Sunday, August 3

Panama City


Our first full day in Panama started with a mid-morning drive to the Miraflores Locks. Here two pairs of locks lift ships more than 56 feet from the Pacific Ocean to a small lake. This marks the start of an 80km journey across the Panama isthmus to the Caribbean. A four-storey visitor’s centre offers uninterrupted views of giant sea-going vessels passing through the locks. Almost 40 ships a day pass through these locks, more than 14,000 every year.


Watching these enormous ocean-going vessels pass metres away is breath-taking. We spent almost an hour watching a giant car-carrying ship vessel and equally spectacular container ship pass through the Miraflores Locks. Each ships barely fitted into the lock with less than 50cm clearance on each side, hence the term Panamax (Panama canal Maximum size) given to these ships. An increasing number of ships are built precisely to the Panamax limit, ensuring that the maximum amount of cargo can always be carried by a single vessel through the canal. However, the tight fit in each lock means that such ships are only allowed to transit during daylight hours.


An extensive museum inside explained everything in more detail, including a new $5.25billion expansion of the canal that started last year. Here we learnt that its takes little more than eight hours for a ship to transit the canal, saving an alternative 16-day voyage around Cape Horn. The average toll is around US$54,000, rising to US$300,000 or more for a guranteed priority booking.


Our tour guide then took us to up Cerro Ancon, a small hill overlooking the canal. The summit also offered a stunning view of Panama Bay and city’s rapidly changing skyline. After a brief stop for lunch the remainder of our day was spent touring Panama City. First, we drove along the Amador Causeway, a three kilometre breakwater protecting the canal entrance. Almost ten percent of the fill excavated from the canal was used to construct this roadway linking four small islands to the mainland.


We then toured the city’s Colonial district, a small cluttered district that once formed the heart of old Panama City. The entire city had once been surrounded by a broad, protective stone wall. Today only a small reminent remains. However the area's narrow French and Spanish inspired laneways are a joy to exlpore. The streetscape bore more than a passing resemblance to the French Quarters in New Orleans, while a poignant waterfront memorial commorates the 22,000 lives lost during failed French efforts to build the Panama Canal.


Our final stop for the day was Panama Viejo, the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. It was founded in 1519 by the conquistador Pedrarías Dávila and rapidly became the gateway for Spain’s conquest of Latin America. Today, nothing more than stone wall ruins remain. The entire city was burnt to the ground in 1671 during a fierce battle with the English pirate Henry Morgan.


One sight among the ruins captured my imagination - a simple old stone bridge crossing a narrow creek. This bridge was the start of a road that once took plundered Incan treasures from the Pacific coast, across Panama to the Caribbean, and on to Spain. Our guide explained that thousands of slaves had crossed this bridge each year carrying the treasure on their backs. Mules were never used because slaves were far cheaper to purchase and maintain. It's quite a constrast to the mightly ocean-going vessels that transit the same route today.


Click here to read about our own transit of the Panama isthmus.

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