Click here to read the first part of the trip, Peru.
Day 7 (continued)
The rest of the flight was pretty uneventful, but people were a little on edge right up until the point we were landing. Once we landed, you could hear a lot of seat belts unbuckling, followed quickly by a few, then a lot of people getting up to retrieve their bag, while we were still sitting on the taxi way! (I have been told that this is a Peruvian thing). They got yelled at by the flight attendants, sat down and we proceeded to the gate. Panama city (PTY) is an all-international airport and you just go into the main concourse after you get off you flight, because everyone has to go through immigration and customs. The only other airport I’ve been through like this is Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.
We breezed through immigration and were greeted by a driver, Omar, arranged through our tour guide. Omar drove us to our hotel, the brand new Wyndham Garden City in downtown Panama, about 20 minutes away. We checked in, unpacked, cleaned up and headed out. We were hungry and Omar suggested a neighborhood called Casco Viejo, which is one of the oldest in Panama City. We grabbed a taxi and the 15 minute ride cost $3! Not used to those prices. Casco Viejo was much different than we expected. The neighborhood is in transition (more on that later) and you literally have buildings in restoration next to abandoned buildings with squatters next to high-end steak houses, all on the same block. We walked for a while, took some pictures, then settled on a place called Buzios. When we arrived, there was one other couple and when we left we were the only couple! The food and drinks were both great, but it was only 10 PM and they closed after we left, which really surprised us as it was Friday night. We both expected places to be packed on Friday but as we walked after dinner, just about every place was near empty. It was a beautiful night out, so either there was something big going on in town or Casco Viejo isn’t the place to be.
Saturday came around with a 5:30 AM wake up call. This was the day that we were going to do the Panama Canal tour, and they start at 7. We had a real quick (& free) breakfast at the hotel, then met Omar again at about quarter after six. We drove along the Pacific ocean and on the Amador Causeway to Flamenco Island, just as the sun was rising. We were looking at the sun rising…over the Pacific ocean! If you’re not in Australia or Asia, that’s a pretty damn rare thing. I can’t think of any country anywhere else in the Americas where you can do this. Panama is uniquely situated between south and central America in a way that the country makes an “S” shape, running west to east. Panama City happens to be on the part of the coast that roughly runs SW-NE, which means that as you are looking east, you are looking out at a very small part of the Pacific Ocean, but that is big enough that you can’t see land on the other side, and you can, in fact, watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean. I guess I can check that one off the list.
We got on the boat right at 7 and left the pier about half an hour later. The boat also had a pretty nice breakfast on board, which we also ate! We did a quick loop around Flamenco Island and headed towards the canal. As soon as we approached the canal, a pilot boat came up next to our boat and a Panama Canal Pilot came aboard. All boats, regardless of size, are required to be steered by official canal pilots through their entire passage through the canal. At this point, our tour guide pointed out the hundreds of circling birds that hang out at the ocean side of the first set of locks. They hang out there to catch all the fresh water fish that get caught up in the locks and are flushed into the salt water of the Pacific ocean, where they soon die and float to the top of the water.
We were hooked up with a smaller-sized cargo ship that our boat would be with for the entire duration of the canal. The canal tries as much as possible to group smaller boats together for passage through the canal. We both entered the lower Miraflores locks, and were greeted by the canal workers who secured our boat to the sidewall. About 10 minutes later, we had risen eight meters. We then immediately entered the next set of locks and 10 minutes later were another eight meters higher, for a total of about 16 meters above sea level. It doesn’t sound too impressive here, but it was very cool to look back on the ocean we were just on from about 54 feet above it!
We proceeded about 20 minutes to the Pedro Miguel lock, which is a single lock. This lock operated pretty much the same as the one prior and took us up another 10 meters to the main level of the canal. After this lock, we talked to the tour guide on the boat for about half an hour, with some other people. This guy took our questions for a solid half hour and there wasn’t one question he couldn’t answer about the canal. We had lunch on the boat and enjoyed looking at the container and RoRo (car carrier) ships passing us on the Galliard Cut. It is amazing to see these enormous ships passing through what appears to be a typical river, just a couple of hundred feet wide. It looked like a real life Photoshopped picture.
