A century ago, the Panama-Pacific International Expo took place in San Francisco to celebrate the opening of a monumental New World project – the Panama Canal.
Spanish conquistador and explorer, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, led an expedition across the mountainous terrain of the Isthmus of Panama in 1513, discovering that only a narrow strip of land separated the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In 1534, King Charles I of Spain was the first to order a survey for a sea-level canal through the isthmus. However, it wasn’t until 1914 that these waters were linked by a man-made lake and a system of gigantic locks – an achievement that changed the Pacific-Atlantic sea route from a long and treacherous voyage around South America’s Cape Horn, to an 11-hour transit through the Panama Canal.
We sailed the Panama Canal route from San Francisco to New York aboard the 490-passenger luxury cruise ship, Seven Seas Navigator. Optimism filled the air as we slipped beneath the Golden Gate Bridge into placid waters. A 6.0-magnitude earthquake had struck California’s Napa Valley the week before, wreaking havoc among the region’s wineries, but falling short of diminishing Navigator’s impressive stock of New World wines. That proved fortunate when a tropical storm developed into Hurricane Norbert off the coast of Mexico. A skillful deviation out to sea avoided Norbert, as well as two ports of call – Cabo San Lucas on the Baja California, and Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta. A second, more powerful Hurricane Odile made landfall near Cabo San Lucas with an estimated intensity of 205km/h.
EXPLORING MEXICO’S COAST
After six days at sea we could safely approach the coast of Mexico. Captain Stan de Lacombe docked at Bahias de Huatulco, no doubt with some relief. This area is earmarked to rival Acapulco and Cancún as a future tourism hotspot. Nevertheless, it’s bound to keep its character for some time yet.
Word has it that the locals spoke an ancient language until roads and an airport released them from isolation in the late 1980s. Dense tropical forest frames a string of bays and inlets. Our day began with a range of choices – snorkeling, diving, deep-sea fishing for marlin and swordfish, exploring the bays by catamaran … or maybe some birdwatching, observing wildlife in the National Park, or visiting local communities which still practise timeless traditions.
We sailed on to Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, once a centre of the Mayan Empire. A new cruise terminal at Puerto Chiapas is the gateway to the major tourist sites. We chose a road trip to the ruins of Izapa, a pre-Columbian city near the Guatemalan border. The Mayan Calendar is thought to have its roots among Izapa’s vast squares and plazas, stelae stones and altars. It’s an eerie place where Mayan warriors, high on energy derived from cacao, staged violent ball games against exhausted prisoners – who were subsequently sacrificed.
The commercial centre of Chiapas is Tapachula, a freewheeling city with a diverse population. High cheek-boned Mayans mingled with Spanish colonists, the Chinese built a railway, the Japanese sought commercial opportunities, while Germans came to work the coffee plantations … but this boisterous city always wanted to be Spanish, a fact reflected in Tapachula’s striking architecture and art.
COSTA RICAN ADVENTURE
Clickety-click! Clickety-click! It may lack glamour, but I loved the vintage train ride on Costa Rica’s Pacific railroad. Tracks had replaced oxcart trails that carried coffee from highland plantations to Puntarenas, our Porta Rican port of call. Keen to get their produce to European markets, coffee barons pressed for the line to be extended to the Caribbean coast. Indentured Chinese labourers laid the tracks, completing the line in 1890 while battling heat, disease and merciless terrain.
We rode the track for an hour or so. Our stopover in Costa Rica also included a tropical mangrove glide on the Tarcoles River and the Guacalillo Estuary, haunt of the endangered scarlet macaw and many reptiles. Some passengers opted for a road trip to Poás, an active volcano surrounded by dense, cloudy forests. Others chose a rainforest canopy walk, a macaw sanctuary or the Pura Vida Tropical Gardens.
Eco tourism has eclipsed the coffee economy in Costa Rica … nature is a big, bold, utterly powerful force. The isthmus of Panama, however, is a place where man has always sought to triumph over nature. Early trade goods – Aztec gold and emeralds – had been carried across the isthmus by slaves to Spanish treasure ships. But the need for a fast, reliable route to and from the Californian goldfields prompted the United States to obtain a transit right to build the Panama Railway. The track was laid through 80km of jungle and swampland previously negotiated by Indians in canoes. The completion of the Panama Railway in 1855 would significantly influence the route of the subsequent Panama Canal.
THE CANAL’S SHAKY START
Fresh from his successful completion of the Suez Canal, French national hero Ferdinand de Lesseps formed a syndicate and gained a concession from the Colombian authorities to construct a canal across the isthmus. De Lesseps considered the rail route as good a route as any and work began on a sea-level canal in 1881.
It seemed superbly practical at first, but de Lesseps discovered that this was not the case at all. While the Suez Canal was essentially a trench through flat desert, Panama was home to steaming jungles and mountainous terrain, mosquito-infested swamps and a major river, the Chagres. Plagued by a hostile environment, a diseased workforce, debt, scandal and bankruptcy, the French project came to a halt.
America’s President Theodore Roosevelt also dreamt of building a canal across Panama. Whoever had access to the two great oceans would be a global power, he reckoned. In 1904, the US purchased the French assets and gained the concession to take over construction. Still, there were issues – rusting French equipment, a depleted workforce, problems with spoil removal and the volatile waters of the Chagres River.
The US project exhausted three consecutive engineers. The second, John F Stevens realised that a sea-level canal would condemn the project to failure. He successfully argued that although there was little difference in the height of the two oceans, the flood-prone waters of the Chagres were hugely problematic. Stevens proposed damming the Chagres and creating a system of locks that would raise and lower ships to and from a manmade reservoir above sea level.
