By Jessica Festa
The Panama Canal, recently named as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, is an attraction that heads up many people’s bucket lists. A 48 mile-long (77 km) international waterway, the canal is a lifesaver for those traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, cutting some 8,000 miles (12,875 km) off maritime voyages that would otherwise have to circumnavigate Cape Horn, and saving passengers and businesses countless hours of travel time (and dollars) in the process.
At the time of its construction, the canal was considered one of the most audacious engineering projects ever launched. Its impact on intercontinental shipping was truly monumental. Teddy Roosevelt, one of its architects, grandly pronounced, “No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is of such consequence to the American people.”
But so great an engineering feat was not to be achieved without an equally great cost.
It all started back in 1529, when Spanish conquistadors drew up the first plans for a shortcut across Panama’s narrow isthmus. The Spaniards needed a fast route to move men and supplies between the mother country and the newly discovered region of South America, but European wars and the absence of adequate earth moving technology put the project on indefinite hold. Later, Spain would use Panama as a crossover for the gold coming up from Peru en route to the coffers back in Toledo.
Then, at the start of the 1800’s, the great German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt revived interest in the canal, declaring it eminently feasible. This ultimately led to a massive investment project on the part of the French, who attempted to cut through the region’s steamy jungles in the 1880’s. The digging seemed to make headway, but poor planning and insufficient familiarity with Panama’s difficult geography led to cost overruns, and the project ended in bankruptcy. Some 20,000 workers died from tropical diseases.
Notwithstanding, the region now had the attention of the United States, which stepped in and bought the French territory in 1902. The Americans were determined to complete the canal, which Teddy Roosevelt deemed to be of vital strategic importance for U.S. interests, but first they had to deal with Colombia, the country to which Panama officially belonged. At the time, Colombia was embroiled in a seemingly interminable civil war, so to eliminate the need to deal with two warring factions, the U.S. fomented a separatist movement within Panama. This violation of national sovereignty led to the region’s declaring itself independent in 1903.
Roosevelt’s “gunboat diplomacy” ended up being enormously profitable for the United States. The newly fledged Panamanian government quickly signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which stated the North American colossus could not only build the canal, but also control a zone 10 miles (16 kilometers) wide on either side of it—the Canal Zone, as it came to be called. Construction resumed in 1904 and was finally concluded in 1914. Overall cost to the U.S.: $375 million, along with a death toll of some 5,000 U.S. workers.
The U.S. would end up controlling the Canal Zone for almost a century, but in the 1960’s, as nationalist movements swept the globe, Panama began calling for a renegotiation of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, alleging that U.S. control was depriving it of billions in potential revenues. Talks were thus reopened in the 1960’s and culminated in 1977 with a treaty between President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian President Omar Torrijos to phase out U.S. management over a 20-year period. (Little did the U.S. realize, Torrijos had given secret instructions to covert operatives to blow up several locks if Panama failed to achieve her objectives.) On December 31, 1999, Panama officially regained full control.
Today the canal’s turbulent history is far in the past, and visitors can witness one of the world’s truly magnificent engineering marvels, starting with the canal locks themselves, which measure 110 feet (34 meters) across and 1,050 feet (320 meters) in length, and have steel gates six feet (two meters) thick. Filling each lock requires some 52 million gallons of water, while sailing the length of the canal takes about eight to ten hours. The staff to operate the whole massive structure totals some 9,000 people.
When you visit the canal, you’ll first want to check out the Gatún Locks on the Atlantic side, a three-stage lock that quickly rises to the level of Gatún Lake. There’s also Miraflores Lake and the two-stage Miraflores Locks, as well as the single-flight Pedro Miguel Locks. These locks were considered one of the world’s great engineering accomplishments in 1914, and seeing them in action is a highlight of any Panama Canal trip. The Miraflores Locks are also home to a museum and visitor center that will get you up to speed on the canal and its workings; they are typically included in most city tours of Panama. Try to go in mid-December to April, when rain is minimal and the temperature pleasant, and be sure to bring your camera: the rainforests, mountains, and beaches you’ll encounter here are breathtaking.
Note, too, that 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal’s opening. Visitors this year can witness the ongoing construction of a third lane of locks to handle more cargo and larger vessels; this addition will double the canal’s capacity and is set for completion in mid-2015.
If you’re looking to navigate the canal via ship, you can choose from a full or partial transit tour. The full transit tour takes eight or nine hours and allows you to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic in a single day. En route, you get to experience all three locks, the Gaillard Cut (the point where the Chagres river flows into the canal), as well as the Gatún Lake and the Smithsonian Research Center. The partial transit tour cuts the trip in half, lasting four to five hours and you enter the canal at the Gaillard Cut. From there, you pass through the Miraflores and San Pedro Locks before finally arriving at the Pacific Ocean. There are also partial transits that follow the same route in reverse, so you have multiple options to consider.
(Editor’s Note: Mike Gasparovic also contributed to this article.)