Kuna women are rolling up their molas for the night, and lovers are strolling the old sea wall atop the BĂłvedas in the Casco Viejo sector of Panama City. A mango-colored sunset reflects off the bay, casting a deep shadow onto a ship just finishing its journey through the Panama Canal.
This is where the Canal ends for some and begins for others, whether traversing it or in learning its history. Below these BĂłvedas is the Plaza Francia, where 12 plaques tell the story of the heroic but ill-fated French attempt to build this Canal (1878-1889). The statues staring into the approaching dusk include one of Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal and chief engineer of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal InterocĂ©anique. His attempt to build a lockless canal through this isthmus was misguided: countless problems of geography and disease forced the French company into bankruptcy.
Further up the street is a bust of Spanish King Carlos V. In 1579, he commissioned a feasibility study of digging a ditch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. But the world would have to wait another three centuries until technology caught up with the dream. On one side of the Cathedral Plaza is the Museo del Canal InteroceĂˇnico, a must-visit for those who wish to understand the Canal. Well-designed exhibits go beyond just historical and technical explanations; they also teach the social and economic impacts of five centuries of trans-isthmus travel. The U.S. had long thought about building a canal across the narrow waist of Central America. The Panamanian route, then part of the territory of Colombia, was already under contract to France. The Americansâ€™ original plan, through Nicaragua, was vetoed by Congress. When the French company went bankrupt, Colombia rejected the U.S.â€™s offer to acquire the contract. In 1903, the U.S. (with three naval warships) encouraged Panama to gain its independence from Colombia, and immediately signed a treaty with the new government acquiring the sovereign rights to the canal and to the territory extending five miles from either side of it. After an initial campaign to eradicate yellow fever and malaria, the Canal was completed, using a three-lock design. It opened in 1914.
The U.S. Canal Zone was contentious for Panamanians, who wished to see the economic benefits of this passage through their country. In 1977, the Torrijos-Carter Treaty was signed, promising to turn sovereignty of the Canal over to Panama on December 31, 1999. Miraflores, the set of locks closet to the Pacific end of the Canal, is situated just across the road from former U.S. Army Base Fort Clayton. Nearby, a statue honors high school students killed in the 1964 â€śflag riots.â€ť Panama still commemorates the â€śDay of the Martyrsâ€ť on January 9. At the observation deck, visitors can listen to bilingual commentaries about the history of the Canal and passing ships. The new Visitors Center also has exhibits, a gift shop, theater, snack bars and a restaurant. Buses leave for the Miraflores Locks from the Plaza de Mayo. There are a number of other attractions along the Canal:
â€˘ The Old French Cemetery, where over 20,000 persons are buried. â€˘ Barro Colorado, a wildlife-abundant island in GatĂşn Lake, location of a Smithsonian Institute biological research center. â€˘ Parque Nacional SoberanĂa, a rainforest with walking trails. â€˘ ColĂłn, the Atlantic terminus of the Canal, with the second-largest duty-free zone in the world.
The Isthmus can be crossed by public bus or train. Boat tours through the Canal itself are also offered. To watch the passage of the ships through the Panama Canal is a marvel, making the â€śgreat ditchâ€ť worthy to be called â€śThe Eighth Wonder of the World.â€ť