After four nights of roughing it in the beautifully remote San Blas islands, Shannon and I couldn’t have been happier to return to the comforts of the plush Sheraton Grand Panama City. They were kind enough to once again upgrade me to a lovely suite with a bathroom bigger than every bathroom in San Blas combined and after marathon showers we were both starting to feel human again.
I had to spend most of that afternoon catching up on work emails and dialing into a conference call while Shannon checked out our options for touring Panama City the next day.
Since we’d focused most of our planning efforts on the logistical challenges of San Blas, we’d hardly given any thought to what we wanted to do once back in Panama City. We obviously wanted to check out the canal but other than that, we were out of ideas.
After talking with the concierge, we ultimately decided to hire one of their drivers for a private tour around the city figuring it would be the best way to maximize our time. So, the next morning we had breakfast in the club lounge and then headed down to the lobby to meet up with our driver/tour guide, Eduardo.
We thought we’d be heading straight for the Panama Canal but Eduardo said that his boss would call him as soon as one of the big ships was in line to go through; otherwise the view is not as interesting. Instead, our first stop was the ruins of the “first city” of Panama Viejo.
Founded in 1519 by the Spanish, it was destroyed by the Welsh pirate Sir Henry Morgan in 1671. After wandering the ruins for a bit, Eduardo took us over to see the brand new Trump Hotel (which was spectacular) and then we took a walk along the boardwalk lining Balboa Avenue along the bay.
While we were walking, Eduardo got a call that there was a big ship that would be transiting the Panama Canal in 20 minutes so we made a mad dash to the car, dodged traffic on the 15-minute drive and sprinted the stairs up to the crowded viewing platform just in time.
But before I continue, a little history on one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels…
The Panama Canal
The idea of building a route to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific dates all the way back to the Spanish conquests in the region in the 16th century. The French were the first to mount a serious effort to build an all-water route through Panama in 1880, but financial troubles and outbreaks of yellow fever and malaria resulting in the deaths of more than 22,000 workers ultimately led them to abandon the cause in 1889.
However, what the French saw as a failure, the Americans saw as an opportunity and in 1903 the USA approached the French chief engineer to purchase canal concessions. Though US involvement was initially disputed by Colombia, once Panama gained independence later that year (with US support), the pathway to a second attempt at the canal was born.
On November 18, 1903, a treaty was signed granting the US not just canal concessions but “sovereign rights in perpetuity over the Canal Zone,” an area extending almost 5 miles on either side of the canal. By default, this also gave the US a broad right of intervention into Panamanian affairs.
Construction began anew in 1904 and – despite disease, landslides and difficult weather conditions – was completed in just 10 years. On August 15, 1914, the first ship sailed through the Panama Canal marking an historic event in world history.
As the decades passed, tensions mounted between the US and Panama. In 1977, Jimmy Carter signed the Torrijos-Carter Treaty turning over full operation, administration and maintenance of the canal to Panama at noon on December 31, 1999. Today, the waterway is managed by the Panama Canal Authority, an autonomous government entity.
The canal stretches more than 50 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Since its opening in 1914, more than 1 million ships have passed through it. The highest point between the two oceans is Gatun Lake (85ft above sea level), so the waterway uses a system of locks to raise and lower ships with a series of gates acting as “water elevators.” The water used to raise and lower the ships is obtained from Gatun Lake entirely by gravity in what might be considered a genius feat of engineering.
The canal has three sets of double-locks: Miraflores and Pedro Miguel on the Pacific side and Gatun on the Atlantic side. The most popular set of locks for visitors (due to its proximity to Panama City) are the Miraflores Locks.
Thirty-nine ships a day pass through the canal and each ship is charged by weight with an average fee of around $30,000. Though ships are constantly passing through the locks, it is often difficult to catch one of the largest vessels to truly appreciate their brilliant design. Thanks to Eduardo, we arrived just in time to see a giant oil tanker transit the Miraflores Locks.
The whole process from Pacific to Atlantic takes anywhere from 8-10 hours. Watching a ship transit the locks at Miraflores took us about an hour. It’s a fascinating process to witness and I now have a much better appreciation of this world wonder.
After the ship passed through, we spent a little time in the museum and then watched a great short film about the history of the canal. The next stop on our tour was a drive along the scenic causeway connecting the islands of Naos, Perico and Flamenco. The islands are lined with shops and restaurants and have scenic views of the Panama City skyline.
Casco Viejo – the “Second City”
Our final stop on our tour was the Old Town of Casco Viejo. Three years after the first city was destroyed, the “second city” was established in the area of Casco Viejo. The area is considered the colonial part of the city, while the skyscrapers of modern Panama City tower nearby.
Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Casco Viejo is undergoing a complete revitalization which aims to transform this dilapidated historic center into a new and improved cultural epicenter.
Our full day of touring complete, we thanked Eduardo and headed back to the hotel. It was a terrific day exploring Panama City and I’m thankful we made time to do it in our busy travel schedule.