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Bienvenidos a Panama! (part 1)

October 17, 2014

Our bungalow was built in 1913 … so was the Woolworth building in New York City … so was this little building.

white building at Gatun Locks

That’s right, folks, to further stall progress on the side porch project, we fled the country for a week’s tour of Panama! The lengths to which we’ll go to avoid work!

I admit, I embarked on this adventure with considerable trepidation. For starters, I’m just not good with extreme heat and humidity. If you ask Eric, he’ll tell you I’m not even good with the slightest heat and humidity. For the bitchiness he was about to encounter, I apologized profusely in advance. To add to my anxiety, two days before taking off, my chiropractor diagnosed me with a herniated disc, which explained the debilitating back and hip pain I’ve been dealing with all summer. Not the kind of baggage I wanted to take on vacation with me … but we were going even if Eric had to strap me to a gurney, so I had to suck it up.

We exited the terminal at Panama City’s Tocumen Airport into air so hot and thick it was like trying to breathe under bathwater. When we hopped out of the air-conditioned taxi at our hotel, our glasses fogged up. Whoa—welcome to the tropics! The next morning we took a short walk in town. This is what happened. No coat, no umbrella. It rains fast and hard in Panama.

Panama City street in downpour

But, on with the tour. In part 1 of our adventure, I’ll tell you about our experiences on the Panama Canal. Part 2 will cover the rest of our visit—the rainforest and the Pacific coast.

First, a little background

The French began building the Panama Canal in the 1880s, thinking it would be possible to build a sea-level canal across the isthmus. However, they lacked the engineering expertise to make it work … and no one knew then that mosquitoes spread malaria and yellow fever. Over 22,000 people died from diseases and accidents. The United States bought out the French in 1904, and with more efficient steam shovels and better medical knowledge, in 10 years they had blasted a narrow channel through the mountains and completed a system of locks that raises ships up 85 feet when they enter the canal, and lowers them back down again at the other end.

As luck would have it, we were visiting the canal during its 100th anniversary of operation, which made our visit extra-special.

Panama canal crosssections

map of Panama Canal

Most people think the canal runs east-to-west, but it actually runs northwest (the Atlantic side) to southeast (the Pacific). The canal is 48 miles long, and because of the time required to get through all six lock chambers, a ship can take an entire 24 hours sailing from one end to the other. The Culebra Cut goes through a small mountain range. There, the canal is so narrow that only one ship can pass at a time. Therefore, ships travel  in one direction for several hours, then traffic reverses to the other direction.

Gatun Locks

The observation platform at the Gatun Locks put us so close to the action, we could almost reach out and touch the ships. To our left, the MSC Manu had just entered the closer third chamber on her way into Gatun Lake. To our right, another enormous container ship occupied the far chamber of the second set of locks … and an oil tanker was about to enter the near first chamber. Action is not fast. We had to be patient.

Container ship MCS Manu

container ship in Gatun Locks

view of Gatun Locks

The ships move through the locks under their own power. Small but mighty electric locomotives, called “mules,” keep cables taut to the fore and aft of each ship to prevent the ship from hitting the sides of the locks (the mules don’t pull or push the ships forward). “Panamax” ships are built to the largest dimensions possible to fit through the locks, with only two feet to spare on each side.

electric locomotive "mule"

The water in the third chamber slowly rose, and soon we were looking up at the MSC Manu instead of down.

MSC Manu lifted in lock

You can see the size of the gates compared to the man crossing them, and the difference in water level between the second (right) and third (left) chambers.

Gatun Lock gates between second and third chamber

The MCS Manu fired up her engines …

MSC Manu engines starting

The far gates opened, and she slipped into Gatun Lake, heading south toward the Pacific Ocean.

MSC Manu leaving Gatun Locks

Our canal transit

I could have watched the action at the locks all day … but a bigger adventure was still to come—our own transit of the Panama Canal. I was dismayed when Carlos, our tour guide, said that we’d have to leave our hotel at 5:15 AM to ensure we’d make our departure time. The Panama Canal Authority tells each boat when it’s scheduled, and you go when you’re told, period. So we went. We boarded a small passenger vessel, the Tuira II, with several other tour groups. Note the ominous skies. We saw a lot more clouds than sun in Panama, which was just fine with me. Besides, it’s all that rain that keeps the canal operating.

