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Panama - Chasing the Canal (Feb 19)

sunny 33 °C
View Panama Canal on Sue McNicholas's travel map.

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.
On board the Panama Canal Express. Eldon, nephew: Aidan, Sister: Jude, and me. Taken by sister, Yvonne.

On board the Panama Canal Express. Eldon, nephew: Aidan, Sister: Jude, and me. Taken by sister, Yvonne.

The poster in the train station.

The poster in the train station.

The Jungle speeds by us on the train.

The Jungle speeds by us on the train.


Yvonne and Eldon. We waited at the train station in Colon for Augusto to arrive by car.

Yvonne and Eldon. We waited at the train station in Colon for Augusto to arrive by car.

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.

The Gatun Locks in the town of Colon, Panama.

The Gatun Locks in the town of Colon, Panama.


Seoul Express entering Gatun Locks

Seoul Express entering Gatun Locks

The water level in the locks has risen up a level. Three of these rises will take the ship up 85', which is the level of the canal as it travels across the country.

The water level in the locks has risen up a level. Three of these rises will take the ship up 85', which is the level of the canal as it travels across the country.

The gates are open!

The gates are open!

Moving into the next set of locks.

Moving into the next set of locks.


This cargo ship is gigantic.

This cargo ship is gigantic.

We counted just over 1,000 containers on top of the deck. So that the Panamax is not top heavy, there are close to 4,000 containers below deck.

We counted just over 1,000 containers on top of the deck. So that the Panamax is not top heavy, there are close to 4,000 containers below deck.

And the end of the Panamax vessel.

And the end of the Panamax vessel.

through the locks

through the locks


That will be $400,000, thank you!

That will be $400,000, thank you!


The Panama Canal. Thousands of acres of land were flooded to allow the connection of the Gutan Locks (top left) and the Milaflores Locks(bottom right)

The Panama Canal. Thousands of acres of land were flooded to allow the connection of the Gutan Locks (top left) and the Milaflores Locks(bottom right)


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.
Portobello is now a fishing village. Here, three kids play in a boat carved out of one solid piece of wood.

Portobello is now a fishing village. Here, three kids play in a boat carved out of one solid piece of wood.


Portobello -The entrance to the fort

Portobello -The entrance to the fort


And the year that the third fort was built was 1758. Our wonderful guide, Augusto.

And the year that the third fort was built was 1758. Our wonderful guide, Augusto.


Jude at the former customs house in Portobello

Jude at the former customs house in Portobello


One of the lookouts of the fortress. Who first spotted the bloodthirsty Englishman, Captain Morgan?

One of the lookouts of the fortress. Who first spotted the bloodthirsty Englishman, Captain Morgan?


the Spanish cannons lined up in preparation for defense of their plundered gold and silver.

the Spanish cannons lined up in preparation for defense of their plundered gold and silver.


Acting like a tourist!

Acting like a tourist!

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.

soccer 1

soccer 1

Soccer 2

Soccer 2


Soccer 3

Soccer 3


Yvonne gives him a break, and retrieves his ball.

Yvonne gives him a break, and retrieves his ball.


Soccer 4

Soccer 4

Time for us to come out of the shade and take the plunge.

Time for us to come out of the shade and take the plunge.

Posted by Sue McNicholas 12:13 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Panama - Biking on the Causeway (Feb 20)

sunny 33 °C
View Panama Canal on Sue McNicholas's travel map.

Wednesday, February 20.

After a relaxing morning, all five of us set out on foot. We planned to do the two hour walk out to the causeway. The walk is long, but it is one way to get a feel for the place.

Along the way we came across a monument to the workers who died building the Panama Canal. This monument depicts a drag line which would have been used to dredge the canals as the locks were being built. Do you know that the deadly endemic diseases of yellow fever and malaria were obstacles that had already defeated French efforts to construct a Panama Canal in the 1880s. The effects of these diseases, which caused at least 20,000 to die, led the French to abandon their goal in 1889. For the later American effort, Dr. William Gorgas was appointed chief sanitary officer. President Roosevelt granted the funding, and Gorgas unleashed one of the most extensive sanitary campaigns in history. In the summer and fall of 1905, more than 4,000 people worked for Gorgas on his "mosquito brigades" in what would become a yearlong effort to prevent the insects from depositing their eggs. An army of fumigators visited every private home in Panama repeatedly, armed with cleaning agents, insecticide powder, and wire mesh for screen windows and doors. Teams sprayed drains and cesspools with oil and filled in pools of standing water.

The eradication of yellow fever and significant reduction in the number of malaria cases on the isthmus were two of the most revolutionary developments in the Canal Project. Without these enlightened efforts, the Canal Project could not have been completed in the nine short years that followed. With this dramatic decrease in fatalities due to disease, workers no longer deserted the project. This allowed for its timely completion. The removal of the threat of mosquito borne disease caused travel and tourism to the area to flourish, and with that, the economy.

A monument to the workers.

A monument to the workers.

Aidan, Jude and Eldon. Do they look good for another hour's walk?

Aidan, Jude and Eldon. Do they look good for another hour's walk?

We continued along, on occasion finding interesting houses and little shops. One little corner store had gin, which had eluded us at the supermarket a day earlier. It was priced so that it would drive you to drink: $5.00 for a litre. We found our little hotel with a view and stopped for a cold one. Thirty minutes of relaxing and eying the distance to the bicycle shop on the causeway, caused some flagging of determination. Three went ahead, while Eldon and I decided to walk the last one or two kilometres. Jude, Yvonne and Aidan rented two 'tandem bicycles' out there and rode back to meet us. We hopped on board and started peddling. It was quite enjoyable to race each other out to the islands linked by the causeway. There was a light breeze, and the tandem bicycles had a canopy, so the ride was delightful in spite of the temperature. Riding these bikes is heavy work, so we were very pleased to find an ice cream stand. We enjoyed another break, and then rode back slowly admiring the sailboats in the bay with a backdrop of the skyscrapers in the distance. On the other side of the causeway was the Panama Canal. We marvelled at the large cargo ships moving past the locks and out the mouth of the canal.

Jude and Aidan heading out to the islands.

Jude and Aidan heading out to the islands.


Me, Yvonne and Eldon.  Hey!  Who is not peddling?

Me, Yvonne and Eldon. Hey! Who is not peddling?


Sailboats by the causeway. Panama City centre in the background

Sailboats by the causeway. Panama City centre in the background

A good day's work done, we decided to head back to Ancon Hill. There was time when we arrived back to relax by the pool, and plan our next day's outing..... The visit to the Embera village, where this indigenous group of Indians lives in much the same way as they did at the time of Colombus' arrival here in 1502.

Posted by Sue McNicholas 12:50 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Panama - A Trip to the Embera Village (Feb 21)

sunny 36 °C
View Panama Canal on Sue McNicholas's travel map.

Thursday, February 21.

This morning we will be going to an Embera village. The Embera are a group of indigenous people who have lived in the area since long before the Spanish came to Panama. They maintain their identity, their language and have their own government, independent of that of Panama. We set out with our guide, Augusto, and drove north for about an hour and a half. We arrived at a large lake and were told that we would get to the village by canoe. Before we boarded the canoe, it was interesting to speak with some of the men who were dressed traditionally, and sporting intricate tattoos made by using 'jagua.' Jagua is a seed that produced a navy blue dye. Some had their entire bodies dyed, and others had intricate designs on their faces, chests and arms. Most of them spoke Spanish and Embera. These people live in small villages of 5 to 20 houses along the banks of the rivers throughout the Chagrass River watersheds in the Darien Province of Panama.
Talking to some of the local fellows

Talking to some of the local fellows


The dug out canoes, piraguas, are long and thin, with about a dozen short bench-seats. One man rides at the end, operating an engine, and another rides at the front using a pole used to help steering and to determine when the water is too shallow. We rode upstream for about 20 minutes, past 2 villages, and continued to a bank where we disembarked. Here Augusto went to visit some friends in this area, and we continued with a young man leading us through a winding path over streams, through dense bush and along the banks of a small river. We saw beautiful blue butterflies, and my nephew, Aidan, spotted dozens of tiny frogs, no bigger than a dime! After some time, we arrived at an impressive waterfalls with a clean, clear swimming hole below. As the temperature was in the mid 30s, there was no hesitation about stripping down to a swimsuit and going for a luxurious swim and an energetic shower in the rumbling waterfalls. We spent 30 or 40 minutes enjoying ourselves in the water before deciding to head back to the village. We retraced our steps until we reached the canoe, and then we went downstream to the Embera village.
Piragua (sounds Spanish to me)

Piragua (sounds Spanish to me)


Follow the dragonfly!

Follow the dragonfly!


Other small groups had preceded us.

Other small groups had preceded us.


Some people don't like tiny walkways!

Some people don't like tiny walkways!


A spry traveller hops across the the 'bridge.' .....Eldon hamming it up!

A spry traveller hops across the the 'bridge.' .....Eldon hamming it up!


Weaving through the dense bush.

Weaving through the dense bush.


Our guide, Pima.

Our guide, Pima.


Aidan found many tiny frogs, thankfully, not the poisonous type of frog!

Aidan found many tiny frogs, thankfully, not the poisonous type of frog!


Nearly there!

Nearly there!

And out of nowhere, the waterfalls on the Chagra River.

And out of nowhere, the waterfalls on the Chagra River.

A cool dip.  I enjoyed this swim - after all, the air temperature reached 36 degrees.

