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Jenny and Charlie's Trip to Panama

Friday February 20, through Wednesday February 25, 2015


Intro

Beware of Google Flights. It shows a map of the world with the cost of tickets everywhere from your home airport on a particular day. And you can drill down to see if changing your travel plans will save a lot, and it will warn you if you have better options.

What did we find? $500 tickets to Panama. We have both wanted to see the canal, especially after both of us read the book The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, that provides a play by play description of the construction of the canal. And we found a very nice modestly priced hotel (Hyatt Place) to complement the tickets.

Getting There - February 20

Routine American Airlines flights from Austin to Dallas to Miami to Panama City, Panama, leaving Friday morning, and arriving early evening. Panama even allowed US Global Entry... if they ever finished construction of the kiosks. (The immigration agent said it has been within a day of being completed for the last three months... maybe someday!)

Travel Tips

Tip 1: US dollars are not only widely used, but are legal currency. No money changers. They also have a local currency called the Balboa, equal in value to US$1.00. The only Panamanian money we found, received, or used, is a One Balboa coin (brass center), and the quarter Balboa coin, the size and feel of the US Quarter. Credit cards are widely accepted, both with a chip and pin or with a magnetic stripe.

Tip 2: With the exception of one small area, Panama City doesn't use enough street signs to be useful. Which means that they don't have any maps, even at the hotels, to find the streets that don't have any apparent names. And their solution to all traffic problems is to make streets one way (which is probably fortunate since the drivers don't follow lanes very well). Travel is often via circuitous routes because of the one way streets. If you need directions, for example from a hotel, the concierge is likely to take you to the door and point. Don't even consider renting a car!

Tip 3: Taxis are plentiful and reasonable, despite warnings to the contrary in some guide books. There are no taxi meters, so negotiate a price before you start, often with a taxi dispatcher at the hotel or attraction. Airport to hotel (someone waiting with your name on the sign) was $35. Back to the airport was $33. Canal to the hotel was $20 - when we said we were waiting for the Hop On Bus, the dispatcher whispered to us that we could have a taxi now, no waiting, for $15. Most in-town rides seem to be $10.

Tip 4: There is a hop-on, hop-off bus that goes to the canal, major shopping centers, and attractions. It isn't as wonderful as it seemed - you should consider one day or at most two, not three days as we did.

Tip 5: Panama city has just built a metro, largely underground (Opened April 2014, less than a year ago). There is only one line so far, the trains run every 20 minutes, and not to the airport or any place tourists would want to go. Normally we love public transit, but not here. Maybe someday.


Panama Canal
Saturday

Lets start with some trivia. Panama is the only place where the sun rises over the Pacific Ocean and sets over the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, the Pacific terminal of the canal, Panama City, is EAST of the Atlantic terminal, Colón. The length of the canal is about 50 miles, much of it through Gatun lake about 85 feet above sea level. The current Panama canal has two lanes, each of which can handle a container ship with about 4,500 20 foot containers (or half as many of the more common 40 foot containers). Since it is common for container ships to now hold about 12,000 or more containers, a new larger canal (one lane wide) is being built near the old canal, presumably opening later in 2015. Both old and new will continue to be used, depending on the size of the ship and traffic needs. The typical canal fare for a 4,500 container ship is $450,000, paid by wire transfer a couple days before transit. A pleasure boat typically pays $1,500 to transit. Since there is more water and less ship, it takes about 5 million more gallons of water for a pleasure boat to transit than a large ship.

Panama Canal Map

The canal was the primary purpose of our visit, so was one of our first activities. The Miraflores locks are in the suburbs of Panama City. On the way in from the airport our Taxi driver warned that no ships transit the canal from about 10 am to 2 pm daily, as they do cleaning. It operates 24 hours per day, so cleaning in the middle of the morning is no worse than any other time, except for the tourists. What gets so dirty that workmen have to spend hours with power washers wasn't clear.

