At the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, about a hundred tourists watch as a gigantic cruise ship is towed into position for its descent to the Pacific Ocean. They are seated on an open-air balcony that provides a bird's-eye view of the action. Guides explain the working of the locks over a microphone, as the tourists excitedly snap photos and wave to passengers on the cruise ship. The ship begins to descend as water is drained from the lock in front to the one below in a surprisingly short time, the water levels of the two locks are balanced and the massive lock gates begin to swing open. The tractors, or mules, that tow the ship draw their chains taunt, creep forward, and the cruise ship slides into the next lock, like a gigantic actor stepping off the stage.
It is a scene that is repeated over and over, as 14,000 ships traverse the Panama Canal each year. Yet it is somehow always fascinating to see the working of one of mankind's greatest engineering feats: the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Panama Canal. Tourists will find excellent facilities in Panama for observing and learning about the Canal. At the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side and the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic, you can observe the working of the Canal from well-placed balconies. The Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum, in the Casco Viejo of Panama City, details Panama's history as a transoceanic route in this excellent museum are found memorabilia from colonial Spanish times. such as muskets, sabers, cannonballs and coins, an exhibit dedicated to the Gold Rush and the building of the Panama Railroad, charts, maps, photos of the Canal excavation, stock certificates from the bankrupted French Canal Company and copies of the Hay-Bunau Varrilla and Torrijos-Carter treaties. There is even a photo of Richard Halliburton, an adventurer who swam the canal in the 1920s and paid the lowest toll ever: 36 cents, based on his weight of 140 pounds.
Tourists can also boat through a part of the Canal. on Lake Gatun. which supplies most of the water for the locks. The 163 square-mile lake is the Canal's highest point, at 85 feet above sea level. Green and red buoys mark the route for ships traversing the lake under their own power. From a public dock at the town of Gamboa, site of the Canal's dredging division, boats carry tourists on excursions to the Smithsonian research station on the island of Barro Colorado, or to fish for peacock bass which thrive in the lake's warm waters. You can also take a nighttime cruise on Lake Gatun to observe crocodiles. Crocs up to 18 feet long live in the lake, so be careful! Just beyond Gamboa is the famed Pipeline Road, where ecstatic birders have set world records year after year in the Audubon Society's Christmas bird count.
|Portobelo and the Gold Route|
|Panama's history as an interoceanic route began long before the building of the Panama Canal. Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in South America, vast quantities of gold were shipped to Spain from the Pacific Ocean via Panama. The gold was unloaded from ships at Old Panama, carried overland on the backs of mules and
reloaded on ships at Portobelo, located a short distance from Colon on the Atlantic coast.
A visit to Portobelo, for a view of old Spanish forts and the recently renovated customs house, will round out your understanding of Panama as an interoceanic route. On the massive bulwarks of the old forts, rusting, cast-iron cannons are aimed out to seas once made treacherous by marauding pirates hungry for a taste of Spain's gold booty. This important historic site has been named Cultural Patrimony of the World by UNESCO. In the two floors of the recently renovated customs house, a museum will soon be inaugurated with exhibits dedicated to Panama's colonial history and the Gold Route. Your tour to Portobelo can be rounded off by a lobster dinner to the accompaniment of the Congo Dances, which were begun by slaves to poke fun at Spanish royalty. Dancers sing songs with the words said backwards and wear their clothes inside out in these interesting performances.
© Panama's TravelNet 1998
A Division of Centralamerica.Com
All Rights Reserved