An Engineering Marvel – The Panamá Canal

story and photos by Heinz Jaeger

The word Panamá usually evokes visions of the famous canal and, rightly so, the Panamá Canal is the country’s most distinct feature. It is without question a fantastic engineering accomplishment, a cross road of the world and a major source of income for the country. The 80 km long canal connects the Atlantic (via the Caribbean Sea) and the Pacific Ocean on the narrowest part of the American continent and thus provides a much shorter shipping route than around the southern tip of the continent. Curiously it runs almost exactly north-south, rather than east-west as one would expect.

The route of the canal was used soon after the discovery of the continent by Spanish conquistadors to move the gold and silver they had plundered from the Inca temples in Peru across the continent to a place from where it could be shipped across the Atlantic to Spain. By 1515 they had established settlements on both coasts connected by a path, called the Camino Royal, through the thick jungle and across the mountains on the continental divide. The southern port on the Pacific was known as Old Panamá, or Panamá Viejo, which by 1670 had more than 10,000 inhabitants. The goods were shipped from Peru, unloaded at Panamá and the carried by foot and mule to the other side of the isthmus where they were reloaded onto ships for transfer to Spain. It is estimated that 60% of all gold and silver from the New World was transported along this route. Spain became very rich!

Obviously Britain and Holland, the other competing colonial powers of that time, became very envious and tried to disrupt the flow of treasures from reaching their destination. They encouraged and even sanctioned attacks by pirates to attack the Spanish vessels. The most famous of these pirates was a Welsh native Henry Morgan, who in 1668 attacked the northern port, Fort San Lorenzo, and plundered its warehouses. Three years later he returned, marched through the jungle and attacked Old Panamá from the rear and burned it down, causing the loss of thousands of lives. However, he found little gold, as the Spanish had stored it off shore on vessels hidden among the Perl Islands.

A story is told that the church of St. Joseph in Old Panamá contained a golden altar. When Morgan attacked, the local priest, Father Juan, painted it black, and when he was confronted by Morgan about its whereabouts, he replied that the altar was stolen by pirates on a previous attack. He even asked Morgan for a donation. After he had handed him some money, Morgan is told to have said: “I don’t know why, but I think you are more of a pirate than I am!”  The remaining inhabitants rebuilt the city on a new site 6 km to the west in an area called “Casco Viejo” or Old Helmet.

We visited the ruins of  Panamá Viejo and climbed the only still standing structure, the tower of the church, from where we had a good view over this area. Later we went to Casco Viejo, also called San Felipe, which is still a lively part of modern Panamá City. Here we strolled through the old lanes, admired the beautiful facades of some still standing Spanish buildings, and saw the famous altar in the rebuilt church of St Joseph.