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).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
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

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee