19.02.2013 - 19.02.2013 33 °C
Tuesday, February 19.
Today we were off to an early start. At 6:40 Augusto brought us to the train station to board the Panama Canal Train, then he drove to the other end to meet us. We found seats, but then decided to ride in an open car. We sped along through the rain forest, with branches and leaves closed in around us. Some time later the rail line came to areas that had been flooded when the dams and locks were built 100 years ago. Cargo ships could be seen on the large man-made lakes: 35-40 pass through the canals every day. We drove through a bustling dredging town as we continued along from the Pacific side of Panama towards the Caribbean side. The Canal is big business that employs much of the country - 9,500 people. The train snakes along giving glimpses of the canal and of the roadway that chases the train all the way to Colon, where we arrived an hour later. Augusto soon arrived at the train station in Colon, and began our tour.
Our first stop was Gatun Locks. These are the locks at the Caribbean end of the canal, which fill with water to bring a large ship up from sea level to the canal level 85 feet higher. We watched a Panamax - a large cargo boat 110 feet wide, which carries 5,000 containers, as it entered the locks. The locks are 114 feet wide, so this is a precise operation. The Panamax was guided by small trams that ran on tracks on either side of the canal. Water entered the lock and the massive cargo ship began to rise. Once the level of water was the same as that in the next lock, the gates between the two locks opened and flattened themselves at the sides of the locks. The huge cargo ship moved slowly and quietly up through the canal and was on its way. The cost of this passage through the locks is $400,000 for the Panamax. Small pleasure boats are charged only about $1,000. This operation is a winner as far as the customers go - it is much cheaper and faster than travelling around the continent of South America. The Panama Canal operation employs 9,500 people from its operation in Panama City on the Pacific coast, along its length (dredging, maintenance, etc.) to its operation in Colon on the Caribbean coas, 82 kilometers awayt. We finished this visit and then drove to the site of the new canal - an expansion that is hoped to be open for the 100th anniversary of the canal, next year. It will accommodate even larger vessels.
This map shows the Caribbean Ocean at the top left corner, where Gutan Locks are found in Colon. Close by is the town of Portobello. Our route today took us there, from the bottom right corner: the Pacific Ocean, the Milaflores Locks and the city of Panama.
On to the town of Portobello. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, it was an important silver-exporting port in New Granada on the Spanish Main and one of the ports on the route of the Spanish treasure fleets. The Spanish built defensive fortifications and brought their plunder from Mexico, and the New World to this Pacific port, where it was drawn by horse and by manpower across the country and then on to Spain.
The privateer Captain Henry Morgan attacked the city in 1668. He led a fleet of privateers and 450 men against Portobelo, which, in spite of its good fortifications, he captured. His forces plundered it for 14 days, stripping nearly all its wealth while raping, torturing and killing the inhabitants.
The port was once again attacked in 1739, and captured by a British fleet of six ships. Two years later the Spanish recovered the Panamanian town and defeated the British Admiral Vernon who was sent packing back to England with a decimated fleet, having suffered more than 18,000 casualties. Despite the Portobelo campaign, British efforts to gain a foothold in the Spanish Main and disrupt the galleon trade were thereafter fruitless.
As well as being a fishing village, Portobello is the hub of trade in the Americas. Much of the cargo coming this way is off-loaded here and distributed to South and Central America. Other cargo is off-loaded and goes by rail across the country to the Caribbean side, where another cargo vessel bring it to the Eastern Seaboard and to Europe.
From Portobello, we stopped for lunch, then we went on to Langosta Playa (Lobster Beach). We had a "beach umbrella" made of palm leaves over a table, and a great view of beach soccer. While the older boys played, one determined little two year old pursued another soccer ball. He was just mesmerized by the soccer ball. When he managed to kick his ball out, one of the older boys usually booted it from their playing area back towards the bushes. Finally it went into the water, and Yvonne decided to retrieve it for him.
We enjoyed the activity, and then all decided to have a dip. The water was delightful. Gentle waves, warm and refreshing. Augusto just sat back in the shade and figured that we would leave when we got around to it. No pressure - just enjoy! After a long and very satisfying day, we finally headed for home - Augusto driving, and one or two of the passengers nodding off. Later, another relaxing evening with Chef Eldon, followed by a few drinks and a few rounds of cards.