Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is one of the world’s greatest marvels. It stretches for 80 kilometers and connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean.

Around 14,500 vessels pass the Canal each year. There are even ships that were built based on the Canal’s original lock dimensions of 330 meters long and 33.5 meters wide.

The Canal has three sets of double locks: The Miraflores and Pedro Miguel on the Pacific side, and the Gatún on the Atlantic. Its 10-year expansion was completed in 2016, adding two three-chambered locks. This allows the passage of super-sized “neo-Panamax” ships like the Cocoli on the Pacific and Agua Clara on the Atlantic. 

Ships pass between the locks through a vast artificial lake called the Lago Gatún. The Gatún Dam created it across the Río Chagres and the Culebra Cut, a 12.7km trench through the mountains.

With each ship’s passage, a stunning 197 million liters of fresh water is released into the ocean.

6 Historical Facts About the Panama Canal

The idea to build a canal across Panama dates back to the 16th century.

Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa became the first European to discover the Isthmus of Panama in 1513. He also found out that there is a narrow land bridge separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Balboa’s discovery started a search for a natural waterway linking the two oceans.

When no such passage was found, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered a survey in 1534.

Its purpose is to know if it is possible to build a passage in the Canal. But the surveyors believed that the construction of a ship canal was impossible.

Here are six more facts about the Panama Canal:

1. People Were Convicted

The men who built the Suez Canal and Eiffel Tower were convicted due to the failed effort to make the Panama canal.

In the following centuries, various nations considered developing a Panamanian canal. Yet, a real attempt wasn’t made until the 1880s.

In 1881, a French company headed by a former diplomat who developed Egypt’s Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, began digging a canal across Panama.

De Lesseps wants to build the Canal at sea level without locks, like the Suez Canal. But the process proved far more complicated than expected. 

The project failed due to poor planning, engineering problems, and diseases that plagued the workers.

The designer of the famous tower in Paris, Gustave Eiffel, was then hired to create locks for the Canal. At the time, the French had dropped more than $260 million into the canal construction and dug more than 70 million cubic yards of earth.

The canal venture’s collapse caused a major scandal in France.

De Lesseps and his son Charles, along with Eiffel and other company executives, were charged with fraud and mismanagement.

In 1893, they were found guilty, fined, and sentenced to prison, although it was overturned eventually. 

After the scandal, Eiffel retired and devoted himself to scientific research. Meanwhile, Ferdinand de Lesseps died in 1894.

In that same year, a new French company took over the bankrupt business’s assets and continued the project. But this new company abandoned the venture as well.

2. America Wants a Canal in Nicaragua

The United States wanted to build a canal that would link the Atlantic and Pacific for economic and military reasons. And they were considering Nicaragua as an ideal location.

But a change of plan happened, thanks to a French engineer, Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla. 

In the late 1890s, Bunau-Varilla began persuading American lawmakers to buy the French canal assets in Panama. He was also able to convince them that Nicaragua had dangerous volcanoes. Thus, making the former a safer choice.

In 1902, Congress authorized to buy the French assets. But when Colombia refused to agree in the following year, the United States started building the Canal.

With encouragement from Bunau-Varilla and approval from President Theodore Roosevelt, the Panamanians defied against Colombia and declared its independence.

Soon afterwards, the U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and Bunau-Varilla acted as a representative of Panama’s provisional government. They created the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, giving America the right to survey over 500 square miles of land. This is where they would construct a canal. 

Controlled by the Americans, they shelled out $375 million for the Canal Zone. This includes the $10 million payment to Panama as a 1903 treaty condition and $40 million to buy the French assets.

3. A Disease Plagued Over 25,000 Workers

The canal builders had to go through a variety of obstacles. This includes challenging terrain, hot climate, heavy rainfall, and rampant tropical diseases.

Moreover, the French’s previous attempts had led to the deaths of more than 20,000 workers. The United States faced the same fate when in 1904 to 1913, some 5,600 workers died due to disease or accidents.

The earlier deaths are due to yellow fever and malaria. Back then, it is believed that these diseases are due to bad air and dirty conditions.

But by the early 20th century, medical experts discovered that mosquitoes carry these diseases. This led to a host of sanitation measures, which reduced the number of deaths among canal workers.

4. Around 14,000 Uses the Canal Annually

The American ships are the ones who use the Canal the most, followed by vessels from China, Chile, Japan, Colombia, and South Korea.

Every vessel that passes the Canal must pay a toll based on its size and cargo volume. Tolls for the largest ships can cost around $450,000.

The smallest toll ever paid was 36 cents in 1928 by an American adventurer Richard Halliburton who wanted to swim through the Canal.

Nowadays, around $1.8 million are collected every year.

