Fun Facts about Panamá

Panamá is no exception when it comes to the quirky and quacky. Here are some of the best.

Nicaragua postage stamp

After the French gave up trying to build a canal across the isthmus of Panamá, the United States took over under Theodore Roosevelt. The US Senate debated  whether the canal should be constructed in Panamá or Nicaragua, so Roosevelt mailed a Nicaraguan postage stamp showing a land of volcanoes to every Senator. The Senate quickly decided on Panamá! Panamá was then a part of Colombia, and the Columbian government rejected the financial terms offered by the US. Roosevelt positioned warships at each end of the proposed canal. The Colombians could not navigate the jungles to reach the American presence at the canal, so the Panamanians declared independence from Colombia and the rest is history.

Panamá was the first country outside the US to sell Coca-Cola (1906). It was also the first Latin American country to adopt the US dollar as its currency (1904) following its independence from Colombia.

Photo of Edward Murphy, Jr.

Murphy’s Law, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” was coined by Edward Murphy,  Jr., born in the Panamá Canal Zone in 1918.

Angela Brown of Bocas del Toro married the Prince of Liechtenstein in 2000, making her the first Afro-descendent member of a European royal family.

Panamá takes the honor in 1510 of creating the first Roman Catholic diocese on the American continent. Six years later, the first city to be built by a European was constructed on the Pacific side of the American continent.

The first conquistador arrived in Panamá in 1501, one year ahead of Christopher Columbus.

Museum of Biodiversity

The Museum of Biodiversity in Panamá City is the first building in Latin America designed by world-renown architect Frank Gehry. He designed the building to tell the story of uniting two continents, separating a vast ocean in two, and the planet’s biodiversity forever.

Fact: Panama City is the only capital city in the world having a rainforest within the city limits. 
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How Does the Panamá Canal Work?

What is your conception of the Panamá Canal? Many think it is a slot of land which has been dug out from one ocean to another. It’s true that it goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean or vice versa, yet it is anything but dug out. The Pacific Ocean is nearly 8 feet higher than the Atlantic Ocean. Ships can’t travel uphill or down, so a series of 12-18 locks (depending on lanes used) were built to raise and lower the ships. Here is an animated video of this process (see the first 1:32 minutes):

or perhaps you would like to take a real ride through the Canal:

The Canal is 85 feet above sea level. Ships take 8-10 hours to travel through the Canal; each lock takes 8 minutes to fill. The Chagres River supplies most of the fresh water needed to keep ships afloat. Each ship displaces about 52-million gallons of fresh water to the oceans. Nearly 1 million ships to date have passed through the Canal.

How does the Panamá Canal compare with other canals in the world? Panamá’s is not known for its length (51 miles) but for its construction. By comparison, the St. Lawrence Seaway is the world’s longest natural waters passage at 2,342 miles. The Grand Canal of China, 1,103.5 miles, is the world’s longest man-made canal. The Suez Canal is 120 miles long.

The Panamá Canal is what makes Panamá famous. Not only ships but also a swimmer have made this Canal known.. It is one of the busiest waterways in the world. About 15,000 ships pass through the Canal each year. An average of 38 ships use the waterway each day. How much money does the Canal produce? Panama’s GDP is approximately $68.5 billion with the Canal taking in about $2 billion a year in revenue, of which approximately $800 million goes into the country’s General Treasury each year. Still, the Canal overrides everything in the Country.

The Canal is important not only to Panamá but to the world. Ships no longer have to cross through the dangerous Cape Horn of the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago at the tip of Southern Chile. This saves about 8,000 miles, 12 less days of travel, and a large amount of money not spent. Most countries of the world make use of the Canal. Panamá has reason to be proud of the canal, while at the same time profiting greatly.

Fact: 12,000 lives were lost building the Panamá Canal (mostly from cholera and malaria)
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Swimming the Panamá Canal

The American Society of Civil Engineers has declared the Panamá Canal to be one of the Modern Seven Wonders of the World. The 51-mile canal was begun in 1881 by France, taken over by the United States in 1904 in cooperation with Panamá, and lastly turned fully over to Panamá in 1999. The Canal opened in 1914 and was expanded in 2016.

Nearly one million ships have passed through the canal, taking about 11-1/2 hours to traverse the locks. Three types of ships use the canal: packed cargo vessels, empty cargo vessels, and passenger ships. Cargo ships are  charged a fee based on the number of containers they carry. Ships passing through today’s expanded canal can pay up to 1.1 million dollars. Empty cargo ships and passenger vessels are calculated differently. The Canal pays for 12% of Panamá’s GDP.

But swimming in the Canal? Yes, it was once done in 1928 by adventurer-author Richard Halliburton. He swam the entire length (locks and all) over 10 days and 50 hours, much as he had swum other canals in the world and even the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal. “It required as much mechanical labor to bring Halliburton [swimming as the S.S. Halliburton], the lightest ship in Canal history, through the [3] locks as it did for the 40,000-ton airplane carrier Saratoga, the heaviest” []. Despite the 10 adventure books he published, he is best remembered for swimming the Panamá Canal. Halliburton was born in Memphis in 1900, educated at Princeton, and then took off for parts unknown.

He wrote:

“Let those who wish have their respectability. I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.” [Smithsonian magazine, 2014]

He not only searched, but he found. Some of his caprices included climbing the Matterhorn, riding an elephant through the Alps, cavorting with the French Foreign Legion, spending a night upon the top of the Great Pyramid, and buying a two-seater plane (named the Flying Carpet) and flying off to Timbuktu.

He and a crew in Hong Kong built a Chinese junk to sail to San Francisco. They were to be the opening event of the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939 (a World’s Fair). Even a month after the opening, sadly, he and the crew had not arrived and were never heard from again, presumably lost at sea. Halliburton was only 39 at the time.

Was Halliburton charged a fee to swim the Panamá Canal? Indeed. Based on his weight, like any other ship, he was required to pay 36¢!

Fact: The Panamá Canal is one of the Modern wonders of the world.
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