Discovering the history and culture of Panama Day 10

Published: June 10th 2019
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I was up by 6AM and was out and on a mission. I found Lake Gatun to be balmy, breezy and quiet except for the hum of the catamaran’s engine. No one was around. But I missed the southern cross. I later learned it is usually seen around 4AM. And sadly I couldn’t record the howler monkey’s morning calls, but the sunrise was spectacular. And the coffee and breakfast helped to ease the pain of my missed adventures.

We cast off early in this sunny morning for our voyage on the open waters of Lake Gatun (and the Chagres River) crossing the division between the provinces of Colon and Panama, several times in fact. The Chagres River, marks the division between Panama and Colon provinces. It is the only river that flows into both oceans.

We passed Barro Colorado Island, home of the world-famous Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute where many of the most important ground breaking scientific and biological discoveries of the tropical animal and plant kingdom originated, including their research on climate change as I mentioned on Day 8. Monkey Island came into view where ecotourism thrives in the Gamboa Rainforest. There is another authentic Indian Village, lodges and much to explore along with, you guessed it, monkeys. Tours of Monkey Island and this region that include the Panama Canal originate from Panama City

We anchored off the historic town of Gamboa the town just before Gaillard Cut where the workers who had built the canal had lived. This is the best preserved of the handful of permanent Canal Zone townships that flourished along the canal during its construction. Now peaceful, this once bustling town of the old Panama Canal Company, was built to house employees of the Panama Canal and their dependents. Theodore Rosevelt stayed here in December of 1906 right before the opening of the canal.

Our ship waited here for the new PCA pilot to come aboard to guide us through the next set of locks. This stretch of time gave us an opportunity to see how this town had changed from the small network of buildings that once supported the workers and their families during the challenging times of malaria and yellow fever, as well as the physical dangers and challenges incurred while creating this masterpiece of construction. Except for the many tourist boats and working cranes, this tiny historic town whose name comes from a tree in the quince family, remains a jungle outpost, now free from malaria and yellow fever, but I am sure loaded with ghosts and legends.

Gamboa was bustling this morning. The train that ran alongside the canal had many Maersk ship containers waiting to be picked up by the large cranes that were visible from the shore. We saw numerous vacation day boat ferries tied up at the many docks in Gamboa as well as several PCA ferry boats waiting for ships to call for their pilot. Our new PCA pilot came aboard about 10:30 am, the first of three pilots to assist our captain through the dangerous narrows and the Pedro Miguel Locks to the Pacific.

Our pilot had boarded and we were off. By noon it was gloomy and overcast and began to sprinkle. We were called to the upper deck for lunch (under cover from the weather) where we could view our passage through the Culebra Cut (snake cut) also called the Gaillard Cut named after Mr David du Bose Gaillard, the American engineer who supervised much of its construction. The excavated gorge is more than eight miles long and bisects the Continental Divide. It was the narrowest and tallest area of the canal where hundreds of lives were lost in its construction. The highest peak measures 312 feet and consists of unstable soil and hard rock. Workers labored in 100 degree plus weather using drills and dynamite to cut into the steep sides. As many as 96 million cubic yards of earth and rock was removed to lower the floor to within 40 feet of sea level. Rock and mud slides were common, and dangerous mostly because they were unpredictable. The Cucaracha slide, the most famous of these, continued for years and poured millions of cubic yards into the canal excavation.

A ten year project began in 1992 to widen the canal channel to accommodate the larger ships that were passing through. To do this the workers cut from 500 to 630 feet in straight sections and 730 feet on curves. As we passed through we could see the many levels of terraced cuts, some areas with vegetation intended to maintain the slope, others had sturdy mesh wire intended to prevent another slide.

I had wondered what would happen in stormy weather inside the canal. I was told
The flotilla follows us under Centennial BridgeThe flotilla follows us under Centennial BridgeThe flotilla follows us under Centennial Bridge

This bridge is also part of the Pan-American Highway
the only way the canal could be closed is because of fog. Our gloomy and cloudy weather did not mean fog so on we went further southwest into the canal. On our way towards the Pedro Miguel Locks we passed under the Centennial Bridge, the second bridge that was built across the canal. Amazingly this bridge crosses the Gaillard Cut. Also interesting, this is the bridge that carries six lanes of the Pan-American Highway, the ancient route that connects the American continents.

