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Panama Canal, the Best of Panama

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Panama Canal, the Best of Panama

Several newsworthy items regarding the Panamanian economy have been published lately. 

Another successful year of operations of the Panama Canal is reported, it merits yet another look at this marvel of engineering and cornerstone of international recognition of Panama. 

Fiscal year 2019 broke the record for daily tonnage transfer (1.706M tons) on August 16th .  Year over year growth is reported at 6.2%. 

In September, Panama entered into an agreement with the Port of Rotterdam, Netherlands, (the largest European port in 2018) to promote international trade and best practices in sustainable shipping between Europe and western South America. 

The cruise season commenced with more than 250 scheduled transits, a 10% increase from 2018. First ship through this year was Princess Cruises Island Princess, the largest ship to pass through the canal this season will be the Norwegian Dawn.  Cruise season brings about 900,000 tourists to Panama each year. 

The single biggest tourist draw is the Panama Canal. Of all the Panama sites to see, there is little doubt the Panama Canal is the top attraction. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers recognized the canal all as one of the seven wonders of the modern world in 1994 and is a worthwhile adventure. There are options available to experience the engineering wonder. 

Being one of the top tourist cities in Panama, the Miraflores Locks hosts about a million visitors each year. The visitor center hosts a four story museum of exhibits, segregated into the History Hall, the Hall of Water, The Canal in Action and The Canal in the World. A theatre shows educational films in Spanish and English, times are posted to allow you to plan viewing during your visit. There are three observation decks to view the ships transit through the Locks. Ships do not cross between 9:30 am and 2:25 pm so the decks can be crowded, particularly in the afternoons. Additionally, there are two snack bars and a sit down restaurant so sit back, enjoy a cold drink and enjoy the show! The gift shop is loaded with Panama Canal memorabilia. 

The Miraflores Locks Visitor Center is open daily 8:00-6:00, ticket sales close at 5:15 to allow time to visit. Restaurant is open for dinner 5:00-10:30 and Sunday brunch 11:30-4:30. 

Shipping guidelines for maximum size of ship allowed to enter the Panama Canal (330m long by 33.5m wide) known as Panamax, would not meet the new requirements of the larger ships.  A significant expansion project was undertaken to accommodate the New/Neo-Panamax standard. 

The Agua Clara Locks expansion project began in 2007 and commenced commercial operations on June 26, 2016. The new Locks are located near Colon on the Atlantic side of the country. The site hosts a visitor center with spectacular vistas of Gatún Lake and the expansion works, a projection room, and a breathtaking ecological path highlighting the natural wonders of the Canal watershed. Take a break at one of two restaurants, a coffee shop or, if time permits, fine dining with lovely views. Stop at the gift shop and pick up commemorative items. 

Open daily from 8:00-4:00, ticket sales close at 3:15 to allow time to visit. Restaurant open noon to 4:00. 

Non resident entrance adult rate is $15, children 6-12 are $10. 

The Gatún Locks on the Atlantic side near Colon is comprised of three Locks. Pedro Miguel Locks and Cocoli Locks complete the transit system of the canal. These sites do not have visitor facilities and are not open to the public. 

Transit cruises are a novel option to experience the Panama Canal from a completely different perspective. Several companies offer partial or full transit of the canal boarding at the Amador Causeway or Gamboa. Partial transit tours include the Amador, the Panama Canal, crosses under the Bridge of the Americas through the Miraflores Locks and Pedro Miguel Locks, the Culebra (Gaillard) Cut.  The full tour includes a trip through Lake Gatún and Locks . Tours usually include breakfast and lunch, non alcoholic beverages and bilingual guides. Tours are generally five (partial) to twelve (full) hours in duration not including transport times to docks. Costs vary by operator. 

Though everyone knows about the Panama Canal, there is a significant chain of events in the last century which led to the American handover of the canal to Panama and creation of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP). 

In the 1500s, though desirable, the initial Spanish land surveys deemed the passage impossible. 

