The crowded restaurant at Miraflores Lock on the Panama Canal serves a very popular buffet but everyone ignores it when a large vessel hoves into view.
I watch a top-heavy container ship slowly make its way into the lock. There are bare centimeters to spare as it is guided in by the railway “mules” that aim to prevent any damage by runaway ship’s engines that might put the canal out of commission even temporarily. On deck, crewmen in fluorescent safety jackets seem as keen to take pictures of the spectators as we are to snap their ship.
“Five per cent of the world’s sea-borne trade passes through the canal every year,” says my guide, Carlos. “Panama brings in about $1 billion a year from tolls, charged at roughly $3.50 a tonne.” A loaded container ship pays from $50,000 to $250,000 for the 80 km passage between the oceans, while the record is held by the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl, which paid $375,600.
I learn more such trivia in the entertaining museum at Miraflores, which tells the dramatic story of building the canal. It links the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, cutting out the distance around Cape Horn on the tip of Latin America that adds more than 12,000km and some of the world’s worst weather to the voyage.
When de Lesseps’ attempt failed, the US government bought the assets at rock-bottom price and carried on, with President Teddy Roosevelt urging: “Make the dirt fly!” The figures are staggering: enough earth was excavated to encircle the world four times if it were loaded into a train of flat cars. “The real hero of the dig was Col. William C. Gorgas, who put in place measures to eradicate yellow fever and malaria,” says Carlos.