locked in the locks

We left Panama City on Sunday and travelled to a wonderfully remote cloud forest in the Panama highlands. In ruminating about our stay in Panama City, our most enjoyment, our most enthusiastic time spent… was at and in the Panama Canal.

I had no desire to come to Panama until we met quite a few travellers who loved Panama. I wondered if coming here was a mistake as soon as we landed when we encountered the rudest taxi driver yet… but as it turned out, that was the norm in Panama – always trying to rip visitors off. No customer service! We also learned that Panama has only two seasons… rain for nine months and dry for three. We are here during rainy season. For all you who have experienced Vancouver and the west coast… lots of rain and continuous drizzle. Well, Panama City does it spectacularly! Huge flashes of lightning and then the boom of thunder, followed by a downpour of rain. If it is going to rain, that is the way to do it… in my humble opinion.

A few days later we caught a taxi to the Miraflores Locks, about a 30 minute ride from our room. After arriving to Miraflores, the $8 fee per person provided us with 4 ½ hours of pure enjoyment. Who knew that I would be so enthusiastic over an engineering achievement? Watching these behemoth vessels full of cars, dry goods, oil… you name it… going slowly through the two sections of locks we could see from the viewing platforms was spell binding.

The time we were there the ships were going from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.  Every twelve hours the direction is changed so ships from the Pacific can get to the Atlantic, and vice versa, with high and low tides factored in.

Some fun facts for you:

  1. The French tried to build the Panama Canal as a level crossing – starting in 1881, but in 1894 they gave up and put the whole thing up for sale… they were asking $109 million.
  2. During that time, 22,000 workers lost their lives… mostly from malaria and yellow fever… those damned mosquitoes…
  3. In 1903 the USA was working on signing a treaty for the Canal with the French, going through the Colombian government (Panama was a Colombian protectorate – similar to the situation with Puerto Rica and the USA).
  4. Everything was working towards the treaty, but discontent, then…yeah!!!… independence happened and Panama (the country) was born November 3, 1903.
  5. This of course changed a lot of things, but the USA and the new country of Panama worked things out and then…
  6. The USA paid France $40 million for all the work they did, the equipment and the ever important Panama Canal Railroad.
  7. Advances in hygiene based on understanding how malaria is transmitted resulted in a relatively low death toll during the American construction; still, about 5,600 workers died during this period (1904–14), bringing the total death toll for the construction of the canal to around 27,500.
  8. On to completion… the Panama Canal was opened officially on August 15, 1914 with the cargo ship SS Ancon being the first to go through.
  9. The US paid Panama $10 million per year and they maintained the whole shebang.
  10. At year end, 1999 control/ownership of the canal and the US zone on either side was turned over to the Panamanian government.
  11. They upped the fees to go through the canal and are currently grossing around $4 million each day.
  12. A maximum of 40 ships can go through the canal every day.

We were watching this huge ship go through the locks from the Atlantic to the Pacific… it was waiting in the lake for its turn, then a tugboat pushed it towards the lock. The vessel entered the first water way in the locks… often they have only two feet on both sides of them and the canal. There the huge doors close behind them… apparently each side of the gate is the same weight as 300 elephants (and the original 1914 gates are still in use). When the doors lock the water was removed from the lock… The process was repeated in the second lock, together lowering the vessel a total of 54 feet and then it was free to head for the Pacific Ocean.

We learned that when a boat enters the area of the locks, whether on the Atlantic side or the Pacific, an official Panama Canal pilot takes over control of the ship for the duration of the voyage through the locks… even oil tankers, military vessels, etc.

Anyway… we spent a lot of time watching the vessels going through these locks. An announcement was given that the last English speaking movie was being played…we went to see it. Very promotional… it reminded me of the pre-Olympic promotions or the Expo ones. It was good, but predictable. Then we entered the exhibition area…what a cool building! Four floors of very relevant information… the fourth floor was my favourite. It contained a simulation of the captain’s space on top of a very large vessel. It looked and felt like you were there in the helms room and we could see everything happening in the process of going through the locks… it even felt like we were being swayed by the movement of the boat… it was really cool and sheer fun…

You can tell I really thought it was fabulous, like so many other people… no wonder it is number five on the list of National Geographic Journeys of a Lifetime!

We so liked our time at Miraflores Locks that we booked a half day cruise through the Panama Canal. On e were two of about 80 people travelling on the Isla Morado boat. It was a very cool, wooden boat that was built in 1911. Its second owner was the infamous rum runner, Al Capone. Later, celebrities like Steve McQueen, John Wayne and other Hollywood stars rented the boat for marlin fishing excursions… it is the sister ship to the one used in the film African Queen.

We were travelling from the Pacific Ocean side going in the direction of the Atlantic. This was opposite of what we observed the week before.

The Isla Morado is also the most travelled vessel through the Panama Canal. It has likely not paid the most in passage fees though. It cost the Isla Morado $1250 to go through the Miraflores and the Pedro Miguel locks… the first boat we saw going through the Miraflores locks the week before paid $380,000 to go through. Remarkably, going through the canal saves shipping companies a lot of money.

All vessels have to meet three conditions to go through the Panama Canal:

  1. Must be in good running order…the engines have to be in top notch condition.
  2. They must give up control of the vessel to the official Panama Canal Pilot.
  3. They must pay the fee in cash 48 hours before starting to go through the canal, whether from the Atlantic or Pacific sides.

It was fun waving to the folks on the viewing platform… and they waved back. We also had a great time waving at the very large ships going through the locks in the second lane. The most fun though, and the most cool, was watching the large gates slowly close behind us and the water rise as we floated up to meet the next water level.

The Miraflores locks have two sections, as I mentioned earlier, which raised us 54 feet. Upstream the single San Pedro Miguel lock raised us a further 31 feet to the level of Gatun Lake… an artificial lake 85 feet above sea level and our path across the Continental Divide. We disembarked at Gamboa and were transported home via bus. It was a great day!

Our interest in the Panama Canal had also prompted us to catch a bus to Colon (a dusty, dirty city on the Pacific Ocean) and catch the train back to Panama City… we got to see much of the lake, the ships and the locks. We love trains too!

We can’t let our thought of Panama City go without acknowledging our hostel floor mate, Sergio. He graciously took us about one Sunday… to a beach just west of the city at low tide, so we got to walk to an island before the tide came in… we did have to walk in about a foot of water coming back.

Sergio took us to the Balboa Yacht Club and we had lunch… it rained in the aforementioned way, for about two hours. After the rain stopped we went to the Old City which they are dramatically refurbishing (it is a UNESCO Heritage Site). Sergio also generously took us to the airport on Sunday… thanks Sergio.

So, there you go… I won’t get into all the infrastructure issues PC has, which are many. Hopefully they will get to work on them. The one I will mention is that for a large, supposed modern city… on two occasions in less than two weeks the whole city had no water, once for more than 24 hours and once overnight for about 12 hours…. how can the city operate in such a manner… oh well… we have moved on.

So, our good friends, we will write another blog in about a week… discussing our thoughts on the Panama highlands and Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean coast.

Happiness to you all,

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