Before we get to the Panama Canal, on Sunday we visited a small town on a tropical island off the coast of Panama called Bocas Del Toro. It is one of a group of islands, largely owned by United Fruit Co., which exports hundreds of thousands of tons of bananas every year, mostly to Europe. They tell us that Columbus landed here on one of his voyages, & repaired one of his ships on one of the islands in this group. Anyway, here is your opportunity to finally see this place you have never heard of before, and probably will never hear of again. As mentioned the other day, if you hover your mouse over a picture, a caption will pop up.
Leaving Bocas Del Toro we saw this unusual island, which reminded us of a certain animated character some of you might be hip enough to know.
On Monday we traversed the Panama Canal. Interestingly, because Panama is shaped like an S the canal runs from Northwest on the Atlantic side to Southeast on the Pacific side. After entering the canal from the Caribbean, you are lifted about 85 feet by 3 levels of locks at Gatun. Then you cross a huge man-made lake, created by damming the Chagres River. Then on the Pacific side you descend about 85 feet, one level at the Pedro Miguel lock, then two more levels at the Miraflores locks.
The current canal is only big enough to handle about 94% of the ships in the world, so they are building a new larger canal that will be able to handle the rest. The larger canal, which is quite near the current one, was actually started by the United States in the late 1930’s but never completed because of the war. Ships have to make a reservation to go through the canal more than a year in advance; it costs about $50,000 just for a reservation and another $250,000 or so to actually go through (rates are determined by weight), and all transactions are cash-in-advance.
The French tried first to build a canal across Panama in the late 19th century, but failed because they tried to do the whole thing at sea level (with no locks) & because of mosquito transmitted disease, particularly yellow fever which killed more than 25,000 workers. When the Americans came in, they were able to exterminate all of the disease-carrying mosquitos, an impressive feat (particularly because those at the top refused to believe that mosquitos were the cause of disease). There have been no cases of Yellow Fever in Panama since 1907.
Anyway here are a few of our pictures; the narrative above is designed to help you place where the pictures were taken along the canal.
You can see in the picture on the left above how the lock doors fit flush into the walls of the canal when open. On the right is one of the mechanical “mules”; two of these on each side help guide the ship through the locks with ropes. Below are two workers in a tiny rowboat next to the ship; the mule’s ropes are thrown down to them & they take them over to attach to the ship. It looks pretty precarious from where we were standing.
I tried to insert some video here of the locks opening, but apparently I can’t do that without being online. So I probably won’t be able to do videos, since the internet is spotty & expensive onboard this ship. Maybe I will figure it out later.
The ship above right is a 4 mast yacht operated by the Windstar cruise line. Our captain told us near the end of the canal that he had been captain of that ship for 4 years. Small world.
Below left are islands in the man-made Gatun lake that were mountaintops before the dam was built to create the lake. The crest in the distance in the picture below right is actually the top of the earthen dam built by the Americans to create the lake; it is half a mile wide at its base.
Above left is a small portion of the “Calebra Cut,” which was several miles of solid rock they had to blast through to create the canal. The terraces are where earth moving equipment & rail cars were brought to cut out the walls, layer by layer. On the right is another portion of the cut, at the continental divide.
Everybody likes wildlife, so above is a blue heron (I think) standing by the canal. On the right they are dredging the canal to make it big enough for the larger ships that will come through the new canal locks.
Above are people stopped to watch our ship, first near the Pedro Miguel lock and then at the viewing center at Miraflores. It was odd to see people taking our picture! We had to stop at Miraflores for one of our passengers to be taken off in an ambulance. Since he walked to the ambulance, we are hoping that nothing was seriously wrong. Below left is a beautiful bird with swallow-like divided tail, many of which we saw at Miraflores, and below right is the Panama Railway, the first transcontinental railroad. Then pictures of the Bridge of the Americas (where the Pan American Highway crosses the Panama Canal on its way from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego), and of Panama City at the Pacific end of the canal.
That’s it for Panama. Today it’s raining cats & dogs here in the Pacific Ocean but we are hoping for better weather tomorrow when we go ashore in Manta, Ecuador, where we will arrive at 4:00 AM. The Captain has already apologized for waking us that early with the maneuvering engines but I’m sure an apology won’t seem like enough tomorrow morning. We will probably post again after leaving Ecuador in a few days.