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Published: December 13th 2016
This was the highlight of the trip and it had certainly been hyped up into ‘The Canal Experience’! We had had a lecture every day, on sea days, by Bill Fall, who was excellent and certainly knew his stuff. I never knew a Canal could be so complicated!! Basically it was started by the French in 1880 – 26,000 of them died due to Malaria and the project was then abandoned. America took it on again in 1903, removing over 200 million cubic metres of material and it was completed in 1914, so is now 102 years old. Amazing feat of engineering all those years ago when you think that they didn’t have any vehicles or machinery. It is 48 miles, or 80 kms long and strangely the Atlantic Ocean is 9” lower than the Pacific Ocean!!
Anyway, we duly got up at 6.00am as we were due to start ‘transit’ at 6.30am and passing under the ‘Bridge of the Americas’ at 6.45am. Treated to a sunny skyline of Panama City although the cloud was building and thunderstorms were imminent. Of course, we were slightly delayed (not too much) and headed down towards, and under, the Bridge
before entering the ‘Miraflores locks’. We could see the container ships in the New Lock, that opened last year, about 100 yards away. We headed into the Locks (East Lane – I think) with the Prins der Nederlanden ship alongside us in the Western Lane and waited whilst our chamber filled up with water, watching the scores of black vutures, pelicans and frigate birds flying around! The Locks are a fascinating process – very clean and organised with very few people about as everything is worked by machinery – including the ‘mini trains’ (mules) that we were tied to, to drag us into the next chamber and through the Pedro Miguel Locks. (where there was also a crocodile swimming about!) There was a ‘Stena’ ship going through the New Locks (that operate by a sliding gate, and not an opening lock like the old ones) and we all joined up again to sail under the the Millenial Bridge, through the Culebra Cut – the narrowest part of the Canal and into Miraflores Lake.
The Lake takes a few hours to sail – for a long time it was the World’s largest man-made lake, and passes the Chagres River which
empties into the Lake. The area that was flooded was once made up of villages surrounded by mountains, but these were evacuated and the Lake now had hundreds of tiny rainforest islands which are really the tops of the mountains. We were lucky with the weather as it stayed dry, the thunderstorms could be clearly seen around us! Passed quite a few large container ships (Neo) that are stacked 13 containers wide – I think they said that each container is charged 84$ to pass through the Canal, so some tolls are over $500,000.
We reached Gatun Locks about 4.00pm ish, which is a series of three chambers and this time we were in the Eastern Lane, alongside Alpine Maria’ in the Western Lane, dropping 85’,eventually completing ‘Transit’ just as the sun was setting over the Atlantic Ocean (apparently it is the only place in the World where the sun rises over the Pacific Ocean and sets over the Atlantic Ocean).
The next day we docked in Colon, Panama. We had been told that there was once again nothing at the Port, only a purpose built shopping area, so we booked the cheapest trip, which went to Portobelo
and Gatun Locks (74$ each) It turned out to be a wise decision and an excellent trip! We drove through Colon, which I think is just a Social Housing rundown ghetto and certainly not a place that inspires you to explore! Its dirty, rubbish alleyways, grey concrete, broken windows and roofs must make it one of the least desirable places I have ever visited. However, our guide was very pragmatic and said that they are doing lots of repairs and trying to improve it! Mmmmm…long way to go I think! The only positive is that Panama doesn’t suffer from Volcanoes, earthquakes or hurricanes! (Well – apart from Hurricane Otto that struck a week or so ago – the first hurricane in 176 years!)
We drove past ‘Rainbow City’ of which are guide seemed quite pleased to show us – it consisted of low, different coloured, concrete, one room shacks with tin roofs. It rains a lot in Panama and as we were at the end of the rainy season, quite a lot of the land was flooded. They imported some stabilising grass (from China I think) that is now also causing a big problem as it has spread everywhere
and is proving impossible to control!
Portobelo itself was in a National Park – it was little more than a shanty town, but had an old Church with a black Jesus Christ that is paraded around the streets in a big fiesta on October 21st
. (There was a story that the wrong Jesus Christ was delivered there but when they tried to swap them back over, bad things happened!), There was also an old market square, with security guards present, a customs house, and an old Fort where the old Pirate Henry Morgan first landed in Panama (1758 I think!). Black vultures soared overhead, landing on the church roofs, the children played in the river, chicken buses were parked up, and there was a very depressed spider monkey, kept in a cage, as well as a couple of local ladies that were selling motif “Mola” work. Also passed Drake Island off shore where Sir Francis is buried after his death in 1598 I think.
We had the predictable, heavy shower at lunchtime, all poured back into the coach and travelled back to the Gatun Locks, travelling over the gates of the New Locks, where we had
an hour to get a different perspective on the Panama Canal and the Locks. It was good as we saw three large ships transiting through the locks and was able to see how the gates and engines worked, pulling the ships along. Drove back out along the road/ top of the New Lock before getting dropped off at the Port where we wandered round the shops and caught up on wifi.
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