Cutting the Isthmus’s of Panama in two, the mighty Panama Canal, is still considered one of mankind’s engineering marvels. From the Caribbean port city of Colon, the canal winds its way across 48 miles of the Isthmus of Panama passing through 17 manmade lakes, Gatun Lake being the largest and 3 locks, Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun locks, with the Miraflores lock being the most famous. The canal ends on the Pacific side as it passes under the Bridge of the Americas and enters the Gulf of Panama.
Although the desire of building a canal across Panama and joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans together dates back to the early 16th century, at the time the Spaniards were using the Isthmus of Panama as a stopping point for the shipment of Gold that was being taken from the New World, mainly Peru. During the early 1500’s the gold was shipped overland via the Camino Real or king’s highway from Panama City to Portobello on the Caribbean side. Later the Spaniards abandoned the land route for a route around Cape Horn on the tip of South America, adding up to 6000 miles to the journey and opening themselves up to Pirate attacks, with the most famous being the pirate Sir Henry Morgan, it was a again looked at making a sea passage across the Isthmus of Panama. It is said that King Charles the 5th had commissioned a study as early as 1524 on the viability of making an inland waterway in Panama; yet the actual first attempt to start a canal was not started until 1880 when the French began construction. In charge was Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps, who had led the construction of the just completed Suez Canal. With heavy loss of life, an estimated 21,900 workers lost their lives mainly to malaria and yellow fever, and with huge cost expenditures, the French gave up on the construction of the canal. After several decades and much discussion, the Americans decided to take on the project of building the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal was built by the U.S Army Corp of engineers starting in 1904 and being finished in 1914. During the total construction of the Panama Canal, it was estimated that a combined 27,500 workers lost their lives in the combined French an American venture.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter, President of the United States and Omar Torrijos President of Panama signed the Torrijos-Carter Treaties of handing the Panama Canal back to the Panamanians on December 31 1999.
Tolls are charged for passage thru the Panama Canal and are set by the Panama Canal Authority. The majority of ships that pass through the canal are cargo ships, tolls are based on the type of ship and the type of cargo or amount of containers that are carried aboard the ships. The most expensive charge was to the Cruise ship Norwegian Jade in February 24, 2008 at $313,000 dollars, the lowest paid crossing was for a swimmer named Richard Haliburton, who paid .36 cents in 1928. The average toll for the 8 hour journey is about $54,000, well worth the time and money spent by avoiding the journey around South America.
The Panama Canal being capable of handling container ships up to 4000 containers and the ever increasing size of the world’s ships, the Panamanians decided in a referendum to build new locks and increase the depth of the canal. The expansion is slated to be completed in 2014 and will be able to handle container ships holding upwards of 10,000 containers.