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Western Caribbean Cruising, Part 6:  Panama City & The Panama Canal  

Exciting day for usby Sharon Kratz, s/v Rose of Sharon 

The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time. …Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization. – David McCullough

Rose of Sharon was now secured for our months-long separation. Bocas Del Toro Yacht Club and Marina had a nifty form to fill out which specified the maintenance and costs and frequency of care – so we wanted our boat washed in July and November 2008. We wanted it checked twice a month, inside, and our ozone generator run for one hour. The marina would assign employees at the proper time. It was all so . . . organized! I loved that. However, none of the staff was familiar with the ozone generator, so I wrote a detailed process about how to make it work its magic. The part that frightened them was when I wrote: “As you exit the boat, point the remote control at the ozone generator, set it for the number 9, then continue exiting the boat and shut the hatch. You cannot be inside the boat when the ozone generator is running.”

We purchased a window air conditioner and it fit perfectly in the space where the bottom board of our two-board hatch is located, and Joe set the temperature at 70° for continuous air circulation.

I bagged everything possible in huge black bags, squishing the air out of them to simulate a vacuum sealing system to reduce their size. If it had the potential to grow mold, I bagged it. Joe said between the ozone generator and the air conditioner there would be no need for me to use the oversized trash bags – one was almost as tall as me, 5 feet – but we’ve never left the boat this long in a place that had more humidity than Texas. Guatemala did not have as much humidity as Texas, but Panama takes it to a whole new level.

The morning of our departure, our neighbor Paul met us at the dock with two bloody marys and I don’t drink bloody marys. But he knew how tense I was about taking the prop plane from Bocas Del Toro to Panama City, so . . . I took my medicine then climbed aboard his dinghy for his taxi service to the airport-side of the island. He made two trips hauling us and our luggage, then Joe and I grabbed a taxi to the airport.

Approaching Bocas Del ToroThe plane trip was very nice! The Air Panama planes from Bocas to Panama City are turbo props. The airline’s entire fleet numbers 16 but they are in the process of upgrading. It was an hour’s ride and not as bumpy as I’d feared. Instead of flying into Panama City’s international airport, we flew into Albrook, one of the smaller airports.

It was still early so we took a taxi to Casco Viejo, the “old,” but not the original settlement of Panama City. The taxi driver stopped in front of a church and encouraged me to go inside. It was the Iglesia de San José and its story is almost as wonderful as its famous Golden Altar.

Panama City viewWhen Captain Morgan and his pirates laid siege to Panama City, he hurried to the church that was rumored to have a priceless altar of gold. Hearing of the pirates’ invasion, the priest painted the altar black and when Captain Morgan arrived, the priest told him the altar had been taken by previous pirates and that the church was struggling to build a new one. Then he got a donation from the famous pirate to help build a “new” altar! The part of the story that may not be true but I hope it is: As he was leaving, Captain Morgan turned to the priest and said with some bemusement, “I don’t know which of us is the better pirate!”

Casco Viejo is full of historic buildings and churches, most in disrepair. It is a dangerous part of the city, and visitors should be careful on the side streets and not go to that part of the city at all after dark.

Metropolitan CathedralI was disappointed that the Metropolitan Cathedral was never open when I visited (and I made two trips there to see the interior), but its exterior was certainly impressive. Its construction took over 108 years! The plaza in front of the cathedral is where the community declared its independence from Colombia in 1903. The Municipal Palace, also on the plaza, is being remodeled while preserving its neoclassical design.

Joe and I strolled the streets and I was surprised when we walked down one street and encountered a military man with a submachine gun and holstered handgun and a walkie talkie. He wore a pretty red beret and wanted to search my big-o bag which is too large and ugly to be a purse, but that’s what I call it at airports. The bag-search man at the Bocas Del Toro airport told me to call it a “cartera,” which translates to “portfolio.”

Stopped us 2 search bagsWhite heron guardI was used to seeing lots of military-type men with machine guns in Guatemala but this was my first encounter in Panama. I thought, Gee! They really want to protect visitors in this neighborhood! As Joe and I continued our walk, when we reached the end of the street and looked to our right, we saw more military personnel and realized we were standing in front of Panama’s White House! The president lives on the second floor. You can walk right up to its gated entrance and take pictures of the foyer, but the big attraction is the white herons just inside the entrance. The Panamanian White House was called El Palacio de las Garzas or “Palace of the Herons” because in 1922 a political visitor presented the then-president with a gift of two white herons. Thus began a tradition for their White House. Here’s another story that is unconfirmed but certainly believable: In 1977 President Jimmy Carter went to Panama City to sign a treaty with the then-president of Panama, and the U.S. security detail sprayed the courtyard with a disinfectant which killed the herons. A new pair was snuck into the palace under cover of darkness, thus avoiding international embarrassment!

