By Lydia M. Reid
Bocas del Toro elicits many things to worldwide travelers: spectacular white sandy beaches, a breathtaking array of flora and fauna unequaled anywhere else in the world and a variety of places to go for the traditional forms of entertainment. Unknown to many tourists, however, are some historical facts that identified Bocas at one time as a trend setting spot in Panama. For one, Bocas del Toro was the first province on a national level to have a race track (equestrian), to have consulates from various countries, to have offered the most modern hospital of its time to particularly the workers and their families of the banana plantations, and to have hosted the first drawing of the National Lottery.
Few people, however, know that Bocas del Toro was home to the first artificial canal, The Snyder Canal. The banana production company by the same name obtained permission to construct the canal from the Colombian government in 1899.
Its construction, using primarily Westindian labor, ended in 1903 at which time the Snyder family decided to sell its banana plantations to the United Fruit Company that continued using the artificial channel to accommodate the smaller barges to reach their destination at Knapps Hole. Once there large boats with capacity for seventeen thousand clusters of banana were waiting in port.
After building the bridges over the Changuinola and Sixaola Rivers and having decided to extend it production to Changuinola, United Fruit continued this important and singular activity until 1909 when the railroad was placed in service to unite the communities of Guabito and Almirante.
Quite naturally, the new route taken by the railroad caused The Snyder Canal as well as Isla Colon – known to most Westindians of the time as Bocas Town – to lose importance since the loading of the precious “green gold” from that year on was directly done from the wharf in Almirante.
Despite this historical fact, however, today the Snyder Canal and Isla Colon have recovered its significance in this beautiful area, and enjoys a reputation as a much touted tourist attraction.
For decades the irises and algae invaded the artificial channel of approximately twelve kilometres, used solely by local fishermen who, machete in hand, hacked their way through the forgotten canal to arrive at the Changuinola River, Boca del Drago and nearby beaches.
Today, the once very vital means of transport in this area has been restored and made adequate for the tourist industry. Hundreds of tourists on board speedboats use the canal route to not only arrive at Isla Colon but, while they are at it, they are able to sit back and relax and enjoy the spectacular ecological route unfold before their very eyes.
Entering by way of the colorful community of Finca 60, within a few minutes the traveller may view the wonderful sights of the Changuinola River estuary and then enter the Canal again from where they are treated to their first dazzling view of the beach since the Canal was built little more than one hundred meters from the coast.
A great variety of birds, trees, fish, turtles, and other natural wonders can be observed during this surprising scenic tour. Finally, the canal ends at another one of the most beautiful places in this region: Boca del Drago, which is part of Isla Colon, thus ending one of the most breathtaking routes carved out of Panama’s commercial history.