The construction of a canal with locks required a considerable amount of excavation. Stevens, formerly a railway man, retooled the Panama Railway and installed a conveyor-belt system to speed up spoil removal. Railroad-mounted steam shovels, steam-powered cranes and hydraulic rock crushers replaced rotting French equipment. Still, the task was monumental and, like his predecessor John Findlay Wallace, Stevens eventually resigned.
George Washington Goethals took over as principal engineer in 1907. Finding merit in the Stevens scheme and drawing on his own military background, Goethals managed the project as if orchestrating a war. His Atlantic Division was responsible for the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River. This was the largest dam in the world at the time and the Gatun Locks were the largest and longest. At around 470 square kilometres, Gatun Lake – onto which ships are lifted via the locks – was the largest man-made reservoir. Goethals’ Central Division had the mammoth task of completing a 14km corridor through the continental divide – the so-called Culebra Cut was the greatest earthmoving project ever undertaken. His Pacific Division was tasked with constructing a breakwater in Panama Bay, the approach channels, and the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks.
In 1914, four centuries after Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the isthmus, a ship named Cristobal made the first unofficial transit of the Panama Canal, her sister ship Ancon making the first official transit as part of the opening ceremonies.
The Panama Canal shortened the Pacific-Atlantic route by some 13,000km and many weeks. The American construction phase cost some $350 million and 5600 lives were lost, with an estimated 20,000 lives lost during the French attempt. Some called it the greatest liberty ever taken over nature. Everyone agreed that power had just shifted from the Old World to the New.
At 6am, a transit pilot boarded Navigator and we sailed into the channel leading to the Miraflores Locks. Local Panamanian, Tony Grenal, also came aboard to present a running commentary of the transit. Nearing the Miraflores guide walls, he pointed out the electric locomotives that would guide us through the locks. These are called mulas, named after the mules traditionally used to cross the isthmus. Tony explained the importance of the line throwers, who rowed out to the Navigator and threw ropes from the mulas to the ship. No better way has been found to set the lines.
The double gates of the two-step Miraflores Locks opened and we nudged into the first of two huge chambers. Together they raised our ship by 16.5m. An hour later, we repeated the process at the single-step Pedro Miguel Lock, rising 9.5m before floating onto the man-made reservoir 26m above sea level.
By 11am, the Navigator was heading for Gamboa where, a century ago, triumphant crowds had gathered to see the waters of Gatun Lake fill the completed Culebra Cut. Transiting Culebra Cut, we saw Panama Penitentiary where former Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega is imprisoned. We sighted the Panama Railway. Navigator was now following the original course of the Chagres. Newly-formed islands emerged from areas flooded by the lake. Below us, abandoned French equipment rusted away.
We transited the Gatun Locks in the early afternoon. Work to expand the Panama Canal was underway on the starboard side. Ships twice the size of current Panamax container vessels will one day transit the canal. Meanwhile, Gatun’s three continuous-step-locks lowered us to sea level and a channel leading on to Limon Bay. A small waterway on the port side is all that remains of the French-built canal. The Port of Cristobal appeared on the starboard side. At 5pm Tony and the pilot disembarked. Navigator left the Cristobal breakwaters and sailed for the Caribbean.
BUCCANEERS, SLAVES AND EMERALDS
Cartagena, Colombia’s deep-water port on the Caribbean coast, is an irresistible mix of colonial architecture, murky history, and shopping – especially for Colombian emeralds. In the past, the city has been targeted by buccaneers and pirates, including John Hawkins and Francis Drake. The massive fortress – the largest in the New World – protected Spanish interests, specifically Cartagena’s robust African slave trade and stores of Inca gold bound for Europe. The old city was UNESCO-listed in 1984.
Christopher Columbus was the Caribbean’s first European visitor. Conquistadors, priests, merchants and colonists followed, including the British, who settled the Cayman Islands. There, the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is an optional excursion for passengers aboard our ship while at Georgetown, Grand Cayman. Some passengers chose turtle and stingray pursuits, while we chose a scenic submarine dive in Cayman’s National Marine Park.
Columbus sailed the Atlantic coast in 1492 but flat, humid, hurricane-prone Miami wasn’t settled until the 1890s. Now it’s a razor-sharp, thriving city, an hour’s drive from our first US stopover, Port Everglades. This deep-water Florida harbour is currently the world’s third-busiest cruise port. We took an airboat ride though Everglades National Park, all the while receiving commentaries from our guide about Columbus, black slaves, sugar plantations, Cubans, Little Havana and endangered local wildlife such as the American crocodile, West Indian manatee and the Florida panther.
Docking at Port Canaveral, some passengers were ecstatic at the prospect of a big day out at the Kennedy Space Center. We walked among Titan and Atlas rockets, visited the Apollo/Saturn V Center and the US Astronaut Hall of Fame, touched a piece of the moon and experienced a simulated shuttle launch beyond the earth’s boundaries. Then we dined with veteran NASA astronaut, James F Reilly, who spoke about his experiences in space, including five spacewalks.
This was followed by a taste of colonial America at Norfolk, Virginia – first at Jamestown, the earliest permanent British settlement in the New World, and later at the Yorktown Victory Center, which highlights the American Revolution. Finally, we reached New York and another modern triumph of human ingenuity – the Brooklyn Bridge which, with the Panama Canal, ranks among the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World.