Our hotel in Panama City was Marparaiso ( http://www.marparaisopma.com/english.htm), and it was perfect for us: the price was right, they offered free transportation from the airport to the hotel, wifi, and a small café with free continental breakfast, and a full menu. The café offered some excellent fried chicken, which is at the top of my food group pyramid.

Passing throughAfter a good night’s sleep, we were off to the Panama Canal. I cannot begin to tell you how excited we were to finally see this historic site!

It was circa 1524 when someone suggested to Charles V of Spain that a cut through the isthmus of Panama would save travel time for ships bearing treasures. Over the years surveys were taken and plans made, but it was 1882 before actual construction began to construct a canal through the Panama Province of Colombia. The French undertook the initiative, but by 1899 they ran into money problems, machinery difficulty and employee relations troubles – the men who hadn’t been killed by disease-carrying mosquitoes wanted to return to France and begin spending the monies they’d saved.

Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903. The U.S. took over the Panama Canal project in 1904, taking steps to ensure the quality of life for the workers would be considerably improved. The French lost approximately 20,000 workers to disease and injury; the American workers who died during the canal construction numbered about 5,000. By fumigating neighborhoods, oiling cisterns and cesspools and creating a running water system for Panama, yellow fever was eradicated by 1905. Malaria was not eliminated but its spread was greatly reduced.

The official opening of the canal was August 15, 1914.

Today, any boat transiting the canal must maintain a speed of 5 knots. I’ve heard rumors that this rate of speed may increase, making it difficult for some boats, but towing is still a possibility. In case you were wondering, the base cost of a vessel under 50 feet is approximately $600 but a $850 deposit is required should additional costs be incurred. The wait time is averaging 1½ - 2 months for recreational vessels. The best site I found for the process of transiting the Panama Canal was Shelter Bay Marina’s website: http://www.shelterbaymarina.com/cat/about-shelter-bay-marina/panama-canal-transit-procedure/2/38.

Another website that featured cruisers’ blogs about transiting the Panama Canal was YachtPals: http://yachtpals.com/boating/panama-canal-blogs.

Don and Alice of S/V Ally’s Cat returned to the U.S. after completing their Caribbean cruising. This is what Alice wrote of their Panama Canal adventure, and it provides a good insight into the process of transit:

Knowing that all  sailboats going through the Canal are required to have four line handlers aboard, Don dinked around the anchorage at the Panama Canal Yacht Club, and asked who needed additional help. We were able to accompany a 44-foot monohull whose owner is Danish.
The procedure was that the hosting boat provides meals and a place to sleep for the 2-day transit for the crew. We left at 6.30 p.m. in the dark, and rafted with a like-sized Dutch sailboat. For that, large lines and 8 plastic covered auto tires are required to be rented for bumpers to protect the sides of each boat from damage possible from each other, or from hitting the concrete walls of the Canal. Turbulence is great, as the 26 million gallons of water enters the lock.  Smaller boats going south always enter the Canal behind a large ship, at a distance.
The Canal pilot (called an “advisor” for small vessels) boarded the boat by literally jumping onto it, and was immediately in charge of all decisions. The boat’s owner was at the helm. The rest of us positioned ourselves at the four corners of the boat.
We entered from the east at the Gatun Lock, near Colón, Panama, off the Atlantic Ocean. Each lock is 1,000 feet in length, and 110 feet wide. The three locks in succession took several hours to complete. Finally at 11:30 p.m. our advisor jumped off the boat onto a large mooring, and was picked up by the Pilot Boat. Our host sailboat tied to the mooring, and we were done for the night. It was an exhausting physical endeavor, and everyone was glad to go to sleep.
At 6.30 a.m., Don woke the rest of us up just in time, as a new advisor came to board the boat for the second half of the journey through the Gatun Lake portion of the trip. It was an eerie sensation to be floating along through the cuts that were completed nearly 100 years ago, which cost many thousands of lives to construct. As a smaller vessel, we were able to pass the larger ships going north. Two large ships cannot pass at the same time, so the Canal is being widened again at several places now.
The procedure takes a boat from sea level 86 feet up to Lake Gatun, which was created by damming the Chargres River. Traversing the lake to the next set of locks, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores, is the reverse so the ships descend to sea level at the Pacific Ocean side, where the tidal difference can be as much as 15 feet. It is a 50-mile trip through the isthmus. The design and engineering of the Canal is truly one of the man-made wonders of the world! Don and I are grateful to have had this experience.