A cool dip. I enjoyed this swim - after all, the air temperature reached 36 degrees.


Standing under the falls!

Standing under the falls!

My two sisters were heading into the water, too.

My two sisters were heading into the water, too.


We all took the plunge-Yvonne, Susan and Jude.

We all took the plunge-Yvonne, Susan and Jude.


"Now, Aidan, I'm warning you - DON'T DIVE IN!" says Jude.     ...What would his cousin, Eliot, have done?

"Now, Aidan, I'm warning you - DON'T DIVE IN!" says Jude. ...What would his cousin, Eliot, have done?


As we approached the village, we saw a family in a canoe fishing. We paddled over to see if they were having success. There were several fish in a bucket in the boat, an then- there was one more on a line. Our guide bought fish... American dollars changed hands!

We came to the banks of the village, and were delighted to find that there were several women and many kids greeting us. Wreaths of hibiscus were placed on our heads; men were given leis and led to the main thatch roofed community hut. Here Augusto showed up with a cooler of cold beer and soft drinks. We took a seat in the community hut and some of the native men started playing instruments: bamboo flutes, drums and churuca ( a gourd with ridges cut in it - a stick pulled over it creates interesting sounds). The women did a traditional dance for us. Following that, several children took our hands and encouraged everyone to get up and join in the dancing. The atmosphere was very relaxed - there seemed to be no schedule - just enjoy yourselves, play with the kids and look at some of the handwork set on 20 tables (for the 20 families of the village.) We could smell wonderful aromas of fruit and of fish cooking. We were presented with Charcoal broiled fish and plantains, in a large leaf skewered with an hibiscus flower. We ate, wandered around, asked questions while practicing rusty Spanish, and just took in the sights. The traditional body painting was offered. Well, it all washes off later. I seized the chance to have a tattoo that would not be permanent. In the end, everyone had an arm or a chest done. I figured that the traditional painting on the cheeks would be fine too. I may have missed the salient fact that it takes about 15 days for the jagua ink to fade. (You'll see!)
We were greeted as we got out of the canoes.

We were greeted as we got out of the canoes.


Hide and Seek?

Hide and Seek?

playing shy?

playing shy?

.....may be.

.....may be.

Not so shy after all.

Not so shy after all.

An ice cold Balboa? said Augusto. Balboa is also the currency, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, and used less often than the 'buck.'

An ice cold Balboa? said Augusto. Balboa is also the currency, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, and used less often than the 'buck.'


Embera women and a traditional welcoming dance

Embera women and a traditional welcoming dance

A young Embera girl partakes in the welcoming dance.

A young Embera girl partakes in the welcoming dance.


There is no saying "No" to the communal dancing!

There is no saying "No" to the communal dancing!


.....so we all join in the dancing.

.....so we all join in the dancing.


Yvonne looks quite regal in her crown of hibiscus!

Yvonne looks quite regal in her crown of hibiscus!

Me and Jude eating fish and plantains in banana leaves.

Me and Jude eating fish and plantains in banana leaves.

Traditional (temporary) tattoos look good on the face.

Traditional (temporary) tattoos look good on the face.

Aidan goes for the chest tattoo.

Aidan goes for the chest tattoo.

Eldon has the traditional biceps tattoo.

Eldon has the traditional biceps tattoo.

His tattoo artist works carefully.

His tattoo artist works carefully.


We were brought to another large hut, where we were told the recent history of the Embera. Chagres national park was established in 1984 and includes this area where the Embera had lived hunting and growing in this area since before the time Columbus visited. About 15 years ago a law enacted that prevented hunting or growing within the area of the national park. At this time, tourism became a way for these people to exist continuing a somewhat traditional lifestyle. Fishing and gathering was supplemented with earnings from eco-tourism. Crafts such as carving, basket making and jewellery making provide income that pays for items such as the motors that power their piragues.
IMG_0304.jpg captian=The arduous process of obtaining plant dyed natural fibres used for some of the handicrafts are explained to us.Baskets are made of local canes wrapped with grasses, dyed with plant dyes.

Baskets are made of local canes wrapped with grasses, dyed with plant dyes.

We looked around the village, which consisted of many thatch roofed houses.

We looked around the village, which consisted of many thatch roofed houses.


Houses are built on posts set in the ground, and have thatched roof made from palm fronds. The joinery is with bejuco vines. There are no walls. Hanging from the supporting posts and beams are hammocks, baskets, pots, bows and arrows, mosquito nets.

Houses are built on posts set in the ground, and have thatched roof made from palm fronds. The joinery is with bejuco vines. There are no walls. Hanging from the supporting posts and beams are hammocks, baskets, pots, bows and arrows, mosquito nets.


The kitchen is on the raised floor in every house. These two kids are sitting by the cooking fire - hardwood logs where our fish was cooked directly in the embers. The smoke from the fire permeates the thatch and discourages mosquitoes.

