Sunday, July 20, 2014


July 13, 2014

Karen gave me a ride to Las Tablas, where I was able to catch a direct bus to Panama City.  We said goodbye and I got on the 9:30 bus.  I arrived at the Panama City bus terminal about 1:45.  The bus terminal in Panama City rivaled any major airport.  It had two levels and was as big as most shopping malls.  Actually, it was a shopping mall with shops and a food court downstairs.  Arrivals were upstairs.  I got off the bus and bought a Rapi>Pass, which is necessary to use the buses or light rail in Panama City.  Unfortunately, the music was so loud in the terminal that it was impossible to communicate with the woman selling the cards and I didn’t end up getting enough value added to the card to use it for anything.  Be sure to buy a bus pass before leaving the terminal because you can’t get them elsewhere.  When buying a bus pass, it is a good idea to put $5 or so on it to be on the safe side.  Just push your money towards the clerk if it’s too loud to communicate.  Do not, however, assume you will be able to get around by bus.  The system is frustrating and not well designed for visitors.

Country Inn and Suites
The bus terminal is across the street from the Albrook Mall, which is an immense modern shopping center.  I really wanted to take advantage of being there to shop for a backpack, but there were no lockers or luggage storage that I could find, so I just took a taxi to my hotel.  I had reserved a couple of nights at the Country Inn and Suites, which is close to the canal and anchorages where cruisers wait to transit the canal.  I figured I could stay there until I got my bearings and had some idea how to get around and what I might be doing for the rest of my time in Panama City and then decide where to locate myself.  At $79 a night, it was a good value for such a nice hotel, but far out of my price range for the long term.  The Country Inn is a very large hotel, but lacked some of the features such hotels usually offer, such as a pool and a bar.  The gym seemed to have been converted to storage or maybe was undergoing renovation. 

The World Cup finals were on when I arrived, so I stowed my luggage in my room and went down to the restaurant to eat lunch and watch the rest of the game.  Much to my disappointment, Germany beat Argentina 1-0 in overtime.  I would have liked to go out and explore but, by the time I waited on hold for an hour and finished arguing with Yahoo about the state of my account, it was already dark outside.  I wanted to join the Southbound Yahoo group to have access to the forums and look for a position as a line handler, but Yahoo insisted that my Panamanian cell phone number was invalid, so I couldn’t receive the SMS message with my access code.  When I finally got through to them on the phone, they wouldn’t create an account over the phone.  They suggested I wait until I got home!  I would have to get Scott to create an account for me.

July 14, 2014

The Malecon
I got up at 6:00 so that I could eat breakfast and try to get to a marina before 8:00 so as to hear the radio net.  While the Country Inn & Suites is near the anchorages, it is not near any marinas.  I walked along the malecon to the Amador Causeway and then across the causeway to Isla Perico.  The whole causeway area seemed deserted.  I could tell that it had once been thoroughly developed, but apparently fell out of favor.  There was a lot of construction going on, so it seems like redevelopment was in full swing.  I saw what looked like a dinghy dock off of the causeway, but a security guard yelled at me before I even got across the street to where it was.  The Abernathy Marina out at the islands seemed to be exclusively power boats and I couldn’t get near it because of the security, anyway.  My fantasy of walking into a marina office and posting a crew notice was rapidly evaporating.  I stopped for a cappuccino on Isla Perico and then walked back.  Just before the causeway, they were building a Biodiversity Museum.  The building was designed by Frank Gehry and looked something like a giant MacDonald’s jungle gym.
Sailboat Anchorage

Biodiversity Museum by Frank Gehry
I wanted to find the bus stop nearest to the hotel and check out a hostel further up the road, so I continued walking past the hotel.  The MetroBus system was modern, but they were very secretive about it.  Nowhere, could I find a map of the system and the website required that you knew where you were going before you could look up a route.  I was unable to determine how to connect from the line near the hotel to lines that would take me to other parts of the city without going all the way to the bus station.  The system seemed to bypass Casco Viejo altogether.  The number of stops was very limited, which made the buses fast, but resulted in some long walks.  The closest stop was actually past the hotel, out where the causeway joined the land.  I followed Amador Avenue and eventually came to the Amador Hostel.  My guidebook said it was yellow, but it had been repainted in a brick red color.  I went in and tried to make a reservation, but they were booked for the next three nights.  I made a reservation for the three nights after that since, at $45 a night, it was much cheaper and just as convenient.  I continued walking to where Amador Avenue ended.  I could see that another bus line ran along the street perpendicular to Amador, but never could determine where it went.  By the time I got back to the hotel, I had walked about 10km and my calves were killing me, which seemed strange since they never bothered me when I was climbing volcanoes or hiking through the rainforest.

I took a brief rest in my room to cool off, check my email, and set up the Yahoo account that Scott had handled for me.  Then I walked back to the bus stop and caught the Amador-Albrook bus which took me to the Albrook Mall and bus station.  I had paid the previous day’s taxi driver $6 to take me to the hotel.  It cost me 25 cents to get back on the bus.  We only made about two stops, so I got there very quickly.  My first stop was the bus terminal where I added $10 to my card.  A deluge started about that time, but there was a covered walkway to the mall, so I stayed dry and felt fortunate that I had planned a shopping trip that afternoon.  I ate breaded shrimp at Popeye’s for lunch.  It seemed that every major US fast food chain except Taco Bell was represented in the food court.  Fortified, I headed out to do some shopping.
My Old Duffel Was in Shreds

New Backpack

The Albrook Mall is so large that many stores have two locations.  There was a profusion of stores selling running shoes.  I finally decided on the Nike store and eventually found a pair of shoes in my size.  Prices seemed reasonable.  I might even have saved $25 or so.  From there, I continued on to a luggage store that sold travel backpacks.  I had looked at all of the outdoor clothing stores, but none of them sold much in the way of camping equipment.  I finally settled on a 65 liter backpack that looked reasonably well made.  I had never heard of the brand before, but it looked big enough to contain my belongings and I hoped it would hold together better than my rolling duffel, which was in tatters.  I finished my shopping about 3:30 and went back to catch a bus home.  I waited for over an hour and never saw an Albrook-Amador bus.  Finally, I took a taxi.  I negotiated a bit, that time, and got the fare down to five dollars.  On the way to the hotel, I finally saw my bus returning to the station.

July 15, 2014

I actually managed to sleep in until 7:00, for a change.  When I went down for what I hoped would be a leisurely breakfast, the restaurant was crowded with a noisy tour group of middle aged Germans.  Their presence was probably the reason the nightly rate had shot up from $76 to $118 when I tried to extend my stay.  I decided to move to Casco Viejo for a couple of days until I could get a room at the Hostel Familiar Amador up the road.  I ate my breakfast and retreated to my room to take advantage of the luxury until checkout time.
Highway Around Casco Viejo
I checked out just before noon.  A taxi driver met me at the door, but I started to get suspicious when I saw he was driving a nice minivan instead of a yellow taxi.  I asked him what the fare would be to Casco Viejo and he quoted me $10, which was more than double what it should have been.  He came down to $8 when complained, but that was still too much.  I shouldered my new pack and walked a block to a yellow taxi who took me for $6, which was still too much, but was the best I could do at that point.  We drove from the leafy environs of the causeway along the shore and then around a new highway that detoured around Casco Viejo on piers erected out in the mud flats surrounding the peninsula.  It was a clever way to build a freeway across town without cutting a swath through the old city, but must have cost a fortune to build. 

Casco Viejo Under Renovation
Casco Viejo is not the original Panama City.  That was located further east and was destroyed by Henry Morgan in 1671.  When the Spanish rebuilt their city, they built it on a rocky peninsula surrounded by reefs and mud flats where marauding ships could not approach.  They surrounded the new city with stout walls, hence the name “Casco Viejo” or “Old Compound.”  This second city also fell to ruin over time.  Today, the 17th Century colonial buildings are half ruins and empty shells and half gorgeous renovations.  Construction is going on everywhere.  The old buildings are being gutted and their interiors replaced with modern, steel framed structures.  One doesn’t have to walk very far north to encounter a much dirtier and poorer section of Panama City.

Luna's Castle
Luna’s Castle, where I stayed, was a creaky old mansion near the sea wall on the eastern side of Casco Viejo.  It had three floors.  The bottom floor was a service area.  The second floor housed the common area, bar, reception, kitchen and a few rooms for those who planned to be in the bar all night, anyway.  The rest of the rooms were on the third floor where it was quieter.  The ceilings were lofty (at least 13’) and even the doors were taller than normal.  I had a private room for the first night.  It had a strange bunk bed with a single on the bottom and a double at least six feet up a rickety ladder.  I opted to use the double, as it was larger and had more light (no window) and was closer to the ceiling fan.  The internet worked fine in the common area, but did not extend to my room.

Luna’s Castle is one of the places where you can book a sailing charter to Cartagena in Columbia.  I did so after settling in to my room.  I booked a spot on a Beneteau 50’ named Micamale that had four double cabins with ensuite heads and was rumored to take only six passengers.  It looked like a nice, new boat and got good reviews.  Including myself, there were already four people signed up and I hoped that the remaining two spots would be filled over the next week so that the voyage would not be cancelled or postponed.  The cost for the five day trip (three days in the San Blas Islands and a two day passage to Cartagena, Columbia) was $550.  All meals were included in the price.  The boat left from Portobelo, which was accessible by public transportation, unlike boats leaving from Carti, which required an expensive jeep trip to get there.

The Facade of the Church Was Moved from the Old City
Half Ruined Buildings Everywhere
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  My arrangements made, I went out to explore Casco Viejo.  I walked to the cathedral plaza and ate Thai fried rice for lunch at a café nearby.  I wandered around from one side of the peninsula to the other until I found myself in a dodgy neighborhood and started to work my way back to the hostel.  To leave Casco Viejo, I would either need to take a taxi or walk a mile through that neighborhood to the nearest bus line which was not something I was going to undertake in the late afternoon.  I returned to the hostel and did a little research on my trip to Columbia.  Just before it started to get dark, I went out to get a lock and a few things at the grocery store and then took a walk down to the city walls where it would have been great to watch the sun set if it had not started to rain heavily.  Craft vendors lined the bougainvillea covered walkway, but they were all packing up by the time I got there.  I would have to come back in the morning.  I went back to my hostel, careful not to slip on the wet pavers that might as well have been ice under my sandals, and spent a few hours using the internet in the common area before retiring to my room.

July 16, 2014

Las Bovedas
It Takes All Kinds
Monument to the French
I only had my private room until noon, so I wanted to get up and take a walk around Casco Viejo before I had to move.  I made myself a big pancake in the kitchen and had a banana and coffee.  I chatted with some of the other guests over breakfast and met a young Russian woman who was the owner of one of the boats that sails to Columbia.  I was gratified to learn that I had made a good choice when I selected a monohull instead of a catamaran because the trip was upwind the whole way and the catamarans had to motor.  After breakfast, I took a walk down to the old city walls and visited the monument to the French who had started the construction of the canal.  I finally managed to access the free Wi-Fi that is available in the parks, so passed a pleasant hour sitting in Plaza Bolivar, catching up on my correspondence.  

I Had the Top Bunk
At noon, I returned to the hostel and moved from my private room to a four person, all female dorm room.  The room had two tall bunk beds with large, backpack sized drawers underneath for our stuff.  There were small lockers in the lobby for valuables, each of which had an electrical outlet so that phones and computers could charge while locked away.  I locked up my computer and cash and went out to the Panama Canal Museum.  The museum fronted on the Plaza Bolivar and was housed in the original headquarters of the canal company.  The museum filled two floors, the first of which covered the history of oceanic exploration concluding with the crossing of the Panamanian Isthmus and the discovery of the Pacific.  The second floor was all about the construction of the canal and the concomitant development of the nation of Panama.  The exhibits were excellent, but they were all in Spanish.  I didn’t have any trouble reading them, but the process was exhausting and required hours.  I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more about the actual mechanisms of the locks, but I learned a lot about the development of the Canal Zone.  One reason that there are so many hotels today is that numerous hotels were built to house the single workmen during the construction of the canal. 
Panama Canal Museum

