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Posts tagged ‘panama canal’

monkey business…

finally, a chance to post something new!

I knew about Panama’s biodiversity before I set foot in the country – or at least left the airport for the first time.  I had been through the airport a few times already and they do a great job of promoting the Panamanian jungle.  Sticking up some photos on a wall is a little easier than building infrastructure though so I discovered getting into the jungle was going to be more difficult than I had expected.

The key problem is that tourism is still pretty underdeveloped and mostly aimed at people hanging out at beach resorts or spending a day before they start their cruise through the Panama Canal.  If you come with a decent sized group, it is not too hard as there are some tour operators for hire but established group tours you can join as a single traveller are not really part of the landscape.

I did a lot of research and settled on Jerin at Panama Day Trips as he was responsive and willing to include me with a couple of other guests so the cost for the day would be $105 USD.  Not a cheap day out but very fair compared to the other options.  I did the Wild Side of Panama Canal Tour and would highly recommend it.

hangin with the big boats

You start early at 7am but get picked up at your hotel.  The tour follows the Panama Canal north to the town of Gamboa, where the Chagres River meets the canal.  There we changed our mode of transport to a boat and rode the waters of the Panama Canal along with the gigantic ships transiting the canal.  This was certainly part of the experience but we were heading for Gatun Lake.

Gatun Lake is a gigantic artificial body of water created as part of the

noisy monkeys

construction of the Panama Canal.  As part of this process, the Monkey Islands were created.  Several species of monkey roamed wild in Panama in the habitat that would now be part of the canal.  In order to protect the monkeys from the encroachment upon their habitat, they were relocated to Monkey Island, a land mass that was high enough to survive the flooding.

The various species did not play nicely with each other, however, so

don’t mess with geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys

you will visit various small islands showcasing different types of monkeys. – mantled howler, white-faced capuchin and Geoffroy’s tamarin.  The guide will try to tempt the monkeys with food so they will come on the boat for great photos.  Since their habitat was messed up by the Panama Canal, it’s OK to feed the monkeys.  They could not survive in the wild.

Several tour companies visit the Monkey Islands so the monkeys were full and we didn’t have any jump on board but still got a close view of the action and some great photos.

After the cruising on the canal, we headed to the Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park.  It is a premier birding spot and definitely worth checking out but – as a safari veteran – I knew mid-day was likely to be disappointing.  We did see a sloth and a few birds but it was underwhelming after all the biodiversity I was expecting from the Biomuseo.

I DO believe all those species exist in Panama.  If seeing wildlife and

one of those amazing birds

especially birds is your main objective, the better option is to stay at an eco-resort near the park so that you can come early or late in the day to see nature when it is not sleeping or hiding in the shade 🙂  It’s still a pleasant walk and you get to have a nice lunch on a terrace.  While I didn’t see the 385 species apparently seen by the Audubon Society in a 24 hour period, it was still good value.

The guide, John, was a business school graduate from Venezuela who decided he preferred being outside.  He was smart, funny and very knowledgeable about both Panama and the wildlife.  He also had a not surprisingly sardonic view of life in Latin America where things are definitely improving but infrastructure, regulation and corruption could still use a lot of work.

The social dynamics were very interesting as we had a Venezuelan immigrant, a socially liberal Canadian, a loud American guy from the southwest who started sentences “I’m not racist but…” and his meek charming wife who tried to make sure his comments didn’t cause too much trouble.  I was quite sure all of his opinions about everything in life had been set in stone long ago so there was no point in presenting logical arguments 😉

It was great to actually BE on the canal and to get out of the city, see some wildlife and breath in the fresh air from the rainforest so make sure to sign up for Panama Day Trips!  They have other tour options if this doesn’t sound perfect to you.

 

it’s all about the canal!

finally, a blog post!

If you were playing word association and the first word was Panama, the next invariably would be Canal.  The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel.  Panama is probably the most famous isthmus in the world.  It was discovered in 1513 by Balboa.  That began the canal debate.  As we’ve talked about in the Chile posts, ships had to make a long, expensive and dangerous tour down the Americas, past Cape Horn and back up the other side before the Panama Canal.  Eliminating all that extra time by crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific through Central America was obviously a great commercial idea.

checking out the canal

The challenge of course is that Panama is largely rainforest.  The French started the project in 1880, encouraged by the success of the Suez Canal.  Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, started a sea-level canal.  Panama was not Egypt.  Rather than desert, it was largely rainforest and the rain caused landslides and yellow fever and malaria killed thousands of workers.  In 1888, the French gave up.

That’s when Teddy Roosevelt got involved.  Until you come to Panama, you will likely not appreciate that it is very close to Colombia and was a Colombian territory until 1903.  The US had purchased the assets in the canal zone from the French in 1902 for $40 million.  Thus began a bizarre colonial relationship and lots of American meddling in Central America.  Colombia wasn’t happy to have the USA building things in its territory so the US decided to support a Panamanian independence movement and Panama became an independent country in 1903.

This gave the US tremendous control over Panama and the Panama Canal.

miraflores locks

The initial start was not promising as the Americans had not learned from the French mistakes.  In 1905 a railroad specialist named John Stevens was appointed as chief engineer and he incorporated new technology and convinced Roosevelt that a lock canal was better suited to the terrain.  He was certainly instrumental to the success of the Panama Canal but his chief sanitary officer Dr. William Gorgas also contributed tremendously.  He thought mosquitoes were carrying the yellow fever and malaria that was plaguing the workers so he went on a mission to fumigate homes and clean up bodies of water.  He wiped out yellow fever in 1905 and greatly reduced malaria.  Stevens quit in 1906 and was replaced by Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals.  It took until 1914 to finish the canal and the American Society of Civil Engineers considers it one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

There are three locks along the canal route, which lift ships from sea level to 85 feet above where they transit through man-made Gatun Lake.  It officially opened on August 15, 1914 but the grand opening ceremony had to be downgraded due to the start of World War I.  The Panama Canal and politics have always been bedfellows.  The original deal the Americans cut was that they would control the canal forever but Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in 1977 that would transfer control of the canal to the local Panama Canal Authority by December 31, 1999.

getting close to ships

Even more interestingly, Nicaragua was the Americans’ first choice for the canal but a very effective propaganda campaign about the danger of volcanoes in Nicaragua shifted the plan to Panama.  Apparently there is now some Chinese billionaire looking to give Nicaragua its own canal.

So, you can thank Teddy for getting it built and Jimmy for allowing the new Panama to emerge.  Not only did Panama take control of the canal, they expanded it to allow today’s modern supertankers to pass through the canal.  The expanded Panama Canal was opened on June 26, 2016.

You can learn all of this – and more – when you visit.  It can be tricky to actually see a ship passing through the canal on a random visit but it is impressive no matter when you arrive.  There are great exhibits and video describing both the history and the function of the canal.

For me, it was a multifaceted experience.  I probably should have been an engineer so certainly appreciated that aspect of the canal.  Also love history and Panama’s history is fascinating.  Finally, I spent several years working for a client in the shipping industry so seeing real ships in the Panama Canal had an extra resonance for me.  The names on the shipping containers were like the names of family members.

 

 

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