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
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Travel
Fair trade: the idea of honesty boxes relies on people paying their way
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
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

    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...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary