Didn´t really see the Canal till my 4th and final day in PC. Went to the Miraflores Locks where there´s an observation platform allowing you to see the ships as they get lifted up by the water. Some of the fun facts: the 3 different steps of locks on each side (Pacific, Caribbean) lift the ships a total of 27 meters, 70% of the canal traffic is US-related coming or going (mostly coming obviously), they recently started constructing a 3rd set of locks that will be wider so as to accommmodate the bigger and bigger vessels being constructed...to be finished in 2014. The US ran the canal from 1914 when it opened to the last day of 1999. Kind of hard to believe the US held on to a slice of Panama and kept it as US territory for so much time, although without US technical expertise, organizational skills, and logistical capability the Canal certainly would not have been completed as early as it was or maybe never. The canal is now run by a Chinese company (statistics indicate it´s being run more efficiently than before)...and the expansion of the canal will largely serve Chinese interests by allowing larger and larger ships through, thereby achieving economies of scale in transportation costs. The result of all this being we get to sell ourselves to our good Chinese friends even faster.
The largest ships pay up to $300,000 or so today to cross, depending on weight. During US administration it was mainly run on a non-profit basis. One thing I´d wondered is what keeps the Panamanians from price gouging on the tolls since no obvious competitor exists. I can´t answer that question exactly but will say that other alternatives do exist and would become more viable as canal tolls go up. Alternatives include the Suez Canal, railroad traffic across the States, new canals in Colombia, Mexico, or Nicaragua, and even a Northwest Passage ice route taking advantage of rising global temperatures and possibly a Pacific warm water current to melt ice in the Arctic to create an opening in the ice.
I actually stayed a night on old Fort Clayton, which was the US Army base down here that closed when we turned everything over to the Panamanians. Not hard to tell that the area once had military bases...the aligned rows of housing, sports fields, the airfield at Albrook, and the rest are all still there, serving different functions. It all created for me a bit of nostalgia for a bygone era. The Panamanians seem to be making good use of it all.