A few of the ships in the Sailing Rally that we had left in Colon began to pass us through the Gaillard cut. It was pretty exciting to watch and many of us followed the progress as we ate our dessert. By the time we reached the Pedro Miguel Locks the sailboats were slowly making their way behind us into our lock. It was a long process and as we assembled inside the lock we had plenty of time to identify many of the country’s origins who were in the flotilla including Australia, Canada and Germany. If only we knew our flags better! We watched as bowlines were tossed and caught and attached to the sides of the locks. More sailboats and catamarans lined up in groups of three until the jumble of masts and bows (I think 13 in all) were lined up like water ducks and tethered to the sides leaving the stormy skies behind.

Once the gates closed inside the Pedro Miguel Locks we were lowered thirty one feet to allow us to leave the locks at the new water level. Vessels are in neutral inside the lock chamber but can run 12 knots per hour with tugs in the new locks or with mules assisting on the old locks. The flotilla of sailboats were first in line to exit these locks and traveled the 85%!l(MISSING)eft of the canal to the Pacific without us.

After cruising another mile the sun came out and we reached the Miraflores Locks. Miraflores has the newest set of “regular sized” locks allowing the world’s largest cargo ships to pass through the canal. (The extra large locks are the ones at Agua Clara.) We dropped 28 then 26 feet or a total of 54 feet through the two Miraflores locks at the level of the Pacific Ocean. The little river next to the canal contains the excess waters from Miraflores Canal. Southern Rough Winged Swallows darted about overhead while a Crested Caracara chased the wind reminding us we were close to shore.

Soon after passing under the Bridge of the Americas, formerly known as the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, the last of the canal bridges (heading southwest), we saw the approach of the PCA launch boat. It wasn’t long before the PCA Pilot returned our ship to our captain and left us on his launch boat for another trip. We had left the Panama Canal. We were on our own to navigate the rest of the way to Flamingo Island where we would anchor for the night in its protected harbor. Due to the long wait for the sailing flotilla, we did not, as promised, anchor near Taboga Island where we would kayak, swim or explore the “Island of Flowers”.

I was glad I had read David McCullough’s book The Path Between The Seas because I was able to better understand the human drama, sacrifice and actual construction of the Panama Canal. It was mainly this book that helped fill in the details that were sadly lacking in our transit through the canal. I highly
Miraflores LocksMiraflores LocksMiraflores Locks

Sea birds fly over the newest locks on the right.
recommend reading it before you take this adventure.

Flamingo Island is one of four small islands called the Causeway Islands and are linked to the mainland by the Amador Causeway which is made from rock extracted during the excavations of the Panama Canal. This island is a popular mooring spot for yachts and fishing boats who, as it turned out, were cheek and jowl with us in the harbor. Once we were docked in the safe harbor of Flamingo Island, Abdiel announced that a dingy would be available to ferry those of us who wanted to explore this island before dinner. Several of us who chose to explore the island hopped aboard the small dingy that would carry us to a bustling commercial district where we found another small harbor opposite ours. I jumped at the chance with friends Jane and reluctant Irma who had not yet found it safe to be on a boat this small, but she did a great job! It was only a short distance to the shore where a handsome Crested Caracara, perched on a tall mast nodded a welcome, clearly sent by the Bird Welcoming Committee.

Jane, Irma and I set off to explore the harbor on the other side. We found a lovely park, a playground and on our walk we were careful to avoid the numerous tourist bicycles that families peddled on the wide sidewalks. I had left my money on the boat so I couldn’t be tempted by the many park or restaurant treats that were offered but I did have my camera with me and had fun photographing the smiling faces and beautiful views of the Panama City skyline across the bay. I was also delighted to spot a beautiful Scarlet Rum Tanager, and a Great Crested Flycatcher in the trees on our walk along the water.

We returned to The Discovery to pack and enjoy a farewell dinner aboard our ship. This was probably the best meal we had on the canal cruise: fresh ceviche, followed by fresh sea bass and sautéed fresh vegetables. A champagne toast and Creme Brûlée was a perfect way to share our thoughts and discoveries with our new found traveling friends. It was over too soon. The captain and the staff came up to bid farewell. But…we still had some more excitement ahead of us: tomorrow gave us one last day to explore Panama City.

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