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Panama Canal Zone

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Did You Know…?

  • The Panama Canal’s Caribbean entry/exit point is north and west of the Pacific entry/exit point.
  • An estimated 28,000 workers died during French (1880s) and U.S. projects to construct the canal.
  • The 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain was born in the Canal Zone.
  • Roughly 268 million cubic yards of materials were excavated to build the canal, triple the volume for the Suez Canal.
  • Excavated materials were used to add 500 acres on the Pacific, accommodating Balboa and Fort Amador.

The Big Ditch and beyond

The Panama Canal Zone is history, but the name remains useful for referencing the Panama Canal and the land that abuts it.

By treaty, Panama gave the U.S. control of a strip of land roughly 10 miles wide linking the Caribbean and Pacific, with the understanding the U.S. would build and operate a canal where the French had tried to build and failed. The U.S., nearly 100 years later, returned the land with the canal to Panamanian control.

The canal’s construction was one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century. Now, the canal is Panama’s top tourist attraction. Besides, today’s visitors see more than the original canal (built 1904-1914). In this century, Panama undertook a multibillion-dollar project to double the canal’s capacity.

Most foreign tourists in Panama spend time in the former Canal Zone, often by traversing the canal aboard a cruise ship, on a narrated boat tour operated locally or even aboard a privately chartered yacht. Alternatively, visitors survey parts of the canal from lookout points and observation centers.

Panama City was just outside the Canal Zone, at the end of the canal on the Pacific side, and the Canal Zone’s boundaries skirted the port of Colon on the Caribbean side.

Between them, these cities and the former Canal Zone offer attractions beyond the Big Ditch, including the shopping and entertainment associated with cities, the use of lakes and land areas created during the canal’s construction and, finally, the natural wonders of tropical rain forests and their wildlife, including caimans, sloths and exotic birds.

For example, Gutan Lake — a manmade water reserve and integral part of the canal — provides cruising, fishing and bird-watching options while the Amador Causeway, created with excavated materials during canal construction, links three Pacific islands and gives access to biking and skating, handicraft shopping, museums and leisurely seaside dining.

A goodly slice of the former Canal Zone is Soberania National Park, a patch of rain forest paralleling much of the canal’s east side. Here, tourists can camp, hike, ride a mountain bike and, especially, seek out exotic birds on the Pipeline Road, a world-renowned birding site.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Charter a yacht to traverse the canal. (Other options include making this journey aboard a boat operated by a local tour operator.)
  • Do your sportfishing at the artificial Gatun Lake. Your targets include sergeant (peacock bass), snook and tarpon.
  • Check out the nightspots, good for dancing and live entertainment in Panama City.
  • Plan for nature hikes in the areas around Gamboa and the Miraflores Locks. Gamboa faces the canal and Soberania National Park is at its back.
  • Cycle along the Amador Causeway, a breakwater built in 1913 using rock extracted during the excavations for the canal. It unites four Pacific islands at the entrance to the canal.
  • If a serious birder, join the annual bird counts that the Audubon Society of Panama holds near Gamboa.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Plan time for sightseeing in the Old Town section of Panama City.
  • Visit the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center for a sweeping overview of 21st century expansions to the canal on its Caribbean side, plus oversight of the nearby Gatun Lake. Take advantage of the center’s ecological trail, as well.
  • Take a ferry to Taboga Island from the Port of Playita de Amador. Go for the hiking, snorkeling, swimming, whale watching — whichever suits your
    fancy. Overnight in a private vacation house on the island.
  • Carry binoculars for a rewarding bird-watching experience while traversing the canal.
  • Use the simulator at the Miraflores Visitor Center for the sensation of piloting a container vessel through the Panama Canal.
  • Get acquainted with Panama’s Soberania National Forest while living in style, at the five-star Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which overlooks the canal. Take wildlife safaris, then relax at the spa.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Shop in Colon, a port city that was surrounded by the Canal Zone and is the world’s second-largest duty-free port. Also, purchase handicrafts directly from craftsmen at the Amador Artisan Center.
  • Improve your understanding of the canal at the Miraflores Visitors Center, which includes a museum plus viewing stands with live narration of the canal operation.
  • Travel through the canal on a cruise ship.
  • On the Amador Causeway, see museums of interest — the Smithsonian Institute’s Marine Exhibition Center at Punta Culebra and the new Biomuseum, designed by Frank Gehry.
  • Dine in a restaurant that overlooks the canal.
  • Find your way to any or all of the following, in Panama City, for potentially spectacular photos: Ancon Hill, Metropolitan Natural Park Overlook, the Canal Administration Building and the Bridge of the Americas Overlook. All are public spaces.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Visit Panama at