I was hungry when I left the museum and headed up Avenida Central in search of food.  Just as I reached the point where the neighborhood began to deteriorate and I was debating whether or not to continue on to find cheap eats, I ran into my friends, Akela and Kelly, whom I had met in Quepos.  We chatted for a few minutes on the street corner and then agreed to meet later for dinner.  Knowing that I would be going out in a few hours, I abandoned my search for food and returned to the hostel to eat a can of tuna and write.
I was supposed to meet Kelly and Akela at a restaurant called Zafran at 6:00.  As I was walking up the street towards the location they gave me, I heard them calling me from behind.  Apparently, the restaurant had ceased to exist, so it was a good thing that my neon green “Pura Vida” shirt made it easy for them to spot me from afar.  That shirt had been attracting attention all day.  When I came out of the canal museum a taxi driver greeted me with the statement that I must be tired and need a ride because he had seen me walking at 10:00 that morning.  Earlier in the day, a smartly dressed Panamanian gentleman in a pinstriped suit had commented on my shirt and started a conversation that ranged from travel in Costa Rica to his admiration for Jimmy Carter.  He ended the conversation by telling me I was beautiful, even though he wasn’t trying to sell me anything.  I started to understand why my friend, Gail, had considered moving to Casco Viejo.
Kelly & Akela at the Tantalo Roof Bar

Night View of Casco Viejo

Kelly, Akela and I decided to eat tapas at the roof bar of the Tantalo Hotel.  We got there for happy hour just before dusk and got to enjoy the sunset over the Pacific and all the lights coming on in the New City.  There was even a fireworks show for some reason.  We had been somewhat reluctant to leave the air conditioned interior for the roof, but a breeze came up and the temperature was perfect.  The food was excellent, too.  We dined on cheese empanadas, pulled pork and thinly sliced eggplant drizzled with a balsamic glaze and pesto made with cashews.  We didn’t stay late because we were all tired, but it was nice to see the girls again and hear about their travels and also nice to get out of the hostel for the evening.

I had been forced to move to a tiny four bed dorm.  There were only three of us in there, but there wasn’t enough floor space for more than two people to move around at a time.  While the top four feet of the walls were lattice and the two fans kept it well ventilated, there wasn’t a window and it wasn’t a pleasant place to hang out.  I spent the rest of the evening in the common area and then took a cool shower and retired to my upper bunk about 10:30 when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.  I wasn’t particularly hot or uncomfortable, but I had a hard time getting to sleep.  The girls sharing my room came in late, but they were very quiet and went straight to bed.

July 17, 2014

I woke up early, but stayed in my bunk until the other two cleared out.  Then I dressed and went downstairs for breakfast, arriving at peak pancake cooking hour.  Staying at Luna’s Castle was like sharing a big house with 50 roommates.  The dining area was crowded and noisy and I wasn’t feeling social.  I ate as quickly as I could and then grabbed my computer and phone from the locker where I had left them charging and repaired to the living room to hang out until it was time to check out and move back to the causeway.

My Room at Hostal Amador
For five dollars, I got a cab to the Hostal Amador.  The cab driver thought he knew where he was going and took me to the Balboa Hostel first, so I got a nice tour of the big houses in the former American compound.  It really was a lovely neighborhood.  The people who lived and worked here were extremely lucky.  They got to live in the beautiful environment of Panama with all of the conveniences of American life.  Although the Americans are gone, their way of life remains. Highways, skyscrapers, drinkable water, shopping malls with every imaginable store, MacDonald’s, tracts of comfortable houses and even the U.S. dollar remain.

Hostal Familiar Amador
The Hostal Amador began life as bachelor’s quarters for canal workers.  The common area, dingy dorm and reception were downstairs and there were two floors of spacious rooms with private baths upstairs.  An open air kitchen where breakfast was served was in a separate pavilion.  At $45 for a private room, it was more a hotel than a hostel and I saw no backpackers in the dorm.  It seemed to be mostly frequented by Panamanian business travelers.  My room had two double beds, windows on two sides, air conditioning, hot water and such American amenities as towel bars and a reading lamp that I had sorely missed.  Panama was definitely Central America Lite with most of the benefits and few of the inconveniences.

My goal that day was to visit the Parque Natural Metropolitanio, a swath of jungle in the middle of Panama City.  Foolishly, I thought I would take the bus that passes in front of my hotel.  It had stopped there when I took it before but, after I waited for 45 minutes, it did not stop for me.  I took another five dollar taxi ride to the park, which at least saved me from having to walk there from the bus station.  The park was surprisingly nice.  As my taxi driver was sure to remind me, it is called the “lung of the city.”  Panama City is pretty green by American standards, but it truly was a nice park.  It wasn’t virgin jungle, but the jungle had been allowed to reclaim the roads and structures that existed within.  There were a research station and nursery near the visitor center and a large, grassy space, but the rest was given over to trees and vines. 

Parque Natural Metropolitanio
I took the longer loop trail which culminated in a lookout at the top of the hill.  The trails were mostly surfaced in crushed rock, which kept them from being muddy.  Shortly after leaving the visitor center, I passed a pond swarming with turtles.  The path followed the road for a kilometer or so and then turned towards the center of the park and headed uphill.  It was hot and steamy.  I walked slowly, keeping an eye out for both sloths and monkeys in the trees and snakes and roots on the ground.  I didn’t see much wildlife other than colorful butterflies on the way up, but the mirador (lookout) was spectacular.  There were two separate viewing platforms which together offered nearly a 360 degree view of the city and surrounding area.  Panama City is large.  It took me three panoramic shots just to photograph the entire skyline of the downtown area, which seemed almost incongruous poking up out of the jungle.

Blurry Titi Monkey
After I got my fill of the view, I headed down the hill via a different route.  Along the way, I was lucky enough to encounter a troop of titi monkeys.  Titi monkeys are quite tiny.  They were even smaller than the squirrel monkeys I had seen in Costa Rica.  They looked like miniature capuchin monkeys.  They were about the size of a Yorkshire terrier.  I got a few pictures of them, but they were shy and my camera batteries took that moment to die.  By the time I had replaced them, the monkeys had seen me and decamped.  I did see an agouti (large rodent – see my posts on Playa del Carmen for pictures) and a very large lizard (not an iguana) on the way back to the trailhead. 

If I had had more time, I would have hiked some of the other trails, but I knew I would probably have a long wait for my bus and I wanted to try to find the gathering of cruisers that was rumored to occur on Thursday nights.  I started walking back to the bus station and then came across a bus stop.  I waited there for 15 minutes or so and then wedged myself into an already full bus with the dozen or so other people with me at the stop.  The bus was so full that they had given up trying to collect fares.  I was forced to shimmy past the non-functioning turnstile and there were at least six people riding between the turnstile and the exit.  It was only one stop to the terminal, but the bus had to circle the entire immense Albrook Mall and navigate a couple of freeway cloverleaves to get there.  The driver must have been in a hurry to reach the restroom, because he drove like a maniac and we were all tossed about mercilessly.

Once we arrived at the station, I was hot and out of sorts.  I used my buss pass to take advantage of the public restrooms and then got some ice cream and sat in the air conditioning to cool off before continuing my trek home.  The Amador-Albrook bus only runs once an hour.  For this reason, it does not have a designated stop of its own at the bus station.  It stops at the place allocated to the Tocumen – Southern Corridor route, which is very busy.  When you are waiting for the Amador bus, it is hard not to doubt yourself.  I had noted that the bus arrived across from my hotel at about 15 minutes past the hour, so I tried not to get concerned as I waited more than 45 minutes for it to come.  There were a few other people standing around, not getting on the Tocumen buses.  About 10 minutes past the hour, just as I was about to despair, my bus arrived.  It was only two stops or so to my hotel, although it was a fair distance. 

The MetroBus system operated like a subway, with electronic toll gates and a limited number of stops.  It could have been very efficient if they had bothered to post maps of the system anywhere, but they were conspicuously absent.  My advice to those coming to Panama City is not to depend on bus travel unless you know your hotel is on one of the major lines and you have someone to instruct you on how to use the system.  The bus passes cost $2 for the card.  You can share one card between two people.  Don’t put a lot of money on your card unless you are sure you will be able to use it.  The $10 I put on my card would end up mostly going to waste because buses didn’t cost much (25 cents in my case) and half the time I ended up taking a taxi because the waits were so long.  Many routes had more frequent service, however.

