Sunday, July 10, 2011

Adventures in Panama

Okay, we've had the family blog for a couple of weeks now, but only Laura has been posting. I've never blogged before, but she has asked/insisted that I talk about Panama. It was our favourite stop on the cruise, so I'll try to do it justice.

Panama was the last port of call on our cruise (except for Ft. Laud of course). We were still kind of recovering from the previous day with all of the exciting activities in Costa Rica. We got into Puerto Colon pretty early and headed off the ship. (Everytime I got off the ship I felt like we were still on it. Or maybe I'm not crazy and the pier really was rocking back and forth.)

We quickly got onto a bus (and past several dozen taxi drivers, all of whom were more than glad to show us around) and headed off for the Panama Canal. We had a really funny tour guide named...actually I can't think of his name off hand. Laura can't either, but she thought that he sounded like one of the Marx brothers. On the way to the canal we passed some cool things (but apparently I didn't think that they were cool enough at the time to take pictures of them) including a McDonald's that actually makes deliveries and the second largest duty-free zone in the world (after Hong Kong).

We finally made it out to the canal. Canal locks is not a word that I ever learned in Spanish, but I'm pretty sure that's what Esclusas means. And Gatun is the name of a native Panamanian chief in the area.

Here it is in English for the benefit of all the non-Spanish speaking tourists (or those with a Spanish vocabulary that does not include shipping terms).

We climbed into this kind of observation tower right next to the locks, and as luck would have it a ship was just about to head through the locks.

The MSC Tamara was the ship that was making it's way through. It is, like many of the cargo ships, a Panamax. The name is pretty self-explanatory. It's the largest size ship that the canal can accommodate. The canal is 110 feet wide and a Panamax ship is 106 feet wide. That works out to about two feet of space on each side between the ship's hull and the side of the canal. From our point of view it looks like you couldn't get more than about three pieces of paper between them. It was a really tight fit. The other thing that is pretty cool about the locks is how much a ship has to pay to get through. It's based on the amount of cargo. This particular ship payed a whopping $340,000!

After leaving the canal we headed off to the jungle. There were a few interesting things to see along the way. The pic below is the original Panama canal, or as much of it as the French were able to complete. It's not quite as impressive as the American-built one we had just left, and apparently not as useful. The tour guide said no one uses it for anything.

All along the tour the bus driver had his eyes out for wildlife. I have no idea how he spotted this while driving along the edge of a jungle, but he found a super cool sloth. The green dot is from his laser pointer (to help the rest of us find him).

We were just about to the jungle at this point. But we had to pass through an old army base. These, as you can probably guess, were the barracks for the enlisted men. The officers had walls on their buildings.

The start of our jungle walk.

Lots of trees in the jungle.

I have to pat myself on the back for this one. We saw a monkey a little ways off the trail and I quickly snapped what was the coolest picture of the whole day. (I love black and white)

Our trek through the jungle lasted for close to an hour. Our guide was pretty knowledgeable. He had worked with the U.S. military when they still had a base in the area. He would camp out overnight in some kind of wilderness survival training. It's a pretty dangerous place to be. There are these trees called black palms that have spikes that are four inches long, plus bugs and scorpions and all sorts of other things that would make for an unpleasant, if not really dangerous, camping trip.

Once back into the safety of the bus we left for the last stop of the tour: The Fort of San Lorenzo. This really cool tree is near the front of it. The tree is so old and heavy that the branches just sort of lay on the ground.

This is the view from the fort. This is an inlet from the ocean.

The fort was actually built to guard against...I think it was pirates, at least I think that's what the guide said...that would attack from the jungle. So, all of the canons are facing that way.

Laura decided to check them out personally. Can't be too careful in case the pirates come back.

This is the main structure that is behind the outer wall and moat.

I just couldn't resist the chance to take another B&W shot.

Laura loves history!

At the end of the tour we were treated to a few snacks and/or drinks. Apparently the beer was a big hit among most of the other people on the tour. We stuck with the accelerated cheese chips.

I think that this was Laura's favourite pic. For all of you who served Spanish speaking missions, you know how much Latinos love their rice. This sign shows one of the side effects.

Panama really is an amazing country. It was such a contrast with Costa Rica. Both were beautiful, but Panama seems like the more developed of the two. It is definitely a place that we would love to visit again. And there is good reason to. The tour guide personally invited us back to celebrate the opening of the new (and much larger) canal in three years. Maybe we will take him up on that.

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