|You cannot visit Panama City without visiting the Canal located right next to the city. Especially since this year marks its 100th anniversary since its opening on August 15, 1913. It's also the last year before the opening of its new bigger locks that will accommodate even larger ships.|
When the Spaniards arrived in early
1500 on the Caribbean coast of current Panama they were indicated by
the natives a route to take to reach the other ocean (which they
reached in 1513). That's how they were able to establish Panama
Viejo, the first location of the city and the first Spanish
settlement on the Pacific coast.
It was used by the Spaniards for
centuries to transport the gold from the New World to Spain. This
transit route quickly proved itself invaluable for the commerce
around the world. As long as the boats weren't too big the natural
route was sufficient.
Ship leaving the Miraflores locks... 16 metres higher.
France and United States
With the industrialization of the 19th
century, the boats got way too big to use this natural way. In 1881,
strong with the success of the Suez canal construction, France began
digging the canal but after 20 years of hard work plagued by
technical challenges, financial problems and high mortality rate the
abandoned the project.
In 1903, Panama declared its
independence from Colombia and immediately signed an agreement with
the US to complete the canal. Work resumed in 1904 to be completed
10 years later. But the help of the Americans came with a very high
price tag: total control over the canal and its surroundings. The
country of Panama was literally divided in two parts with a central
band belonging to the US.
The Americans were treating the
Panamanians worst (in their own country!) than they were treating the
afro-Americans on US mainland. The Panama flag was forbidden within
the Canal Zone. That led to many manifestations including a very
violent one in 1964, which really sparked the strong sovereignty
movement in Panama. The parameter around the Canal Zone was enforced
by high fences with barbwires. It was often associated to the Berlin
In 1977, treaties were signed to
install dual control over the Canal until total transfer to Panama
government on December 31st, 1999.
Since Panama took over, they turned it
into a major tourist attraction, building a very nice visitors
centre right at the Miraflores lock. They have a nice exhibit on
site that is complemented by another museum on the history of the
Canal in town.
Visitors centre, with observation deck, museum and cinema.
There are currently three locks raising
the boats a total of 26 meters above sea level to cross over the
Gatun lake until the other side. On the Pacific side, a set of two
locks do the job and only one on the Atlantic side. The current
expansion is done by building new locks West of the current ones.
They are building only one lock at each end which will ease transit.
The project is over 80% completed.
To reduce the impact on the nature
along the canal sometimes narrow stretches they now adopted new
traffic rules making the boats transit from Pacific to Atlantic in
the morning and the other way around in the afternoon.
A full transit of the 77 kilometres of
the canal takes 8 to 10 hours. Usually, the big boats (who have
priority since the toll is fixed by weight) have to wait one or two
days before their turn. The toll for large boats is currently between
US$300 000 and US$400 000, depending on their weight. But that's
little price to pay to not have to go through Tierra Del Fuego at the
Southern tip of South America... that would cost them 20 to 30 days
of extra navigation time.
This marvel of engineering is not a
UNESCO site, and it's not even on the tentative list! Its political
history might be amongst the reasons why. In the last decade or so,
I suspect the Canal expansion with possible environmental concerns
were also an issue.