We arrived at Fuerte Amador in the early morning and by 8:30, Al had left on an expedition to view the inner workings of the Canal and its expansion. This is the longest port stop we’ll make, because we aren’t entering the Canal proper until 6 am tomorrow morning, so we’re here for almost 24 hours. I suspect the crew are pleased – they get shore leave and don’t have to be back on board until 11 pm, for the last tender run.
The reason for the long stay is simple. The point of this cruise is the Panama Canal, and if we leave at any other time to go through, we’ll miss some of it because it’ll be dark. So, for today, we’re anchored in the bay just off the marina, and we’re tendering into shore.
The marina – just behind the marina is the approach to the Canal.
My original idea was to go to shore and walk the causeway, since the guidebook said it was a walking, jogging and biking path linking four small islands (where the marina and cruise terminal was located) to the mainland and the city proper. It was made of material excavated from the Canal and was designed to keep the Canal entrance from silting up.
However, the cold had really gotten a good hold, and instead I just stayed inside and was quiet – spent much of the day napping. On his return, Al said that it was just as well, as there’s major roadwork being done on the causeway and it’s walking appeal is virtually nil. Also that it’s lined with restaurants and not much else. So probably not a big loss.
Panama City has an amazing skyline, and looks like a completely modern city that we’d find in Canada or the US. I remember hearing somebody say that it reminded them of Hong Kong, and it’s huge. 50% of the country’s population lives in two cities – this one, and Colon, on the Caribbean, at the other end of the Canal.
When the US took over in 1904, they redesigned the canal, keeping what they could of what had already been done, but taking into account the actual conditions they were dealing with. They decided the best way to tackle the project was to dam the Chagres river and flood the centre of the Isthmus to create a huge lake, which cut down the amount of excavation that had to be done. Locks at each end raise ships from sea level to the height of the lake.
They also tackled the health issue and dealt with the malaria and yellow fever that had killed so many of the workers during the French attempt. They completely revamped the infrastructure needed to support the work and the workers – sewers, water supply, repair ships, housing, cafeterias, hotels all the way along the planned route. The US basically built a series of temporary cities to house the workers they brought in from the US and other areas.
They also tackled the malaria and yellow fever problems, along with the other health issues. To their credit, the French hadn’t ignored the situation, but they also had no idea what caused the illnesses – remember, this was in the 1800s and it wasn’t until 1881 that the idea that they might be transmitted by mosquito was even proposed. Once it was proven, the US took measures to reduce the risk of transmission by draining swamps and spraying to kill the larvae that grew in the boggy areas.
Once the Americans got moving, it took ten years to complete the Canal, and it opened for business in 1914. There were all kinds of political issues that had to be dealt with, which included the US assisting the establishment of the nation of Panama (until 1903 the isthmus was part of Columbia) and problems both in the terms of the treaty that was signed, and in the authority of the man who negotiated the treaty for Panama (he was not either Columbian or Panamanian, he was French, and he wasn’t authorized to sign treaties for the country, but did anyway). I’m not going into any of them, just because there’s no room here, and because none of the books and talks really discussed them in any depth, so anything I’d say would be less than useful.
Suffice it to say that it seemed to take more time to work out the politics around the Canal than it did to actually build the thing, since negotiations and talks continued off and on through the entire 20th century until the final handover in the late 1990s. Eventually the US and Panama agreed that the US would have sovereignty over the Canal Zone for 99 years, after which they handed the land back over to Panama.
The Canal is not just the canal – it’s a 10 mile wide strip of land on either side of the actual waterway known as the Canal Zone and it’s the lake joining the two cuts. It’s a protected area, both in terms of international treaties, and in terms of who is allowed in the area. As such, it has proven to be a real biodiverse treasure for Panama.
Today, the Canal is owned and operated by Panama, but with an international board, and the 10 mile wide swath of land is covered by international treaties to keep it neutral and open.
Tomorrow we enter the Canal.