The start of the CENTRAL AMERICAN dream ...

Trip Start Nov 15, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Panama  ,
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Here we go again ...  It really feels like I'm starting all over again with my travels and solo again!  I pulled myself away from my beloved Mancora in Peru and took the 1:30am bus to Guayaquil, Ecuador for my flight to Panama.  The bus didn't arrive until 2am and it wasn't the best of buses either but then again I only had 1 company to choose from so no choice really.  Immigration was around 2 hours into the journey, with the Peruvian side being a lot quicker and more straight forward that the smutty Ecuadorian side.  I arrived in Guayaquil at 9am having had no sleep.  I then had a 4 hour wait around the bus terminal, followed by 2 more hours at the airport, where I then nearly wasn't allowed on my flight by the airline because I didn't have an onward flight.  they ended up making me a fake reservation, which they then said I might have to pay for in panama if immigration didn't want to let me through ($600 -yeah right).  Anyway, there were no issues with immigration, in fact after asking me how long I planned to stay and I said 2 weeks, they ended up giving me 90 days!!!

First impression of Panama upon arrival - hot & humid, Caribbean style music and people (even I feel pasty white despite having a tan from Peru), and the men all seem to have long nails (yuck)!
I decided to save the $25 cab ride to the hostel  and ventured for a local bus for $0.25 but along the way a persistent cab driver tried to convince me like 3 times to go with him, the 3rd time he even had 2 other backpackers with him going in the same direction but he wanted $12 from each of us, which is more than the $25 is was supposed to cost 1 person so I politely declined for the 3rd time and trudged the side of the highway to get to the bus stop. 
My feet were wet, dirty and I was hot and flustered but a nice old man helped me to get on the right bus.  The bus journey ended up taking 1hr 10m and it was dark by the time I got to the bus station (not at all where I was supposed to go).  Oh shit I thought, but I managed to get a cab for $2 to the hostel so all was well.
The hostel is ok, you can't swing a cat in the rooms, reminds me a bit of Rio, Brazil.  My dorm is right over the bar so very noisy and it was unbearably hot and sweaty overnight - welcome to Panama!!!

First real day in Panama City and I went in search of an ATM.  I can't map read for toffee so naturally I got lost in the dodgy side of avenida central.  The Panamanian men remind me of the Brazilian men - wolf whistlers and perverts so I kept my head down and ignored a fair few people along the way if you catch my drift.  There are no "almuerzo menu's" so I made a trip to the supermarket for some packet food (just keeping costs down and supposedly my weight - ha ha ha)!  In the afternoon, I walked the historic centre and the waterfront and popped into the small historic museum only to acquire a personal guide of my own who raced me around the churches and filled me in on all the history of Captain Morgan and the Spanish - bless him.  He really put his heart into telling me everything so I gave him a little tip when he'd finished.  You see, there ARE a few descent people left in this world!  Most of the Panamanians I've met so far are happy to help with directions, moody in shops and the taxi drivers are hit and miss.  A lot of people speak English so I really hope I don't lose all the Spanish I've learnt!  On the way to the panama canal, I had a really friendly, big, African cab driver who was telling me about the weather in panama.  They have 2 seasons - dry and rainy, the latter which I am in now except for that the rainy season is the hotter of the 2 seasons.  At present it is around 35 degrees and in the dry season it hots only around 28 degrees, so whilst it's their summer, it's actually colder!

Panama Canal:
Wow, what a feat of engineering!!!

Brief History: From 1819, Panama was part of the federation and country of Colombia but when Colombia rejected United States plans to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, the U.S. supported a revolution that led to the independence of Panama in 1903.  The new Panamanian government authorized French businessman Philippe Bunau-Varilla, to negotiate a treaty with the United States. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty allowed the U.S. to build the Panama Canal and provided for perpetual control of a zone five-miles wide on either side of the canal.  In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty which agreed to return 60% of the Canal Zone to Panama in 1979. The canal and remaining territory, known as the Canal Area, was returned to Panama at noon (local Panama time) on December 31, 1999.

Operation: The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. T he landmass is slightly above the mean sea level, which create the need to lift the vessel up to 26 meters above mean sea level.  As the vessel is lifted & after reaching the other end of the canal, it has to be dropped down to the mean sea level, to enable the ship continue its sea passage.  To facilitate the lifting & dropping of the vessel, Lock Gates are provided - 1. Miraflores lock gates, 2. Pedro Miguel lock gates, 3. Gatun lock gates.  It takes only 8 minutes to fill / empty the lock and then the locomotives, also known as "Mules" are very important for guiding the ships in & out of the lock gates - they are not responsible for the forward motion of the ships, which is provided by the ship's engines, they are just there to centralise the ships.

The Panama Canal is a 77 km (48 miles) long.  Annual traffic has gone from around 1,000 vessels in the early days to presently 14,000 vessels.  The size of the locks determine the maximum size of ships allowed passage and the weight of the ships determines the toll price. 

The most expensive regular toll for canal passage to date was charged on May 16, 2008 to the "Disney Magic", which paid US$331,200.  The least expensive toll was $0.36 to American adventurer Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928.  The average toll is around US $54,000.  The highest fee for priority passage charged through the "Transit Slot Auction System" was US $220,300, paid on August 24, 2006 by the Panamax tanker "Erikoussa", bypassing a 90-ship queue waiting for the end of maintenance works on the Gatun Locks thus avoiding a seven-day delay.  The normal fee would have been just US $13,430.

With everything seen in Panama city that I wanted to (and all in 1 day), it's off to the San Blas Islands for some Kuna culture and white sands, followed by Bocas del Toro for some diving - finally!
Oh, and I've managed to get my mobile phone fixed after 4 months of it being broken - thanks goodness as I would have had to have bought an alarm clock as I am now travelling alone and can't rely on others.  Just in the nick of time as tomorrow is a 5am start for me!  Aaargggghhhh!
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