What is clear is that the canal expansion, along with the regional building binge, will mean more Latin American countries will benefit from, and depend on, the canal.
Chile is currently the third largest user of the canal after the United States and China, and nearly one-third of its maritime foreign trade is transported through the canal. Some 37 percent of Ecuadors maritime foreign trade travels via the canal and 32 percent of Perus, canal authorities said.
Well see more Latin American countries making use of the canal after the expansion, said Jorge Quijano, chief executive of the Panama Canal Authority.
But the race to become competitive extends well beyond harbors and cranes, said Edmunds, the Caribbean business consultant. Ports need to think about financial services and other infrastructure to attract shippers.
One of Buenaventuras biggest problems is its roads, said port manager Chinea. In 2007, rains closed the sole roadway into town for more than 40 days. While the government is working to turn the winding mountain road into a four-lane highway and adding several new tunnels tractor trailers headed to the harbor are often delayed for hours.
Colombias main challenge in its foreign commerce is to improve its infrastructure roads and railroads in the short-term, he said.
As Echeverri watched workers pour fresh concrete to brace the port for the coming behemoths, he marveled at how fast the industry has changed.
Just five years ago, the largest ships that pulled into Buenaventura carried 1,000 containers. Now, the port regularly receives towering vessels carrying 3,000 containers that can take two days to unload.
Few expected loads to double, much less triple, in five short years, he said.
The only thing that is certain about predicting the future of shipping, he said, is that well probably be wrong.