Panama City & Canal

We spent most of the last week of August in Panama City and were lucky enough to meet a really lovely ex-pat couple – John and Lorna – on our first night there (in an Indian restaurant – typical). John very kindly offered to take us around Panama City and we were only too pleased to have a local English guide – thank you John!

John took us first to the old City of Panama, which is mostly crumbling ruins, apart from a tower that you can walk up to get great views over the new city and all the high rises that have been built over the last few years.

Then we went to see the Panama canal locks at Miraflores and to the museum there, which was fascinating and very informative. Here are some facts we learnt:
– The canal is 95 years old.
– The first self-propelled vessel to transit the canal from Pacific to Atlantic ocean, was a floating crane called the Alexander LaValley on January 7th, 1914.
– One crazy guy called Richard Halliburton swam the whole canal in -1928 and his crossing was the cheapest ever, charged at just 36 cents!
– It usually takes a ship about 8 hours to travel from one end of the canal to the other, but the Hydrofoil Pegasus of the United States Navy did the fastest transit of the Canal by completing it in 2 hours and 41 minutes.
– A boat traveling from New York to San Francisco saves 7,872 miles by using the Panama Canal instead of going around Cape Horn.

There is a computer in the museum with a database of names of all the canal workers and we found out that 102 Isaacs and 22 Hudsons (but no Gools or Cecconis!) have worked on the canal. John found his exact namesake on the database (John A. Richards)!

The Panama canal is the only canal in the world where shipmasters hand control of their ship over to a specially trained pilot, as the ships are so huge at times, that the margin for error is tiny. The pilots use GPS to help them, but they are also graduates of a maritime academy and have the necessary experience and knowledge of the canal. The Gool had a go on the simulator and didn’t crash it once!

We got to see a big freighter coming through the lock while we were there. You can see from the photo below how little space there is on each side of the ship. The grey mechanical “mules” (on tracks either side of the lock), help to guide the boats through. They are made by Mitsubishi and cost millions of dollars, but they won’t be needed once the new set of (wider) locks are finished, as tugs will be used instead, saving a good deal of money!

The weather was terrible while we were at Miraflores, but luckily it brightened up later on when we visited the old part of the city – Casco Viejo – very beautiful, with cute churches, pretty colonial style buildings, some rather run-down, but being restored. There was even cool graffiti there!

We stopped for lunch in a deli-style café, which had proper cheeses and lovely meats that we’ve not seen anywhere else in Central America and Ise had the Italian sub, which was as big as his forearm. Then we spent an enjoyable afternoon wandering around the old town, checking out the shops with local arts and crafts and the gorgeous buildings, including this shell, which was used as a set in the latest Bond film, Quantum of Solace, which was partly filmed in Panama City.

On Friday we took the Panama canal railway from Panama City to Colon (a pretty scary town), where we sat on the bus to Puerta Lindo, trying to look inconspicuous with our luggage until it left. We were glad to leave the Hostal not-so Wunderbar after a 3-day weekend to set sail for Cartagena, via the San Blas, as the hostal was over-priced and run by a German couple who seemed to have an endless list of house rules (“Nein! Don’t use that soap!” “Nein! Don’t put potato peelings in that bin!” “Nein! Don’t spend more than 5 minutes in the shower!) – the last was particularly annoying, as the showers used collected rainwater and as it seemed to rain non-stop in that God-forsaken place, there didn’t seem to be any danger of it running out…

We’re now in Cartagena after a good trip and will update with another blog post in the next day or so.
As ever, more photos can be found here

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3 Comments so far

  1. mum and dad C on September 7th, 2009

    And don’t tell him your name Pike!
    Fascinating blo, again. Sounds like Puerto Lindo and Colon are ones to miss.
    Looking forward to hearing aboutthe boat too. x

    Nice to see you again via Skype yesterday x

  2. N 'n N on September 7th, 2009

    Glad you are getting lots of local colour even if the weather is a bit grey. Love the graffiti and the deli food soounds almost worth the trip!  Did I tell you we are off to Zanzibar? Had our yellow fever jabs today, so we are getting a bit of colour too! Much love X

  3. Guest on September 7th, 2009

    Shame about the weather!  But, at least you met some very nice people.  You write so well, Jessica and I feel that we are there with you.  Let’s skype again soon.
    Karen and Jessica