Ever since I watched a documentary on the building of the Panama Canal, I have been fascinated by the country that is home to this amazing feat of engineering. In December last year we went to Costa Rica and Panama after I was in the US for a training course and finally got the opportunity to see the Canal first-hand.
We crossed the border into Panama from Costa Rica at the Sixaola (Costa Rica) crossing. After a wait of about two hours while our passports were checked (and whatever else goes on inside the immigration control area), we crossed this rickety bridge into the country.
Throughout Panama you can order delicious drinks from these mobile vendors. The sellers shave ice into a cup then top it with flavoured syrup and condensed milk. I am obsessed with condensed milk and have been known to eat it straight out of the tin, so imagine my joy munching on these things in the heat.
Bocas del Toro is on the Caribbean side of the country, only a few hours from the Costa Rican border. As soon as we got off the boat that took us to the islands, we were surrounded by touts trying to sell us their tours. Most of these tours cost around US$15, which is a bargain considering the tours are around half a day or so and take you to Dolphin Bay, snorkelling and then to Red Frog Beach. My boyfriend was lucky enough to snap this perfectly timed photo of two dolphins following in the wake of our boat.
Boquete is a quaint mountain town which is famous for beautiful hikes and coffee fincas (farms). It offered a cool relief from the heat that we’d experienced throughout our travels. This photo was taken from a bridge that we crossed on our way to soak in some of the undeveloped hot springs in the area.
Coffee is a major contributor to Panama’s economy and, while the country is not one of the top 5 world producers, it still does a roaring trade. In Boquete – as well as around the rest of the country – fincas are open to the public for tours. We spent a few hours finding out about the production process and tasting various varieties.
I always imagined Panama City to be a sprawling mass of skyscrapers and buildings, so when I got here I was surprised to find that it’s only about 20 kilometres from the Panama Canal in the west to Panama Viejo in the east.
The best way to get around Panama City is on the diablos rojos or “red devils” – and they certainly are an experience! Much like the Guatemalan chicken buses, these buses are decked out in flashing lights reminiscent of a disco and play loud music. For US25c a ride, they’re a total bargain, as well as entertaining.
The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel, and can only be believed by seeing with your own eyes. The 80-kilometre long lock-style canal allows ships to take a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The three locks work to elevate ships 26 metres above sea level to the level of Gatun Lake, then lower them back to sea level at the opposite end of the canal. Amazing.
The Miraflores Locks are the easiest to reach from Panama City and hence the busiest. It can be a struggle to get through the crowds to get close enough to the edge to see what’s going on down below. There’s a fantastic museum about the history of the Canal here, though, and descriptions of activity are provided over the loudspeaker in both English and Spanish.
The Gatun Locks are located on the Caribbean Sea side of the canal. To get here, we took the Panama Canal Train from Panama City to Colon, which runs along the side of the canal. The Gatun Locks are less-frequented than Miraflores, which means we got one-on-one attention from the manager on duty. We were also there when a record was set by a cruise ship, the Norwegian Star, for paying the highest toll ever. I can’t remember how much it was, but it was a lot!