Go for the canal. Stay for everything else.
It’s been 12 years since Panama regained control of its canal, and the country’s economy is booming. Cranes stalk the skyline of the capital, Panama City, where high-rises sprout one after the next and immigrants arrive daily from around the world. Among those who have landed en masse in recent years are American expatriates and investors, who have banked on Panamanian real estate by building hotels and buying retirement homes. The passage of the United States-Panama free trade agreement in October is expected to accelerate this international exchange of people and dollars (the countries use the same currency).
Among the notable development projects is the Panama Canal itself, which is in the early stages of a multibillion-dollar expansion. The project will widen and deepen the existing canal and add two locks, doubling the canal’s cargo capacity. For those who want to see the waterway as it was originally designed, now is the time. The expansion is expected to be completed by 2014, the canal’s 100-year anniversary.
Other high-profile projects include the construction of three firsts: The Panamera, the first Waldorf Astoria hotel in Latin America (set to open in June 2012); the Trump Ocean Club, the region’s tallest building, which opened last summer; and Frank Gehry’s first Latin American design, the BioMuseo, a natural history museum scheduled to open in early 2013. Even Panama City’s famously dilapidated historic quarter, Casco Viejo, has been transformed. The neighborhood, a tangle of narrow streets, centuries-old houses and neo-colonial government buildings, was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997 and is now a trendy arts district with galleries, coffeehouses, street musicians and some of the city’s most stylish restaurants and boutique hotels.
Across the isthmus, on Panama’s Caribbean coast, the Bocas del Toro archipelago has become a popular stop on the backpacker circuit, with snorkeling and zip lining by day and raucous night life after dark. FREDA MOON
The United States took over the task of construction of the Panama Canal on may 4, 1904, after quite a debate as to where would be the best site for this project, even after the French had already started construction in Panama. The U.S. considered five routes before deciding to continue the work the French had already begun. As you can see below, these routes included (1)through the narrowest point in Mexico, (2) through Nicaragua, (3) the French route through Panama, (4) a second route through Panama going roughly from the Gulf of San Blas to Chepo and (5), through Colombia using the Atrato River.
The French had considered several alternatives canal designs including their initial effort for a sea level canal and, later, on their second attempt, a locks canal. With greater engineering information, the U.S. abandoned the French design and proceeded with a locks design based on a large lake 85 feet above sea level. The French sea-level design suffered greatly from the large volume of excavation required and from flooding that would have occurred along the Chagres River. By constructing a dam (Gatun Dam) near the mouth of the Chagres, the combined effect of reducing excavation and mitigating flood impacts was achieved at the cost of constructing the locks.
The Panama Canal watershed is 1289 square miles drained by six major rivers of which the Chagres is the largest. Five major stream gages keep track of the flow from these rivers into Gatun Lake. These stream gage locations, shown in the map below, are: the Gatun River at CIENTO; the Boqueron River at PELUCA; the Pequeni River at CANDELARIA; the Chagres River at CHICO; the Trinidad River at EL CHORRO; and the Ciri Grande River at LOS CANONES.
When the canal operations began in 1914, it became evident that, for water management purposes, another dam was needed. And it had to be above Gatun Lake. Thus, on October 13, 1931, construction on another dam was begun up the Chagres near the location of a little town called Alajuela. The dam was named Madden, after U.S. Congressman Martin B. Madden, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who played an important role in support of the project. The dam would not only help control the tremendous floods of the Chagres, but also hold water in reserve for periods when traffic through the canal was at its highest point. And additional benefit was the hydroelectric power it generated for use in the operation of the canal.
Madden Dam is located 250 feet above sea level and retains 29 million cubic feet of water. It was constructed by the engineering companies of W.E. Callahan and Peterson, Shirley & Gunther of Omaha for $4,047,407 (Note 1) which was a lot less than had been estimated by the Isthmian Canal Commission. The design and construction work was under the direction of E.S. Randolph, who stayed at the job site through out its construction. The contract was signed by General Burgess, who was the Governor of the Canal Zone at the time.
The resulting lake was called Madden Lake for many years but, eventually, this was changed to Alajuela Lake. This lake has a perimeter of 189 miles. The dam is 930 feet long and rises 220 feet from its foundation. Up to 893 persons, divided almost evenly between the contractor and the Canal Zone government, were employed during its peak construction period. Completion of the dam was accomplished on February 5, 1935, five months ahead of schedule and was hailed as another triumph of U.S. engineering in the history of the Canal. The Canal Zone government proceeded to build a concrete paved road 12-1/2 miles long connecting the new dam to the town of Summit.
Madden Dam is maintained and operated by the Panama Canal Authority. This large reserve of water has lived to its expectations providing water to (1) help maintain water levels necessary to operate the canal during the dry season, (2) control flooding of the Chagres and (3) providing hydroelectric power for the area.
Sources: Dr. Alonso Roy, M.D., Escritos Historicos de Panama; Timothy Davis, Sioux Falls Travel Examiner, 5-18-10;
Some History and Hydrology of the Panama Canal, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, June 2000; http://www.industcards.com/hydro-panama.htm
NOTE 1: Dr. Roy states that the contract for the dam was $4,047,407. However, industcards gives a figure of $$10.6 million.
I would like to say thanks to EcoCircuitos Panama and Panama Marine Adventures for this great experience adventure! My tour started in the morning at the Flamenco Resort and Marina. Passengers board motor coaches for a 45 minute ride to the town of Gamboa, a scenic road in the watershed and close to Soberania National Park. Once in Gamboa, we board the Pacific Queen Yacht boat to start the adventure. During the transit it is possible to see the continuous maintenance that this area requires, because it is very susceptible to landslides. In this area I also observe the work in process for the Panama Canal expansion project. Before to enter Pedro Miguel Locks I see the new Centennial Bridge wich is beautiful engineering piece. Then I enter Miraflores Lake, which is a small artificial body of fresh water that separates Pedro Miguel from Miraflores Locks. At Miraflores Locks the vessel is lowered 18 meters in two distinct steps. Once in the Pacific Ocean the vessel sail to the beautiful Flamenco Marina where passengers disembark. On the way to Flamenco, we pass under the Bridge of the Americas, and later, at the moment it is possible to admire the Bay of Panama and Panama City’s splendorous skyline. Staff was extremely professional and knowledgeable. The guide was so well-informed about the details of the Canal. For example the most expensive regular toll for canal passage to date was charged on May 16, 2008 to the Disney Magic, which paid US $331,200. The least expensive toll was 36 cents to American adventurer Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928. What a fantastic and memorable tour!