The PANAMA CANAL really is amazing, both physically and in concept. The basis of the country’s modern economy, it’s also the key to much of its history: were it not for the US government’s determination to build the waterway, Panama might never have come into existence as an independent republic. Construction on the project began in the late nineteenth century, initiated by the French, but their efforts were abandoned in 1893, having taken the lives of nearly 22,000 workers through disease. The US took up the construction just over ten years later, aided by more powerful machinery than the French had been using, and improved understanding of malaria, yellow fever and the engineering that was necessary. The job was finally finished in 1914, the isthmus having been breached by the 77km-long canal, with vessels raised from and lowered to sea level by three sets of locks totalling 5km in length.
From 1903 to 1977, the strip of land that extends 8km on either side of the canal was de facto US territory, an area known as the Canal Zone. After more than ninety years the waterway was finally handed over to Panamanian jurisdiction at midnight on December 31, 1999, to be managed thereafter by the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP). In 2006 a proposal for a US$5 billion expansion of the canal, due to be completed in 2015, was approved first by President Torrijos and then by public referendum. The ACP claims that the expansion will directly benefit Panama’s people, though critics contend that the country will be crippled by debt – the project will be paid for by increased tolls, supplemented by US$2.3 billion in loans – and that only the elite of society will benefit.
A day-trip from Panama City could see you scanning the rainforest canopy for harpy eagles from the top of a former radar station, taking in the engineering masterpiece of the Miraflores Locks, or visiting an indigenous Emberá community in Parque Nacional Chagres. If you’re in the mood for hiking, try out the celebrated routes of Camino de Cruces and the Pipeline Road in Parque Nacional Soberanía. A cool and comfortable early-morning train ride on the Panama Canal Railway to Colón gives wonderful panoramic views of the canal and the rainforest, and from the city it’s a hot and bumpy bus ride northeast along the coast to the colonial ruins of Portobelo.