Admission to the canal museum is $3 if you are from Panama, and $15 if you are from anywhere else. Supposedly you can view the canal free without going to the museum, but there was not an obvious way to do it. One of the other ways to view the canal is via the Panama railroad, initially built to support construction of the canal. A passenger train goes from Panama City to Colón in the morning, and returns in the evening. However Colón has become a drug capital, so we did not want to spend the day in Colón.

How does a canal work? Here are two side-by-side "locks" or compartments, both currently filled with water at the level of Miraflores Lake - the higher level. You can see the gates on the lower side of the near lock. Once boats are in the lock, the upper (lake end) gates are closed, and the water is drained from the lock - the boats float with the water to the lower level. Once at the lower level, the lower gates are opened, and the boat moves out - into the lower lock in this case.

To raise a boat (going in the other direction), water is allowed to enter from the upper level - no pumping is required as long as there is an ample supply of water in the upper level lakes.

We watched as two tour boats, a sailboat tied to the second tour boat, and a group of three sailboats entered the lock on the far side.

Once they were in the lock, and properly secured, the gate at the upper end are closed, isolating the boats from the lake. Those gates are on the right in the picture, almost closed. The double gates are to protect the canal and ships if a boat bumps the gates - although that has never happened.

With the boats isolated in the lock, both ends closed, the water level was lowered (drained). As the boats lowered, the ropes securing them to the side had to be gradually loosened. It took about 5 minutes to half "drain" this huge bathtub - lowering the water level about 27 feet, but with enough water left to float the largest ships.

Once the water has been removed, the boats almost disappear since they are now 27 feet lower. The gates at the lower end of the lock (hidden behind the building) are then opened, and the boats proceed - at this point into the second lock in the series. Repeat the process in the second (lower) lock in this series, and the boats will finally be at sea level in the Pacific Ocean.

Moving pleasure boats is one thing, but how about a real ship? This is a tanker entering the lock on the near side. There are only inches to spare between the lock walls and the side of the ship, so (in this case) 6 locomotives (called mules, 2 of which can be seen on the far side of the lock) keep the ship centered in the lock. (Why are they called mules? Because the Erie canal in New York State, one of the first canals, actually used mules to pull the boats through.) There is so much momentum with a heavy ship that it was moved VERY slowly into the lock - taking about 30 minutes. The phrase "watching paint dry" seemed appropriate.

The ship was finally secured in the lock, and the gates closed so the water could be lowered. You can see the four mules at the bow of the ship - there are two more at the stern.

The middle of the tanker was an array of pipes and valves, now clearly visible - even with the edge of the lock, rather than towering above.

As the tanker moved through the locks you could see the two mules controlling the stern (back of the ship). The part on the left is the ship's bridge, which towers over the rest of the ship, but now is almost even with the lock.

The construction of the new, much larger, locks is just beyond these locks. I saw a lot of dirt being moved and some pretty bare concrete columns for something that is supposed to be in operation in just a few months.

If the ship goes down 27 feet, the mules holding the ship have to go down, too. If was fun to watch these locomotives zip up and down a VERY steep slope between the first and second lock.

 

When the mules were working (holding the tanker in the center of the lock) they let their cables get longer as the ship lowered, and followed it when the ship moved forward. Then as they reached the "step" between locks, the mules on each side aligned themselves, and moved down together, tightening their cables as they descended.

 

How do they get the necessary traction? They ride on rails like any train, but between the rails is a gear-like set of cogs that obviously the mules use for traction.

Proof that Jenny was at the locks. It was pleasantly hot in Panama, while it was freezing in Austin.

And she made Charlie pose in the simulated control room in the museum. One of the characters at the console is a dummy.

This is the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal - just before the canal is a container port.

Apparently some portion of the containers are moved by rail to or from Colón, either to avoid shipping on the canal, or to reduce the load (depth of water required) for a ship passing through the canal.


