Welcome to Panama Canal
Way back in 1534 the enterprising King of Spain, Charles V,
mooted the idea of building a shipping canal across the central
American isthmus to connect the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans, but
it was not until 1880 that the French took up the challenge, under
the auspices of Ferdinand de Lesseps, fresh from his triumph with
the Suez Canal. The French attempt proved disastrous, daunted by
disease and the inhospitable conditions, which ended up claiming an
estimated 22,000 lives before construction was abandoned in 1889.
In 1904 the United States Government decided to give it a go, first
setting to work to improve conditions for labourers, and on 15
August 1914, the cargo ship 'Ancon' became the first of hundreds of
thousands of vessels to traverse the canal, which has been hailed
as one of the greatest engineering wonders of the world.
Today control of the canal has been handed over to the Republic
of Panama, and it is not only trading ships that undertake the
eight hour trip through the canal, obviating the long and
treacherous route around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.
Among the 14,000 ships a year that pass through the canal are
hundreds of cruise liners, carrying excited tourists, and pleasure
boats from motor launches to ocean-going yachts. On the shore the
canal provides a spectacle for thousands more tourists who flock to
watch the ships pass by, making it one of the most popular
attractions for those who holiday in cosmopolitan Panama City, from
where the waterway stretches to the city of Colon at the Caribbean
The canal essentially consists of a series of locks and lakes,
including the massive Lake Gatun, which was created by flooding
acres of forest during construction. Another of the most
spectacular parts of the canal is the Gaillard Cut, where labourers
hacked their way through nine miles of solid rock. Cruising through
the canal is a spectacular experience, more like sailing along a
wide, natural tropical river, overhung with lush jungle foliage,
than travelling along a man-made waterway.
Information & Facts
The official language is Spanish. However, many
Panamanians speak both Spanish and English.
The official currency is the Panamanian Balboa (PAB), equal to
100 centesimos, but the US Dollar is accepted everywhere at a rate
of B1 = US$1. Balboa are available only in coin denominations. The
only paper currency used is US dollars. It is easy to exchange
currency and travellers cheques in Panama at banks, exchange shops,
hotels and the airport. Avoid the black market. The best rates are
offered at the larger banks. Old, creased and dirty foreign notes
may be refused for exchange. Most major credit cards, American
Express, Visa, MasterCard and Diners club, are widely accepted.
There are about 300 ATMs in Panama City. Banks are usually open
from 8am to 1.30pm on weekdays.
Local time is GMT -5.