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Isthmus of Panama

In Panama, the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are only about 60 km apart. This makes the isthmus a truly strategic location for global transportation. A hundred years ago the Panama Canal was opened and since then allows ships go directly from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific.

This obviously was not possible before but people and goods crossed the isthmus long before the canal was opened.

Isthmus of Panama
photo credit: Navin75 via photopin cc

Panama Railroad

Since the United States of America obtained territory on the West Coast of North America in the 1840s the demand for transportation between East Coast and West Coast increased. As overland transport across North America was slow and dangerous, the much longer route by ship to Central America (Panama or Nicaragua), crossing land on foot or horse and taking another ship back to North America was preferred. The California Gold Rush in particular made people take the journey to the West Coast.
In 1855 the Panama railroad opened and made this journey even more attractive. The railroad uses the same route as the canal does today and connects Colón on the Atlantic side with Panama City on the pacific side of the isthmus.

The railroad was of major importance for the construction of the canal. It moved people, supplies, equipment and most of all the huge amounts of earth and stone that was removed as part of cutting the canal through the mountains of Panama.

Panama Canal

The canal is a major engineering achievement. It was opened in 1914 after 10 years of construction. This does not even count the 13 years, French companies worked on the canal from 1881 to 1894.
The Chagres River was dammed near the mouth creating Lake Gatun (see map for details), the major body of water in the canal. Locks were built at the Atlantic (Gatun Locks) and near Panama City on the Pacific (Miraflores Locks). The mountain ridge was cut at the lowest point creating Culebra Cut, which is about 100 m deep in the ridge. This creates a continuous stretch of water, 26 m above sea level where ships can cross the American Continent.

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Old Panama: 9.007213, -79.486835
Miraflores Locks: 8.995915, -79.591055
Gatun Locks: 9.269269, -79.923220
Portobelo: 9.553784, -79.655170
Caribbean Sea: 9.477508, -79.942703
Pacific Ocean: 8.867433, -79.495697
Fort San Lorenzo: 9.322730, -80.001712
Nombre de Dios: 9.581566, -79.468532
Las Cruces: 9.126970, -79.684010
Panama City: 8.951889, -79.534922
Culebra Cut: 9.043445, -79.646759
Madden Dam: 9.211081, -79.616117

Early beginnings: Spanish Routes

Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the isthmus of Panama in 1503 and fellow Spanish explorer Vasco Núnez de Balboa was the first to cross the isthmus and reach the Pacific in 1513.
Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in the 16th century, maritime traffic on the Pacific became important and the isthmus was the link to the Atlantic. Panama City as well as Portobelo and Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic side were important ports. They were joined by the Camino Real a trail that today is partly flooded by Alajuela Lake, a reservoir created by the Madden Dam to control water levels in the Panama Canal.
The trail was used during the dry season in Panama to transport silver from Peru to the Atlantic and goods from Spain to the Pacific.
An alternative route was used during the wet season: A trail between Panama City and Las Cruces on the Chagres river and the length of the Chagres River to Fort San Lorenzo.

Isthmus of Panama
Fortifications of Portobelo (photo credit: andrea1victoria via photopin cc)

Spain ran a world-wide transport network – the Treasure Fleet – for more than 200 years between Spain, the Caribbean, Mexico and the Philippines with the Panama routes at the center.
The ruins of the fortifications of San Lorenzo and Portobelo – both are World Heritage sites – are remnants of this important trade route, which made Spain the richest country of its time.
The wealth attracted also attracted the infamous pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates like Francis Drake and Henry Morgan attacked the fortified cities with their fleets and hundreds on men. Drake was even able to capture the silver train – a mule caravan with silver from Peru – in 1595.

Spain lost control of its colonies in the Americas in the early 19th century and the routes across the isthmus of Panama lost some importance until the California gold rush and the arrival of the railroad.

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