Guest Post: Panama Canal Zone

I want to share a guest post from my lovely fiancee Jie covering our recent trip along the Panama Canal and excursion through the rain forest in Soberania National Park.

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How can anyone go to Panama without a trip to the famous Panama Canal? There are several ways to see the Canal from Panama City. First method, and the most cost efficient, is to see the ships passing through the Canal at the Visitor Center at the Miraflores Locks. The Visitor Center has a small museum, video exhibit, and a viewing deck where guests are able to see the operation of the Canal for a small entrance fee. Second method is to travel via ground transport along the road that runs parallel to the Canal. Third method is to take the hour long train ride from Panama City to Colon. The train leaves from Panama City in the mornings and returns from Colon in evenings; in the meantime, visitors can spend several hours exploring Colon. Finally, there is the first hand experience on a boat either for a full or a partial transit through the Panama Canal.

Since the inception of our Central and South America trip, one of the foremost items on our bucket list was a boat trip through the Panama Canal. Complete tours, traversing the entire length of the Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic, are only available one Saturday a month. Because we arrived on Saturday morning, it was impossible to do the complete tour unless we chartered a private boat ourselves. Matt and I settled on doing a partial transit of the Canal through the Pedro Miguel Locks and Miraflores Locks on Sunday. Matt had made reservations with Canal & Bay Tours and was instructed to email the company for the exact time and location a day prior to departure. We emailed and called the company before the scheduled departure per email instructions, and we never received a response. By 9am, we decided that instead of squandering our time, we would instead go see the Soberania National Park, a famous habitat for over a thousand species of plants and animals, and the closest tropical rainforest accessible from Panama City. 

Neither of us are skilled bird watchers, so we were not interested in hiring a birding guide and opted to just hike through the forest by ourselves. Transportation to Soberania National Park is as simple as a $20-25 taxi ride, but it is very difficult to get a return taxi unless you arrange a pickup from the taxi driver in advance.  Because Soberania is a huge rainforest, you have to give very specific drop off instructions to the taxi driver.  Our taxi driver first mistakenly took us to the Metropolitan National Park, then tried to dump us off at El Chaco trail.  Finally, we had to repeatedly tell him that we want to go to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort at Soberania National Park before he was able to get us to the right place.  We hiked a couple of kilometers along the Panama Canal Railroad from the Resort, which is in a prime location on the banks of the Chagres River in the heart of Soberania National Park, to the Pipeline Trail (Camino Cruces), the historic road that the Spanish used to transport gold from the Pacific to the Caribbean. This trail, which dates back to the early 1500s, was the same one used by the Pirate Henry Morgan (of Captain Morgan Rum fame) to sack Panama Viejo in 1671.

Gamboa Resort

Our hike through the forest was absolutely beautiful.  There were colorful, exotic butterflies and birds all around us.  We did not see any other hikers on the road, but did see several car full of bird watchers.  At the start of the Pipeline Trail, there is the Panama Discovery Center where visitors can go up the Canopy Observation Tour for an aerial view of the park or hike the short forest trails to observe the wildlife.  Matt and I were more interested in hiking the forest, so we decided to bypass the Discovery Center in favor of proceeding directly to the Pipeline Trail.  Unlike the well-maintained roads leading up to the Pipeline Trail, the path is inaccessible to cars and are only suitable for foot traffic. At the first sign of rain, Matt and I decided to turn around and head back to Gamboa, where we were able to ask the front desk of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort to call a car service to drive us back to Panama City.  (The front desk of the Resort quoted us $45 for the ride, but we were able to negotiate the price down to $35.)

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Upon returning from Gamboa, we decided to try to get on the Monday Canal tour.  Instead of trying to book another partial transit reservation via email or through 3rd party middleman, Matt and I decided to go directly to the office of the Canal & Bay Tour company at Playita del Amador bright and earlyon Monday morning and bought two tickets for the 10:45 tour at $135 per person.  While there may be many travel agencies that sell Panama Canal tours, there are only two companies that are the operators of the tour boats.  The travel agencies that sell the tickets are only middlemen who take a cut of the inflated price of the tour.  The tours all include unlimited soft drinks and water, coffee and tea, a meal, and a tour guide that speaks Spanish and English. There is one tour a day, and it alternates between the trip up the Canal from Panama City and a return trip from Colon. Our boat was coming in with passengers from Colon, and we had to meet it near the Centennial Bridge, which was built to supplement the Bridge of the Americas and replace it as the carrier of the Pan-American Highway.

