Panama is a pretty tiny country, but when it comes to international travel, it holds one of the most important advances of the last century. Before people trusted to get into those flying tuna cans called planes, international travel was almost completely dominated by sea travel. A trip from New York to San Francisco could take months by sea though, so in the early 20th century work began on the Panama Canal. Even today, over a hundred years later, the Canal remains one of the most important shipping routes in the world. If you are preparing for Panama travel, you can’t miss it… no, literally you can’t. It smack dab in the middle of the country.
Now having a more convenient route from one coast of the US to the other was pretty important to the US. Our navy was literally cut in half and with a rail system that was still not quite perfect, the US government started looking for other options. Thankfully there was a section of Central America that was just perfect – Panama. Through a complicated set of circumstances (you’ll get two different stories, depending on if you ask a Colombian or an American) Panama, which had been part of Colombia, declared its independence as a country in 1903 and gratefully handed over a nice chunk of land to the US government who helped them in their move to break from Colombia.
Now work on the Canal had actually begun under the French in 1881, but their plan for a sea level canal failed when they realized the tropical climate, with deadly malaria carrying mosquitos and yearly mudslides, was just too difficult to tackle. The US engineers came in with a different idea – using a series of locks and a central man-made lake, the Panama Canal could raise and lower ships as they crossed the country. It took just a little over 10 years to complete the canal which remained US property until 1999 when it was finally given back to the Panama government.
There are a number of museums and tours of the Canal, with the Canal Museum at Casco Antiguo being the best place to stop if you are looking to learn more about the construction of the Canal. The Canal has three sets of locks which you can visit to see them filling and emptying with water as they lower and raise the ships passing through. The most famous locks, or at least the most visited, would be the Miraflores Locks, located just outside of Panama City. These locks are the first stage of the Panama Canal on the Pacific side.
Another way to see the Panama Canal is by taking the Panama Railroad. The railroad is actually older than the Canal, but it also allows easy travel from the Pacific side to the Atlantic side with an 8-10 hour journey along the Canal and through dense jungles.
If you are looking for a real treat, consider passing through the Panama Canal by ship. You can often book passage on sailboats and smaller boats making the journey but be aware that the tolls for the journey through the Panama Canal are very high and you will have to contribute to that if you sail through as a passenger. Another option is to pass through the Canal on a cruise ship. Many modern cruise ships are simply too big to fit in the Panama Canal but a number of ships have been specifically designed with the Canal’s dimensions in mind. The journey through the Canal will take approximately 8 hours or about a day. You can also opt for half the journey (4 hours), starting or ending in one of Panama’s artificial lakes that sit in the middle of the Canal.
Couple Travel Tips
- Be aware of the mosquitos. Malaria and dengue fever have been pretty well wiped out in this area of Panama, but these pesky insects were responsible for thousands of deaths during the construction of the Canal.
- Watching the variety of ships that pass through the Canal (war ships, cargo ships, cruise ships, etc.) can easily help you pass away a nice relaxing day. There are a number of spots to stop and view along the Canal.
- If you are planning on sailing through the Canal, be sure to plan your trip for sometime between September and April. The rest of the year the Canal is filled up with cargo ships and it can take awhile before you get a turn.
- Too expensive to sail through the Panama Canal? Consider taking a sailboat from the Atlantic side of Panama down to Colombia. It’s not the same thing, but at least you’ll set some sailing experience.