I got back to my room about 5:30.  All that I knew about the rumored gathering of cruisers was that it was on Thursday nights at a pizzeria “on the causeway.”  There was a pizzeria next to my hostel and I foolishly hoped it might be there.  I could see the pizzeria from my room but, when no one had showed by 6:00, I decided to walk to an Italian place I had seen close to the Biodiversity Museum.  It was further than I thought because I stuck to the well-lit road instead of taking the path along the malecon, since it was starting to get dark.  By the time I reached the restaurant, it was nearly 7:00 and almost full dark.  No one was there.  If there was, indeed, a gathering, it must have been at a pizzeria on one of the islands at the other end of the causeway.  That made a certain amount of sense, since there were some marinas on the islands and the anchorages were equidistant from the islands and the shore.  It was, however, too far for me to walk in the dark.  At that point, I really didn’t have time to make a crossing on someone’s boat, anyway, so I gave up and hoofed it back to my neighborhood as fast as I could.  I ordered a Hawaiian pizza at the pizzeria next to my hotel and ate it out in the kitchen where a few amiable Panamanian guests were watching TV.

July 18, 2014

My mission for the day was to visit Panama Viejo, the ruins of the original Panama City that was destroyed by Henry Morgan in 1671.  I got up reasonably early but, by the time I was ready to go wait for the bus, the sky had grown dark and buckets of rain were falling.  I decided to hang around my room for another hour or two to see if it would pass.  When 11:30 came, it was still raining lightly, but I decided I could wait no longer.  I went out to the bus stop, hoping I had timed my arrival so that I wouldn’t need to wait for an hour for the bus to arrive.  The bus came after only ten minutes or so, but it failed to stop for me.  I had seen another one passing outbound, so decided to walk to the next station while I waited for it to come back.  I never did find another marked station in the inbound direction, although there were a couple going the other way.  I walked all the way to where the freeway began and then ducked into a MacDonald’s to eat lunch before grabbing a cab to the bus station.  Sympathizing with the driver about Argentina’s loss in the World Cup paid off.  He only charged me $1.50 for the short ride.
Albrook Bus Terminal

I seemed to have a knack for choosing the bus routes with unmarked stops.  While I had seen plenty of “Panama Viejo” buses passing by the previous day, it took me some time before I could find someone to tell me that they stopped at an unmarked curb at the far end of the station.  The bus was packed and it was a very long ride all the way across Panama City.  I missed the stop for the visitor center, but eventually saw some ruins, so got off the bus.  A large part of Panama Viejo now lies under a rather poor neighborhood of Panama City.  I saw a sign for “Monuments,” but it pointed down a decrepit street and I didn’t want to walk there.  I took a look at the few ruins by the road and then got on the next bus, hoping I would see the visitor center further on.  Eventually, I came to the end of the line and everyone got off.  I got off, walked over the pedestrian bridge to the other side of the street and got on a bus going the other way.  Once again, I got off across the street from where I had disembarked earlier because I saw a sign for “Monuments and Museum.”  It turned out that the parking lot for Panama Viejo was the first driveway off that dingy street.  There was a ticket booth near the side of the road in what was once a shipping container.
King's Bridge

Ruined Cathedral

Cathedral Tower

The ruins of Panama Viejo cover a large area.  They run from the parking lot along the coast all the way back to downtown.  Having been heavily bombarded, there was not a lot left.  The cathedral tower was the largest structure standing.  It had been reinforced and reroofed and there was a modern staircase leading to the top, which afforded a great view of the site and the surrounding area.  Most of the cathedral was gone, but they had paved an area cov-ering the orig-inal foot-print of the church so one could get an idea of its original shape.  I wandered around the ruins.  In their sorry state, they looked much older than 17th century.  The La Merced Church and convent were the best preserved, possibly because Morgan had used the structure as his headquarters.  They survived the attack, but the elaborate façade of the church had been new at the time and the friars took it apart and moved it to their new location in Casco Viejo.

Low Tide in Panama Viejo
The tide was out, exposing a large expanse of rocks and mud flats.  It seemed odd to me that the area could ever have been used as a harbor until I was reminded that the tidal range in the Bay of Panama is six meters.  During migration season, the expansive mud flats are covered with huge flocks of resting sea birds.  The area is especially rich in sea life because a cold upwelling brings nutrients to the surface there. Plankton feed on those nutrients and are, in turn, food for fish and so on, up the food chain.  I contributed my share to the food chain, as I was swarmed with the first mosquitoes I had seen since arriving in Panama City.