Tuira II passenger vessel

Our cruise started from the Pacific side. Out in the Gulf of Panama, ships waited their turn. Some wait for days for a slot in the schedule.

three ships in rainstorm

We sailed past the Biodiversity Museum (a Frank Gehry design, scheduled to open next year), a colorful splash against the Panama City skyline …

Frank Gehry design Biodiversity Museum

And passed under the Bridge of the Americas.

Bridge of the Americas

Ahead lay the Miraflores Locks, which step up two chambers to Miraflores Lake. Our sailing partner in the lock next door was the Island Princess. Holy cow! Cruise ships look extra enormous when viewed from a few feet away at the waterline!

Island Princess at Miraflores Locks

What is it about humans that makes us want wave at each other as if we haven’t seen other humans in weeks? We waved like maniacs. If we’d been dogs, the barking would have been deafening.

Island Princess balconies

Island Princess passengers

It was pretty awesome to think that the lock’s 50-ft thick walls and gates are about the same age as our house. They have a wonderful mossy patina. Legend  has it (there’s always a legend, wherever you go) that if lovers simultaneously touch the wall and kiss, their love will endure forever. Yes, of course we did it!!

greenish concrete lock wall

lock drainage system

Going through the locks took time, and a lot of water … and lots of waiting down in an airless hole … but then suddenly the water started boiling around us, and our boat rose to ground level—and a welcome breeze.

water entering lock chamberDIGITAL CAMERA

The gates opened, and we were on our way to the next chamber. Rinse and repeat.

Lock gates opening

B’bye, Princess! See ya later!

leaving Miraflores Locks

We crossed Miraflores Lake with the spectacular Centenario Bridge before us.

Centenario Bridge

Cute new tug boats chugged along everywhere, ready to guide ships through the waterways to the next locks.

leaving Miraflores Locks

Just past the Centenario Bridge we sailed through the Culebra Cut, with its terraced walls. This great excavation has never achieved an angle of repose. Every time it rains, more soil and rock slough off into the canal. Dredging is neverending.

Closeup of Centenario Bridge

Culebra Cut

Storm’s a-comin’.

tugboats in the mist

Just before landing at Gamboa, we passed this guy on the shore. Yes, that’s a real crocodile—about 15 feet long!

Crocodile on the shore

Our total transit covered about half of the canal. No one wanted it to be over. But it did come to an end, and so has this long post. Thanks for cruising the Panama Canal with us! See you later, alligator … after while, crocodile!

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From → Travel

11 Comments
  1. Africadayz permalink

    This was fascinating! Thank you. (I too dislike heat and humidity – makes my hair frizz, what more can I say?)

    • We all just gave up about our hair. I prefer to think I don’t really look like that!! 😉

  2. You lived my dream! One of the top items on my bucket list is to travel through the Panama Canal. I spent one weekend in Panama City and had such a wonderful time. I love that country despite agreeing with you about the heat and humidity.

    • It was amazing experience that I’ll always treasure. Sometimes I can’t believe I really did that!

  3. D’Arcy, this account is so wonderful and descriptive, I could almost imagine myself on the boat. We have some good friends that just took a trip like yours. They shared a video they had on the locks while operating. It was truly impressive. What a fabulous vacation. Thank you for sharing, I look forward to the second part.
    Karen

    • I’m glad I write a blog for times like this–it helps me process and remember every thing we saw and did. Glad you’re enjoying it, Karen!

  4. Such an interesting trip. I remember traveling through much smaller locks on a frind’s boat it Pennsylvania. Amazing how man manipulates nature. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

    • We have a lock in Seattle, too, although I’ve never sailed through it. It’s teeny-weeny compared to Panama!

  5. What an adventure, D’Arcy! I can’t wait for part 2. 🙂

    • It truly was an adventure, Lisa–unlike any other vacation we’ve had! Unforgettable …

  6. Just amazing! I love history. Panama isn’t something I’ve thought much about and your brought it to life!

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