A Night Visit to the Panama Canal

[Written in March 2006 after returning from Santiago, Chile]

It is a hazy afternoon, but from the windows of the airplane we can see the skyline of Panama City as we begin our approach to the airport.

“Can you see the Canal,” someone asks.

We cannot. But what we can see is something unexpected and dramatic. In the ocean just beyond Panama City is a floating armada of ships – probably fifteen or twenty, freighters mostly – silently anchored at sea awaiting their turn to enter this most famous of canals.

Panama is an overnight stop for us on the way to Santiago, Chile. There are six of us (plus a crew of three) traveling in the luxury of a Gulfstream V which will forever spoil us and make commercial air travel seem terribly pedestrian, but that is another story. According the schedule on the 3×5 cards which our trip organizer has given us, we arrive in Panama at 6:00 p.m. and leave tomorrow morning at 7:00 a.m., just enough time for the pilots to service the plane and get a good night’s rest. But this may be our only chance to see one of the great wonders of the world, the Panama Canal.

Panama is the navel of the hemisphere. It is where the vast land masses of North and South America meet in a ridiculously narrow connection. The two largest oceans of the world are separated here by only 48 miles – about the distance from Newport Beach to Santa Monica Beach in Los Angeles. And it is where, nearly a century ago, daring engineers and thousands of laborers carved a narrow canal connecting those two oceans.

So after a quick dinner, my brother and I go in search of a taxi driver who will drive us out for a look at the Big Ditch. Outside the hotel the air is heavy and laden with the smell of rotting organic material that is the hallmark of the urban tropics. A young Panamanian in a beat up Toyota offers to take us out to the Canal for $20. We accept. It is 8:00 p.m.

Columbus made landfall in the Western Hemisphere on October 12, 1492. Although he went to his death believing he had reached Asia, his voyage opened up an era of discovery and expansion never known before or since. It was only eight years after Columbus’ first voyage that 25-year old Vasco Nuñez de Balboa sailed from Spain to Hispaniola. Running from creditors, Balboa settled in Darien in present day Panama. It was in Darien that he heard from the natives of a great ocean to the south. On September 1, 1513, Balboa led a group of 190 Spaniards and hundreds of Indians on an expedition to see what lay on the other side of mountain. This enormous company made their way through dense jungle, across rivers, and through swamps. When they reached the top of the cordillera on September 25th, they could see the ocean to the south.

Twenty years later, Francisco Pizarro, another Spaniard, captured and killed Atahualpa, the last chief of the Inca, and began plundering what was the richest empire in hemisphere. Getting the gold back to Spain, however, meant taking heavily laden ships through the dangerous passage at the tip of South America.So the route pioneered by Balboa evolved into the Camino Real, later known as the Las Cruces trail, and served as a land route connecting the two oceans for three centuries. But it was extremely difficult to move the heavy Spanish bullion by ship from Peru to Panama, then by cart across the Continental Divide, and reload it into ships for the journey back to Spain. As early as 1534, Charles V of Spain suggested that a canal across the isthmus would be the most convenient – and cheapest – way to accommodate the traffic flowing between Peru and Spain. But the task of building such a canal would prove more difficult than anyone imagined.

English: map of Panama Canal area before const...

Map of Panama Canal area before construction of canal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was the desire to move gold that again gave impetus to the building of a canal across the isthmus. The great California gold rush of 1849 focused new attention on a cheaper way to move gold from the shores of the Pacific to the populations of the Atlantic coast. Construction on a railroad line was begun in 1850, partly to provide more efficient mail service between America’s East Coast and the newly acquired state of California (America’s transcontinental railroad would not be completed until 1869). It took nearly five years to build a 50-mile railroad – an average of ten painstaking miles per year. Finally, on  January 28, 1855, the first locomotive steamed across the isthmus, and what had been a difficult five day wagon trek on the Las Cruces trail was reduced to a single day.

The first transcontinental railway in the world, the Panama Railway cost $8 million to build – 8 times the initial estimate. But it was a great economic success. Until the opening of the canal, the Panama Railway carried more tonnage per mile than any railroad in the world.

English: Panama Canal Railway - Passenger Trai...

Panama Canal Railway – Passenger Train in yard at Colon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We enter what was once known as the Canal Zone, a U. S. outpost inside Panama. Senator John McCain, among many others, was born here. The large empty barracks looming in the dark on our right were once part of a United States Army base.

De Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal

De Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our driver, who turns out to be an excellent guide, points out the French Cemetery. In 1881, under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French had completed the Suez Canal. Filled with enthusiasm from the extraordinary success of this remarkable project, the French began work in Panama on a similar sea-level canal (a canal without locks). The glory of success in the Suez was almost lost in the subsequent agony of defeat in the dense jungles of Central America. Malaria and yellow fever weakened and killed thousands of workers, including many of the project’s senior engineers. Ultimately it became apparent that a sea-level canal was not feasible, and the famed Gustav Eiffel was hired to design and build locks, but it was too late. Money had run out, and the company went into bankruptcy in 1889. In the aftermath of the collapse of Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique, Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son were both convicted of fraud and maladministration (a peculiarly French crime).

