The Nicaragua Canal May Surpass the Panama Canal


TODAY NICARAGUA (CondeNast Traveler) In this week’s Maphead column, Ken Jennings takes readers to Nicaragua, where the government may soon start work on a canal three times the size of the Panama Canal and more than 100 years in the works.

In 1910, it was a 13,000-mile ordeal to travel between Liverpool and San Francisco, two of the world’s busiest ports. Five years later, that voyage was almost 6,000 miles shorter. A sea journey between New York and San Francisco went from 60 days to 30 days. What changed, of course, was the 1914 opening of an unprecedented feat of engineering in Central America: the Panama Canal. But the world’s greatest shortcut was almost located in a different country entirely—and a century later, the story is heating up again.

People have dreamed of a canal across Nicaragua for 500 years.

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The Spaniards back in conquistador times. Napoleon III in 1850. American engineers at the turn of the century—they all had big plans for a canal through the Americas. But instead of Panama, they had in mind a route 300 miles to the northwest, in Nicaragua. A look at the map reveals that Panama is much narrower, only 48 miles across. But Nicaragua was tempting for other reasons. There’s that big freshwater lake in the middle. Compared to Panama, it was virtually malaria-free. And most importantly, it’s flat—the lowest gap anywhere in the Americas between Alaska and Argentina. That matters when you’re digging away enough dirt to cut a continent in two.

A postage stamp changed history.

In 1899, a U.S. commission finished its survey of Nicaragua and declared a prospective canal there ready to go. The Nicaraguan government agreed to lease the land. But the French syndicate that owned the Panamanian land wasn’t ready to give up. They found a Nicaraguan postage stamp showing a smoking volcano, and mailed one to every member of Congress, hoping to make Nicaragua seem dangerous. The stamps worked! Both houses of Congress voted to put the canal in Panama instead.

The canal is back on the table.

President Daniel Ortega recently announced to the people of Nicaragua that he was giving them a “Christmas present”: With the backing of Chinese money, work on the Nicaraguan “Gran Canal” is schedule to begin on December 24. The planned route is 173 miles across the country, and includes the creation of a vast artificial lake east of Lake Nicaragua. The total cost is budgeted at $40 billion. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and could use the economic boost.

Will the Nicaragua Canal actually be built?

Nicaragua may be the flattest route across Central America, but this canal project certainly faces an uphill battle. It will cross forests, farms, ranches, and indigenous villages, requiring the relocation of 30,000 people. It will involve dredging a 60-mile trench through too-shallow Lake Nicaragua. Because it will be a saltwater route, unlike the freshwater Panama Canal, it opens the possibility of invasive species, like Pacific sea snakes slithering across into the Caribbean. Redrawing a map is never easy, but in this case it might be catastrophic.

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