Five ways to discover the Panama Canal, one of the wonders of modern engineering

There may be no other country as linked to an infrastructure as Panama is to its canal.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
03 April 2024 Wednesday 10:35
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Five ways to discover the Panama Canal, one of the wonders of modern engineering

There may be no other country as linked to an infrastructure as Panama is to its canal. Since the 16th century when Emperor Charles V ordered the study of a navigable route in the isthmus to unite the Atlantic and the Pacific, there were numerous attempts and failures until its inauguration in 1914. The canal has marked history, the economy, the Panamanian character and culture. A “canalera” literature has even been developed.

And despite the more than 20,000 deaths caused by its construction – largely due to yellow fever and malaria – the Canal continues to be an object of admiration. It is among the seven wonders of modern civil engineering, along with the Golden Gate and the Eiffel Tower. Those 80 kilometers that connect the two largest oceans, a key shortcut for international trade, have become a major tourist attraction. There are several ways of knowing it, which complement each other.

Located 12 kilometers from the heart of the capital, they have a visitor center. It includes an IMAX 3D room where an introductory documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman and subtitled in Spanish is projected. Among other curiosities, he says that the floating gates of the locks are based on an invention by Leonardo da Vinci. The visit also includes a museum – currently being remodeled – with four rooms dedicated to the history of the canal, its operation, its biodiversity and its importance for global logistics.

Finally, there are two viewpoints from which to follow the passage of the boats. Through the public address system, the center's guides describe the entire process so that attendees do not miss any details. The operation to ascend or descend the locks lasts just ten minutes.

At the Atlantic end of the canal, the Agua Clara locks also have a visitor center. They also have a screening room and viewing points, as well as an ecological trail.

After the French – led by Ferdinand de Lesseps – failed in their attempt to build a level canal at the end of the 19th century, the Americans opted for a system of locks. For this it was necessary to create a lake. A dam was built to retain the impetuous waters of the Chagres River, flooding an area of ​​436 km2. At the bottom today lie the remains of twenty towns (among which, one called Girona).

At the time, at the beginning of the 20th century, Gatún was the largest artificial lake in the world (a title now held by Kariba, between Zimbabwe and Zambia). Currently, tourist boat rides are offered among the ships that cross the canal. Passengers are invited to discover the fauna that lives on the banks: birds, crocodiles and monkeys that are attracted with pieces of fruit.

The passage from end to end of the canal, which has five sets of locks – Pedro Miguel, Agua Clara, Miraflores, Gatún and Cocolí – usually takes about eight hours. It is such a delicate operation that it is carried out under the orders of specialized pilots to whom the captains hand over control of their ships. They are assisted by tugboats and, upon entering the locks, by electric hauling locomotives that travel on rails. They are popularly called “mules”, in memory of the animals that handled the boats during the colonial era.

It is essential to maintain the correct position of the vessels to prevent them from scraping or colliding with the walls. In some cases, the margin between the ship and the lock walls is barely half a meter.

At the Agua Clara and Miraflores visitor centers, cruise passengers are welcomed with cheers from the public.

Before the canal there was the train. In the mid-19th century, an interoceanic railroad was completed in a hurry, due to the urgency of gold seekers: the discovery of the precious metal in Baja California attracted adventurers from all over the world. Thousands of people who were not willing to waste precious time crossing the United States from east to west (with the risks that the trip entailed). For them, the construction was accelerated, through jungles and swamps, of a line between the cities of Aspinwall – today Colón – and Panama. He was the so-called Golden Horse (the nickname that gives the title to a famous Panamanian novel by Juan David Morgan).

The Panama Canal Railway Company scenic train currently passes through this route. A route almost parallel to the canal, which allows you to enjoy the landscape. The trip, round trip without stopping to get off in Colón, lasts about two and a quarter hours. It is essential to book your ticket weeks in advance, since there are few places and the cruises take them up.

Located in Panama City's Independence Square, in the same building from which the French directed the construction of the canal, this museum offers vast information on the history of the infrastructure. Among other data, it highlights that the Spanish were the second group with the most presence in the works after the Barbadians. The majority were Galicians. Many of them from Cuba, where they had emigrated before the Spanish-American War.

It also recounts in great detail the so-called Canal Scandal, the most serious case of corruption of the 19th century. The victims were mainly French savers, tens of thousands of them, who invested in the works. Hundreds of politicians – from former French prime ministers to active deputies and senators – and journalists participated in the intrigue. Both Ferdinand de Lesseps – the promoter of the failed construction project – and his son Charles were sentenced to prison.

These are just two of the many aspects that the museum addresses. It is recommended to visit it with time and patience to read the large panels that fill the rooms.