Signing up for a tour and airport drop off seemed like a good idea prior to the cruise. I really had no idea where the ship was docking (Colon, Panama) in relation to my hotel and it seemed like the cost of a taxi was going to be the same price as the bus. Additionally, according to the website, my hotel was a km from the airport. That turns out to be true – just not the International Airport. But anyway –
My 86 year old exercise companion was the only other person in the Fitness Center this morning at 0500. By 0600 I was through my 50 minutes, and upstairs saying goodbye to friends and having breakfast in order to make the 0700 meeting time.
It wasn’t exactly 0715 when we headed out the door, but close enough. Turns out the tour included the Panama Canal (one set of locks and a stop at the Vistor’s Center on the Pacific end of the Canal to see the double locks in operation), a drive around Panama City and a stop at a Mall.
The first of several considerations have to be kept in mind: the Atlantic is north and the Pacific is south. This means that the Canal actually runs from Southeast to Northwest since Panama is horizontally rather than vertically positioned relative to the main body of North American. I also had to bring a number of unrelated facts together. Since I am a public health type – remembering the effects of Yellow Fever and Malaria on the building of the canal was easy to bring to mind. Not being an economist – I guess I hadn’t really thought through the commercial requirements for transportation across the Panama Isthmus. Gold Rush? Travel 50 miles across Panama or all the way across the US/Mexico? No brainer there, even it was hacking your way through jungle.
Build a railroad? Makes sense. Build a canal and cut a 3-4 week journey down to a couple of days – another resounding duh. Leaving aside all the issues of illness, road construction, housing construction, dams, and the requirement to deal with all the elevation changes – it is a pretty amazing.
The next consideration to keep in mind is that the Panama Canal is not a straight and simple canal like those with which you might be familiar (Erie, northern Germany, Netherlands) where the entire canal is just dug out, fitted with locks and provides a water route from here to there. This canal combines constructed portions with a large amount of reservoir lake that requires continual dredging and buoys to keep ships on course as they travers its length. As a result, the average ship takes almost 24 hours to navigate the 50 miles.
After stopping at the Miraflores lock – we headed to Gatun and the visitors center. Watching as ships are towed into the locks then out, bound toward the Atlantic.
Unlike most paired locks else where, the narrow channel on the one side prevents ships from easily passing each other.
The end result is that, although the Canal operates 24 hours a day – Atlantic bound traffic ends at 1200 and Pacific bound traffic then takes over. It also means that there is a significant amount of water wastage as one lock can not be pumped over to the other lock (one ship going up as the other goes down). At the double lock – both ships are headed in the same direction but can only be moved out of the lock one at a time due to the size of the channel.
Driving through Panama City in the rain –
I will skip the mall – it was large, new, echoing and full of shops just as you would expect.
From there we headed to the airport where all but 7 of us got off the bus. As it turned out, the bus barn was located less than 1 miles from my hotel and the driver said he would be happy to drop me off on his way back. Imagine my surprise when 20 minutes after an intermediate stop to leave the rest of the crew downtown I wind up across the major road from the Miraflores lock.
The WiFi is free and the customer service is excellent. Maybe because it is part of the training program of the Panama International School of Hotel Management? In any case, I watch the canal and locks from my fifth floor window.
I went next door to the Locks Cantina for a lovely dinner. The only alcohol free beer they have is Becks …. but that is more than made up for by the wonderful gazpacho and vegetables. My waiter has been working there for 40 years. He clearly remembers the US Army, Ft Clayton. Yes, they take credit cards he assures me, but tips are always better in cash.