A Travellerspoint blog


The Panama Canal

sunny 31 °C

The Panama Canal took just 500 years to become an overnight success.

The Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 and declared that a canal would be great for shipping tons of looted Aztec gold back to Spain from Peru. “Una buena idea Vasco”, but way ahead of your time. The Scots had a better idea in 1690 when they named the Darién isthmus New Caledonia and thought everyone would be happy if they cut a road through the jungle. “Nae sa fast laddie - the natives are nae pleased.” The Yanks tried in 1826 but Colombian President Simon Bolivar was having none of their imperialistic nonsense, “No hay manero amigos!” And in 1843 the Brits tried, but never got a spade in the ground. “Sorry old chap. Bad luck.” After the Californian gold rush in 1849 the Yanks had another go, but built a railway instead, “Good call Joe– but no cigar.” and then came the French in 1880. “Ce n'est pas un problème. We 'ave dug zhe Suez canal.” But the Suez canal looks nothing like this...
Digging a canal through a mountain range in a disease ridden, mosquito infested, tropical jungle full of jaguars and crocodiles proved too much for the French. Twenty two thousand men died, and eight hundred thousand French investors lost their shirts in the biggest corruption scandal of the 19th century. They paid a very high price, but made a good start by chopping 320 feet off the top of this mountain...
The Americans got a fire-sale deal from the French in 1904 and spent $380 million finishing the work. They used more than a hundred thousand tons of explosives to shift 300 million tons of rock, (and the French had already excavated 100 million tons). But it takes a lot to make an enormous hole through mountains this big...
That was enough rock and earth to fill train wagons stretching all the way around the world four times.
The 51 mile long Panama Canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914, and the 12 locks in use today are the original ones that are lined with solid concrete walls and floors 60 feet thick. That's a ton of cement! And these steel lock gates weigh over 600 tons each...
As soon as the canal was finished it was realised that the locks should have been wider to accommodate the ever expanding merchant ships, but it wasn't until 2016 that a set of new, supersized, locks were opened. The giant ship in the background is dwarfed by the enormous banks on the new canal. It is carrying upwards of 8,000 containers...
Container ships pay $99 for each full container to use the canal, ($59 for empties), and some have paid over a million dollars. Cruise liners like this one in the Miraflores lock pay $149 for each berth, (occupied or not)...
Just one more thing. The Panama canal is the only seaway in the world where the pilot takes full command of every vessel and here's our pilot, Juan, on the bridge with the bo'sun...
Thanks to Juan, and the nearly thirty thousand men who died creating this magnificent feat of engineering, we sail serenly across the Isthmus of Panama on a canal that links two oceans and we pass the continental divide...
We started in the Pacific, but from here on it is all downhill to the Atlantic. It only takes a few hours – but what a ride!

Posted by Hawkson 06:42 Archived in Panama Comments (8)

Panama – Not Just a Tax Haven

sunny 30 °C

When British privateer Captain Henry Morgan destroyed the original Spanish city of Panama in 1671, the survivors abandoned the ruins and built a new city in a more defensible place at the estuary of the Chagres River. This is now the place where the Panama Canal meets the Pacific Ocean and from our hotel on its bank we watch the ships entering and leaving the canal...
We are visiting Panama for one reason – to travel on the Panama Canal. However, some of our fellow travellers may have other, more sinister, motives for coming here. We were surprised leaving Cancun airport when our bags were searched for foreign currency. Then, on arrival, the singular preoccupation of the Panamanian customs seemed to be how much cash we had.

Then we remembered that Panama got a bad rap in 2015 when it was revealed that it held 214,488 shell companies for some fairly dodgy foreigners who, presumably, turned up with suitcases of loot. Ah. If only we had that kind of money! The other reason that the city of Panama, and our hotel, is packed with visitors at present is that the Pope is coming on January 26th and there are thousands of his acolytes already laying the groundwork. We wondered if the upcoming visit was the reason that teams of young people were clearing garbage off the beach...
Panama's old city has a lot of garbage in certain areas and great strides are being made to tidy the place up. However, the new city, financed largely by foreign investors, is a skyline of gleaming spires and adventurous architecture rivalling Vancouver...
....Down at street level it is not such a pretty picture. There are squalid tenements and shanties redolent of many third world countries and there are whole areas where we would not venture. But the buildings in the centre of the old city, Casco Viejo, are undergoing a major facelift. This is the Catedral Metropolitana on the central plaza...
While this is one of the many partly restored surrounding streets that are reminiscent of Old Havana...
There are also a number of preserved historic sites like the ruins of the 1678 Convent of Santo Domingo...
The market in the central Plaza Catedral is the place that all tourists are expected to buy a Panama hat...
But we know from our travels that all true Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador.
One handmade product that is a speciality in Panama is an intricate form of quilting called mola. Many indigenous women from the San Blas Islands off the east coast sell this unique form of reverse applique in the market and wear beautiful clothes made from the same colourful cloths.
While this artist was painstakingly painting beautiful headgear. We wonder who will be lucky enough to get this one!
We've booked our passage through the Panama Canal and will be back in a couple of days with tales of this manmade wonder of the world. Hasta luego.

Posted by Hawkson 17:16 Archived in Panama Comments (4)

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