Veteran travel writer Janet Podolak recently sailed on a Holland America Line Panama Canal cruise aboard Zuiderdam. Our 10-day cruises roundtrip from Ft. Lauderdale make it convenient and easy to experience the marvel of the Panama Canal along with some beautiful Caribbean ports. Wondering if a Panama Canal voyage is right for you? Read selections from her article to hear her reflections and unique insights into this once-in-a-lifetime experience!
An engineering marvel of the world, the Panama Canal crosses 50 hilly miles of tropical Panama in Central America using water from the man-made Gatun Lake to raise and lower ships through a series of locks between the two oceans…Since its opening in 1914, more than a million ships from throughout the world have made the passage of the Panama Canal paying thousands of dollars in fees. By crossing the isthmus, each ship saves 8,000 miles between the two oceans by passage around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America…
It was still dark at about 5:30 a.m., when dozens of Zuiderdam passengers crowded onto the ship’s bow to watch its arrival into the Panama Canal. But I discovered I had an even better, and much less crowded, view from my stateroom’s balcony, perched over the stern of the ship. A regular cruise on Holland America itineraries, our partial transit by the Zuiderdam was a bucket-list experience for many of the 1,900 passengers on that December cruise.
I learned about the Canal’s fascinating story, including how and why it was turned over by the United States to Panama in 1999, through films on the flat-screen TV in my stateroom, presentations onboard and a shore excursion led by a native Panamanian…In 2017, more than 250 cruise ships transited from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, and many others — such as the Zuiderdam — made a partial transit so passengers could have the experience of passing through locks without needing the nine hours to transit the entire canal.
As daylight came, the cruise ship’s staff rolled out its hospitality, pouring coffee, tea, orange juice and glasses of champagne along with freshly baked pastries for those assembled. I grabbed a hot tea and retreated to my balcony to watch the ships approaching behind us.
Along with its rainforest geography, the conquering of yellow fever and malaria and the invention of the steam shovel are what made the canal possible.
Rains from the tropical rainforest flanking the canal feed the 163-square-mile Gatun Lake, providing water enough to fill the closed chambers, called locks. Ships enter a lock, the gate is closed behind them and water pours in to raise the water to the level of the next lock — akin to climbing stairs. Locomotives, called mules, run on tracks beside the canal to hold the ships in place within the lock.
Between the pull of tides from both oceans, the mountainous terrain, and an 8-inch difference in the water level between the Atlantic and the Pacific, a simple trench would not work. That was the plan when the French — flush from their success in building the Suez Canal — began work on the Panama Canal in the 1880s. They were defeated by tropical heat and diseases and abandoned the project 10 years after they began in what was then the Panama province of Colombia.
After the establishment of Panama as an independent nation from Colombia, an agreement for the United States to continue construction of the canal was reached. In 1904, the U.S. established a 5-mile-wide swath on either side of the planned canal through the center of the country. It was called the Canal Zone and made off-limits to Panamanians — except those employed there.
The 10-mile-wide, 40-mile-long Canal Zone divided the country in half, and, for many years, taking a ferry across it was the only way to reach the entire country. As work on the canal continued, so did the human toll from malaria, yellow fever, accidents and heat exhaustion. An estimated 26,000 lives were lost in its construction, according to historic accounts. Under President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, the canal was deeded to America “in perpetuity.” The Canal Zone grew as an American town and was home for 36,000 Americans, called “Zonians.”
One of the most prominent Zonians is U.S. Senator John McCain, son of a Naval officer posted in the Canal Zone. McCain lived the first five years of his life there. But, according to guide Darris on my Panama Canal shore excursion, resentment between poor Panamanians and privileged Zonians escalated year by year.
“We took care of their children, cleaned their houses and went back to the slums at night,” Darris told those of us riding a bus to Panama City and the new Miraflores locks after being tendered ashore from the Zuiderdam. “The Canal Zone cut through our country, but only the U.S, flag could be flown there.”
On that six-hour-plus shore excursion, we would learn about the piracy rampant in the old days and take a 45-minute walk through the streets of colonial Panama, with its French, Spanish and Italian architectural styles still visible. We stopped in the former Canal Zone to pick up bag lunches, which most of us ate on the bus, although some saved them for a picnic -style lunch along the way. We also visited the Miraflores Locks Observation Center, with its museum dedicated to the building of the Canal and made a stop at Fort Amador for arts and crafts shopping. It was among more than a dozen shore excursions organized to give Zuiderdam passengers an experience in Panama…
There’s much more to Panama’s history that can be learned on a shore excursion from one of the many ships that make the canal transit. The Panama Canal Authority requires passengers to be signed up for an excursion before they board a tender in Gatun Lake for transport ashore…
Many groups head to the Pacific Coast to visit Panama City and the nearby locks, cross the isthmus by train, travel by dugout canoe to visit a native community of the Embera people or take an aerial tram over the rainforest.
Once shore excursions leave the ship, Zuiderdam returns back through the locks from which it came, anchoring at about 4 p.m. in Colon, where those passengers still onboard can go ashore. Shore excursions return passengers to Colon after a two-hour-or-more bus ride across the isthmus.
This post was originally published by Janet Podolak on The News-Herald. Holland America Line received permission from the author to share her article on the blog.