A Visit to Panama: The Canal Four Ways

Panamax Ship

 

The Path Between the Seas

I think that it was the Lonely Planet guidebook that suggested that before visiting Panama visitors should finish David McCullough’s exhaustive book on the building of the Panama Canal: The Path Between the Seas.  Great advice and well worth the effort!  I downloaded the audio version and finally finished listening to all 35 hours of it somewhere near the end of my six-day trip. I now understand the great importance of this wonder of the world and the cost associated with its building. I was lucky enough to view the canal from three perspectives, the train, a partial transit, and a jungle boat.

 

The Panama Canal Railway

My guide, Fabio and our driver Roberto of,  EcoCircuitos, the guide company that had organized my tour, dropped me off on my first full day in Panama. (more about that in a different post). The first “mass transit”  across the Panama isthmus  was the train.  Once-a-day this brightly colored commuter train leaves Panama City, traveling alongside the canal, as the sun rises on the Pacific, its destination, Colon, on the Caribbean.  Mostly commuters use this train and tourists head for the  restored antique passenger car or small observation car at the front. I traveled with a bunch of high school-aged students on a  field trip and a few independent tourists like myself.  Most tourists leaving the train travel elsewhere in the area, since the train does not return until evening. Options included the guided tours to ruins at Fort San Lorenzo or Portobelo. Some return to Panama by bus.

Early Morning Views of the Canal

 

Transiting the Canal by Tour Boat

Panama Canal Tour Boat
Panama Canal Tour Boat passing the Museum of Biodiversity

A number of companies in Panama City provide the opportunity for full or partial transit of the canal. The EcoCircuitos folks arranged for my half-day partial transit on Panama Marine Adventures  Pacific Queen. Roberto, dropped me off at the Flemenco Island dock for my five-hour trip on the canal and through two of the three sets of  canal locks (Miraflores and Pedro Miguel). The tour boat, filled with folks from around the world, transited alongside another filled tour boat and behind the Miltiades II, a bulk carrier ship. The commentary was in both English and Spanish.

Miltiades ll

The photo opportunities here were outstanding. Last year the Panamanians completed locks capable of handling larger neo-Panamax ships and we did see one of those transiting the nearby larger lock.

Most folks gather outside at the front, but the views from the back are also outstanding as you watch the massive metal gates of the locks open and close.

Lunch and breakfast provide breaks for the non-stop photography and there was even a local band entertaining us on the trip.

 

Jungle Boat Ride

The "Jungle Boat"
The “Jungle Boat”

Finally, there was the “jungle boat”.  To be honest when this showed up on my proposed itinerary, I scoffed.  This sounded so… touristy.  Unfortunately, my first choice, visiting the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute was filled (I needed to make reservations months in advance!), so I went with this…not wanting to completely miss a trip into the rainforest.  This was actually a combined hike (more in a future post) through Soberania National Park and a boat ride from the Gamboa Rainforest Resort on the Chagres River and onto the canal.  I really enjoyed this canal view.  We entered the canal north of Pedro Miguel Lock and in the small boat we were able to get quite close to the massive ships transiting the canal. A great photo-op.  Take a look!