Panama City

Panama City is a bustling modern city... mostly. It has been growing at a fantastic rate. There is no zoning, so a run-down shack may be in front of a high rise office building. Panama's total population is 3.6 million, of which 1.4 million live in Panama City.

A block from our hotel was Iglesia Del Carmen - the landmark local church. The green building at the right is the entrance to the Metro Station named "Iglesia Del Carmen."

The other major landmark is the Hotel El Panama. Without good maps, we were warned to have nearby landmarks. In fact, we were in a section of town known as Bella Vista, but we did not know that until the GPS on our iPhone weather application told us we were there, more specific than just being in Panama City.

Our Hyatt Place hotel was a new, very narrow, very nice 19 story building. Not picturesque from the outside. Good sign at the top of the building that was a helpful landmark (as walkers, we didn't have to follow the one way streets). But this new hotel didn't have much of a street view - this looking from the front of the hotel towards the Hotel El Panama. Not very pretty, but we felt quite safe.

There was a pool and sun deck (and gym, etc.) on the top level of our hotel building. The best part was the view from the roof.

The tallest building does have curved sides - it is not the failures of a cheap camera. The building just right of it was interesting - each floor was a rectangle, rotated slightly from the previous floor, so the whole building was like a corkscrew.

Note our landmark church. The blue skyscraper does really have wavy sides - it is not an illusion.


Panama Viejo
Sunday

This old city was founded in 1519, and was the first permanent European settlement on the Pacific Ocean (even though it is on the East side of that part of Panama). Over the next 150 years it grew from 100 people to 10,000, despite earthquakes and fires. Henry Morgan's attack in 1672 cost thousands of lives and destroyed the city.

What is left is a very interesting preserved archeological site in a park within the city limits. The visitor center will try to convince you that you want to pay $6 each to see the museum (don't bother) and visit the park (worthwhile but nobody cares if you have a ticket). After you take advantage of the public restroom outside the visitor center, just wander down the gravel path from the visitor center parking lot towards the ruins in the distance.

I hate sites where there is a stone foundation from which you are supposed to imagine what buildings might have been there. Not here. Although 500 years old, there were real walls, and people were welcome to walk among them.

Where the walls were tall or unstable, they were reinforced. The archaeologists were careful to use materials that were distinctly different so there was no question about which was original and which was modern.

To allow you to climb this well preserved cathedral tower, a steel staircase was installed in the center of the tower. Bravo.

The exact dimensions of the cathedral are not known, but the archaeologists installed a floor of obviously modern materials at their best guess of the height and size of the sanctuary, and the extent of the nave.

The local foliage is rather unique. Note the size of these leaves, especially the one with the several sections opened out, on the ground near the ruins. My size 12 foot is in the picture to give you a sense of the size of each leaf.

I have no idea what this plant is, but we found this heart shaped leaf (or fruit?) in several places.


Casco Antiguo
Monday

Casco Antiguo, also known as Casco Viejo or San Felipe is the historic area of Panama City, where the city moved in 1673 after the destruction of Panama Viejo (above) in 1672. It is a vibrant community with street signs and maps (unlike the rest of Panama City).


The presidential palace is located here, overlooking the bay. It is a white house, but it is called the palace. Our taxi driver said it is the safest area of Panama, since presidential protection detail are present on almost every corner, directing traffic and keeping calm.

The French embassy is also located in this area, assuring that vehicle traffic is as complex as possible. A great place to walk.

The cathedral is noteworthy because of the towers at each side. The tower roofs are made from seashells, showing the pearl-like inside of the shell. From the distance the towers are above the city, and shimmer in the sunlight.

In many ways it looks like the French Quarter in New Orleans, with 3 story buildings, balconies, and lots of pedestrian traffic.

We had a mid-day beverage at this sidewalk cafe and restaurant, known as Casablanca.

