Crossing the Isthmus

Days: 204 & 208

Total distance travelled: 40,600 kilometres (25,217.39 miles)

Our experience with the Panama Canal, that grand engineering marvel, is a two part affair.

With 7 nights spent in the Panamanian capital, it was inevitable (and also a desire) that we’d at some point get out to view the canal a bit more thoroughly.

Certain that we could reach it by local bus, we arrived at Albrook Bus Terminal, under the impression that we could catch a Metrobus out there.

After asking the first staff member we saw for directions however, we weren’t so sure.

Eventually, we asked a ticket vendor who pointed us over to the opposite side of the terminal where the chicken buses run from.

Turns out we were out of luck here as well, as the next bus to Miraflores was an hour away, which would mean we’d miss the morning window for ships travelling to the east on the canal.

We figured surely there is a bus that would run in that general direction much sooner (where we could walk from), so it was back to the Metrobus side of the terminal to try our luck.

Just as one of us went to ask for directions (we were again in our party of 4, myself, Sarah, Faye and Chris), I spied a bus pulling up with Miraflores on its banner!

Turns out the Metrobus does indeed run there as (we’d suspected)! It hasn’t been an uncommon trend throughout Central America for staff to have no idea at all either!

At the locks, we quickly discovered that the information from our guidebook was well out of date. Rather than a $3.00 entrance fee, and an optional $8.00 for the museum/theatre experience, now it was one flat $15.00 fee that allowed you entrance to the lot (the gringo price is 5 times that of the locals).

We’d arrived in time for the last grand vessel of the morning to transit the locks, and it was certainly a great sight to behold.

Welcome to the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Locks

Welcome to the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Locks

A handful of smaller vessels, pleasure craft full of sight see-ers, passed through the lock nearest us, however had that been all we’d seen, we would have left feeling pretty annoyed with the experience.

The large ship in the other lock however, the Panamanian registered Prime Ace, was another matter all together.

This car carrier, known as a Panamax (because it is the maximum dimension that can transit through the canal) was a beast.

The upper lock in action

The upper lock in action

We were a little impressed by the safety rails that automatically raised as the lock closed

We were a little impressed by the safety rails that automatically raised as the lock closed

It seems ridiculous, but the dimensions of the vessel, built with the transit of the canal in mind, are so precise, that there is only 2 feet clearance between the ship and the lock walls on either side!

With such little margin for error however, this task is not solely in the hands of either the captain or a pilot, but to assist will be 6 electric locomotives (a steal with a value of about $2.6m US each) that help guide the vessel with steel cables.

So little margin for error

So little margin for error

The Miraflores Locks in action (Click on image to enlarge)

The Miraflores Locks in action (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s hard to explain, as throughout the whole viewing experience, there was so much waiting for things to happen, it was a bit like watching grass grow, yet at the same time it was riveting.

We definitely wanted to watch it through until the end, noting an ever higher viewing platform on the 4th level, decided to relocate there for a different perspective.

Gazing across to another set of locks

Gazing across to another set of locks

True, the view was higher, but it was also far busier and there was a lot more jostling with people to try and find a position with an unobstructed view, anywhere near the rails.

Eventually the crowd did thin a little, and it was at this time that I became fascinated by a woman who stood beside me.

Making me feel a little lazy as I struggled to capture great photos of the spectacle before us, there she was, sketch book in hand, drawing, albeit in a crude, but effective style, the very same scene below!

Why use a camera when you have a pen and paper?

Why use a camera when you have a pen and paper?

With the ship through the locks, we made the most of our entrance tickets and indulged in both the theatre (where a rather cheesy, patriotic ten minute movie was shown) and the museum.

The museum was okay, but we would have gladly passed on it and the theatre had the tickets to the viewing platform been at the old $3.00 price tag…

At a much earlier 6:50am, 4 mornings later (in fact our last day in Panama), we were again in the canal zone, this time at the railway station for the Panama Canal Railway.

We wanted to cross the 80 kilometres of the isthmus in style, and this seemed the perfect way to do it and see more of the canal itself.

Right on time, at 7:15am, we pulled out of the station and it was only minutes later, running parallel to the canal itself we had our first ship sightings of the morning.

Ships apparently navigate the canal channel 24/7

Ships apparently navigate the canal channel 24/7

Crossing the isthmus in comfort and style

Crossing the isthmus in comfort and style

It probably isn’t great value, given the length of the journey (it’s all over in about 50 minutes), but it was an indulgence, and with all 4 of us liking a bit of train travel and eager to see a little more of the canal, we still felt it money well spent.

A little wet over the artificial Gatun Lake (its damming made the canal possible)

A little wet over the artificial Gatun Lake (its damming made the canal possible)

When we pulled into the terminus in the grubby city of Colon (grubby by reputation as well as in appearance), we’d managed to cross our final Central American country in less than an hour, and all that was between us and the southern Americas was the ferry crossing to come.

 

Notes:

* A visit to the Miraflores Locks (easily reached by local bus, or if you’re lazy/time poor, taxi) will cost you $15.00 US each which allows access to the viewing levels, museum and theatre. Make sure you visit between 9am and 11am, or 3pm and 5pm so you can actually see the locks in action (otherwise the $15.00 is hardly worth it).

* Traversing Panama via the Panama Canal Railway costs $25.00 US per person for the 50 minute, 80 kilometre scenic (and comfortable) journey.

* A taxi from the Colon terminus to the Ferry Xpress terminal cost $2.50 per person.

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