As early as 1819, the idea to build a canal was brewing internationally. The economic benefits for the shipping industry was significant. Spain authorized the first attempt, both Panama and Nicaragua were considered routes. Surveys stalled progress until completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 reignited international interest.  

France obtained a concession from the Columbian government (of which Panama was a province) for the undertaking. 

In the 1880s, what became known as the French Failure ended the French attempt build a passage through the isthmus. The mountainous terrain, cost, engineering complexity, unstable labor market, tropical disease and death led to the demise. 

After first considering Nicaragua for the site of the new canal was abandoned after lobbying by French engineer and financier, Phillips-Jean Bunau-Varilla. Aligned with support for Panamanian independence from Columbia, a revolution led to independence and negotiation of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with the United States. 

For a fee of $40 million the United States purchased property, equipment, work completed such as excavation, survey, etc from the French Canal Company.  

Panama received a one time payment of $10 million and annual rental fees of $250,000 for the rights to the the Canal Zone, a five mile zone on either side of the canal, the sole right to operate and control the canal and attached lands for perpetuity. 

Two factors, a lock controlled canal and disease control, were key to potential success of the monumental project. Engineering and healthcare advances improved working conditions. The role of mosquitoes was first recognized by William C Gorgas as related to spread of malaria and yellow fever. 

On January 7, 1914, the French boat, Alexandre Le Valley first traversed to canal. 

Cost of construction of the canal was $375 million, coming in under budget in spite of encountered issues. 

On April 1, 1914, construction was complete and project handover to the Canal Zone government was official. Commercial traffic commenced August 15th with transit of the SS Ancon. The breakout of WWI cancelled planned large scale celebrations. 

The Canal Zone was considered a US territory. In January 1963, US President John F Kennedy agreed to the flying of the Panamanian flag alongside the US flag in non military sites in the Canal Zone. Before finalizing, Kennedy was assassinated. The Canal Zone governor stepped in, changed the decree so no US or Panamanian flags could fly. 

Zonians and Panamanians alIke were outraged which led to the first US flag to be raised at Balboa High School. Students from Instituto Nacional marched to the Canal Zone in protest which escalated over three days. Panamanian Guardia Nacional did not intervene, overwhelmed Canal Zone police called in the army. During the violence, the Panamanian flag carried by the protestors was torn, infuriating Panamanians, escalating the conflict, leaving 22 Panamanian and 4 Americans dead. Fighting had spread across the city and country. 

Post fight, US Army historical declassified documents ammunition account details 450 .30 caliber rifle rounds, five .45 caliber pistol bullets, 953 shells of birdshot and 7,193 grenades or projectiles with tear gas were utilized against the protesters. Additionally, CZ police fired 1,850 .38 caliber bullets and 600 shotgun shells. 

International reaction was generally negative toward the US. Egypt suggested autonomy of the canal as they had nationalized the Suez Canal. The President of Panama, Roberto Chiari, broke diplomatic relations with the US on January 10 until new treaty negotiations. By April, diplomatic relations were resumed and negotiations commenced. In 1977, the Torrijos-Carter Treaties were signed, dissolving the Canal Zone in 1979 and transferring full control of the canal to the Panamanian government at noon December 31, 1999. 

Panamanians commemorate the fallen through two monuments, one at Balboa High School and one in front of the legislative assembly. November national holidays remembers, starting with Separation Day celebrating independence from Columbia on the third, Flag Day on the fourth, Colon Day commemorating citizens of Colon averting a 1903 March by the Columbian army on the fifth, the tenth and eleventh dedicated to the Los Santos uprising which led to independence from Spain, celebrated in the 28th. 

Today, the Panama controlled canal continues to prosper, record breaking performance numbers and steady year over year growth have quieted the early naysayers. Significant expansion projects have completed successfully, increasing benefits to Panama’s economy. 

This fascinating, tragic yet richly textured recent history and marvel of engineering deserves a closer look and should top everyone’s list of “must see”, best of Panama experiences and adventures.  

 

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