It was quite a long walk across Panama Viejo to the museum at the visitor’s center.  If you come by bus, the visitor’s center is a modern, curved building on the right side of the road, just after you leave the high rises of the city.  You can stop in front of it if you know where to find it.  It was fairly easy to catch a bus going the other way, but I made the mistake of catching a “Panama Viejo – Mercado de Mariscos” bus instead of a “Panama Viejo-Albrook” bus.  It followed the same route for most of the way, but then terminated at the fish market instead of continuing on to the bus station.  If you were staying in Casco Viejo, you could catch the bus at the fish market to go to Panama Viejo, but there were no buses going from the fish market to the terminal.  I had to walk back up the route to where the Albrook buses stopped.

The MetroBus system seemed to be determined to frustrate me.  The first Albrook bus that stopped only let passengers off and wouldn’t let me get on.  The second one that passed by didn’t even stop.    After waiting for half an hour, I finally hopped on an elaborately decorated chicken bus that was headed for the terminal.  Interestingly, the chicken bus cost twice as much as the MetroBuses.  The service was far superior, however, and I enjoyed the red quilted vinyl dashboard and fringed gearshift.  I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the small video screen for the driver’s amusement (…er…distraction.)  Somehow, we survived the ride and I arrived at the station convinced that chicken buses are the way to go in Panama City, although none of them say where they are going, which is a different frustration.  I did manage to catch a bus back to my hostel after a wait of only 20 minutes or so.  I ate tasty kebabs at a restaurant close by and retired early because I had to get up before dawn the next morning.

July 19, 2014

Sloth on a Gas Pump
I got up at 5:00 am and was out the door by 5:45.  Knowing I couldn’t rely on the buses and not knowing if I could find a cab at 6:00 AM on a weekend, I walked across the causeway and out to the Flamenco Marina, which was about four miles.  I arrived just at 7:00, when I was supposed to check in, but somehow managed to be the last person.  While waiting in line to board the boat, I saw a baby sloth clinging to the top of a gas pump.  In was very strange to see him there, after having spent days craning my neck, hoping to see one while walking in the jungle.  Our vessel for the transit was the Pacific Queen.  There were close to 300 people aboard and, being last, I was unable to get a seat outside.  The interior of the boat was intolerable because the air conditioning was out of order.  Eventually, the crew removed the glass from some of the forward windows to let cool air in, which helped.

Puente de las Americas
We left the dock about 7:50 am, looped around Flamenco Island and headed for the Miraflores locks.  The Amador Causeway was built with part of the material removed when they dug the Culebra Cut through the Continental Divide.  Not only does it provide vehicular access to the islands of Naos, Perico and Flamenco, but it also acts as a breakwater to shelter the entrance to the canal.  As we approached Balboa Harbor, a launch met us and dropped off our canal pilot.  The transit officially begins once the pilot is aboard.  We motored through the harbor and under the Puente de las Americas where the Pan-American Highway crosses the canal.  Prior to the building of the bridge in 1962, the only way to cross the canal was by ferry.

Pilot Stepping Aboard

We shared a lock chamber with a large ship, its tugboat and a 68’ French yacht.  The ship was towed through the locks by electric locomotives.  Being under 125’, we used hand lines.  When we entered the lock, the line handlers at the top sent down a light line.  Our deck hands tied our heavy lines to the light line and the canal employees then hauled our lines up to the top and looped them over large bollards.  Even though our vessel was quite large, we were attached to the wall of the lock with only two lines.  Two or three large round fenders protected us from the wall.  I watched very carefully to see how the lines were handled and was surprised that the deck hands left quite a bit of slack and only adjusted the lines a few times as the water level rose.  The French yacht rafted up to us, being secured fore, aft and amidships, with numerous fenders between us.  No one in our chamber used the tires that agents always want to rent.
Entering the Miraflores Locks

