Panama Canal - finally!

Trip Start Jan 16, 2011
Trip End Jan 15, 2012

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Flag of Panama  ,
Saturday, July 23, 2011

Day 186:
I guess most people associate Panama with the Panama Canal – the rest of the country is basically unknown to most. I, too, came to Panama mainly to see the Canal which is also termed the 8th world wonder. I booked a partial canal transit on the MV Pacific Queen. Once I'm here, I'll do the real thing, though a bit pricy at 115 USD for 5 hours. I had to make my own way out to the Amador causeway, Flamenco Marina. The taxi driver had some difficulties finding the place, but I reached a minute before the bus departed. We had almost an hour bus ride to Gamboa a former American village a the Canal. From here we boarded MV Pacific Queen. While we waited on the deck to sail off a vessel with approx. 5,000 containers passed us – huge! Tough I am used to big vessels from my time in Singapore I still get impressed every time you get close to them. The canal was opened in 1914. Ships are crossing the canal 365 days a year, the canal is open 24/7. The canal has a one-way street system: The ships cross from one side in the morning and from the other side in the afternoon. Huge ships are not allowed to cross at night, only smaller ones with a tag-boat that is compulsory and they use a two-way system. Every ship that transits the canal has to fulfil 2 requirements: Firstly, a Panama Canal captain has to be on board and secondly the transit fee has to be paid 3-4 days in advance, no credit cards, no personal cheques accepted. The transit fee is calculated by weight. But the highest amount ever paid to cross the Canal was from a Cruiseship that paid 485,000 USD to transit. The lowest amount was paid by an English guy who convinced the administration of the Canal to be allowed to swim across the canal which took him 10 days. He, too, had to be accompanied by a Panama Canal captain, in a boat though, and he had to pay the transit fee, based on his weight of 0.39 USD! It takes about 8-10 hours to cross the Canal which has the Miraflores Lake in the centere. There are 3 locks: Pedro Miguel, Gatun locks and Miraflores on the Pacific side. As the lake is higher than the 2 oceans there has to be lock system in place to bring the boats through the canal. The lock system is quite interesting: Within a lock the water gets reduced to the level of the next stretch of transit. Each lock uses about 26 million gallons of fresh water to lift or lower the ship and it takes about 8-10 minutes. The technique that is in place today was implemented in the early 20th century – there was no change. The only thing that got replaced are the locomotives on the side of the lock that pull the vessel through the locks. The ride was interesting, at times though a bit boring as the transit through the locks is so slow. We passed 2 amazing bridges across the canal the Centennial Bridge with it’s 2 triangle shaped pieces and the round Bridge of Americas. Just before we reached back at the Flamenco Marina a man asked me to take a picture of him. Turned out he was Austrian and he offered me a ride back to town and invited me for dinner. Since he seemed to be quite nice I accepted. In the car I got his namecard: Hannes, member of the Austrian Parliament. I had no clue since I haven’t followed Austrian policy actively for the past 7 to 8 years. Anyway, we met for dinner in the city center and as he loves travelling as well we had a nice evening filled with travelling stories!

Day 187:
Maya and I decided to spend the day together and explore more of Panama City. We took the bus to the Fish Market then walked up to Ave. Central from where we took a taxi to Mi Pueblito. It is very nearby but Omar from our hostal recommended to take a taxi – so we did. Mi Pueblito is a recreation of a typical Panamanian village. There’s a square and many buildings which are signed to know what they are meant to be – like a school, museum, a church, restaurant etc. We stopped to have a Maracuja juice (passion fruit) and had a nice chat in the shady area. After almost an hour we continued uphill to Cerro Ancun from where you have the best view over Panama City. The walk is long but on the way I saw what I was looking for in the pumpa of Bolivia and the jungle of Ecuador – a sloth!!! He made his way across a branch across the street – in superslowmotion movement! It was almost boring to watch him! There were also loads of mouse deer around. The view from the top was good, though some trees and branches do avoid a perfect view. We walked down when it started to rain – must be 2 o’clock, it’s raining every afternoon at 2pm. There is a second part of the Mi Pueblito dedicated to the African immigrants of Panama. We looked for shelter there to avoid the heaviest rain. It stopped after 15 minutes and we had a big bite in a café near the petrol station from where we continued by taxi to the Miraflores Locks. Maya was leaving tomorrow and didn’t see anything from the Canal yet, which is not possible! I was curious what the view was like. Entrance fee for just the observation deck is 5 USD. Just when we entered the observation deck a vessel came in – Aurora Sapphire - and we saw the whole lock-process. Miraflores has 2 locks. I met one of the Swiss girls from San Blas islands on the observation deck. From Miraflores we took a bus back to the terminal and switched to another bus to bring us directly to the hostal. I had an early evening as I had to get up at 5:30am tomorrow for my US visa interview at 7am.

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