Even though the tour was scheduled to leave at 10:45, the guide told us that the boat was delayed and wouldn’t be leaving until noon. The delay, as we learned is out of the company’s control because of the operation of the Canal. Larger ships, which pay higher tolls, get priority through the locks.  In the meantime, Matt and I had breakfast at a nearby restaurant that had a beautiful view of the ocean.  I braved the “Panamanian Breakfast” — greasy sautéed steak and onions, and a side of tortillas and fried bread, and coffee.  To burn off some of the gazillion calories that I probably consumed, we went exploring the views and stores at the docks. We discovered an out of the way stairway leading to a small condo building with a beautiful view of the causeway and Belle Vista.

Panamanian breakfast

We dutifully waited with the other disgruntled passengers until noon to board the air conditioned bus. The trip to Centennial Bridge took about 45 minutes, where we waited another 45 minutes for boat the arrive, and an additional 20 minutes for the previous group to disembark, the crew to clean up, and another crew to load up the boat with food and supplies. It was 2 pm before we actually got on the boat.

Centennial Bridge

As a small passenger boat, we had to wait in line while the large container ships were situated, and for the other small boats to tie up behind us.  We waited around for another hour and a half for our berth mate to show up.  During this time, I was afraid that the other hungry and irritated passenger were going to mutiny.  Many people, like us, were lured into the trip by the promise of a full brunch.  By around 3pm, several elderly passengers were complaining about low blood sugar and diabetes.  When the food was finally brought out, the line for the buffet was already over 100 people long.  Although I didn’t have high expectations for the food, I was surprised by the deliciously tender chicken and rice. As promised, there was a never-ending supply of refreshingly cold water, Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, ginger ale, and local brands of juice.

By 3:40pm we finally sailed through the Pedro Miguel locks — only a mile from the Centennial Bridge. In that time, the guide regaled us with interesting information about the history of the Canal and the recent controversy about the cost overruns with the Panama Canal Expansion Project.

When the Panama Canal was constructed it was designed to carry one-way traffic through the canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific and vice-versa on alternate days. In 2006, a national referendum approved of a proposal to expand and improve the capacity of the Canal, which would widen the Canal and install additional locks to permit two-way traffic.  The original cost estimate for the expansion project was expected to be around $5.25 billion, but the Spanish-led consortium, GUPC, is now demanding an additional $1.6 billion due to unforeseen costs to pay suppliers, or it will halt work on the project. (After we returned from Panama, there was an agreement to resume work, and the Panama Canal Authority agreed to front money to resolve GUPC’s liquidity problems, and have the final costs resolved via international arbitration.)

After the initial delay, the rest of the trip was smooth sailings. It was about 10 or 15 minutes before reaching the Miraflores Locks. While we had to wait for the same container ships to get through before us, it only took a few minutes.  Afterwards we were tied in to the compartment with the same small tow boats behind us. We were lowered through two sets of locks to sea level and finally sailed through the massive double doors of the Miraflores Locks into the Pacific Ocean.

Miraflores Locks

The most memorable part of the trip was the 40 minute cruise from the Miraflores Locks into the Amador Causeway, during which we were treated to a beautiful sunset on the Pacific.  It also gave me time to reflect on what an amazing accomplishment it was to construct the Canal 100 years ago.

Overall, for travelers wanting to experience first-hand the journey to the Panama Canal, I would recommend taking a partial transit, as a full transit would be several hours longer and would not have added anything more to the experience.

Link to Panama pictures

 

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3 Responses to Guest Post: Panama Canal Zone

  1. Pingback: Panama City | Raw Focus

  2. danberstein says:

    We want more posts from Jie! Great post, sounds fun to hike the forest amidst butterflies and wait on a 100-person line for succulent buffet-style chicken. I particularly enjoyed the precise figures surrounding the expansion project (details are always great). Can’t wait to read more posts from Jie!

    • msus1 says:

      Glad to hear the people have spoken Dan. I will try to offload as much blogging responsibilities to Jie going forward as I can 🙂

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