Tourist Day

Trip Start Aug 17, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Panama  ,
Saturday, August 21, 2010

This morning started with breakfast, room service of course. I enjoyed fresh fruit and tea in front of my window overlooking the Pacific; not a bad way to start the day, wouldn't you say?

The next couple hours were spent trying to find something to do in this large and unfamiliar city. The Internet, as always, is helpful but hard to get a real sense of the place. I did learn that Panama City has a population of just over 800,000 (less than I thought), uses the US dollar as its official currency, and is the busiest commerce city in Latin America.

Technically, Panama City has three downtowns. The newest area is where all the huge skyscrapers are, and if it is possible, I think there are more than there are in Toronto. Development is booming, and condo highrises are going up all over the place. The second area is called Casco Viejo, and was the primary city sector in the late 1700's, built when the original city was burned down by a British pirate. Now, Casco Viejo has been beautifully restored and is not unlike Old San Juan on Puerto Rico, or Old Havana in Cuba. This original location, the first city even built on the Pacific Coast, is called Panama Viejo, and is currently an archeological site.

But more on those later. Today, we spent most of the afternoon visiting the Panama Canal's Miraflores Locks. You might recall there is an aerial shot of this lock in the previous entry.

We arrived around lunchtime to find the place largely deserted. They have a restaurant, so we enjoyed a rather nice buffet lunch while we waiting for 2:10 pm, the time when the first ship was scheduled to transit the Canal. Once started, the ships came through one right after the other, and in the 3 hours we watched them, 7 ships went by. Apparently, somewhere between 30-40 ships per day pass through the locks. The fee for a large freighter to transit the Panama Canal is somewhere around $400,000.

The first ship was an oil or gas ship of some sort. It would enter the upper chamber with the help of tugboats, and then 4 electric-powered locomotives would hook lines onto the ship's bow and stern, one for each corner. These little trains were made of solid steel, and by using tension on the lines, they kept the centered in the Canal. The ship did not appear to be under power at all during the transit of the lock.

Once into the first lock and secured, the water level would start to drain almost immediately. Rather then emptying entirely, the water flooded into the lower chamber through unseen hatches at the bottom, so that the two water levels would meet halfway. Once level, the lock gates would open and the locomotives would pull the ship through, into the next lock. The locomotives ran on train tracks with gearing between the tracks, similar to a roller coaster's upward climb. This is because the tracks slope very sharply downward towards the next lowest lock, and the trains need to be able to grab on to keep from rolling downhill too quickly with a ship in tow.

The gates would shut behind the ship, and the process would start again. In the meantime, the upper chamber would refill with water for the next ship.

There were two channels parallel to each other, and three locks in each channel. From what I understood, ships travel towards the Caribbean in the morning, and towards the Pacific in the evening. There are never ships going opposite directions in the Canal.

The next few ships were container carriers. Containers were stacked nearly 6-high from bow to stern. It was interesting to see the webwork of cabling between the columns of containers, and to marvel at how it all stayed together in heavy seas.

For the most part, the crews of the ships were sitting around on the decks watching the process. Many were down on the lower decks managing the cables attached to the locomotives, and some were up on the bridge, but none appeared to have to work too hard. In fact, I saw one crew member on the bridge deck taking a photo of us down at the centre. We would all wave and clap for them as the tower passed by the observation deck.

After another oil/gas ship, which shared its lock with one of the tugboats, we got to see a 902'-long car carrier begin to make the transit. As the commentator put it, "Whenever you see a ship that looks like a huge floating shoebox, that is a vehicle carrier." The longest ship the Canal can handle is 973', so this was one of the largest ships that ever goes through here. Unfortunately, the visitor centre closed before we could see it finish the trip.

We used our fancy new Panama cellphone to call the hotel to send a cab and headed back. Looking outside now, I think they may be lining things up for another fireworks show. This time, I think I'll go outside and join the party.
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