The Amsterdam entered the Panama Canal at 7:30 on the morning of January 9. This is our third time through this canal, so we were not planning to be up that early to be outside before reaching the first lock. However, the Panamanians provide guides to narrate the passage of the canal & ours began broadcasting on the ship’s loudspeaker system at about 6:30, and since one of these speakers is on the deck outside our window that was the end of sleep for us. Still, we took our usual time to shower & dress before wandering outside, so by the time we got there the ship was already inside the first lock at Gatun.
While we will post a lot of pictures here, for a much more comprehensive review of a Panama Canal transfer take a look at that episode of the blog from our 2016 world voyage here:
That posting also has a link to the episode recounting our first Panama Canal passage, on the Grand South America Voyage in 2012. So, if you are interested in the canal there is plenty to see in addition to what is set out here.
In contrast to the beautiful morning sun on our last visit, the weather was gray & overcast as we entered the Gatun locks on the Caribbean side of the canal. The weather proved highly changeable during the day, moving from cloud to sun to rain repeatedly & often very quickly, so that folks outside taking pictures had to run for the doors. We followed the Azamara Quest through the canal, passing the Gatun control building with the help of the “mules,” a sort of tractor on rails that helps keep the ship on a steady course through the tight space between the canal walls. The bow of the ship was opened to passengers for the transit of the canal & in the morning coffee & delicious “Panama Rolls” were served there. Interestingly, the massive gates between levels of the locks are all still the originals, installed more than 100 years ago.
After leaving the Gatun locks we sailed across Gatun lake, a body of water that is probably the largest segment of the canal. It passes through dense rainforest, but is pretty uneventful. So we went to breakfast, then we went up to the Crow’s Nest for most of the transit. The Crow’s Nest is a multipurpose room on the top inside deck, a venue for parties, for reading, for activities such as Zumba in the morning and a disco at night. It has a bar and a panoramic expanse of windows across the front of the ship. Many passengers seem to spend a lot of time up here.
As we sailed through the lake we passed a huge container ship coming the other way, called the Houston Bridge, we think. This is one of the world’s largest container ship with a capacity of some 11,000 containers, each of which is the size of the payload of a tractor-trailer truck. Until last year ships this size could not use the Panama Canal, but a little over a year ago they completed a new, larger set of locks on each side that can accommodate these giant “Panamax Plus” ships. These ships still use the central portion of the same old canal, but enter & exit through the new larger locks. The Panamanians charge by weight to traverse their canal; a ship the size of Amsterdam pays about a quarter of a million dollars for one passage, so these new ships must be paying a lot more. We also passed several dredges, employed to scoop muck from the bottom to ensure the canal does not fill up with silt. This is, we were told, a never ending process.
Following us through the canal was a strange looking armored ship. We were told that this is the Pentagon’s newest intelligence ship & the extra plating includes stealth technology that obscures it on radar. It is too wide for the original locks & instead passed through the new locks. We speculated that maybe it is headed for the waters off North Korea. At one point a tugboat pulled around & pushed us for awhile; no idea why. Soon we came to the Centennial Bridge, built (guess when) in 2000. This area is known as the Cut, It was blasted out of solid rock during the building of the canal, perhaps the most difficult & dangerous part of the project. The walls are terraced to help keep debris from sliding down into the canal.
On the Atlantic side the Gatun locks raised the ship three levels. On the Pacific side the Pedro Miguel locks lower it two levels & the Miraflores locks lower it one more level to reach sea level again. As we approached the Pedro Miguel locks we could see the new larger version to our right. On the left was a tree dressed in bright yellow that we were told only blooms for three days a year.
The Miraflores locks only drop one final level, but as you go through on the left is a building housing a museum that always has hundreds of people on the balconies welcoming you. They wave & take pictures of you while you wave & take pictures of them. On our right we could see a big ship going through the new channel & locks, but we couldn’t see the locks themselves because there was a hill in front. We noticed that the Panamanian flag was at half staff all day & learned later that it was a holiday. Martyr’s Day commemorates a student uprising in 1963 against the Americans for reneging on an understanding that the Panamanian flag could fly along with the American at schools in the Canal Zone (if I have this right). Some 21 students & one toddler were killed as students tried to shimmy up a flag pole with a Panamanian flag. The next day we saw a monument to these students.
