Panama – a country of contrasts

Panama had been an after-thought in my planning so I did not give it much time, in hindsight I wish I had given it longer as I really enjoyed it.

After a relatively comfortable two-hour journey to the city, I was dropped at my hostel in the old part of the city (Casco Viejo – declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003).  I must say, the Magnolia Inn is definitely the best hostel I have stayed in on this trip.

What makes a great hostel??  Air conditioning that stays on all day, good quality toilet paper and a toilet you can actually put paper in – simple pleasures lol.  (Just to provide a little more background on the toilet paper comment – in much of South America (and in some parts of Asia), plumbing is not as good as home and therefore toilet paper does not flush properly.  So …. it must be placed in a bin beside the toilet!  It takes many days to get used to doing this, and of course then many days to change back.  Sounds a little gross I know, and at first it is a little gross, but as with everything you get used to it.)

Thankfully I did not find the city as hot or humid as Cartagena though it certainly was not cold!

With only a couple of days in the city I had to make the most of the time and was up early on my first morning to join a day trip – Ocean to Ocean Canal and Jungle.   It was an overcast rainy day but at least that meant it was cooler, unfortunately dull days are never good for taking photos.

I was picked up just before 7am and by 8am I was in a small boat on the Panama Canal zooming along next to the giant container ships.

Of course, no visit to Panama is complete without a visit to the Panama Canal.   The Panama Canal is still considered one of the great feats of modern engineering, despite being completed over 100 years ago.  It cuts 82km through the Isthmus of Panama from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, saving thousands of kilometres off the trip which used to have to go south around the bottom of South America.  A trip from San Francisco to New York now saves around 12,500km off the journey.

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14,000 ships now go through annually and the opening of the new locks in 2016 allows the much larger ships to transit through the canal (though they only operator in one direction at a time where the older, smaller locks are dual lane enabling ships to go in both directions all day).

Ships must book their slot in advance to transit the canal and fees range from $2000 for the smallest yachts to $1.2Mt for the biggest container ships – this of course must be paid in cash!  Once the fee is paid, the process of transiting begins with the ships engines being checked, as they must transit using their engines and a breakdown could cause massive disruptions.

Next, each ship is given at least one Canal ‘pilot’ (they can receive up to four pilots depending on the level of risk of the cargo).  Once under Canal pilot control, the ship adds a half red, half white flag to their mast to indicate that they are under control of a local pilot.

Added to this, they can also have up to 4 tugs (through the new locks), or 8 ‘mules’ guiding them through the locks.  It was clear that not only does the canal bring in much money for the country, it also creates a huge amount of employment for the city and country.

To finish the lesson for today, I was most interested to learn that the decision to expand the canal/locks actually required a national referendum and the construction was very mindful of any ecological impact.

My parents transited the canal when they immigrated to New Zealand 40+ years ago and to be honest, I don’t think the experience would have changed much in that time.

Now, where was I? … on a small boat zipping around Gatun Lake (an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation needed for the canal).  In many of the small inlets of the lake there is an abundance of wildlife which showed just a fraction of the diverse within the country.

Our first stop was ‘Monkey Island’ – famous of course for monkeys.  The reason it is so easy to see the monkeys here was because they feed them!  I have mix feelings about feeding them but I guess it was only a very small amount and guide very strict about not giving more to ensure it is not enough to replace their normal diet and change their behaviour too much 😬.  Here we saw capuchin monkeys, Tamarins, Snail eagles (or that is what they were told they were called and they were catching and eating snails as we watched lol), toucans, howler monkeys (that we had heard at night on the lost city trek) and lots of other birds.

As one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, Panama has an incredible 119 protected areas and national parks in the country.  Some of which are called ‘absolute’ which means no one can go there 👍🏻.  Great to see the lengths they are going to, to protect their biodiversity.

After crossing the country on the highway (or the dry canal as the guide called it), we arrived in Colon on the other side of the country.  80% of treasures plundered from South America travelled through Panama on their way back to Spain and before the roads and the canal, the conquistadors trekked 13 days across the country.  Train tracks were then installed cutting the journey to just 3 hours, and today the modern highway means the ocean to ocean trip takes just 45 minutes!

Colon by the way is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, duty free zones in the world and is the second biggest sector in the country.

