It's 5 am in the morning and our ship is approaching the Panama Canal. There are an amazing array of orange, blue and black clouds as we edge closer to the canal. I step up on deck to try and picture what it was like for the gold seekers in the mid 19th century that approached this area. However as the ship approaches Colon it is as if the City is sinking like Venice. A strange site from the ship.
Now for a little history. The Panama Canal. The engineering super achievement of the early 20th century. In order to appreciate the magnificence and importance of this canal it is a must to read, "The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914," by David McCullough. The book details the hardships of creating the canal and the dedication that it took to complete it.
Colon got its start from not the construction of the canal but from the California Gold Rush. I could see no remnants of that from our ship. In 1850 many Easterners longed to get to California to make their fortune mining for gold. Steamers left the East Coast of the U.S. and embarked on the east coast of Panama. When storms in 1851 prevented ships from landing at the mouth of the Chagres River, boats began landing in Colon. A railroad was constructed in Colon which took men and women close to ships along the Pacific Ocean which ferried them eventually on to San Francisco. The town has been described by McCullough in his book and several other sources as one of the worst shantytowns on the planet. No sewers with filth all over the streets. Not a pleasant place back then. The eventual construction of the Transcontinental Road in the United States made direct travel easier and brought about the decline of Colon for nearly 50 years.
With plans showing a canal through the isthmus in the late 19th century Colon began to take on more importance. However built on a swampy island, the city was notoriously unhealthful and often scourged by yellow fever until Colonel William C. Gorgas, in charge of sanitation during the canal construction, gave it a new system of waterworks and sewerage and drained the surrounding swamps.
Colon was made a duty free port in 1953 which attracted a lot of tourists. Today it is the world's second largest duty free port. However the area around the duty free port has deteriorated and there are no longer the great deals that were years ago. From the naked eye Colon is a depressed place much different than the relative opulence of Panama City to the west.
The Colon terminus is just outside the west entrance to the Zona Libre at the southern base of Colon - the bus terminal is also close by. The railroad was the original reason for the town’s existence, serving both as a construction headquarters, then as a transhipment point. This railroad runs from here across the Isthmus to Panama City and offers passenger service with one 0715 daily departure from Panama City. The railway was originally completed in 1855 and was the World’s first transcontinental railway. Return time from Colon is 1715.
I have not really been to Colón except that I went through the Panama Canal twice on a cruise ship. VT has a location for Gatùn (the closest locks to Colón), so most of my pictures are there, but there are no other pages there so I'm putting one here.
We transited the Gatùn in November 2008 in the sunshine, so most of my photos are from that transit. In December when we came back it was raining.
The Panama Canal has three sets of double locks on both the Pacific and the Atlantic sides. Here, at Gatun, about 10 km south and west of Colon, you find all three of the Atlantic locks, rising and lowering ships which are making their way between Gatun Lake and the Caribbean.
Originally, the French had hoped to build a canal without locks at sea level as they had done at Suez in Egypt. The huge amounts of water that came down the Rio Chagres during the rainy season doomed this idea, however. Shortly after the Americans took over the Canal concession, the plan was changed to include the locks and a huge dam with which to impound the river. It is probably better in the long run for Panama to have the lock system in place as more of the transportation costs stays here within the country.
The locks here - nearby is Gatun Dam which created Gatun Lake - lift and lower the ships between the lake and sea level. Building of both these locks and the nearby dam were record setting in many engineering ways - largest earthen-dam, largest reservoir, largest amount of concrete poured - records that took many years to eclipse. The locks took four years to complete. For a super narrative on the construction of the Canal, read David McCullough’s “Path Between The Seas”.
There is a viewing stand right above the east side of the middle lock here at Gatun. You can watch as vessels are eased through the locks with the help of specially-built small locomotives. Remember, the locks are over 90 years old and still run with the same basic infrastructure. If you are not transiting the Canal, the viewing stand here gives you your best look at the lock operations. See my travelogues for more pictures of the locks.
Established in 1948 to try and modify the exorbitant unemployment problems of Colon, the Zona Libre takes up almost a fifth of the original island. This is a city within a city, separated by walls and gates, with over 1600 companies selling products at wholesale prices, tax free. Many stores sell only in wholesale bulk or by special invitation. At other shops, storeowners will remind you that you must be part of a cruise - even if it is not cruise ship season - so they can offer you ‘cruise ship’ discounts. There are some deals to be found here while many things presented are not such a deal. The streets are narrow, hectic and hot.