Meanwhile, an expansionist-minded United States was watching the French failure. The U.S. bought the French assets in liquidation in 1894, and Theodore Roosevelt used his diplomatic muscle to create Panama as an independent nation from Columbia, in exchange for which the United States was granted the Panama Canal Zone, 554 square miles extending five miles on either side of the canal route.

The key to the American success was rooted more in medicine than engineering. In 1897, Ronald Ross proved that malaria was spread by mosquitoes, a discovery which earned him the Nobel Prize. In 1900, Dr. Walter Reed proved that yellow fever was also spread by mosquitoes. The Americans began spraying 700,000 gallons of oil and 124,000 gallons of larvacide annually on stagnant water and dispensed a ton of quinine every year.  Spending nearly $20 million on disease control, they fumigated virtually every building in the Canal Zone and most of Panama, and by 1906 yellow fever had been eradicated from the Canal Zone and malaria had been reduced significantly. Today the zone is considered free of both diseases.

With the debilitating diseases under control, work on the canal moved forward. The first ship sailed through the canal on August 15, 1914, 380 years after Charles V had first suggested the idea. Including 22,000 deaths during the failed French effort, 27,500 people died in the construction of the canal. Another 12,000 had lost their lives in the construction of the railroad. How many may have died building the earlier trails and roads will never be known.

panama canal

Panama Canal (Photo credit: dsasso)

The Canal still provides one of the cheapest and most efficient ways to move goods across the continent. On any given day, nearly 40 ships pass through the Canal carrying 75 million tons of goods. The average toll is about $54,000 per ship, meaning that the Canal brings in over $2 million each day in tolls alone. Both economically and militarily, the Canal is a vital link.

Our driver is taking us to the famous Miraflores Locks, one of the most complex and vulnerable sections of the Canal. The locks at Miraflores lift (or lower) ships as much as 65 feet, depending on the tide. The two great lock chambers are each 1,000 feet long. In this post-September 11 world, we expect security at the Canal to be extremely tight, so we are not surprised when we notice that the road leading into Miraflores is blocked by a large rolling steel gate attended by a burly guard.

Our young driver explains to the guard that we are “turistas” enroute to the visitor center which the Canal Company maintains at the locks. But the guard makes it clear that the visitor center closed at 5:00 p.m. and no tourists are allowed in at night – only restaurant patrons can pass. The driver looks at me questioningly and I respond, “Bueno, vamos al restaurante!” The guard slides the steel gate open and we drive through.

The approach to the restaurant crosses a long single-lane bridge with concrete walls in each side. The red stoplight at the entrance apparently means “go, but go quickly” as our driver speeds up. We travel only a few hundred yards to a parking lot where our driver lets us off, directing us to a large set of concrete steps which lead to the closed visitors center and the (apparently open) restaurant.

English: View of the Panama Canal Administrati...

View of the Panama Canal Administration Building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It appears that only one door to the visitor center is open, and it is attended by a uniformed guard who informs us that the center is closed – only the restaurant is open. We thank him and walk through the metal detectors. Apparently the alarm which sounds as we walk through the metal detector laden with cameras and cell phones means “pass on through,” as the guard waves us on and points out the elevators to the upstairs restaurant.

As we exit the elevators on the second floor, it appears that we have the building pretty much to ourselves, but following the directions from the guard below we turn left and find the restaurant entrance. We nod politely to the maitre d’ who informs us we may sit anywhere. We walk through the busy dining room and out onto the deck which looks directly over the grand Miraflores locks. Two large freighters are in the locks and the water level is slowly rising, lifting them up.

It is quite a sight – the lights on the ships, the huge gates of the locks, a vast jumble of concrete, sheds, and heavy equipment, and in the center of it all the two slim strands of the Canal. Another ship is in a lower section of the locks a thousand feet to our left. The air is still and humid, but the temperature is becoming more comfortable as the tropical night settles in. We take a few souvenir photographs, although with only pocket cameras and no tripod the effort is dubious.

Our driver is waiting for us as we exit the building and asks if we would like to the see the nearby Puente Nuevo – the New Bridge. We do, and he drives us back to the highway where a beautiful new suspension bridge comes into view. Formally called the Puente Centenario, it was completed in 2004 – the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Panama. We drive across the bridge, traveling from South America to North America, do a U-turn back to South America, and begin the drive back to the city.

In little more than an hour we have successfully breached the tight security surrounding the most important canal in the world, have driven from South America to North America and back, and have documented our escapade with digital photographs. We pay our driver $40 – it was a good ride!

We are in bed by 10:00 p.m.

© 2013 Clark B. Hinckley
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