The Panama Canal is Simply Amazing
01.07.2016 - 01.09.2016 95 °F
Many people were confused and asked why we would stop off in Panama as our final stop on the trip. I had been wanting to see the Panama canal for quite some time both because it's an amazing engineering feat as well as it's economic impact to global trade. Kurt was wiling to indulge my interest. A colleague at work had suggested I read David McCullough's book. The Path Between the Seas, about the financing, politics, and construction of the Panama canal. I bought the book on my kindle thinking it would be easy reading on the flights..not knowing it was nearly 700 pages of detailed history! So needless to say I didn't get through the entire history before reaching Panama.
I learned that the French attempted building and controlling a Panama Canal, but failed in both design and financing ultimately going bankrupt and liquidating all assets. It turns out the Americans bought all the assets (machines, railroad, building materials that the French left in Panama) and continued with a revised engineering design that would ultimately work. However, it took a lot of lobbying and politics to get the Americans to think a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would be best in Panama rather than other narrow strips of land in central America. At the time the Americans got involved, Panama was actually under Colombian rule. The Americans - particularly U.S. President Teddy R - decided they didn't care for the extortion of the United States and French liquidation being carried by the Colombian leader and flipped the script. The Americans provided military and financial support to a group of Panamanian separatists who guaranteed control of the canal zone to the U.S. in exchange for money and continued military support. This event has probably contributed to the international sentiment that the Americans will gladly get involved in other countries' business when it's in the U.S.'s favor. That's all of the history I can share currently, because I'm only 400 pages into the dense literary. In fact, Kurt and I were joking that going to the Panama Canal museum and the canal itself was sort of a spoiler alert for the book.
Panama isn't just about the canal, although that is the main reason people initially visit Panama. As a result of the successful completion of the canal around the turn of the century, a huge financial, trade and business center developed. Driving into Panama city from the airport you see many sky scrapers and a developed metropolitan city. The taxi situation is a little sketchy, but not bad. You exit the airport and get approached by lots of drivers who clearly offer different prices to different people. We got put in a clean van quoted $30 to the city with another rider who was quoted $25. All taxi rides are negotiated before getting into the taxi and generally negotiated in Spanish as the taxi drivers tend not to speak much English. My broken Spanish sufficed for that sort of stuff. Panama's currency is called the Balboa and is pegged to the US dollar, and they accept the US dollar everywhere as well.
We spent our first day in Casco Viejo, the old town Panama area. Super cool and worth seeing. You can walk the whole thing in a morning quickly or spend an day sauntering around stopping in stores and at local vendors, having coffee or drinks, and enjoying being at the water. We stopped at bar and restaurant Paula Nani on the water (San Felipe, Casco Viejo, Ave A, Calle 3ra, Edificio 2-47) and enjoyed it. Our tables was on the water where we had an early afternoon showing of a guy bathing - possibly also sun bathing? - on in shore water at high tide. We also stopped at Tantamount. They have a great rooftop area that opens at 4, but we asked if we could buy a drink and take it up there, which they were totally cool about it. The view was amazing.
Other things to do around old town are pick up any of the usual tourist souvenirs such as Panam hats, linen pants, cotton dresses, stone and shell jewelry, woven baskets, or other art. If you have time there is a Panama canal museum for US $2 in Casco Viejo. You can pay extra for the English audio guide, which we didn't do. There are interesting objects from both the French and American era of building as well as information on the new, larger canal portion being built currently.
Onto THE CANAL!
It's really quite cool. Kurt even said he didn't know it was going to be so cool in person to watch live. He said I was like a kid at Disneyland waiting my turn to get to the front of the crowd to see the locks in action. The canal has three sets of locks that facilitate moving the ships up and over the mountain portions of the isthmus. The Miraflores locks are closest to Panama city (about a 30 minute drive depending on traffic - we paid $25 each way with a car service through our hotel) and the entry locks for ships arriving from the Pacific Ocean. Then there's the Pedro Miguel locks headed to the narrow and dangerous culebra cut through to teh man made Gatun lake. With the creation of lake, many hilltops became islands one of which is the Barro Colorado Island of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). We didn't have time to see this, but definitely will on our next trip to the area. The last locks are the Gaton locks in the city of Colon on the Atlantic Ocean. We read that you can take an antique train car from Panama City to Colon along the canal, however there are some drawbacks. It only leaves Panama once a day around 7am, and only returns from Colon once a day around 5pm. We also read that Colon is relatively unwelcoming to tourists and some perceive it as dangerous, so not a great town to spend 9 hours hanging out. A cooler option is also to take a ride in a ship through the canal, which we also didn't get a chance to do this time around. Tickets at the Miraflores locks to the museum and locks and ship passage viewing is US $15, and well worth it! You can also look up the maritime schedule online before you go to see the ETA of the different ships and know what types of ships you'll see when you're there, whether cargo ships, oil carriers, cruise ships, etc...
The locks are the feature that brought the French down. The French insisted for too long that a sea level canal was a better approach than a canal with locks that facilitated the boats rising above sea level to navigate through different elevations. Excavating the Culebra cut along with other areas down to sea level was virtually impossible and exhausted the French's resources. The McCullough book said that the French got about 10 percent of the necessary excavation completed before the Americans took control. The locks create a chamber holding the ship and changing the water level, thereby lifting or dripping the ship to the next chamber's level. We were told that if the difference in the water between the two chambers if different by even a meter vertically, serious damage and accidents can occur. Once the water level between two chambers separated by a closed lock is even, then the lock slowly opens and these little locomotives, called mules pull the ships through to the net chamber. It so utterly amazing to watch such gigantic man-made ships being easily moved across and through planet Earth through human ingenuity. Seriously cool!
We would highly recommend Panama. Checking out the old town, Casco Viejo, the canal, and some of the other canal features (the Smithsonian museum, riding through the canal, possibly the trans-country train ride, etc...). Our last night there was a Panama versus Cuba football game (soccer) in which Panama crushed it. So that was fun because pretty much ALL Panamanians were in high spirits for the rest of the night.