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Cruising along Gatun Lake on the Panama Canal.

Cruising Gatun Lake and Panama Canal

The construction of the Panama Canal is one of those epic tales from the past, an old-school feat of engineering, ambition and courage. Over the span of a decade a little more than a century ago, tens of thousands of workers drilled dynamite holes, drove belching steam shovels and labored with pickaxes, all the while fighting off malaria. As David McCullough recounts in his sweeping history The Path Between the Seas, it was a combination of sheer human might and what was at the time the latest engineering prowess that created a route connecting two oceans.

What may come as a surprise to those who have never traveled across the Panama Canal is that only portions of it, at each end, are the narrow channels and locks that are so often photographed. At its heart is the huge manmade Gatún Lake. There, in the middle of one of humankind's greatest engineering achievements, more than 100 species each of mammals and reptiles, as well as some 500 different birds (from colorful toucans to fierce harpy eagles), thrive in the nature reserves on islands in the middle of the lake and along its edges.