A man, a plan, a canal

Panama was the engineering miracle that changed the world by dividing a continent.

You know the Volkswagen TV ad in which a dentist persuades his patient to open wider by mentioning how inexpensive a Golf is? The Panama canal is a bit like that. When you first glimpse the superstructure of a cruise liner floating serenely above a tropical rain-forest atop the Continental Divide, see if your jaw doesn't plummet into the tightly knotted undergrowth that binds the waist of Panama. The deep scar that the canal has carved through Central America makes the Channel Tunnel seem mere macaroni beneath the surface of the earth.

The isthmus's importance was sealed one day in 1513, when Vasco Nunez de Balboa led a straggle of Spanish colonists on a 27-day march from the Atlantic across to the Pacific. He was beheaded shortly afterwards, which diminished the thrill. But the journey pinpointed the shortest distance between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and Panama became the world's short cut.

Under Spanish rule, the isthmus was the transhipment route for all the riches of Peru and Bolivia - gold and silver were hauled across the spine of the Americas by mule to waiting galleons. But it was the growing prosperity of the US that created the canal. For much of the 19th century, the journey from the US eastern seaboard to the West Coast required a long and dangerous voyage around Cape Horn or a messy boat-and-rail journey across Central America. The transcontinental railways helped, but the growth in world trade made it imperative to link the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The first attempt, a grand projet orchestrated by Ferdinand de Lesseps - the man who built the Suez canal - cost 22,000 lives and ended in failure. American engineers took over the project. They realised that the key was to eradicate malaria along the course of the canal, so that Chinese, Indian and African labourers imported for the task would live long enough for it to be completed. They did, and it was, in 1914.

The "Big Ditch" also constitutes a link between two worlds - with all the terrifying power that represents. So the US felt obliged to appropriate the territory through which it passes. But 12 hours before 1 January, 2000, it will be handed back lock, stock and reservoir to the people of Panama.

Let's hope they continue to reap its touristic as well as strategic potential. I have traversed Panama twice, each time along the Trans-Isthmian Highway (try saying that after half a dozen bottles of Soberana, the strong local beer that leaves you far from sober) which parallels the canal and gives access to the locks - themselves symphonies of engineering, harmoniously ushering ships across a continent.

Canal-watching is a spectator sport at Miraflores, the first set of locks after Panama City. From a grandstand, you watch the painful process of guiding a freighter through a lock only just large enough to hold it. The work is done by "mules", tiny railway locomotives that resemble escapees from a child's train set as they struggle to manoeuvre the ship towering above them.

While this spectacle unfolds, a tour guide bombards you with figures. In its 83 years of existence, the canal has carried 80,000 vessels. Fees are calculated according to displacement; hence the lowest was 36 cents, paid in 1928 by a lone swimmer who successfully paddled from one ocean to the other. Today the average ship pays $30,000 for what is described as a "quality transit service".

The canal is strung out between two of Central America's most atmospheric cities. Now this is a region where "atmospheric" is often used as a euphemism, and such is the case with Balboa and Coln - respectively Pacific and Caribbean termini of the canal. Coln is a creaky old place where worn- out or burnt-out buildings are outnumbered only by curious characters; this is not a city for amateurs.

Just along the coast, though, the town of Portobelo is a collection of colonial ruins in an improbably beautiful location. For a century or two, the natural harbour at Portobelo - where Columbus's ship once sheltered - was about the richest place in the world. Nowadays, it is a beautiful and calm haven. The warehouses were abandoned long ago, and the jungle is creeping up on the ruins. Portobelo these days trades only in lazy ambience.

In utter contrast, Balboa has the feel of an affluent American suburb - basically because that's what it is. The capital of the Panama Canal is pure small town US - full of neatly cropped lawns, gum-chewing all- American kids and scowling GIs. They are guarding an investment that reverts to its natural parent at noon on 31 December 1999, but until then generates a million dollars a day in tolls.

The Bridge of the Americas, carrying the Pan-American Highway, frames the mighty ships that jostle for the front of the queue through to the Atlantic, and marks a suitably grand entrance to the Pacific for vessels completing the southbound transit. This is truly one of the nodes of the world. Even if you stay on dry land, canals are excellent means to an end. And Panama, in all its jaw-dropping glory, is the finest means, with the finest ends, of them all.

Panama particulars

Getting there: there are no direct flights between the UK and Panama City. South American Experience (0171-976 5511) has flights on Cubana via Havana for pounds 501; Avianca via Bogot for pounds 531; or on Iberia via Madrid for pounds 1 more. All these fares include tax.

Further information: British passport holders do not require visas. Limited tourist information is available from the Consulate-General of Panama at Panama House, 40 Hertford Street,

London W1Y 7TG (0171-409 2255).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's pic YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain