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Published: December 17th 2018
Thurs 13 – Sun 16 December - Day 48 of tour but Day 60 total - Panama City to Brisbane by 18 December 2018
Today we headed to David where we had a short flight to Panama City. In the minivan on the way to the airport, we watched the beautiful sunrise thinking that this might be the last sunrise I see for a while! As usual, Alfredo had organised a seamless negotiation onto our flight, and no sooner we were up in the air with Panama Air, we started our descent.
As soon as we arrived at the airport, we knew this was going to be the most developed city we had visited during our whole 60 days away. Even the minivan that picked us up was new and had a covered trailer for our luggage rather than putting it on top of the van or on the back seats. We dropped our bags off at the Hotel Centroamericano and headed for the UNESCO area, Casco Viejo.
This old town was into a full-on restoration phase. Almost every second building was being restored or prepared for visitation in its crumbling raw
state. I walked to the area where the locals did their shopping and saw very different clothing on the indigenous women compared to Boquete. We could not access the Royal Palace as it was under heavy guard on every street I tried. They obviously weren’t up to the restoration stage of allowing tourists to visit part of this massive complex. I even came across a street that was closed off with police protection as some restoration included knocking down of a building wall. My guess is if you go to this old town in 10 years, it would be a very different place to now.
The archaeological site of Panama La Vieja was the first city founded on the isthmus by the Spanish in 1519. The remaining ruins are the vestiges of the city left by Pirate Henry Morgan when he sacked the town in 1671. The second colonial city of Panama, Casco Viejo was built in 1673 to replace the original town. Casco Viejo is now surrounded by modern day Panama City, but the charm of this era remains in the colonial streets, buildings, and squares around the French Plaza. The architecture was a combination of
the colonial styles of the French, Italian, American and Spanish.
We all met at a pre-organised spot after we all had 2 hours of free time to walk around Casco Viejo. We then drove via a lunch stop to the Miraflores lock on the Panama Canal.
A bit about the Panama Canal: France began work on the canal in 1881 but stopped due to engineering problems and a high worker mortality rate. The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal on August 15, 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Drake Passage or Strait of Magellan.
According to the plan, a 3.2 km-long access channel was excavated to connect the new Atlantic locks with the existing sea entrance of the canal. To connect the new Pacific-side locks with the existing channels, two new access channels were built:
· The 6.2 km north access channel, which connects the new Pacific-side lock with the Culebra Cut, circumventing Miraflores Lake. This channel runs along the new Borinquen Dam that separates it from Miraflores Lake (which has a water level that is 9 m lower, due to the dislocation of the Pedro Miguel locks).
· The 1.8 km south access channel, which connects the new lock with the existing sea entrance on the Pacific Ocean.
The new channels on both the Atlantic and the Pacific sides are at least 218 meters wide, permitting Post-Panamax (a term for the size limits for ships travelling through the Canal) vessels to navigate in a single direction.
Miraflores is the name of one of the three locks that form part of the Panama Canal, and the name of the small lake that separates these locks from the Pedro Miguel Locks upstream. In the Miraflores locks, vessels are lifted (or lowered) 16.5 m in two stages, allowing them to transit to or from the Pacific Ocean port of Balboa in Panama City. Ships cross below the Bridge of the
Americas, which connects North and South America.
As of 2005, the following schedule was in effect for ship transit through the locks: From 06:00 to 15:15, ships travel from the Pacific toward the Atlantic. From 15:45 to 23:00, ships travel from the Atlantic toward the Pacific. At any other time, travel is permitted in both directions.
A visitor’s centre allowed us to have a full view of the Miraflores locks operation. Over 4 floors of the Centre are also a museum and comprehensive information on the history of the Canal.
After we watched a big Chinese (Cusco) cargo ship go through the total of the 3 stages of the lock, as well as go through the museum, we drove back to our hotel.
That night Alfredo had organised us to be picked up in the same minivan to go back to Casco Viejo for our final farewell dinner. This was the BEST restaurant environment on our trip. Our table was outside with a back drop of a park full of Christmas decorations and a large church which was lit up beautifully. The night temperature was perfect – balmy
with a gentle breeze. We thoroughly enjoyed our evening. We made sure we publicly thanked Alfredo for all that he had done for us over our 48-day tour with him from Mexico City to Panama City.
We also said our goodbyes to the rest of the group, except for Dianne who was joining us on the Ocean to Ocean Panama & Jungle Tour the next day before she flew back to Brisbane. We had another day in Panama City after that.
Dianne, Tom & I were picked up from our hotel just before 7.00am and traveled between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans during this 8-hour tour of the Panama Canal. With our local guides (owner of the company who was from the USA, an indigenous person who was the wildlife spotter and 2 others), we explored the canal by sea and on foot, viewed the ships passing through the locks and saw a variety of plant and animal life on the canal's shores.
At the start of this tour, we followed the Panama Canal north to the town of Gamboa and Colon, where the Chagres River meets
the canal. Soon after the start of the tour, we began the wildlife viewing from a boat on the waters of the canal and Gatun Lake. We also drove along the waters of the Panama Canal right next to the ships passing through as well as having a close up view of the abundant wildlife on its shores.
After hopping into a boat, we visited the famous Monkey Islands where we saw capuchins and howlers, and 2 types of toucans. Tom listed many other birds our guides spotted for us. During the day we also saw several 3-toed sloths and a 2-toed sloth with its baby. What a bonus.
Once we finished the canal and lake boat ride (around 90 minutes), we headed 45 minutes north to the Caribbean side of Panama. On the way we had to go on a car ferry as the new bridge over the canal was not yet finished. After over 5 years in the building of the bridge, it is expected to be finished sometime in 2019.
Our tour included a visit to
the Agua Clara Visitor Center to see the new expansion locks working up close. Located on the west side of the brand-new Agua Clara Locks, the Agua Clara Visitor Center allowed us to observe transiting vessels from a scenic lookout point and learn first hand about the various operations of the Panama Canal, the history of its construction, its participation in the world markets, and the importance of its watershed. An observational deck let us watch the ships pass through the Agua Clara Locks on their way to the Pacific or Atlantic oceans.
The next stop was the San Lorenzo National Park where we visited a remote rainforest full of flora and fauna, followed by a freshly made picnic lunch and a tour of Fort San Lorenzo. At this 400-year-old Spanish fort located on the 25m cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea at the estuary of the Chagres River, our guide recounted the many attacks by pirates and privateers that happened at one of the most historically important places in Panama. The Fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 along with the fortifications of the city of Portobelo. It was part
of the defensive system for the transatlantic trade of the Spanish Crown and is a fine example of military architecture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Fort is one of the oldest fortresses in Spanish America.
It was fantastic sitting under the trees looking out to the ocean from the fort ruins eating our lunch. A new visitors centre was being built near the site but we all agreed that they would have to fix up the road to the ruins before the Visitor’s Centre was finished.
There was one other couple on the tour with us. They were from St Petersburg, so it was really interesting chatting to them. They could speak English, French, Spanish and German as well as Russian!!!!!!
We started our drive back to our hotel but on the way our guide suggested we catch the metro back to our hotel with the help of the second guide. It was Friday evening and he predicted that it would take 45 minutes to drive to our hotel verses 10 minutes on the metro train. We
chose the latter. This was the right decision as I will explain later.
We got back to our hotel after walking 2 blocks from the Metro Station, said our goodbyes to Dianne and I then arranged an Uber to our new hotel for the last 2 nights in Panama City AND the very last nights of our 60 days away.
The Uber driver was 3 minutes away and our new hotel was about 3 kms away. We hopped in and after 10 minutes we struck a traffic grid lock. As it was Friday and it was pay day for locals, but in addition, it was pay-bonus day. People in Panama get paid 13 months wages. The 13th
month $$ is paid over 3 instalments, one of these being before Christmas. Today was the day!!!. It took 35 minutes to travel 350m!!! We nearly suggested to get out and walk to our Global Hotel.
We eventually arrived at the 5-star hotel which was worth waiting for. However, it was nearly 7.00pm so after checking in we decided to have dinner
in the hotel. We celebrated with a Champaign while we started to reflect on the last 2 months. We decided to finish our reflections the next ay as we had one more day in Panama City.
That day was spent walking around our new part of the city. We were in the financial centre of the city. It was full of very smart, modern architectural high-rise buildings not far from the Pacific coast. In the middle of the day a big dark cloud came across and the CBD became very dark. Fortunately, we got back to our hotel just as it had started to sprinkle with rain. After it cleared up, we went for another walk.
We have loved Panama for its diversity and its advanced economy. Panama is known as the "Crossroads of the Americas" due to its privileged position between North and South America. The indigenous meaning of the country's name, "abundance of fish", reflects Panama's reputation as a paradise for water sports enthusiasts and eco-tourists alike. As the isthmus connecting two massive continents, Panama's flora and fauna is incredibly diverse. For example, Panama boasts over 900 different
bird species. Panama's many indigenous tribes are still thriving, living in the same ancient manner as their ancestors, making its cultural fabric exceptionally rich.
Panama's government has strong ties to the United States and strongly supports business, development and tourism. The International Monetary Fund applauds the country's diversified economy and predicts it to have one of the strongest GDP growth rates in the world. Panama is known for its highly developed international banking sector, with about 80 banks from several countries establishing local branches, including HSBC and Citibank.
Having recently finished its expansion, the Canal continues to drive Panama's service-based economy and remains one of the most important transportation links in the world. In addition to the country's strong economic base, Panama's physical infrastructure, including modern hospitals, airports and roads, is more highly developed than its Central American neighbours.
The rest of our last day in Panama City was spent seeing the immediate surrounds of our hotel, writing up our diary/blog and developing our list of “highlights” of our trip (which can be seen at the end of this blog).
Tom & I had
a steak and salmon dinner (respectively) that night and a bottle of Chandon, called Adam for his birthday during which we will be in the air and then prepared for our homeward travels on 16 December. We left the hotel at around 7.00am, arriving in LAX via Bogota for a 10.00pm departure with Virgin and arriving in Brisbane on 18/12 at 6.00am.
So that’s it folks. Our 60 day tour has completed. I hope you have enjoyed (positively endured!) my ramblings and photos. There is only one thing left to do and that is to leave you with the list of highlights of our adventures, a task Tom and I do with all our trips. In addition, all that I have left to say is if any of the countries I have written about, attract your attention, visit them soon!!!
HIGHLIGHTS of Colombia and overland from Mexico City to Panama City:
· Four days of trekking to Caño Crystales
– the rainbow river
· La Chorrera and El Chiflón waterfalls near Bogota
· Aztec capital
city of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City CBD
· Day of the Dead parade and dressing up of the locals in Mexico City and throughout Mexico over the week including 1 & 2 November
· Visit to the ancient site of Teotihuacan on the way to Puebla
· Puebla, UNESCO city known as the "City of the Angels"
· Monte Albán, regarded as the historical antecedent of the modern city of Oaxaca
· Casa Na Bolom Museum, in San Cristóbal, home of archeologist Frans Blom and his wife, Gertrude Duby Blom, the documentary photographer, journalist, environmental pioneer, and jungle adverturer.
