Cruising Through the Panama Canal
Building the canal was an amazing engineering feat
The heat was more oppressive than anything I've ever experienced. Even though it was mid-January and the sun had been up just a few hours, everyone on the deck of our cruise ship was sweating.
Taking a cruise on a modern passenger ship through the Panama Canal still didn't mean we'd travel in comfort, at least if we wanted to see and experience this man-made wonder. You needed to view it from the deck of the ship, and not from an air-conditioned lower level.
The Canal Zone
Gateway to the Canal
The Panamanian city of Colon, named after Christopher Columbus, is the gateway to the Panama Canal if you are crossing from east to west. This was our first view of Panama from the deck of our cruise ship.
The city of Colon is low lying and highly industrialized and one of the busiest ports in the world. It was founded in 1850 by Americans with commercial interests in the region.
You can view parts of Colon to your left as your ship enters the canal zone.
Getting into the canal itself is a credit to the many engineers who constructed the canal. A series of locks lifts your ship 85 feet into Gatun Lake, a massive lake created as the canal was built.
As you leave the lake, the scenery changes and you enter a dense rain forest that contains hundreds of different species of birds, as well as jaguars, iguanas and armadillos. There is no more commercialization for many miles. Panama is a very ecologically rich area because it is at a crossroads. It is the bridge between North and South America, and it borders both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific.
Panama is a country that has an ethnically mixed population. About 5 percent of the people are indigenous and many of them live much as their ancestors did. Amazingly, as we sailed through the canal, we could see a few huts where these Native Panamanians lived, within view of the passing ships.
History of the canal
Plans for the Panama Canal were first conceived hundreds of years before its completion in 1914. Merchants had long wanted a shortcut from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Slicing through the narrowest part of the Isthmus of Panama, where only 48 miles of land separate the two oceans, seemed like a good plan to avoid navigating around Cape Horn on the Southern tip of South America.
The French were the first to try cutting through this narrow strip of land. They started in 1881, but abandoned the project before the turn of the century. They were losing too many skilled workers to disease. An estimated 22,000 French workers died trying to construct the canal.
The United States acquired the canal territory in 1904. They had better luck because doctors had figured out that mosquitoes were the reason so many men were getting sick and dying of malaria and yellow fever. Great efforts were made to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds. Sleeping under a mosquito net also helped prevent bites. Still, even with these precautions, nearly 6,000 American men died in the effort to carve a water route through the Panamanian jungle.
The United States also spent $375,000,000, a huge sum of money at the time, to build the canal.
Finally, in 1914, the canal was completed and ready for traffic. It's one of the busiest waterways in the world, with more than 14,000 ships passing through each year. Having a canal in Central America reduces by half the time it takes a ship in the Atlantic to reach the waters of the Pacific.
Many Lives Were Lost
Construction of the Panama Canal was not without a great price. Tens of thousands of workers lost their lives, either in accidents or to yellow fever or malaria. Doctors at first didn't know that mosquitoes were the reason people were getting sick, so, in the beginning phases of building the canal, no efforts were taken to eradicate these pests.
The History of the Canal - Why this water route is so important
The Panama Canal has a very long history, and was passed from one country to another at various times. This area has come under ownership of Colombia, France, the United States, and finally, Panama.
Video About Entering the Panama Canal.
Reaching the Pacific
It takes the better part of a day to sail through the Panama Canal. After about six hours there was an announcement that we were crossing the continental divide. This was the point where all water drainage flows into the Pacific instead of the Atlantic.
There was a definite shift in the weather at this crossing as well. The oppressive mugginess lifted. Even though it was later in the day, it was suddenly more comfortable.
The foliage reflected this as well. The plants and scenery looked drier than what we saw east of the divide.
Soon were were ready to leave the canal. At its exit the beautiful skyline of Panama City was directly south of us. I was sorry we didn't have a chance to explore this cosmopolitan city of nearly 900,000 people. Maybe next time.
This narrow, but beautiful country has a distinct culture, no doubt a result of its fascinating history. Panama City is a world-class city, but there are also indigenous people in the rain forest living much as their ancestors did centuries ago.