Remember this area is about 350 years old. There is a commission to stabilize the exterior of the buildings, then refurbish the exterior, then find owners to rebuild the interior. It is working well, as you can see from one building being stabilized, the adjacent two buildings refurbished, and another that is apparently occupied without restoration (laundry hanging from the third floor).

Jenny is very proud of our Bougainvillea, because they fill a hanging basket. Here they grow a little larger.

There is a park at the entrance to this area that has an even more impressive Bougainvillea archway.

But the other side of the park is an area of Panama City that we chose not to explore. Especially after dark.


Parque Nacional Metropolitano de Panama
Tuesday

This is a 573 acre park practically within the city limits, with several hiking trails totaling 3.2 miles. The 490 foot high hill has a great view of the city, but a poor view of the canal. This is apparently a great place for seeing birds, if you start at sunrise (6 am) but we didn't. You are welcome to enter the park 7 days a week starting at 6 am, but the visitor center is only open 6 days, starting at 8 am. When the visitor center (little more than an office) is open, they ask foreigners to buy a $4 entry ticket and pay $1.50 for a one page Visitor's Guide. If the visitor center is closed, you can apparently just walk into the park.

Across the path is a live vine, attached on both sides.

This is one of the few rain forests within a city - generally meaning forest dense enough that the canopy - top growth - shades the ground enough that it stunts the ground level growth. Yes, this part is dense and pretty. No, this picture is not of a rain forest - too much light makes it to the ground.

One characteristic of rain forests are trees that develop several root/trunks

We saw several trees that had growths on the trunk that looked very much like barnacles on ocean piers.

The place was not infested with bugs, but this spider in his web was as large as the picture makes him appear.


Other Activities

Bird Watching

Panama is noted for over 950 species of birds . The recommended approach is to take a tour into the jungle - we didn't because 1) We aren't that interested in Bird Watching, 2) It usually involves being in the woods at sunrise, and we don't like being anywhere at sunrise, 3) The jungle tours are expensive and scheduled in advance, and 4) Going into the jungle requires bug protection, and perhaps additional travel medication. The Metropolitan park may be a good substitute except the birds expect you to come at sunrise there as well.

Gambling

Panama City has 12-18 major casinos, plus more smaller casinos. We aren't interested, so we didn't explore those options.

Shopping

One taxi driver explained that there were three major shopping malls in the city (where major is hundreds of stores and thousands of employees). He said there was a high end mall (Gucci, Coach, Tiffany, etc.), a moderate price mall, and an inexpensive mall. Okay, but at one point I counted four malls, and later found a list of 8. The Hop On Hop Off bus stopped at some of them. We aren't shopping people, so we didn't explore the options. One Panama tourist review said they explored Albrook Mall (the largest) after they had completed their Panama bucket list.


Summary/Return

This was a great quick trip. Since we are boring people who don't shop or gamble, we could have cut a day or two off - the hiking in the park was not that different than hiking anywhere. We could have combined the two old cities into a single day, using taxis instead of the bus. Food was excellent and inexpensive - Lebanese, Italian, Panamanian, and Indian dinners, for an average price of $50 with wine.

Travel Tip: Some restaurants automatically add 10% tip (Propina) to your bill. Others include a blank, often with suggested Propina with the amounts for 10%, 15%, and 20%.

Travel Tip: The couple times we added a tip to a taxi fare, the driver seemed genuinely surprised. Apparently they include enough in their negotiated price to cover the "tip."

Departure: The hotel recommended being at the airport two hours before the flight (30-45 minutes would have been plenty). Security took away a fork Jenny bought in South Africa and has been carrying for 25 years, and took away the tiny shears she has carried for 10 years to open her powdered medicine packets. The fork we were given for Breakfast on the airplane was larger and sharper than the fork security took away. Panama makes you go through security a second time at the gate - people who bought water bottles at the airport after the first security lost them at the second security at the gate.

Return was routine: American Airlines flight Panama to Miami to Dallas to Austin, home in time for dinner. And the travelogue completed less than a week after we got home.


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