· Boat trip through Sumidero Canyon, a deep natural canyon located just north of the city of Chiapa de Corzo
· Palenqua Mayan ruins
· Agua Azul Nature Reserve with more than 200 small waterfalls, and the incredible Misol-Ha waterfall with a 30 metre drop
· Swimming in the 3 cenotes about 1 hour out of Merida
· The 'white city' of Mérida with its pleasant mixture of colonial buildings, churches
· Chichén Itzá, an impressive Maya/Toltec site recently voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World
· Experiencing riding in the ‘chicken bus’ and the locals call it the ‘bread-stop bus’
· Tasty, spicy Mexican food and the different beers available
· Our stay in Caye Caulker with its signs to remind us to "Go Slow", "Take it easy", and even "No shirt, no shoes, no problem"
· Sunset from The Split on Caye Caulker
· Flight over the bottomless Blue Hole
· Pam - Visiting the famous wet cave walk through Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves, where they found untouched Mayan ceremonial and sacrificial remains
· Tom - Tubing through caves
· Tikal National Park and the Tikal Mayan Ruins
· On the way to Flores we stop at the breathtaking Maya site of Tikal, it is regarded as the greatest city of the Maya world and is nestled deep in the jungle.
· A boat tour from Caribbean along Rio Dulce, the 23 kilometre stretch of waterway to Livingston, one of the most scenic areas of Guatemala.
· Antigua, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the most delightful colonial towns in Central America, including its Flower Festival
· Hiking up Volcano Pacaya and cooking marshmallows in the lava
· Seeing Fuego Volcano erupting
· From Panajechel across Lake Atitlan, climbing San Pedro volcano – a magnificent view. Swinging from a tube out in mid-air half way up the volcano
· Sunset sitting sipping cold beer at the Sunset Restaurant in Panajechel
· Visiting Quetzaltenango with a backdrop of volcanoes, including the towering Santa Maria with its active Santiaguito lava dome
· Copán ruins, one of the best-kept and most intriguing of all the ancient Maya sites in Central America
· Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Sanctuary in Copán
· Staying at the Cesar Mariscos Hotel in Tela which was right on the beach. The Caribbean Sea was so warm
· Staying at the idyllic Roatán Island, the largest of the beautiful sun-soaked Caribbean Bay Islands.
· Pam went scuba diving twice with a PADI registered dive outfit in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, 2nd largest barrier reef in the world. Tom did some snorkeling.
· Hiring a motorbike visiting the Iguana Reserve and Zipline Nature Reserve and holding a 3 year old Sloth plus capuchin and spider monkeys, macaws, green parrots
· The National Theatre in San José, reminded me of the Opera House in Manaus in Brazil
· Learning that the game of Jugger came from Brisbane and Germany
· Manuel Antonio National Park where we saw 2 & 3 toed sloth and baby, White-faced monkeys, Howler monkeys, several birds, Jesus Christ Lizard, iguanas, many insects and the common green rainforest frog and many racoons
· Beautiful beaches at Manuel Antonio
· Rainmaker National Park night walk - red-eyed frogs, the common rainforest frog, massive bull frogs, many, many cane toads, iguanas, leaf-cutting ants, spiders, bats and several birds
· Santa Elena - Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve seeing 3 mysterious endangered Quetzal, a very rare and timid bird with incredibly beautiful and unique plumage, plus humming birds
· Santa Elena - walk between the giant trees along a series (7) of suspension bridges above the forest canopy spotting a number of birds, agouti and coatis + swinging on a tyre and climbing up inside a strangler fig
· La Fortuna view of the nearby Arenal Volcano + Bogarin Trail Nature reserve seeing beautiful colourful birds
· Hiring a motorbike in La Fortuna
· Staying on the islands of the Bocas del Toro archipelago, a great diversity of attractions and natural environments; luxurious rain forests with an abundance of fauna and flora. These sunny islands have beaches, coral reefs & crystal-clear waters that compete with the Caribbean's best.
· Bastimento Island to visit the Red Frog Beach and seeing several red frogs plus a male, female and baby sloth
· Copan Island’s Starfish Beach
· Seeing Volcan Barú
located on the eastern slopes of the, Boquete + coffee plantation and beautiful scenery
· Visiting the Miraflores and Agua Clara Locks in Panama Canal + seeing 2 & 3 toed sloths and baby, 2 types of toucans, capuchins and howlers
· Final dinner in Panama on table outside with a backdrop of Christmas decorations in a park in balmy weather and gentle breeze.
· Staying at the 5 star Global Hotel, for our last 2 nights of our 60-day tour
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