The kitchen is on the raised floor in every house. These two kids are sitting by the cooking fire - hardwood logs where our fish was cooked directly in the embers. The smoke from the fire permeates the thatch and discourages mosquitoes.

The ladder to the house is a notched log. It is turned notch side down at night to prevent animals creeping up to the raised floor of the dwelling.

The ladder to the house is a notched log. It is turned notch side down at night to prevent animals creeping up to the raised floor of the dwelling.


We looked around the village at our leisure, then came back to the communal hut. The handicrafts on the 20 tables help to support the 20 families and we had a close look. There were the skillfully made straw and grass baskets, masks made in a similar way, and jewellery made from seeds and from coins that were beaten flat and then cut out and shaped. We admired these and spent a few dollars.
Earrings from local seeds and from coins, beaten and cut out.

Earrings from local seeds and from coins, beaten and cut out.


The time came to say our goodbyes. We wandered back down to the canoes, accompanied by some of the children. The water looked inviting and several children went for a dip while we stepped into our canoe.
Another beautiful child.

Another beautiful child.

We left this village as we found it: young girls walking on the banks of the water.

We left this village as we found it: young girls walking on the banks of the water.

Swimming and playing on the banks of the Chagres River.

Swimming and playing on the banks of the Chagres River.

large_90_847A27CE2219AC68173B0189C595036E.jpg

The canoe brought us downstream until we arrived back at our starting point. A wonderful experience behind us, we climbed back into our van and Augusto took the wheel for our 90 minute drive back home.
We climb out of the canoe, bringing great memories of the day.

We climb out of the canoe, bringing great memories of the day.


The canoe leaves us on the bank and heads back to the Embera village

The canoe leaves us on the bank and heads back to the Embera village

Posted by Sue McNicholas 19:16 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Panama - Our Last Day (Feb 22)

sunny 32 °C

Friday, February 22.

The last day in Panama is not one for a sleep in. I woke at 3:00 a.m. and figured that it was time to catch up on reading, packing and writing this blog! Finally, at 6:30 it was light and time to wake up the 'hill walkers'.

Eldon, Jude and I took the next hour for the great walk up the hill and the spectacular view. The day was sunny, already 28 degrees and the flag flew dependably north in a light breeze. We looked out again at the skyscrapers of Panama City, and to Casca Antigua, both to the east and at the Panama Canal, and its bridges and cargo yards and trains to the west. Finally, we walked back down the hill, being passed by more cyclists, training for some big event.

Jude and Eldon at the top of Ancon Hill.

Jude and Eldon at the top of Ancon Hill.

There was time for breakfast and a bit of relaxing as Eldon and I waited for our man to take us for a final tour of the ruins of the original Panama city and of the downtown district with the Trump Tower and other skyscrapers. He arrived and we bid our goodbyes. This had been a great family vacation. Jude, Aidan and Yvonne were going to enjoy one more day in Panama.

The Ruins of Panama Viejo are all that are left of the city that was founded in 1519 - the first European city on the Pacific Coast of both Americas. In 1671, twelve hundred men led by the English pirate Henry Morgan ransacked and subsequently destroyed the city.
There's not much left of the richest city of New Spain, founded in 1519.

There's not much left of the richest city of New Spain, founded in 1519.


The bell tower of the Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción at Panamá Viejo.  Not far away are skyscrapers of the modern city.

The bell tower of the Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción at Panamá Viejo. Not far away are skyscrapers of the modern city.


The view from the fourth floor of the belltower would have been a terrible sight in 1671. Pirate ships, headed by Captain Henry Morgan would have been seen bearing down on the city, flying their black flags.

The view from the fourth floor of the belltower would have been a terrible sight in 1671. Pirate ships, headed by Captain Henry Morgan would have been seen bearing down on the city, flying their black flags.

Tall buildings and construction cranes are seen throughout the modern Panama City.

Tall buildings and construction cranes are seen throughout the modern Panama City.


The Revolution Tower, designed by a Panamanian architect was built in 2009

The Revolution Tower, designed by a Panamanian architect was built in 2009


Even at 243 meters tall, the Revolution Tower has to compete with Panama's other skyscrapers.

Even at 243 meters tall, the Revolution Tower has to compete with Panama's other skyscrapers.

Well, our trip to Panama is over. It is a great place to visit - some think to retire to. If you are inspired by this blog to travel there, you need to have Augusto's phone number - He will make a good visit into a great one!

Travelling in comfort - Now this is a change I'd better not get used to!                 ....those funny little capsules in first class (thanks to points!

Travelling in comfort - Now this is a change I'd better not get used to! ....those funny little capsules in first class (thanks to points!


Who says there's something wrong with airline food?

Who says there's something wrong with airline food?


.........Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

.........Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Posted by Sue McNicholas 21:33 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

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