Our first stop here was the Visitors Centre at Agua Clara – the new locks opened in 2016 to allow for the Panamax ships to pass through the canal.   We watched one of the large ships being guided in to the first lock by four tug boats (don’t forget they also already had at least one Panamanian pilot on board), before watching a short video about the process behind building the new locks.  By the time the video had finished the ship was completely in the first lock, and the water level was dropping to reach that of the next lock.

Our guide was constantly looking up in to the trees as he drove (not exactly safe but thankfully there were not many vehicles on the road) and his efforts were rewarded when he spotted a sloth high up in a tree.  The poor thing looked rather miserable as the rain picked up but perhaps that is just how it always looked lol.  Never the less I thought it was incredibly cute and am now a big fan of sloths!

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We then crossed the river on a small vehicle ferry and drove into the San Lorenzo National Park.  Just before reaching the reserve, we drove through an abandoned military facility made up of what must have been very nice houses and a massive solar panel installation.  It now lay in ruins, slowly being reclaimed by the jungle and with all the house windows and solar panels gone.  Apparently, this was all part of the former US army base, abandoned when the US withdrew.

Aptly it was raining as we drove through the narrow road in the rain forest.  But the guide (whilst driving!) managed to spot another kind of toucan high up in the trees – this time a Chestnut Mandible toucan.  As we stopped at the fort we spotted a white eagle and the calls of Howler Monkeys rang through the trees!

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The original San Lorenzo Castle on this site was built in 1595 by the Spaniards to protect the mouth of the Chagres River and their treasurers from pirate attack.  Again, Sir Francis Drake seemed to be making a pest of himself in the region as he attacked the castle before it was even finished being built 1596.  Other famous pirates who was active here and in fact is a big part of Panamanian history was good all Capitan Morgan (in 1671 when he went on to attack Panama City on the Pacific side of the isthmus) – of the rum fame (I am sure he is proud of the legacy he left behind lol).  The remains that we see today are actually from a fortress built in 1768 and are really not more than ruins.

In the 20th century the fort became part of the area designated by the US military forces for the coastal defences of the Panama Canal.

As we returned through the forest, we were surrounded by the howls of howler monkeys and spotted a Coati family crossing the road – including a baby who ran across after the parents almost getting squashed in the process – thankfully we did not hit it!

When we got back to the river there was a long queue for the ferry so the guide decided we would cross at the locks.  I must admit I was excited by the prospect of seeing the locks up close and in action so to speak.  We first had to wait for a ship to exit one of the old locks, and in fact it was one of the ships we had seen in Gatun Lake round 7 hours earlier, giving us a true indication of how long it takes for a ship to pass through the canal.  We also got to see the ‘mules’ or small trains at work guiding the ship – the ‘Glasgow Express’ had 8 ‘mules’ guiding it through, each dropping its line as that part of the ship exited the lock.  Although the ship fitted through the older, small lock system, it only had .5m leeway on each side which of course requires incredible precision in transit.

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Once the ship was clear, the lock doors shut again and the lock started filling for the next ship to transit.  We then we crossed  just in from of the doors and then over the top of the doors for the new lock with a ship inside – this route was so much better than going back on the ferry but unfortunately when the new bridge they are building is finished, driving across the locks won’t be an option – there is probably a span of about 10 meters left to complete on the bridge so it was amazing to get the opportunity to do this.

And as soon as we exited the locks, the ever-vigilant guide spotted a troop of howler monkeys in trees on the road side. The most visible were a couple of mothers with small babies who seemed content to sit there and look down at us looking up at them! 👍🏻

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It was a great day out and with the limited time I had in the city I managed to see wildlife and the canal.

The next day I spent exploring the city, starting with a run along the water front on great running/ cycle path.  The city seemed like a great mixture of old and new and I particularly loved the area along the water front with the rough and ready fishing boats, overshadowed by the sparkly, modern high rises.  It was also fun to see how many people were getting up early to huddle around TVs in small bars watching the football world cup.  Panama are in it this year for the first time ever, but unfortunately, I was to miss their first game by day.

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I then took some time to walk around the old part of the city – Casco Viejo.  Even this part of the city is vastly contrasting with some building carefully restored to their former glory, others left in ruins, some only with the façade remaining.

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Panama City is really a place where many worlds co-exist.  On top of that, it is only a short drive in to wonderful, critter filled rain forests and a modern wonder of the world.  Apparently, it also has great beaches and diving which unfortunately I did not get time to try out!

Next time Panama will NOT be an after-thought!

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