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Gatun Lake, in the Colon Province of the Republic of Panama, constitutes nearly half of the Panama Canal waterway. Created by damming the Chagres River, the man-made lake is a tropical paradise. Visitors floating one of the many peaceful inlets and bays surrounded by wildlife would never realize the lake is one of the world's busiest water routes or that the many islands are actually former mountaintops.
The strategic significance of the Isthmus of Panama was realized as early as the Spanish Conquest in the 1500's; less than 50 miles separate the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean at this point. The French began building a canal in the late 1800's but found the challenge too difficult. Because Panama had become an important exporter of coffee and other products, the French first built the Panama Railway across the isthmus and began excavating for the planned canal. After several years of work and the deaths of an estimated 21,000 workers, the French abandoned the effort to the Americans, who completed the project. The successful difference in methodology was the plan for Gatun Lake, and the lake itself made the Panama Canal possible.
One problem with a simple canal without locks, as planned by the French, was the 19-foot difference in water levels between the Caribbean and the Pacific Oceans. The major problem was the interior highland mountains, including the Continental Divide. By damming the Chagres River, the entire valley was flooded to create a lake deep enough to limit the channels that had to be cut through the rock. The massive lake also provides the huge amount of water needed to operate the locks leading down to the Caribbean Sea, six miles away. A gigantic dam was built between two mountains, 8,400 feet long and a half-mile wide at the base. The entire valley of mahogany forest was flooded to create Gatun Lake. At the time it was built, Lake Gatun was the largest man-made lake in the world -- it measures about the size of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Millions of tons of cargo travel through the Panama Canal every year, saving thousands of miles over the former journey around Cape Horn. However, the completion of the canal came at great cost, as an estimated 27,000 laborers lost their lives to accident, malaria and various tropical diseases.
Because there is almost no rain during the dry season, Gatun Lake stores enough fresh water to release the needed 52 million gallons each time a ship traverses the locks with little appreciable variation in water level. During the dry season, water levels may drop as much as five feet from the monsoon levels. The Gatun Dam provides hydroelectric power for operation of all canal locks and activities, using only 25% of the power generated. Now that Panama has control over the system, the government sells the rest of the excess to villages and private businesses.
The rising water isolated a variety of wildlife on the many islands in the lake. One island, Barro Colorado, is home to one of the Smithsonian's research centers. Guacha Island, a wildlife sanctuary, lies in the center of the lake. Islas Brujas and Islas Tigres are a primate refuge with no visitors allowed. Other islands are available via guided tours or self-exploration to those properly prepared for hiking. The lake itself is home to crocodiles, manatees, and peacock bass. The latter, an accidentally introduced species from South America, has produced a thriving sport fishing industry. Fishermen from all over the world come to Gatun Lake to pursue the voracious and aggressive brightly-marked bass. Tilapia, perch, tarpon, and the occasional snook can also be caught in these waters.
A sizeable tourist industry has grown up around yachting, nature tours and fishing excursions. The lakeshore is home to many marinas and yacht-focused businesses. Vacation rentals have become plentiful as visitors realize the advantages of spending a vacation in such an exotic location only two hours by air from Miami. Condos and new housing developments along the shore guarantee there are excellent real estate opportunities at Gatun Lake. The area has become a popular retirement location for upper middle-income retirees.
House boating is a popular activity on the bays and backwaters far from the shipping lanes. Kayaking and canoeing among the many small islands is a favorite way to view the several species of primates, sloths and the many water birds. The Village of Gamboa is the center of Gatun Lake tours and expeditions; a variety of tours may be arranged, including wildlife or birding. Some tours offer a close-up view of the narrow canal cut through the interior mountains alongside ocean-going freighters and cruise ships. One popular hiking route along the shore is the old Pipeline Road, built by the military during World War II to protect the pipeline that was built but never used for emergency war fueling.
South of Gatun Lake and east of the Panama Canal, 55,000-acre Soberania National Park holds the Canopy Tower. From the top of Semaforo Hill, the tower allows visitors to watch wildlife from above and exposes an overview of the local fauna. A canopy tram provides treetop-level wildlife and bird viewing. The park is a world-famous bird-watching location, as it is home to 525 species of birds including the black hawk-eagle, black-cheeked woodpecker, black-breasted puffbird, broad-billed motmot, blue cotinga, purple-throated fruitcrow, masked tytira, violaceous trogon, fasciated antshrike, shining honeycreeper, and many winter migrants. Also calling Soberania home are 105 species of mammals (some of which are endangered species) including tamandua, large felines, two and three-toed sloth, four species of monkeys, agouti and 59 native plant species in four life zones. Eco-tours are extremely popular and much research is being performed in the lightly-settled rain forest. One interest of ecologists is the phenomena provided by the explosive population growth of the peacock bass. Their proliferation is changing the trophic state of areas of the lake due to heavy predation.
A Gatun Lake vacation is surprisingly inexpensive and a very different experience than the casinos and tourist-oriented activities in much of the Caribbean. Wake to the voices of howler monkeys and the calls of exotic birds. Cruise the lazy inlets along Gatun Lake. Its easy to get to by air and the visitor will want to come back often. Visit soon to start your new adventure!
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