At the center of one of the world’s greatest engineering projects is a place where nature has been given a space to flourish—the vast Gatún Lake. The lake includes some 33 kilometers (20 miles) of the 77-kilometer (48-mile) route that ships follow through the Panama Canal. While a passenger gazing at its forested shores may assume they are looking at a landscape that predates the canal, the lake is as much a manmade creation as the various locks. It was formed in 1912, with the damming of the Chagres River, and the islands that dot the lake were once the peaks of hills.
The surface of the lake sits at an elevation of between 25 and 27 meters (82 and 87 feet) above sea level. At its Caribbean end, the Gatún Locks raise ships traveling towards the Pacific to the level of the lake; at its other end, the Pedro Miguel and then the Miraflores Locks lower them back to sea level. In addition to opportunities to see the infrastructure of the canal, created at the expense of millions of dollars and thousands of lives, Gatún Lake is fascinating for its remarkable biodiversity. More than 100 species each of mammals and reptiles, as well as some 500 different birds, thrive in the nature reserves in and near the lake.