The Canal Is Just The Beginning
BY RAY SPECKMAN
There is a lot more to the Isthmus of Panama than the canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Make no mistake, however — the canal is the driving force allowing this country of 4 million residents to thrive.
Flying direct from Houston, in a south-by-southeast direction, my travel companion and I passed over the Eastern Time Zone and then skirted the Pacific Ocean until an astonishing sight appeared before our eyes: towering skyscrapers, hundreds it seemed, lining the ocean and stretching miles inland.
That surprise trumped the dozens of ocean cruisers in Panama Bay, some awaiting their turn to enter the canal and others having traveled the approximately 50 miles from the Atlantic, headed to their destinations in the Pacific, whether San Diego, Los Angles or even Hong Kong.
Our trip included a boat tour of the entire canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic. We started in Panama City and disembarked in Colon. As the tour boat waited in the locks to be lowered to the Atlantic, I reached out and felt the side of the lock. It was strange knowing that I was touching concrete poured more than 100 years ago and thrilling to think of it being the product of a tremendous and seemingly impossible undertaking, first started and abandoned by the French and then completed by the United States.
On our tour, I learned that thousands of laborers worked for years to complete the canal’s three sets of locks, two on the Pacific side and one on the Atlantic/Caribbean side. The locks lead ships into a huge manmade lake, Gatun Lake, covering 164.1 square miles at an elevation of 85 feet above the levels of the two oceans. Using the lake, ocean liners traverse the Continental Divide.
During the Jimmy Carter administration, the ownership of the canal was turned over to Panama. Twelve years later, in 1989, President George H. W. Bush invaded the small country to oust Dictator Manuel Noriega, who had been stealing millions from Panama. Then things began to happen. An autonomous organization was selected to operate the canal, and it showed terrific profit. Some of that money has gone to improve the infrastructure and living conditions in Panama, with the result of it becoming a hub for international banking — thus the number of high-rises. Only two cities in the Western Hemisphere, New York City and Chicago, have more high-rises than Panama City.
Currently, there is a huge project to expand the canal. Parallel with the three existing locks, new huge locks are being constructed that will allow larger ships to go from ocean to ocean. That construction project is due to be completed by the end of 2015. To see those huge locks, the immense gates and the shear enormity of the project boggles the mind. The lock gates tower 300-feet-high alongside the dig. Massive cranes, which will move the new locks into place, look like toys in the basin.
In addition to our boat tour, we rode a train — owned, by the way, by Kansas City Southern Railway in the U.S. — from Panama City to Colon. We also visited a jungle lodge on an island in Gatun Lake and played with the monkeys.
I must give a huge shout-out to the most inviting, clean, comfortable and friendly boutique hotel we have ever experienced, Toscana Inn Hotel.
As for the food, select carefully and have menus explained. The highlight was a dinner of huge prawns, shelled but with head and tails not removed, surrounding buttered mashed potatoes and covered with an orange sauce, all for $13.
All in all, from its beachfront high-rises to its mighty canal to its jungle fauna, Panama is a marvel.
Ray Speckman can be found in his office watching Panama YouTube videos or at firstname.lastname@example.org.