Before the construction of the Panama Canal, there was a vigorous lobby that argued in favor of a canal farther north, in Nicaragua.
Amazingly, this idea is back. The Nicaraguan government is backing a proposal to create a shipping route from the Atlantic coast following one of three rivers into Lake Nicaragua and then building a short canal from the lake into the Pacific. Cost estimates are at least $20 billion.
I took a ferry ride across part of Lake Nicaragua nearly 20 years ago, to the beautiful island of Ometepe. The idea of a cruise ship passing through that region raises some internal conflict for me. It would be a beautiful area to see and the shipping traffic would be good for the local economy, but I’d hate to see the plastic development that would come with it.
(“Let’s ruin the only thing we have left: nature,” one opponent of this proposal wrote online.)
This route was followed, after a fashion, during the California gold rush 150 years ago. Miners came down the Atlantic coast on ships from the eastern United States, took small boats along the San Juan River into the lake and then took a mule train to the Pacific and got on another ship. It was a lot faster than the alternative, a wagon train across the northern continent.
The construction of the canal across Panama didn’t entirely kill the Nicaraguan plan, which resurfaced in the United States as recently as the 1960s, when concern was growing that the existing canal wouldn’t be able to handle increases in shipping traffic. In 2004, the Nicaraguan government officially revived the idea of a canal and continues to back it despite a project approved in 2006 to widen the existing canal in Panama.
An article (in Spanish) in the Nicarguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario argues that the widened canal in Panama still won’t be big enough for the very largest ships, including massive bulk carriers and oil tankers.
Nicaragua first announced the latest version of the plan more than two years ago, and it remains to be seen how vigorously the administration of President Daniel Ortega will push it. There are alternate proposals involving rail transit across the country, and the worldwide economic crisis is not likely to help in financing either one.