Quick canal facts:
- It takes about 90 seconds for the lock doors to close and eight minutes for the locks to completely fill
- The lock’s steel doors are the same ones that were in use in 1914
- The average toll paid by ships is about $54,000, which saves them about 8,000 miles of travel
- The mini locomotives that appear to be pulling the ships through the locks do not pull them at all, they just keep them on course
- The canal is 100% gravity powered – there are no pumps used at all, only valves
- Each time the locks are used, millions of gallons of fresh water are released into the oceans, replaced by rain water falling into Gatun Lake
- The average wait time for a cargo ship to enter the canal is 24 hours, sail boats can expect a three day wait to file paperwork and pay the fee
On these tours, you are given the option of a half transit or full transit. We opted for the half transit and were glad we did. Some people say the full transit is the only way to see the canal fully, but by the time we got off, it was 2 PM and we were both hot and tired. We got to see 2/3rds of the locks and were happy with that. The half transit passengers got off the boat in a tiny town called Gamboa, and we took a bus back to Flamenco Island. Omar met us and drove us to Multiplaza Mall so Pili could continue her tour of malls around the world. I always joke that someday I’m going to make a photo album of me, in shopping malls around the world, holding bags of clothes and waiting in shopping malls. Pili heard rumors of good deals on clothes and $60 Coach purses, but alas it was not to be and we left with only a few things.
We headed back to the hotel and cleaned up after a long, hot day. That night, we took a taxi out to the causeway for sunset and rented a funky tandem bike with side-by-side seats. The weather was beautiful and there were a ton of people outside. We had a quick drink just as the sunset finished, then grabbed a taxi to a place that Pili found, Gastón Acurio’s La Mar. Gastón is the top chef of Peru and has his La Mar restaurants throughout the world. Since we didn’t get to visit the one in Lima, we decided to go here for dinner. The dinner was great, but we were a little too tired and a little too full to fully enjoy it. We tried to walk back to the hotel but got hopelessly lost and grabbed a taxi, which was good as we were walking in the wrong direction when we did!
Our tour guide, René from Your Man in Panama, picked us up right at 9 AM for our tour of Panama city, which started – where else – the Panama Canal! This time we went to the visitor’s center of the Miraflores locks, which is a modern, five story building right in between the two Miraflores locks chambers. We arrived just in time to see a huge cruise ship, the Queen Victoria, leave the locks, headed toward the Pedro Miguel lock. Because I really wanted to see the cruise ship go through a lock, René offered to drive us up to Pedro Miguel. We got there in time, but could not get too close. We waited for the ship to pass where we were and we got some good pictures of it and another ship that ship that was transporting yachts, the Dockwise Super Servant 3. The Queen Victoria was passing through the Panama Canal on it’s way from Los Angeles, CA to Ft. Laurderdale, FL.
We drove back to the visitor’s center, watched a few more ships and toured their museum. After that, we drove back through Panama City to Panama Viejo, which is the oldest part of Panama City and was once the center of the city, but is now just well-preserved ruins. We stayed there for a while and talked to René, who gave us a thorough synopsis of the history of Panama and Panama City. We learned more than we ever knew about Panama and René admitted that he didn’t know any of it, either, before becoming a tour guide a decade ago.
After this stop, we headed to Casco Viejo, where we had dinner the first night. This time, we got to see it in the daylight and René explained why there is so much inconsistency in the types and conditions of the buildings . In 1997, this neighborhood was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site after decades of neglect. Built in 1673, it still has its original street plan and nearly all of its original buildings, some of which are now in pristine condition, and others that have been condemned. Now, all the property owners are required to either restore their buildings or sell it to someone who can. The squatters are slowly being evicted and one by one, the buildings are being restored. Casco Viejo has a mix of houses, hotels, bars, restaurants and shops. The official residence of the President of Panama is even there!
We had there lunch with René, where he seemed to know just about everyone in the place. After lunch, we toured walked around Casco Viejo, went up to the Presidents house (where I set off the metal detector but was told to “go through anyway”), and did some gift shopping. René brought us back to the hotel and we packed and cleaned up. We had the same taxi driver from yesterday take us to the airport for $20. The Copa flight home was pretty uneventful and relatively short, at just four and a half hours and it was nice not to have to change planes anywhere.
Pili and I both loved Panama City. It looked much different than either of us had expected and everyone we met in Panama was great. We both agreed that this is a city we could live in someday, which is about as big a compliment that you can give a city. Panama is modern, has great weather, great food, is a short flight to the US and Peru, and is CHEAP! We would love to return to Panama someday and see more of the country.