After finishing with the locks we sailed on to Fuerte Amador, a group of connected islands off the coast of Panama City, near which we anchored. The islands are connected to the mainland by a causeway on top of a huge breakwater that was built with rocks & dirt removed when digging the canal. In this last part of the canal we could see some of the towers of Panama City beyond the hills, above an old American military barracks. We passed under the Bridge of the Americas, which connects North & South America, completing the Pan American Highway that extends all the way from Canada to Patagonia. And on one side was the modern ecological museum designed by noted architect Frank Gehry. It looks a little like a brightly colored building that has collapsed into a heap.
Tenders were running to Fuerte Amador during the evening, but not many went. We had a full day in Panama City in the morning (with yet another early wake-up call) so after dinner & a show we retired for the evening. We heard later that those who went found there was nothing to do, so it was just as well.
At 7 AM on January 8 Amsterdam backed into its berth by the dock in Puerto Limon, poised for a fast get-away I guess. We have been here several times, most recently on the 2016 World Cruise. On that occasion we explored the town, which you can see at:
This time we took an excursion for a treetop gondola ride in the rain forest. This is a good example of why returning to a port you have already visited is not redundant (unless you have been there a dozen times, as a number of people on board have). Our experiences on these two visits to Puerto Limon couldn’t have been more different . . . city vs jungle.
We had to get up very early to make it to our 7:15 meeting time for this excursion (we agreed that next time we will pay closer attention to the departure times of excursions). It was overcast in the morning but got increasingly sunny as the day went on. It turned out that there had been six straight days of rain here & our visit brought the turn to good weather. The bus ride to Braulio Carillo National Park took about 2 hours & our guide, Marvin, talked the whole way about Costa Rica & the flora & fauna of the area. Driving up into the mountains we passed an impressive volcano & scenic forests & rivers.
Once there, before the tram ride, we had a walking tour. We saw a mother Tapir & her offspring, who was mostly interested in eating. Tapirs are related to the rhinoceros & are delightfully ugly.
We saw a 3 toed sloth high in a tree above us, with a hairy face like Oscar the Grouch, & we walked through an orchid garden.
We toured a butterfly reserve. There are several thousand species of butterfly in this area; they built a large caged structure to ensure many of them would be here together & they feed & care for them here.
Walking back, we saw a Costa Rican Robin, the national bird, a large spider in its web & a Toucan (very cool).
From there we walked to the tram terminal. It worked a lot like a Disney World ride, in that the gondola would come to the platform, let out its passengers on one side, move around to the front and stop for us to climb in. Passengers, six to a gondola, were carefully arranged by weight to ensure the gondola was balanced. They move along a cable held up by very tall metal poles. To build the tramway, the poles were brought in by helicopter so that the ecosystem wouldn’t be disturbed unnecessarily. The gondola was built of open caging on the bottom so you could look down at the floor of the forest.
The ride through the treetops was really fascinating, but I don’t think it will really come across in pictures. A photo can’t capture the vastness or the complexity of it all. But here are a few anyway.
We could see several small rivers winding through the floor of the forest under the branches.
Tree trunks and branches were covered with mosses & lichens vines of amazing varieties.
Our guide pointed out “Broccoli Trees.” If you are familiar with broccoli you will see why.
High in the canopy were a lot of bromeliads (we think that’s the name), plants that attach themselves to tree trunks but do not attack the trees in any way. Some of them send very long tendrils, which are like roots, down to the floor of the forest to obtain nutrients.
Perhaps the best things we saw were the ferns, in great variety with sizes from small plants to large trees. They are lush & graceful in design & they stand out from the other greenery around them. The perspective from above is also somewhat different than usual.
We also saw fauna in the forest canopy, but they were too fast for my camera. There were tiny flying creatures looking like flies and bees that would hover like a hummingbird within reach right by the gondola. But they are really wasps, we were told, & if you try to grab one it will sting your hand & it will really hurt. We saw two umbrella birds, undistinguished looking to our eyes but our guide said that bird fanciers come to Costa Rica just to catch a glimpse of one. We saw hummingbirds as well & other birds I can’t really describe to you (which translates as I don’t remember). Our guide was really good at identifying birds; he had a bird book & would quickly open it to the page for the bird we had just seen & show it around.
After the ride through the treetops we had a “typical Costa Rican” lunch of chicken or beef with red beans & rice, but the meat portions were pretty poor. Then we made the long drive back to the port, where we reboarded the ship.
Dinner on the ship was, to say the least, much better than the lunch. We went to bed early because we were due to enter the Panama Canal early the next morning.