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article imagePanama Canal — A century connecting two oceans and the world Special

By Igor I. Solar     Sep 27, 2013 in Travel
Panama City - Few visitors would come to Panama City and miss seeing one of its major attractions. The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, saving almost 13,000 km from a journey through the Strait of Magellan in the southern tip of South America.
The first connection between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea was a rough land road build by natives and African slaves under the orders of the Spanish conquistadors led by Pedrarias Davila. During the XVI to the XVIII centuries the road became critical to Spain's economy, as large part of the treasures obtained from the South American colonies were brought to Panama City, hauled through the forest to the port of “Nombre de Dios”, and then loaded again on ships to Havana, Cuba, and Seville, Spain.
However, it was not until the XIX Century when Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique (The Panama Canal Company) projected the construction of a Canal without locks, similar to the 168 km-long Suez Canal already done in Egypt. The work started in 1882. There were several problems with the project, but the main reasons for the disastrous end of the French project were frequent landslides from the water-saturated hills along the excavations, and the heavy death toll among the workers caused by malaria and yellow fever. Although no accurate records exist, it is estimated that about 22,000 workers perished before the work was suspended in 1888, when the Panama Canal Company went bankrupt. As a curious note, French impressionist painter and adventurer Paul Gauguin tried his luck as a laborer in the Panama Canal, but his efforts only lasted two weeks before falling ill.
Following the tragic failure of the French to build a Canal across the Isthmus of Panama, the United States became interested in assuming the project. Until 1903, Panama was a province of Colombia and the Colombian government refused to ratify the “Hay-Herrán Treaty” allowing for the construction of the Canal. This did not deter the US. Political and economic actions hastened the independence of the Province of Panamá from Colombia on November 3, 1903. Two weeks later, a new treaty with the country of Panamá was ready, and preparations to build the canal could go ahead.
The Canal was built from 1904 to 1914. Since its completion the U.S. held control of a corridor of about 80 km across the Isthmus. Starting in the 1960s, the U.S. and Panamanian governments began discussions on resolving the territorial issue and the control of the waterway. In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty agreeing to return 60 percent of the Canal Zone to Panama in 1979. The canal and remaining territory were returned entirely to Panama on December 31, 1999.
Panama Canal. Main building of the Miraflores Locks  constructed in 1913.
Panama Canal. Main building of the Miraflores Locks, constructed in 1913.
Panama Canal. North view of the Miraflores Locks   in the direction towards Gatun Lake and the Atlan...
Panama Canal. North view of the Miraflores Locks, in the direction towards Gatun Lake and the Atlantic Ocean.
Panama Canal. South view of the Miraflores Locks  in the direction towards the Pacific Ocean.
Panama Canal. South view of the Miraflores Locks, in the direction towards the Pacific Ocean.
The operation of the Panama Canal involves three sets of locks: The “Gatún” locks, near Colón on the Atlantic Ocean, and the “Pedro Miguel” and “Miraflores” locks, closer to the Pacific Ocean. The Miraflores Locks are located just a few kilometres from downtown Panama City and a visit to this wonderful site is a must for any visitor. About 40 ships a day cross the canal, and with a bit of luck one is almost assured to see a large freighter or cruise ship going through the Miraflores locks. There is also a Visitor’s Center with historic photographs and models of dredging vessels and heavy machinery used during the construction of the Canal.
Panama Canal Visitor s Centre. Model of a dredger ship used during construction  to deepen the chann...
Panama Canal Visitor's Centre. Model of a dredger ship used during construction to deepen the channel to increase the capacity of the canal.
Panama Canal Visitor s Centre. Model of a dirt-spreader used during the construction of the Panama C...
Panama Canal Visitor's Centre. Model of a dirt-spreader used during the construction of the Panama Canal.
The Panama Canal is being expanded by creating a new lane of traffic allowing the transit of larger ships. The $5.25 billion expansion program, which is expected to be completed in mid-2015, consists in the construction of two new sets of locks, one on the Pacific and one on the Atlantic side of the Canal, the widening of existing channels in Gatun Lake, and the deepening of Culebra Cut.
The book “The Path Between the Seas, The Creation of The Panama Canal, 1870-1914” by David McCullough, First Edition published in 1978, provides a fascinating and entertaining account on the history, politics, engineering, financing, and most of all, the human drama behind the construction of the greatest inter-oceanic waterway.
Related articles on Panama:
Review: David McCullough’s ‘The Path Between the Seas’
Ruins of ‘Old Panama’ — first European settlement on the Pacific
Photo Essay: 'Vegetable ivory' carved by ethnic Wounaan of Panama
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