint Dry in the Panama Canal

People choose their holiday destinations for many different reasons: competition, nostalgia, comfort, change of pace, ego, history, anthropology, archaeology, partying, you name it.

Sometimes — and often you don’t know it until you get there — you have to go somewhere in person because there is just no other way to live it. Nothing can explain, describe, or picture for you the experience of stepping out to jaywalk across eleven lanes of two-wheeled traffic on a street in Hanoi. You can watch a hundred travelogues about the wonders of Ancient Egypt, but the grandeur of Khufu’s Pyramid can only be experienced standing beside it looking up. At Niagara Falls it’s the vibration in the ground under your feet that shows you the power. And I gotta say, staring down at a dead cat in the garbage on the street in Cairo gave me a more intimate feeling of the essence of the Souk than any travel documentary could have.

Ticking the Boxes

But other world icons you go to so you can say you’ve been there, and that’s about it. The Panama Canal is one of them. I mean, it’s not as boring as watching paint dry, but it’s in that range.

I knew that ahead of time. As I often do before travelling, I went on YouTube and watched a couple of videos. For most of its length, the canal is just a wide waterway with straight edges and jungle on all sides. Of course, they did choose that route because the terrain was flat. The locks are huge but simple. There are three sets, and the total elevation change is only 27 metres. There’s a lot of water to run in and out, and it takes a long time. The little electric locomotives that tow you through are cute, but they don’t exactly rush.

You want locks, take a self-drive river barge on the Canal du Midi from Toulouse, France to the Mediterranean. 189 metres altitude change, 65 locks, and you operate every one of them yourself. Just watching the tourists getting their boat stuck sideways on the lock is half the fun. On the Panama Canal, stuff like that never happens. Now, the Suez, on the other hand…

Getting There Is All the Fun

In our case, it was more fun to be part of the scenery. We sailed from Barbados on the Royal Clipper, a full-rigged five-masted ship of the sort that used to bring the tea back from China. People on the big cruise ships lined up at the rail to take pictures of us. I’d make a guess we paid three times what those people did, and it was worth every penny. And cruising down the trade winds with all those sails pulling is an experience worth having.

The Bottom Line

So, if you really have to tick off the “Panama Canal” box on your bucket list, make sure it’s part of a trip you’re really going to enjoy. Then you can happily buy the t-shirt and brag to your heart’s content.

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