On average, it takes a ship 8 to 10 hours to navigate through the Canal. While moving through it, a system of locks lists each vessel 85 feet above sea level.

A ship’s captain isn’t allowed to pass through the Canal on their own. Instead, a trained canal pilot takes control of each vessel to guide it through the waterway.

In 2010, the millionth vessel, Fortune Plum, crossed the Canal since it first opened in 1914.

5. Control of the Panama Canal was Transferred in 1990

In the years after the Canal opened, pressure over the control of the Canal increased between America and Panama.

In 1964, Panamanians rioted after being stopped from flying their nation’s flag next to a U.S. flag in the Canal Zone. In the aftermath of the violence, Panama ceased its diplomatic relations with the United States.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos of Panama signed an accord. It is an agreement that transfers the control of the Panama Canal. Yet, the United States remains its right to use military force to defend the waterway against its neutrality threat. 

Despite many politicians’ opposition, the U.S. Senate solidified the Torrijos-Carter Treaties by a narrow margin in 1978. The control of the Canal was transferred peacefully to Panama in December 1999, and the Panamanians have been responsible for it ever since.

6. The Canal was Expanded for Mega Ships

In 2007, the expansion project began on a $5.25 billion budget. This will enable the Canal to handle post-Panamax ships, which exceeds the dimensions to fit through the Canal. 

The expanded Canal can handle cargo vessels that carry 14,000 20-foot containers. That is three times the amount that the Canal can accommodate at that time.

The expansion project includes creating a new, larger lock set, and the widening and deepening of existing channels. But while the new locks can fit many modern ships, they still won’t be big enough for some vessels like Maersk’s Triple E class ships.

The planet’s biggest container ships measure 194 feet wide and 1,312 feet long. And it boasts a capacity of 18,000 20-foot containers.

Cruising into Panama Canal

For some travelers, cruising is like a dirty word. It is always associated with conga lines, endless buffets, or hairy chest contests. But it doesn’t always have to be like that.

Many cruises provide a 360-degree view of a country and its culture. Plus, they can offer a different kind of adventure.

Meanwhile, Panama is known for its lush rainforests, large water bodies, and teeming with wildlife. This makes the country the perfect backdrop when looking for a different kind of excursion. 

Currents of History

One option offered is the Panama Canal Expedition Cruise and Adventure by EcoCircuitos. It is a tourism organization that promotes ecotourism and education.

The seven-day excursion brings you up close to Panamanian culture on the ground and onboard the 110-foot Panama Discovery.

A crew of 11 members navigates his 24-guest vessel. It is also equipped with kayaks and snorkeling gear.  

From visits to the renowned BioMuseo to promenading the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo and Casco Viejo, the long history of Panama and its culture comes into focus during the first two days.

You will also get to visit the Cathedral Tower in Old Panama. And you can experience flavorful cuisines with a mix of Colon, Spanish, and African influences.

Passageway to Adventure

The adventure begins with a southbound passage down the Panama Canal.

Sailing down the massive body of water that was utterly human-made is hard to believe. As shown in documentaries and school books, the Panama Canal is an absolute engineering marvel. It can’t be described enough how breathtaking the Panama Canal truly is, and the sheer scale feels impossible to picture. 

Place yourself at the front of the ship for a unique view of the lock system’s magnificent workings. It’s one thing to view on the side and look down from the Miraflores Visitor Center.

The other is on the water, waiting for the giant metal doors to open and go with you through to the Pacific Ocean.

Visiting the Emberá

You’ll know you are in Emberá when a motorboat docks to the edge of the river. Driving it is your host wearing his clothes made of brightly-colored fabrics.

And after the long hour of a ride up the Rio Sambú, the smiling faces of the Emberá people are a welcome sight.

The indigenous Emberá, or “The River People,” have lived in the Darién region for centuries. They work with the tour operators to showcase their culture to travelers.

Sitting under a mane roof made of Nahuala palm leaves, the village’s chief gives visitors knowledge on the Emberá way of life. They also pass around meticulous carvings made from the tagua nut, along with it are woven baskets and masks from the Nahuala palm fibers.

Panama’s Natural Playground

The cruise continues along with a visit to one of its most popular destinations, the Pearl Islands.

Famous for its abundance of pearl oysters, the Pearl Islands is a natural playground found in the Gulf of Panama. No wonder Survivor spent a season in this archipelago. 

The abundant collection of islands offer sand and surf for a little relaxation. They also boast jagged rocks for exploration and calm waters along the shorelines for kayaking.

You can also see a school of fishes like the parrotfish, the king angelfish, and the Cortez rainbow wrasses when snorkeling.

Panama lets you experience an exciting food culture, together with its stunning scenes and innovative architecture. No wonder the people in this country always have a lot to offer.