Emmy Sailing into the Second Chamber

Tying Up to the Wall
Doors Closing Behind Us
The Miraflores locks have two chambers.  Once everyone was secured in the first chamber, the doors closed and water began to flood in.  It took eight minutes to fill the chamber.  There was quite a bit of turbulence in the water, but all the vessels rode peacefully.  There are no pumps in the Panama Canal.  All the water flows downhill from the Chagres River to Lake Gatun and the locks are fed by gravity.  Once the first chamber was filled, the gates opened and we all moved forward into the second chamber where the process was repeated.  When the doors opened the second time, we were at the level of Miraflores Lake.  We crossed that small lake and then were raised once again in the Pedro Miguel locks to the level of Lake Gatun.  Before the construction of the Hoover Dam, Lake Gatun was the largest manmade lake in the world.  The lake was created by damming the Chagres River.  By raising the level of the water in the river, it became unnecessary to deepen the majority of the canal’s path.  The majority of the digging was necessary between Pedro Miguel and Lake Gatun, where the canal crossed the Continental Divide.  One large mountain had to be split in two to allow the passage of the canal.  This stretch is called the Culebra Cut.  Many workmen were killed in landslides in the process of digging that passage.  Landslides are still a problem today and some re-terracing work way underway to repair the damage from a recent slide when we passed by.
Puente Centenario

Sailing Across the Continental Divide

Manuel Noriega's Prison
Panama is in the process of building two new sets of locks to accommodate the larger “PostPanamax” ships that won’t fit through the current locks.  On the Miraflores end, the new locks are on the west side of the canal.  They will raise the ships to the level of Lake Gatun in one series of locks, instead of crossing Miraflores Lake and then ascending again.  This means that the water level in the new channel will be above that in the old channel until after the Pedro Miguel locks.  A substantial dam was under construction to contain that water and coffer dams were in place to reinforce the banks of Miraflores Lake.  On the Atlantic side, the new locks will be on the east side of the canal.  The gargantuan gates for the new locks had already arrived and towered above the Gatun locks, awaiting eventual transport to their final position on the Pacific side.  The ship that had brought them from Italy was too large to pass through the canal, so they would need to be loaded onto smaller vessels and transported through the canal one by one.

Navigational Buoys in Lake Gatun
Once we reached Gatun Lake, it took a few hours to motor to the far side.  Jungle covered the hills and islands on both sides and closely spaced navigational buoys stretched into the distance, delineating the deep channel.    Crossing the lake, we began to see southbound vessels.  The Culebra Cut is the bottleneck of the Panama Canal and traffic through it is one way.  The large ship that had come up the locks with us was too slow to make it through the cut before the direction of traffic changed, so it was forced to moor and wait until the direction changed back later that evening.  The Pacific Queen and Emmy, the French yacht, were fast enough to make it through the cut and complete the transit in one day.  Sailboats are usually not fast enough to cover the 50 miles in one day and are required to spend the night in Gatun Lake.

Ialands in Lake Gatun
On the far side of Gatun Lake, where the dam was located, we finally came to the Gatun Locks.  This time we shared a chamber with Emmy and a different bulk carrier.  Each set of locks has two lanes.  The chamber in the other lane was completely filled with a “Panamax” (maximum size for the current locks) container ship that loomed over us.  The Gatun locks let us down to sea level in three stages.  Letting the water out of the locks was a more peaceful process than filling them, but required more vigilance to prevent hanging the boat from too short lines.  Even so, our deck hands mostly just left them slack and only adjusted them a couple of times on the way down.  Once we reached the Atlantic side, we steamed past the monstrous new lock gates and followed the coast of the city of Colon to the cruise ship terminal where we disembarked.  Colon was a grubby place.  There was a lot of container shipping activity and many ships anchored, but I only saw one sailing vessel there, although I kept my eye out for the sailboat anchorage.  Another breakwater had been constructed on the Atlantic side, but two beached ships attested to the fact that it could still get rough in that harbor.

Panamax Container Carrier in Gatun Locks
We Shared a Chamber with This Monster

Gatun Locks

Going Down
The Gates for the New Locks
 Our transit complete, we boarded buses to return to Panama City.  I couldn’t keep my eyes open and dozed most of the way back, dreaming in Spanish.  I dreaded the walk back from the marina and was delighted when the bus stopped at the Country Inn and I was able to get off and make a much shorter walk back to my hostel.
The Pacific Queen in Colon

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