Looking down on the huge torrents of water flowing through the locks, and the massive steel doors that close to control the flow of water, it’s hard not to be impressed by the Panama Canal.

This amazing feat of engineering was high on my list of must-sees when my boyfriend and I headed down to Central America  for a trip after I’d been working in Austin, Texas, for a couple of weeks.

Ever since we’d seen a documentary on the canal it had been a place that we decided we just had to see at least once in our lives.

The Panama Canal has seen billions of dollars of foreign investment pour into Panama, giving the country one of the highest standards of living in Central America. Officially opened in 1914, it wasn’t actually handed over to Panama until 31 December 1999.

The canal is around 80 kilometres long, and its three locks control the flow of water, lifting and lowering the water level 26 metres to allow ships to pass through from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and vice versa. For an Aussie with severe restrictions on how much water we’re allowed to use because of long-standing drought, the amount of fresh water that is flushed into the sea as each ship passes through is staggering: 197 million litres. Did I say per ship?

Most people head straight to the Miraflores Locks to see the Panama Canal, the easiest of the locks to visit. It’s just outside of Panama City, and easily accessed by local bus (the Rojo Diablos, or red devils) or taxi. As the closest, it’s got a great museum, restaurants and several platforms to view from. Of course, this also makes it the busiest.

While we did go to Miraflores, we also decided to see another side of the canal, and boarded the Panama Railway bound for Colón, on the Atlantic Ocean.

Before I go on, it’s worth mentioning that Lonely Planet describes Colón as “best avoided” and capable of sending “shivers down the spines of hardened travellers and Panamanians alike”.  We had no problems, and I didn’t feel unsafe, but our driver did surreptitiously show us the gun he kept in his glove box (although he wouldn’t tell us if he’d ever had to use it before). He also cautioned us against travelling alone, and was very reluctant to drop us off at the bus stop by ourselves after we’d tired of his company. While I had my suspicions about his motives, and guessed that he would have preferred to keep us scared so we’d continue to use (and pay for) his services throughout the day, I’m not going to argue with a big guy with a gun.

When we stepped off the glass-domed train in Colón – a two hour round trip which takes you on a picturesque journey along the canal – we were immediately surrounded by touts, all wanting to take us on a tour to rescue us from the danger that awaited us outside the station gates. For a price, of course.

“This city is very dangerous.”

“Many people have been killed here.”

“You can’t take a bus or a taxi – you will be robbed.”

Reluctantly, we succumbed to the pressure and climbed into a big SUV, the doors immediately locked behind us. Oh, and that’s when our driver showed us the gun.

The Gatún Locks – only about 10 minutes by car from the train station – were amazing. We were the only people there, and the viewing platform was so close we could almost reach out to touch the vessels inching past, each barely centimetres from touching the sides of the lock. We got the full treatment from the man in charge – he told us the history of the canal, showed us the records of some of the ships that had passed through that day, and explained how the pilot system works (a ship captain has to hand over control to one of the Panama Canal pilots, who drives (is that even the right word to use?!) the vessel through the entire length of the canal – it’s the only place in the world where this happens apparently). Quite good service, I say.

If you’re interested in the Panama Canal and want to see it up close, without the crowds, consider taking the train to Colón. Or, better yet, find a way to get on one of the boats going through. I didn’t get the chance to do this, but it’s on my travel wish list!