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A Brief History of the Panama Canal and Panama City

  |   Panama

Made up of wild rainforests, tropical islands, and exciting cities, Panama is a unique mix of Latin American culture, energy and impressive natural sights of wonder. It is home to the one of the wildest rainforests in the Western Hemisphere, the Darien Jungle. Even its name, Panama, means “abundance of fish, trees and butterflies.” 

Panama is in Central America, and borders the Caribbean Sea, Pacific Ocean, Costa Rica and Colombia. It is the only place where you see the sun rise in the Pacific and set in the Atlantic. It is also home to one of the world's most impressive engineering marvels, the Panama Canal. 

Seagulls on the Beach

Panama City

Founded in 1519 by Spanish governor Pedro Arias de Avila, Panama City was an important Spanish settlement for both the government and the church, but the city was ransacked by an English pirate, Sir Henry Morgan in 1671, leaving only stone ruins.

In 1674 the city was re-established in Casco Viejo, but began to decline in importance until 1850 when the Panama Railroad was finished. The 47-mile-long railroad led gold seekers headed to California and the Pacific Ocean across the Isthmus to Balboa. 

Originally part of Colombia, Panama became independent from the South American country in 1903, and Panama City became the capital of the independent country of Panama. 

panama city skyline

After the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, the city became an international center for business and trade. The structural masterpiece had a huge impact on the country and its prominence all over the world, even though it was controlled by the US until 1999. 

In 1989 the city was invaded by the US to rid the country of Manuel Noriega, a military dictator who had been in power since 1983. The invasion left the city nearly destroyed, as residents looted and buildings and districts were set on fire. 


Today, Panama City is culturally diverse and currently holds the title as the wealthiest city in Central America. Its modern skyline is the home of banking and trade, while the old colonial parts of the city are home to boutique hotels and interesting bars. The city itself isn't far from the Caribbean and the Pacific coastline and lush rainforests, so there's always plenty to do outside the hustle and bustle of the city. 


Panama Canal

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, and over one hundred years since its completion, it is still one of the most important shipping links and commercial ventures in the world. 

The 50-mile-long canal was built by the US, and provided a shortcut for ships. This incredible shortcut cuts almost 8,000 miles off a voyage from New York to California, avoiding travelling around the tip of South America. 

The impressive canal system is made up of a series of locks, which raise ships 85 feet above sea level. It takes between eight to ten hours to pass through the canal system.   


After Panama became an independent state, the construction of the famous Panama Canal began in 1904, after failed attempts by the French in the late 19th century were unsuccessful due to disease, finances, high death toll of workers and weather conditions. Construction by the US was finally completed in 1914 and it was the largest engineering project of the time. 

Panama Canal

Explorers and engineers had already discovered that building the canal would be possible back in the 16th century, when Panama was first colonised. But the ability to begin the enormous project wasn't possible until the 19th and 20th centuries. 

The control of the canal was handed over to Panama in 1999 by the United States. While the canal is always being expanded, a huge expansion project began in 2007 and it is expected to be completed in late 2015. After completion, the canal will be able to fit ships carrying 14,000 20-foot containers, almost three times more cargo than can currently fit through the waterway. 

Despite the $5.25 billion cost of the project, the expansion still won't include all supersize vessels, such as the Maersk's Triple E Class ships, the world's largest container ships, which can contain 18,000 20-foot containers. 


Amazing facts about the Panama Canal:

  • Around 14,000 ships use the canal every year
  • Its construction led to more than 25,000 deaths
  • It costs around $450,000 to take a large ship through the canal
  • The smallest toll ever was 36 cents when Richard Halliburton swam the canal
  • Ship captains don't navigate their ships through the waterway, trained canal pilots operate the ships through the canal
  • One million vessels had passed through the canal in 2010


Travel Tips:

  • Take a Panama Canal Cruise to see the best of Panama
  • If you plan to visit the Panama Canal you can start at the Miraflores Locks and the interactive museum dedicated to the history of the canal. 
  • Explore the Amador Causeway, a breakwater that connects four islands, on foot or on a bike.
  • Visit Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the oldest city in the Americas filled with Spanish colonial architecture and plenty of bars and restaurants. 
  • Explore popular tourist destination Boca, a Caribbean surf spot with a laid-back attitude. 
  • Take the Panama Canal Railway, a historic locomotive that passes rainforests connecting Panama City and Colon. 

Contact Us if you have any questions about visiting the Panama Canal. 

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About Rainforest Cruises

Rainforest Cruises is a boutique travel company specializing in Amazon river cruises and tours, providing you with the finest collection of cruises in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands and Panama. As South American travel experts we have all the advice you need to help you find and book your dream cruise and an unforgettable adventure of a lifetime.


Geri Daniel loved her vacation with Rainforest Cruises.
We had an absolutely fabulous time on the cruise. Thank you again for the trip of a lifetime.
— Geri Daniel, Austin, TX
The Johannson family encounter a sloth on their rainforest cruise.
We had a wonderful time. We were all impressed with the efficiency and organization of the trip from start to finish.
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