The place that launched 1,000 ships

The Panama Canal has seen a lot of water pass through its locks. It's one of the great fault lines of modern history, a place where north meets south and dreams evaporate in the heat

As the truck whooshed past, the bridge shook in the manner that bridges do when they are on the point of collapse. Next, the horizon disappeared behind a foul mushroom cloud of exhaust fumes. The walkway was so narrow I had to spreadeagle flat against the thin wire mesh that is supposed to protect people from tumbling 100m to the water below. (The purpose, whispered one local, was to prevent homicides, not suicides.) But I pressed on, determined properly to survey the gash that splits North America from South.

As the truck whooshed past, the bridge shook in the manner that bridges do when they are on the point of collapse. Next, the horizon disappeared behind a foul mushroom cloud of exhaust fumes. The walkway was so narrow I had to spreadeagle flat against the thin wire mesh that is supposed to protect people from tumbling 100m to the water below. (The purpose, whispered one local, was to prevent homicides, not suicides.) But I pressed on, determined properly to survey the gash that splits North America from South.

The Golden Gate Bridge may be more elegant, famous and durable, not to mention more pleasurable to walk across, but only the Puente de las Americas can claim to bind the two halves of the continent together. This wobbly steel assembly bears Central America's Main Street - the Pan-American Highway - over the Panama Canal. The greatest road on the planet crossing the mightiest canal in the world. So you can hardly expect it to be fun.

The highway is no mean achievement: when 21 nations gathered in Buenos Aires in 1936, they sparked the construction of a road that would stretch 24,000km from Fairbanks, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. Or, rather, they strung together a lot of existing roads and built a few extra links to connect them. The small matter remains of a 120km stretch through the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia that is marked on maps as en proyecto, though there is little enthusiasm for the project on either side.

No such gaps obstruct the Panama Canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. When it opened on 15 August 1914, the Canal Interoceanico was the greatest human construction ever undertaken - and the culmination of a plan that Charles V of Spain first hatched in 1534, when he ordered a survey for a proposed canal across the narrowest point in the Americas.

Panama's unique claim to geographic fame was first recognised in 1513, when Vasco Nunez de Balboa led a straggling band of Spanish colonists from the Atlantic across to the Pacific. It took him 27 days, and he was beheaded shortly afterwards. (You can make the journey in an hour and a half on a bus - and enjoy a rather longer life expectancy.)

Ghostly evidence of past dreams is on show at the shiny new Panama Canal Museum in the capital. It reveals the tortured story about the elimination of other candidates. Nicaragua had the strongest claim: for much of the 19th century, Central America's largest country had provided the fastest way to travel between the East and West coasts of the US. Political subterfuge, aided by worries about geological stability, steered investors to make the incision further east, along a path of greater resistance (including the need to cut through the 100m-high Continental Divide) but, it was believed, calmer tectonics.

The first serious attempt was made by the French. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man whose Suez Canal had connected the Mediterranean and Red Seas, began work in 1881. Eleven years and 22,000 deaths later, the project went bankrupt. The Americans believed they could pick up the pieces - once they had solved a political problem, which was that the entire isthmus belonged to Colombia, which neither then nor now enjoyed cordial relations with Washington. Geo-political manoeuvring prised away from Colombia a slice of territory the size of Scotland. Panama's new government invited in the US.

Out went the peso, in came the balboa, named after the first European to sight the Pacific. But the national currency turned out to be nothing more than the US dollar. Along with it came 75,000 labourers, to create a channel 80km long and 100m wide.

The Channel Tunnel represents a mere splinter beneath the surface of the earth compared with the deep scar which the canal has carved through Central America. The earth removed would be enough to build 63 Great Pyramids. And, for every three metres of the canal, one worker died.

To protect the $352m investment ($23m under budget), the Americans took over a belt of land on either side of the canal, a buffer between the waterway and tropical jungle. Towns were built in the Panama Canal Zone to cater for engineers and servicemen. Today, strewn along the canal you find pockets of abandoned small-town America. A watchtower in one slice of suburbia bears the succinct message "It's all yours, suckers", painted last December when the canal was finally handed over to the country through which it runs.

You need not sail the canal to appreciate the canal; a series of vantage points provides superb views. After Puente de las Americas, where the canal spills into the Pacific, you can hop on a cheap, cheerful bus to Miraflores Locks - a symphony of concrete, steel and water - where a slick presentation tells the history of the waterway. From a grandstand, you watch the painful process of guiding a freighter through a lock with just a few centimetres to spare. While this spectacle unfolds, a tour guide bombards you with figures. In its 86 years, you learn, the "Big Ditch" has carried 800,000 vessels. Fees are calculated according to displacement; the lowest was 36 cents, paid in 1928 by a lone swimmer who paddled from one ocean to the other.

The average ship pays $32,000 - sorry, 32,000 balboas - for what is described as a "quality transit service". What you are not told is that obsolescence set in as early as 1936, when the Queen Mary became the first vessel too big to fit through the canal. Yet the Panamanians have set about nurturing the artery as though life depends on it; for many of them, it does. The Zone has been energetically transformed, with officers' quarters and look-out posts turned into luxurious resorts where you can experience the wonderful, enveloping feeling of being embraced by rainforest.

One blight on the landscape is Colón, at the Atlantic end of the canal. This worn-out port looks like the set for some particularly grisly post-apocalypse movie - except for the high-walled Duty-Free Zone, where cut-price watches are sold to cruise passengers. On the far side of the tracks that once belonged to the trans-isthmian railway, you reach Cristóbal, another town populated with US ghosts, though with spirits still alive at the yacht club where skippers and crew gather. You can sign up here to act as linehandler on a transit through the canal. Or just sit back, sip a Soberana (the splendidly named local beer) and enjoy the sunset. A kink in the Americas twists Panama so that the Atlantic entrance of the canal is actually west of the Pacific end, and makes this the one place on the Atlantic to watch the sun plunge into the ocean.

Getting there

Simon Calder is the author of 'Panamericana: On the Road through Mexico and Central America' (Vacation Work, £12.95). He paid £408 for a flight from Gatwick via Houston to Panama City on Continental, and $30 (£21) a night at the Hotel Covadonga in Panama City . Recommended reading: 'The Path Between the Seas' by David McCullough (Pocket Books, £12.99)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur
film

It scooped up an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards when it was first remade in 1959

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

News
news

News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's starring part
News
London's New Year's Eve fireworks event is going to be ticketed this year for the first time at £10 a head
news

Revellers will have to pay to see New Year's Eve fireworks in London

News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Travel
travel

...and the perfect time to visit them

Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger reveals he has testicular cancer - and is losing his trademark long hair as a result

News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Life and Style
tech

Try putting that one on your Christmas list
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
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

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week