Wonders of the World: How to Visit the Panama Canal

What actually is The Panama Canal, anyway? Might seem like a dumb question- soz about that- but I myself was genuinely not exactly sure, until I took a trip to the Panama Canal from the port of Colón. My ship never sailed fully through the canal, but when we were given the opportunity to visit as part of a tour, I naturally was well up for taking a look at what is widely considered to be one of the modern wonders of the world. The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific, at the skinniest part of the isthmus of Panama, allowing ships to travel waaaay above sea level and saving them a lengthy alternative trip around the entire of South Africa. It wasn’t just the engineering ingenuity of the canal that struck me- but the sheer magnitude of it- and when we went to the Agua Clara Visitor Centre overlooking one of the locks, I was full on appreciative of the fact that I could not just see what was going on, but learn all about it in the process.

Back when the canal was a twinkle in a Scotsman’s eye…

It turns out that the idea of building a canal connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific has pretty much been around since the Europeans first arrived in Central America in the 1500s; it would make trade with Asia about a hundred times easier and less dangerous, so over time more and more people set about attempting to design something to bridge the gap between the two oceans.

In 1698 while Scotland was still independent, the Scottish saw an opportunity to at least start an overland trade route across the Darien area of Panama (ie, roughly in the region of the canal today), and invested just under a quarter of their entire country’s economy into setting up a colony in order to crack on with trading. Ships were sent to the tropical jungles of the Atlantic shoreline and the settlers decided to name the new land ‘Caledonia’, chopping down as much rainforest as they could in order to build a town called New Edinburgh. Rather awkwardly they sent word home that everything was going just swimmingly, when in fact almost everybody had been struck down by malaria or plain and simple starvation. Unable to trade with the Spanish, who were not their friends, or farm anything of any decent nutritional value, the Scots’ best bet to ward off starvation was to hunt for turtles. But even that didn’t really pay off in the long run; it’s apparently quite an arduous business, turtle-hunting. Over the next couple of years, more and more ships of settlers sailed across the Atlantic to Caledonia, completely oblivious to the fact that they would be landing in a ghost town where it was very likely they would share the same fate as the settlers who had arrived before them. I.e. disease, hunger, and ultimately death. By 1700, Caledonia had finally been abandoned, and the last few stragglers made their way back home to the rather chillier climes that they were used to. Buried somewhere beneath the jungle today, is the graveyard of the Scottish settlers, presumably completely reclaimed by the nature that they chopped down when they first arrived. What a sad, sad situation.

Day trip to the Panama Canal from Colón.

Work on the canal begins

Finally in the late 1900s, the French got involved in things and work begun on a sea-level canal across the isthmus. But- bad times, pals. Things all went a bit wrong, partly due to lack of finances, and partly down to the fact that the engineers and construction workers, who had come from all over the world, were dropping like flies. Tropical diseases were spreading like wildfire and nobody really knew how to control them; while the French were in charge around 22,000 people working on the project died.

Building the Panama Canal back in the 1900s

The US Contingent

Enter: the USA and President Theodore Roosevelt. Back at the turn of the 20th Century, Panama was actually still part of Colombia, and they really wanted their independence. The French-owned land was sold to America, and the US President told the Panamanian rebels that he would back a revolt against Colombia, the crafty old thing. In 1903, Panama successfully became an independent country, helped by Roosevelt, and the newly-formed country soon handed control of the Panama Canal Zone over to the USA. They took control of the building of the canal from that moment on, and the Panama Canal Zone became an occupied US territory, completely independent of the rest of Panama. It was all rather controversial, let’s face it.

From an engineering point of view, the canal’s design changed big time. It was clear that a sea-level canal just wasn’t going to work; a series of locks and dams were constructed in order to take ships into the artificial Lake Gatun, 85 feet above sea level. But clearly the real issue, which would make or break the entire project, was how to go about building this thing without losing another 22,000 men. AWKWARD.

A medical man named William C. Gorgas was appointed to sort out the terrible situation with yellow fever and malaria in the area, and would you believe it, he was the first person to realise the link between mosquitos and the spread of disease. Clever lad! Thanks to this good egg, who did a great job of sorting out the general level of hygiene (although by all accounts, living conditions for the labourers were horrific whichever way you looked at it), and dealing with the mosquito issue, gradually the death toll started to lower in the area. So, not only was the construction of the Panama Canal an important feat of engineering, but it was possibly even more important in terms of the opportunities for medical advancements that it provided.

