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Central America & Caribbean

Panama, Splitting The Continents

Jonathan van Bilsen



May 2, 2010

Panama, Splitting The Continents

Since the beginning of time, civilized nations have been engineering structures designed to last for centuries. From the Pyramids in Egypt to the Great Wall of China, from Machu Picchu to India’s Taj Mahal, mankind continually attempts to outdo itself. On a recent trip to Panama I had the pleasure of visiting one of the great marvels built in the last century.

The Panama Canal was constructed in 1914 to separate the continents of North and South America. Located directly in the center of Panama, the canal links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, creating a shipping route which saves 4 to 5 days of travel time, eliminating the treacherous waters off the coast of South America.

The idea for a canal was first established by the French who began construction in 1880. Constantly interrupted by labour problems, exhaustion in the tropical temperatures and yellow fever, construction was slow. After 8 long years 22,000 workers had died from disease and the French abandoned the project. 

The Americans, under the direction of Teddy Roosevelt, immediately saw the benefits of a water link between the continents and set forth to undertake the task. The very first thing Roosevelt ordered was to change all the roads from dirt to cobblestone, allowing the water to run off, therefore stopping mosquitoes from breeding and thus nearly eliminating yellow fever, the greatest cause of fatality in the area.

Roosevelt always wore a white fedora, which he purchased in Costa Rica. Someone asked him what the hat was called and after a moment’s thought he said, “It’s a Panama hat.” The name stuck and has become a trademark for the country.

Although the death toll during the American construction was 5,600, it was far less than the French had experienced and in 1914 the canal was completed, allowing the first ship to make its way along the 80 km. journey from the Pacific to Atlantic. Ironically it was during the same month the fighting in Europe began to signify the start of World War I.

Most of the canal is a series of rivers and lakes and there are three sets of locks. The most well known are the Miraflores, which feature a huge visitor centre where the operation of the canal is explained to tourists, while viewing the ships passing through. More than forty vessels make their way through the canal each day and although there are two channels all ships go one direction in the morning and the opposite in the afternoon.

Cargo ships pay a fee of $72 per container ($56 if they are empty) depending on the Cargo. This translates into hundreds of thousands of dollars. The most expensive journey on record was made three years ago at a cost of $400,000. The amount however, is minimal compared to the time saved. Cruise ships are also a large user of the canal and pay in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to pass through.

In the late nineties the US turned the operation of the canal over to Panama and the government has been successfully operating it ever since. Recently, construction began on two new channels nearly twice as wide as the current ones, enabling the newer class of ships to pass through. Completion is expected in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the canal.

Navigating the eight hour journey through the canal is no small feat. Three pilots board a vessel and assist in piloting the ship through the narrow straits into the locks and out the other side. Train-like engines, known as mules, travel along each side of the canal pulling a cable, inserted through the front of the ship. Controllers from a tower give directions to the train drivers who, together with the pilots, guide the vessel through the locks, sometimes with only a few centimetres of clearance on either side.

Most of the canal consists of a river, fed by fresh water from the mountain runoffs. The centre of the canal is raised to keep salt water out, prolonging the longevity of the metal locks. The tropical rainforest scenery along the canal is spectacular and a visit is a must if you are in the area.

Panama City, the capital of Panama, has a population of just over a 3 million and is one of the most progressive cities south of the US. The canal supports a thriving economy and the country is safe from typical third world threats, such as disease or famine. It is fast becoming a haven for Canadians wishing to travel and even relocate.

It is only 6 hours from Port Perry and the 30+ temperatures, the Pacific and Caribbean oceans and the lush tropical rainforests make Panama a terrific travel destination.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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