I have been to Panama a few times in my life as I have relatives who live there. During those visits I have enjoyed Panama City itself, traveled to see El Valle, been to the beaches near Coronado, visited isolated populations on ecotourism visits, spent time on the beautiful island of Contadora (in the Pearl Archipelago) and visited the famous -and vital- Panama Canal. As I scanned old pictures in a “digitization” effort, I realized I have visited the Panama Canal once every decade since the 1970s. Looking at my pictures from every decade made me think how differently I have “seen” the Canal over the decades that I have been visiting it – with the same eyes but with different “eyes”…
The Panama Canal – An Engineering Feat
Long the dream of many, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would require incredible engineering, and human effort and sacrifice – whether it had been built tapping the inland lakes of Nicaragua, creating a sea-to-rail-to-sea solution anywhere in Central America, or leveraging the narrowness of the Isthmus of Panama. Eventually it was the Americans who got the Canal done.
Constructing the Canal was no small feat: besides incredible engineering it also required the “skill” to not kill off your workers (many imported into the area) with the heat, yellow fever, and pure good ole hard work (no passing grade on keeping workers alive… over 5,000 died). Construction required cutting to create the channel, creating a massive inland lake (Lake Gatún) to hold ships as they made the passage, and then setting up infrastructure for the people who would run and work the Canal (and live in the Canal Zone).
My first visit – through a kid’s eyes
During my first visit in the 1970s, as a kid, I was fascinated by the big ships that passed right by us at the viewing stand set up for visitors to observe the process of a ship going through the locks (in this case, the Miraflores Locks near Panama City). This process involved raising or lowering a ship by using water (more on this later). I remember the awe of being so close to a massive ship! I remember my young cousin giving me the history of the Canal as he clearly had just learned it in school. By looking at my pictures, I can tell I was more interested in little details than the whole. For example, not one picture capturing the entire Miraflores Locks building. It only shows as a backdrop to the locks. Another picture just focuses on the wheel of a “mule” (the tows that pull the ships along the locks) instead of capturing what a mule looks like, as the photo below shows. (Clearly, my photography skills and camera equipment have evolved since 1978!)
Back in the 80s – through an engineer’s eyes
Returning to the Canal in the 1980s when I was studying engineering, I was more curious about how the lock system actually worked. Pretty neat to understand that water is at the core of the operation, and not just because this is about ships. Water is part of the mechanics, if you will. They could have cut deep into the mountains, removing them to create a sea level -ish passageway through Panama’s interior (a LOT of work). Instead, the brilliant engineers came up with a solution that saved all that work by creating a high lake in the interior to allow navigation. The challenge: how to get the ships UP to the lake level and then back DOWN. Enter, stage left, the locks. The locks allow for the ships to be elevated to the lake and brought back down to the other ocean’s level as the following photos illustrate.
By the way, the Pacific coast of Panama and the Atlantic coast are not at the same level (something I have never fully grasped) so locks would have been involved even if the lake had not been used as a solution… Water from the inland lake is used in this process.
My third visit in the 1990s – through the eyes of history
When I returned over 10 years later, the center of my attention was the historic event about to happen: completing the transfer of the Canal Zone from the U.S. (in whose hands it had been since the days the Canal was being built) to sovereign Panamanian territory and administration. As I entered the Canal Zone, I recalled its look and feel from my prior visits when perfectly manicured gardens and tidy streets were all around giving this tropical place an American feel. I remember seeing the houses where Canal employees lived and it seemed a little bit of a paradise, even if more hot and humid than Paradise (with a capital P!) would likely be…
Parts of the Canal Zone had begun to switch already to Panamanian hands ahead of the 1999 final turnover by the time I came that decade. It was interesting to see how you could tell what parts were still in U.S. hands and which were not. I also remember the concerns at the time of whether the Canal would be managed well by the Panamanians and whether that was a smart decision on both sides back when the treaty was signed in the late 1970s. Only time would tell…
My most recent visit – eyes under the stars
Time passed and I returned in 2007 but the visit was a little different than my prior ones. Though I did visit family my main reason to go to Panama was work. I was attending a meeting for 3 days in one of the buildings of the Canal Zone that had become part of a business park – one of the many remnants of the time when the U.S. administered the Canal.
By then, the Canal had been completely under Panamanian control for 8 years and -guess what – it seemed all those concerns about Panama managing the Canal were way off. The Canal Zone felt vibrant, with areas converted to commercial use or tourist destinations, with the Canal’s locks bustling with activity, and with plans for the Canal’s expansion already underway to support super tankers that went beyond Panamax (the maximum size for a ship that can go through he Canal).
I was not really planning to visit the Canal itself at Miraflores to witness the crossing of a ship as I had seen that already. However, the workshop I was attending had a surprise in store: it organized an evening out at a restaurant located on a building right at Miraflores where from its terrace up high, you could see the ships making their way in and out of the Canal. Not only was seeing this from up high pretty neat, we got to see this at night which was also a first for me. So despite the slight rain and it being my fourth time seeing the Canal, the experience was new and I enjoyed the great vantage point.
The 2010s visit – what eyes will I bring?
I have not seen where the expansion project is these days but I assume that the next time I go (I am due for the trip of this decade), I will get to see the expanded Canal (at Miraflores, this means a new third “lane” for the wider ships) and I hope it will be from up high again with a cocktail in hand to cheer the amazing place that has been and will continue to be this engineering wonder. ¡Salud!