30.01.-05.02.2012: Panama City - Panama Canal - Soberanía National Park - Fort Sherman

Click on a photo to enlarge it.

Panama City and the canal are definitely highlights of this trip. It meant driving over 5,000 miles from the US border in Arizona and has taken two months to get here but we have seen a great deal along the way.

We stayed near the Balboa Yacht Club and parked in a shady spot on one of the roads but we were allowed to use the showers and laundry facilities of the marina. There is a walk along the Causeway for views of the city's impressive skyline and a very odd looking hodgepodge of a building in progress that will eventually be the Museum of Biodiversity. I suppose it's modern architectural art or maybe the designer was drunk at the time and/or lived on a rubbish dump at some point. Who knows? Maybe it will look a lot better when it's finished.

We took a taxi to Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to wander around the buildings that are gradually being restored. Some have already been completed but the work will continue for some time. We managed to get a peak inside the theatre and there was of course the obligatory photo with some Panama hats that are originally from Ecuador! (We visited the factory in Cuenca, Ecuador when we were there in 2002.) The hats became popular in Panama during the construction of the canal when thousands were imported for the workers.

We had to go through metal detectors just to walk in front of the Presidential Palace. We weren't allowed inside the building so a photo with the guard in colourful uniform had to suffice.

Despite having GPS we got lost trying to get to the canal and the first set of locks at Miraflores. There are just too many roads criss-crossing each other and not many road signs. In fact trying to get information here is almost impossible. We have encountered this problem throughout Central America as they are not really set up for foreign motorists. If you just fly in and stay in a hotel you will probably have more luck.

Anyway, in trying to get back to the correct route we ended up doing numerous U-turns, including a particularly dangerous one across 4 lanes of traffic as we had got to a toll road that we didn't want to get on!

We finally managed to get to the locks where there were huge queues of people trying to get to the viewing area which cost $5 or $8 for the whole area. We didn't want to wait that long (or pay!), so we walked to each side of the building and looked through the fence.

We stayed at the Parque Nacional Soberanía for the night and did a walking trail through the park the next day to see toucans, monkeys, numerous birds and butterflies.

We continued to Gatun locks - the third and final set. Kirsten paid $5 to go to the viewing area at 3-30pm and was thrown out 30 minutes later because they were closing! They never mentioned the closing time when she paid though! Meanwhile, Helen looked through the fence! It seems to be getting a habit! But then she walked along a grassy patch to get to the far end of the locks and sunk into a boggy patch which, for a horrible moment, she thought may have been due to sewage! So the trainers and socks had to be thoroughly cleaned!

It is certainly quite impressive to watch huge containers going through the locks with very little space to spare (about a foot on either side) and being guided by line handler locomotives that look tiny compared to the containers.

We actually left a message on the board at the Balboa club asking if anyone needed line handlers so that we could get a free trip along the canal on a yacht. The alternative was to pay for a boat trip which only takes place once a month through all three locks and costs $175 per person! Hence our message on the notice board. Alas, our services were not requested by any unsuspecting yachties, so we took the next best option of driving over the locks.

The Panama Canal is truly one of the world's greatest engineering marvels stretching for 80 km from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colon on the Atlantic side. There are three sets of double locks at Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun with the ships passing through a huge artificial lake created by a dam. At the time they were the largest artificial lake and dam in the world.

The first firm effort to build a water channel through Panama began with the French in 1880, but financial troubles and diseases meant that the initiative failed. After its independence in 1903, Panama negotiated an agreement with the US for the construction of the canal which would be built by the US and managed until 1999.

It took 10 years to build despite disease, landslides and harsh weather and was finally completed on August 15th 1914. The centennial celebrations are coming up. There is also an ambitious expansion under way which is due to be completed for the centennial which will provide new locks at Miraflores and Gatun that are deeper and wider to allow bigger vessels to pass through. (Vessels were built so that they could fit through the existing locks.)

The historic millionth vessel to pass through was the Fortune Plum in 2010. The costs depend on weight. According to our Lonely Planet (published 2007) the most expensive was the 90,000 ton French cruise ship Infinity in 2001 that cost $200,000 US dollars to go through all locks. The cheapest was $0.36 cents paid in 1928 by Richard Halliburton who swam through!! The average fee is around $30,000.

A staggering 52 million gallons of fresh water is released into the ocean with the passage of each ship. A phenomenal amount but the new expansion includes a system of recycling the water.

At Gatun locks we had to wait 30 minutes at a traffic light whilst a huge container slowly made its way through the final lock. Then the lock was closed and the narrow road bridge across the canal and past the lock was opened up for the traffic to drive across. Quite an experience!

Panama Canal: Miraflores and Gatun locks.

Driving Winnie through the canal.

We drove out to Fort Sherman and parked up near a lighthouse. We stayed for two nights and watched all the containers coming out of or going into the wide mouth of the channel between the open sea and the first lock which was way off in the distance.

Camping at Fort Sherman - 360° Panorama
(move mouse over panorama and click on the arrows)

We drove back to the Balboa Yacht Club stopping at Gatun and Pedro Miguel locks on the way for more views of containers etc. That evening we went out for a very nice Italian meal to celebrate Agnes' 70th birthday. There were even fireworks later that evening - maybe they knew it was Agnes' birthday!

Our final day in Panama City incorporated a terrifying taxi ride into the city - our driver thought he was a formula one race driver and we would be impressed. We were just glad to arrive alive! The one good thing about driving that fast was that we went past a fish factory and the stench was so bad it was making us gag. The stench continued all along the main promenade so if we had been travelling at normal speeds it would have been absolutely unbearable.

Anyway we got out on somewhat wobbly legs and wandered around the Panama Viejo ruins founded in 1519 which include a cathedral, convent and plaza. Our plan was to get a bus into the city centre to find the "twisty tower" as it is called, a green twisting spiral tower that stands out amongst all the other skyscrapers.

As we walked along the sea front at the end of the ruins heading for a bus stop we were surrounded by police saying it was too dangerous to walk further and we should get on a bus. Duhhhh! The panamanian Spanish is almost unintelligible but at least they understood us. The problem was that they just stopped the first bus and told us to get on! Well, how can that be safe when we don't know where the bus is going!! Plus it was jam packed! Oh well its always an adventure with us!

So we got on and Helen kept her eye on the roads and the twisty tower and we got off at the closest stop to it. We walked two blocks to the base of the tower. We knew it would probably be closed as it was a Sunday but we wanted to know what it was. We spoke to the security guard who told us it was a cultural building between China and Central America.

We asked if we could get onto the roof to take photos of the city but he told us to go to the Panama White Tower and hailed a taxi for us and told the taxi driver where to go. Or so we thought, because the taxi driver didn't know the tower. So we ended up in an area with private high rise buildings on the sea front and obviously where the rich live. Despite all the efforts of the taxi driver, we weren't allowed to go up onto the roofs of any of them for photos of the City. At least the taxi driver drove at normal speeds so we didn't have to fear for our lives on the way back!

The taxi driver told us that the Pan American Highway has been blocked for the last 6 days at a bridge in San Felix by protesting indigenous people and no one was getting through because there is no other way to drive. He said the road was being opened today but only today as the negotiations were continuing.

We decided we would leave anyway because we might not make it as far as San Felix the next day anyway. So it was off to the next adventure!