I wasn't planning on spending much time in Panama, as I was anxious to get up to Nicaragua to be with my friends, the Mingos, so I picked the most obvious tourist attraction to visit: the Panama Canal. Besides, I had recently read a book on it and so had a new perspective on what went into it. It's a marvel of human engineering, costing a pile of money and and a pile of lives to create.
The French are the ones who began building the Panama Canal back in 1880, although at this point, the United States actually wanted to build a canal in Nicaragua. After years of digging and tens of thousands of dead Frenchmen—mostly from Malaria and Yellow Fever—the French operation went belly up. The United States supported a Panamanian revolution against Colombia—Panama was a province of Colombia at that time—and it succeeded, if only by the skin on the Panamanians' teeth, then purchased the existing infrastructure and ditch from France for $40 million. This was a smokin' deal and Teddy Roosevelt wanted to make his mark, so the bargain was sealed.
An inordinate amount of dirt had to be moved to build the Panama Canal—many, many times that which was excavated for the Suez Canal. Some wanted to build a sea-level canal which would have required even more digging. Moreover, the level of the oceans on either side of the isthmus of Panama is unequal. So, a canal with locks was built. To reduce the amount of digging required, the Gatun Dam was built across the Chagres River, thus creating Gatun Lake, a major chunk of the distance crossed by ships navigating the canal. To get up to the level of the lake, ships are raised by two sets of locks on the Pacific side—the Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Locks—and by one set of locks on the Atlantic side—the Gatun Locks. The Miraflores Locks are the only ones open to the public.
The visitor center is quite nice and has a movie theater which shows a mediocre film about the canal, and a quite decent museum with audio, video, and some nice models. The museum also has a mockup of the bridge of a container ship. Outside the "front windows" are several video screens. A video is played in high speed of the shipping passing all the way through a set of locks. It's a pretty neat perspective.
And, of course, there's a nice outdoor area for watching ships pass through the canal. I spent the better part of an hour watching a large container ship pass through the locks (it takes about 9 hours for a complete canal passage). What I did not see was a Nimitz-class United States aircraft carrier pass through the locks. Our carriers and certain cargo ships are what are called post-Panamax ships. A Panamax ship is a ship of the largest size that can fit through the canal. A post-Panamax ship is one that is larger than can pass through the locks.
Many of the systems which control the locks are original, but a few systems have been upgraded, such as the mechanisms which open and close the lock doors. The original mechanisms were mechanical, but have been replaced by hydraulic systems. A major upgrade to the Panama Canal is coming in the form of a complete new set of locks running parallel to the original set. The current set of locks is expected to reach maximum capacity by around 2010, so a new set of larger, more water-efficient locks will be completed by 2015, so augment the current locks and handle larger ships.
Out of the kindness of his heart, Jimmy Carter gave the Panama Canal to Panama, despite the fact that we had helped Panama become an independent nation and had purchased the rights to the dirt. There are differing opinions on the matter. Our sailboat captain, Mark, was quite bent out of shape about it, upset that we would just give it away. He complained about the doubling of the fees to navigate the canal, saying what used to cost him $80 now costs him $800. According to some, that extra money is simply lining the pockets of the politicians. Who knows.
Another sailor who was also anchored near us in the San Blas Islands, also from the United States, said it didn't really matter, at least militarily—one of the biggest complaints about the Canal no longer being under U.S. control. When the canal was built, he said, we needed to be able to move our battleships between oceans to be able fight a war in whichever theater it occurred. Now, we have carriers (our main projection of power) available for use in any theater, at all times. There's no need to be able to move our navies between oceans. I tend to agree with his analysis. Moreover, it was feared the Canal Zone would go to pot once we left. In fact, it seems to be doing just fine. It appeared in good shape and as though all was running fine from what I saw.
The next time I'm in Panama, I'm going to check out more of the country. I've been to the canal twice now. I want to see what else is there. People rave about the country. Next time around, I'll see for myself.