View to Lake MirafloresJoe and I stood on the observation deck at Miraflores Lock until we were sunburned, and could not tear ourselves away from the sight of the locking-through vessels. Several tankers and three rafted-up tugboats eased through the narrow waterway, Atlantic to Pacific, Pacific to Atlantic. Their crewmembers waved at us and we waved at them, and a man on a loudspeaker provided ongoing information – in Spanish, of course – and encouraged the tourists to shout “¡Hola!” in unison at each boat’s lock-in completion.

Then we went to the restaurant’s observation deck for lunch, so we could continue our lock-watch. The heat was intense and we knocked back three beers each with our salads. When the bill came, we wished we’d chosen the better choice in beverages – water! Some arrogant friends of ours used to say, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” and Joe subscribed to that theory. I used to humiliate him in restaurants, making my menu choices based on whether one was a dollar less than another. He now agrees with me that we have to ask because at some prices, we can’t afford it!

There are four exhibit halls at the Miraflores Lock with some informative and fun displays. The Panama Canal’s Miraflores Center is open daily 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and you can contact them directly at cvm@pancanal.com. Even more fun is visiting the live webcam of the Panama Canal at http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html.

Fort ruinsWhile Casco Viejo is the “old” part of Panama City, it is not the original settlement site. To see the remains of the first European settlement along the Pacific, you must visit Panama City’s Ruinas de Panamá Viejo. In the 1500s, the silks and spices of the Orient were carried across the isthmus to Spanish galleons on the other side. I’ve often observed that the Spanish seemed to be good at colonization, but they never seemed to be able to hold on to anything – and this again proved true when the Spaniards made a tactical military mistake vs. pirate Captain Morgan’s French sharpshooters. At that time, Panama City boasted a cathedral, several convents and churches, many elegant European homes and a strong residential community. By the time Captain Morgan’s pirates plundered the city, little of value remained.

Jesuit church ruinsThe ruins are about 3½ miles outside Panama City, and to effectively see them, you should take your own walking tour following a map that will take you to each site. The walking tour is 1-2 hours.

Despite the heat and the hike, I felt a burst of energy after we had walked the ruins of Panama Viejo. I decided we should visit the Parque Natural Metropolitano. Our taxi driver dropped us off and promised to return in 1½ hours. Joe and I studied the map of the trails through the park, and he thought “mild to moderate” was appropriate for me. I took umbrage at his suggestion and said I wanted to take the “medium” level of difficulty.

Five minutes into the walk, I knew I’d made a mistake. The trail was a series of uphill walkways and steps, and for me, the level of difficulty was “extreme.” I was the star of my own survivor series of climbs through the jungle, and I whined every step of the way. When I told Joe I wanted to turn back, he reminded me we were on the trail I chose, and he’d tried to persuade me to take the easier route. Just when I thought I’d have to be carried out by chopper, we encountered an older European tourist who was hiking along with a walking stick and a better attitude. He encouraged me to continue to the summit of the trail and that the rest of the hike would be downhill. And he promised the hike was worth the effort.

Buoyed by this fellow-traveler’s supportiveness, I hauled myself to the top of the jungle trail, stopped . . . then looked at the beauty that surrounded me. I could smell the green, and the moist air was comforting to my heated skin. I leaned on the wooden rail that bordered the dirt path and looked down into the tangle of tropical plants, where I caught a glimpse of a small creek. It was so serene! As I recall the day and the jungle, my memory is whispering because I don’t want to disturb the sound of the birds, insects, and occasional monkey chatter.

Joe and I walked slowly, using another set of muscles to avoid tumbling down the steep descent. Joe stopped me when he heard a rustle in the dense underbrush and we stood, frozen, hoping to catch sight of one of the small animals that lived in the rainforest.

When we reached the creek, I sat on a nearby piece of tree and slathered on more insect repellent. Several Basilisk lizards were trotting across the water and I tried to take a movie of them but there was a very aggressive stinging fly that was insanely attracted to my deet-coated arms and legs! I finally let go of the camera and rushed away from the creek and down the path, complaining loudly about the biter bug, and that is what we captured on film.

I had already discovered that my “latest” edition of Lonely Planet was issued in 2004 and had much outdated information. I’m a Fodor’s woman, but had decided that my new lifestyle was more suited to the Lonely Planet guidebook. Not. I’m in the U.S. right now and won’t return to our boat without the first edition dated May 2008 of Fodor’s Panama Gold Guide, which will have the most current information about the San Blas islands, our next passage.

