A Taste of Panama: The Panama Canal and Casco Viejo

The Panama Canal

The Past: “An aquatic elevator,” as our tour guide Gabriel described it, is the perfect name for the 80 kilometers long canal. Considered one of the largest waterworks in the world, the Panama Canal has been serving Panama, along with about 160 other countries since its formal opening on August 15, 1914. However, we learned that building the Panama Canal was no easy task. The idea to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans began in the early 16th century when the Spaniards arrived to the isthmus in search of gold. It was not until 1880 that efforts to build the canal through Panama began with the French, but the initiative was halted because of financial problems and tropical diseases that affected the Canal Zone. Dr. William Gorgas, an Alabama native, was recruited and put in charge of abating the transmission of tropical diseases  during the United States’ construction of the Panama Canal. Dr. Gorgas is credited with eliminating Yellow Fever and Malaria during this time, which allowed the Panama Canal to be built and opened. Since 1969, the canal has brought neutrality to Panama. Our tour guide explained how important it is that the country abolish its official military. This decision was made to protect the canal and the people of Panama in case of any conflict, as this way, the canal can continue to operate regardless of affiliation with world powers. The United States controlled the canal until Panama gained full operation through the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) on December 31, 1999.

Group picture at the Panama Canal

The Present: The Panama Canal continues to be at the center of global trade. Since 1963, the canal has been operating 24 hours a day. With this constant operation, 6% of the world’s merchandise passes through the canal. The most recent expansion of the canal added a new lane that can accommodate cargo ships that hold over 13,000 containers. These type of ships carry about 27% of the world’s cargo. Through this expansion, the Panama Canal is seeing more ships than ever utilizing the canal to travel between oceans. In order for ships to utilize the canal they must make a reservation six months in advance; otherwise, the cost goes up significantly. The fee varies depending on the size and weight of vessel. A small catamaran may pay as little as $500, while larger container ships may be charged upwards of $500,000. As an alternative, for those who show up without making a reservation, they can try to make the highest bid to pass through. This helps the Panamanian economy by providing additional funds to the government via the canal. Through the Panama Canal, Panama houses some of the largest ports in the world, with the Colon Free Trade Zone (CFZ) having the second largest free port in the world. Through these venues, the canal adds a huge boost to the economy, not only by financial revenue, but also by providing jobs and bringing resources to the country.

Team 3 at the Panama Canal

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo of Panama City was built during the colonial period. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. Casco Viejo, which means ‘old compound’ in Spanish, was constructed along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean in 1673 following attacks by Welsh pirates who destroyed the Panama Antiguo, the original city, which is five miles away from this site. The Spanish king commissioned this new site to better protect the city against future attacks. From its inception, the newly constructed Casco Viejo was full of travelers, adventurers, and workers from other countries. The cultural atmosphere was influenced first by the Spanish; then later an amalgamation of French, North American, and Caribbean customs and traditions entered the mix.  During the first part of the 20th century when the Panama Canal was under construction yellow fever killed thousands of workers who came here to build the canal. Many hygiene improvements were made by Dr. Gorgas and his team to Casco Viejo including eliminating standing water and building infrastructure to handle sewage and water treatment. The main streets were paved and open air ditches were eliminated making streets more suitable for heavy traffic. A water system was established bringing water into homes and businesses eliminating leaking and uncovered water tanks. Also, there was house-to-house fumigation, oil was sprayed on the surface of all uncovered water to eliminate mosquito breeding, and windows and doors were screened to protect citizens from disease-carrying mosquitoes. Our tour guide Gabriel brought us to the outside of an old church in Casco Viejo. He explained that if not for the presence of this very stable arch, which was built in the 1600s, shown in the photo above, the Panama Canal could have ended up being built in Nicaragua, The flat stone arch demonstrated that Panama did not have earthquakes that could destabilize structures, nor did the country have active volcanoes; both of which are common threats to Nicaragua. This made Panama the ideal location for the massively engineered canal. 

Today there is a ‘Renaissance,’ what we would call gentrification, taking place in Casco Viejo. After decades of deterioration of buildings in this area, along with the deterioration of its infrastructure when squatters started inhabiting the structures, Panamanian and foreign investors are now pouring money into beautifying this colonial section of the city. Since 2014, infrastructure has been updated, including the water system. Roads and streets have been repaired using historically accurate materials from the early 20th century. All of this is being done in efforts to draw tourists to the area so that the local landmarks and history can be preserved and shared.

Through both of these visits we were able to explore Panama’s past and see how history has shaped the current state of the country. The Panamanians have honored the past in order to build their future. In reflecting on everything we’ve learned thus far, it is clear the Panama Canal is the economic driving force in Panama.  And the work done by Dr. Gorgas and his team in the early 20th Century is still shaping Panama’s public health landscape today.

The Cathedral Basilica Santa María la Antigua located in the Old Quarter of the Panamanian capital that the Pope visited earlier this year.

Team 3: PanaBamians

Lakeitha Seroyer (MPH Health Behavior Student)

Sally Engler (Global Health Certificate Graduate Student)

Madison Turner (Biology Undergrad)

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