The Panama Canal at Gatun Lock

The construction of the canal also hugely affected the population of Panama; around 75,000 people in total worked on it, breaking through the ground day by day for ten years. They came from all over the place- huge numbers of immigrants of African and Caribbean descent, from Europe, and from China and India came to work in Panama, and many of those who survived, stayed. There was also already an indigenous population which was pretty sizeable in comparison to neighbouring countries where the natives had all but been wiped out by European settlers, and this melting pot of nationalities means that these days Panama is one ethnically diverse society. Most Panamanians have a heritage which is just plain intriguingly AWESOME!!

Indigenous people of Panama, called the Embera tribe

Related: Visiting an Indigenous Tribe in Panama

The Panama Canal Zone remained a US territory until 1999, when US troops finally moved out and complete control of the canal was handed over to Panama. It takes 8-10 hours for a ship to travel the full 80km length of the canal, and an average toll of $150,000 per ship- though the charge is based on weight, so don’t get me wrong pals, you could totes do it for cheaper in an inflatable dinghy, not that they’re actually permitted in the locks. Put bluntly, now that the US aren’t in charge, Panama are finally making some serious cash out of that canal of theirs, turning them into a seriously well-developing country.

Where is the best place to see the Panama Canal?

Aside from actually sailing across the canal yourself, the best way to see the Panama Canal is to head to one of the visitor centres built at strategically located viewing points along the canal. We went to the visitor centre at the new Agua Clara Locks, mainly because it’s on the Atlantic side of the country and therefore easy to get to from the port of Colón; and we happened to arrive just at the time when a mahoosive ship was being lifted up onto the lake. To be completely honest here pals- it’s a slow process, and not the most exciting of things to witness. But I’m still pretty glad to be able to say I’ve been there and witnessed it.

From the viewing point overlooking the locks, you can see out over Gatun Lake to the left hand side, stretching out into the distance and dotted with traffic in the form of ships of varying sizes, mostly hauling cargo in ginormous metal crates. On the day in question, it was humid and overcast, and after I’d done as much learning as I could and seen as much of the lock action as I could, I thought it’d be a marvellous idea to go and explore a pathway off to one side of the restaurant which no one else seemed to have noticed.

Related: Exploring Casco Viejo, Panama City’s Old Town

Viewing the Panama Canal from Agua Clara visitors centre

Near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal in Panama City

Animals at the Panama Canal

Considering that Gatun Lake is completely manmade- it was once a valley which was completely flooded using several dams- the nature in the area remains more or less untouched. Which is pretty good going in this day and age, you’ve gotta admit. The ‘nature trail’ pathway through the forest is obviously not exactly wilderness territory, but it’s still a good way to see some wildlife without venturing miles into thick rainforest.

I was the only person walking through the trees, and it’s surprising how quickly the atmosphere changed from the industrial setting of the lock, to a simultaneously spooky-and-peaceful jungle pathway. Immediately upon setting foot onto the pathway dappled with spots of sunlight, I was met with the glowing eyes and frozen pose of a coati, like a fox caught in the headlights. If you’re not sure what a coati is- and neither was I, at first- it’s looks like a cross between a small bear and a raccoon with a mouse’s face. All pointy nose and big eyes, ya know? I heard the crash of a monkey swinging through the branches above me, looked up, and when I looked back at the pathway, the mousey-coati had disappeared. Three seconds later I realised it had moved to the branches of a tree, staring down at me with its bug eyes. Eventually it unfroze and began scratching itself in the style of a cat, suddenly completely un-fazed. Good lad.

More monkeys raced and chattered in the treetops overhead, and in contrast to all their playful swinging around, and the coati’s vanishing act, a solitary sloth appeared to be in a deep slumber, oblivious to all the action going on around her.

Related: The Best Way to See Sloths in Costa Rica

A coati in the nature trail at Panama Canal

Like its neighbour Costa Rica, Panama has an incredible level of biodiversity, and considering the country is tiny- about the same size as Scotland- it’s pretty incredible to witness even a tiny slice of the nature that it has to offer. Especially when it’s smack bang right next to such an insane marvel of engineering and manpower. What. A. Beaut.

LOGISTICAL STATISTICALS

  • Adult entry fee to Agua Clara Visitors Centre is $15, although we went as part of a tour which also went to visit an Embera village on Lake Gatun.
  • The centre is open from 8am to 4pm every day.
  • There is a restaurant on site. Not that I ate there. But it’s there. So.
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