When we visited the ruins of Sitio Barriles near the city of David in Panama, we were captured by the historical significance of that particular archeological site. Researchers had deduced that the people of that area were Oriental and African and much of their art featured the first known symbol of the world: the spiral. The dig had many of the original pieces, but the most dramatic statues and potteries had been moved to Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz in Panama City.

Our last day in Panama City, Joe wanted to walk to the museum because based on our Lonely Planet guidebook, it wasn’t all that far from our hotel. I have to say that the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in my life was walking the streets of Panama City. Imagine trying to cross I-10 when the cars are running bumper-to-bumper at an average speed of 70 m.p.h. That’s very similar to crossing a street in Panama, and I am talking intersections. Intersections they have a-plenty. Stoplights are few and far in-between!

We walked several blocks in the wrong direction to avoid having to cross busy streets, then angled toward the street where a statue of explorer Balboa – a particularly detailed sculpture facing the Pacific Ocean – was located. But portions of the park and the front view of Señor Balboa was not possible because it was under construction. “Balboa’s getting a facelift,” I said to Joe. “Let’s just catch a taxi to the museum.”

First, I told the taxi driver where we were going and the address. He seemed confused. Then I showed him the address listed in Lonely Planet. He shrugged and drove for 15 minutes, weaving in and out of the city traffic, then stopped in front of a building in a not-so-good neighborhood. It looked abandoned, but there was a sign that said “museo” on it. I told Joe and the driver to wait while I checked it out. I looked in a window to see what appeared to be an empty room. Outside, there was a man asleep and propped up against the large wooden doors, but I still tried to open them. They were locked. The phone number in the book was disconnected.

Frustrated, we returned to our hotel and asked the woman in the reception area to help us locate the museum. She made a few phone calls and wrote down another address on a slip of paper. We hailed a second taxi and drove to a cleaner, greener part of Panama City and stopped on Avenida Ascanio Villalaz, Metropolitan Park, in front of a new building that was still under construction but appeared to be open to the public.

There was no one at the front desk, but a woman hurried forward and seemed reluctant to accept the $2 admission we offered. We entered the main hall and saw that for the most part, the museum was empty, but – there it was! – we looked up and saw the preserved pieces from the ruins of Sitio Barriles on the second floor. Once again, perseverance pays off!

The itio Barriles pieces were not behind glass; they were perched on stands and could be closely examined – without touching, of course. Joe and I studied a spiral stone, some larger ritual pieces and the huge carving of the African man carrying a small Chinese man. We were the only tourists in the building, and our footsteps on the wooden floor echoed as we slowly examined what remains of one of the oldest civilizations on earth.

Tentatively, a well-dressed woman approached us and asked why we had come to the museum. We explained that we were excited by what we’d seen at Sitio Barriles and had felt it necessary to see the pieces that had been removed and preserved at the museum. She then explained that the museum wasn’t exactly finished; they were in the process of relocating over 15,000 pre-Columbian artifacts from the old to the new museum. She explained that she felt badly that we did not get to see all of the exhibits, but we assured her that we were quite happy with our visit.

Then she gave us a beautiful, coffee table-type catalog featuring selected pieces from the museum collection! It is a beautiful book, with exquisite detail photography on heavy, matte-finish paper. Each museum piece is carefully described – in Spanish. But in any language, the book itself is art. We were thrilled and will enjoy it for many years. Maybe we’ll even get a coffee table, someday.

Panama Canal viewThe next day we returned to the U.S. We were looking forward to seeing our family and we had scheduled a road trip to Disneyworld. The world-famous theme park was as fabulous as ever, and seeing it through our grandchildren's’ eyes was the best way to see Disney. But we took a “safari” in Animal Kingdom, and it was there that I got a feel for what we left behind. The rugged terrain, exotic animals, and even the recreated tropical forests were a fair representation of the natural splendor of Central America.

We are eagerly looking forward to sailing to the San Blas islands! Did I tell you about the Kuna Indians being a matriarchal society, and . . . well, that’s a preview, I guess. As Mae West would have said as she strapped on her offshore jacket: “It’s not the cruising in my life, it’s the life in my cruising!”

Rose of Sharon is secure at Bocas Yacht Club and Marina. Following a brief tour of Panama City and the Canal, Joe and Sharon returned to the States to become RVers. They plan to cruise the San Blas Islands and Cartagena, Columbia in early 2009.



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