I had a lovely Sunday morning breakfast in Casca Viejo and then packed up, checked out of my hotel and waited for my ride back to Terminal 1 at the Tocumen International Airport where I was to meet the Nat Geo/Lindblad rep at 2:00 p.m. for our trip to port city of Colon and my eight day cruise through the Panama Canal and then up the Pacific coast to Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, my ride did not show up, but a couple staying in my hotel, who were also going on the cruise, offered me a ride with their driver who actually did show up. (Yay!)
Anyway, once at the airport, we wandered around looking for the Nat Geo/Lindblad sign. After about 10 minutes, the fellow showed up and escorted us to the bus where we learned that bus #1 had already left for Colon so we would have to wait for the others to show before we could leave. WTH? The first bus wasn’t supposed to leave until 3:00! In fact, the whole process was a bit of a cluster because it turned out that a large group of folks were waiting at Terminal 2. And that was all on Nat Geo/Lindblad because there had been no instructions regarding which terminal was the meeting point. (I simply guessed because when exited the arrival hall on Friday, I saw a person holding a Nat Geo/Lindblad sign.). So we ended up driving over to Terminal 2, picking up about 10 people and then heading back to Terminal 1 to pick up 2 more people. What a cluster!
By 3:20, we had everyone and started the trip to Colon. The trip was not particularly interesting, but the guide on our bus did provide us with a good running commentary about the history of Panama and the Panama Canal.
Anyway, we arrived in Colon around 4:40, got off the bus, had our luggage inspected and then … waited in a ridiculous line to board the ship. (And there were only 80 of us, but it took almost 45 minutes to get through the line. Not off to a good start at this point.
Once on board the ship, I got settled into my cabin, did the standard safety drill then went to the lecture room for some apps and drinks where we were briefed on a variety of on board procedures. Once that concluded, we were advised that the pilot boat had arrived to take us through the Gatan locks (part of the Panama Canal) so we rushed through dinner so that we could go outside to watch the passage through the three Gatan locks.
Now a little bit about the Panama Canal. The canal is a 50 mile waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and is the official dividing line between North and South America. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and eliminated the need for ships to go around the Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America.
Construction on the Panama Canal began in 1881, but ceased working on the project due high mortality rates among the workers and lack of investor confidence. The United States took over the project on May 4, 1904. Ten years later, the Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914. The U.S. continued to control the canal until 1977 when U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty to turn the canal operations over to Panama. After some years of operating the canal jointly, the Panamanian canal authority took over operations in 1999.
So as I mentioned, the first set of locks we would be travelling through was the Gatun Locks. There were three locks and it took approximately 10 minutes to travel through each lock before we entered Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal.
When we started through the first three locks, I think every passenger was at the front of the ship watching the marvel that is the locks. The whole engineering system was fascinating. As we moved into the first lock, our ship was attached to what looked like mini locomotive on either side of the shop. As the water filled the lock, the ship was raised up, the gates of the lock opened and the mini locomotives pulled us through the open gates. It was absolutely fascinating.
Now some additional factoids we learned about the Panama Canal: the lift is 87 feet from beginning to end; there are three sets of locks, the Gatun locks, the Miraflores locks and the Pedro Miguel locks; in total, ships pass through 6 locks; in present day dollars it would cost 12 billion dollars to construct the Panama Canal; it takes a total of 8-10 hours to traverse the locks moving non-stop; and you can only moved through the Panama Canal once a pilot boat hooks up to your ship and moves you to the canal entrance.
Now we were going to be stopping in Gatun Lake because we were going to explore one of the islands next day that was created as a result of the damming of the Chagris River (which resulted in Gatun Lake). We were given 3 options, and I selected the Rainforest Discovery Center, which meant we would be taking a Panga ride for 40 minutes, followed by 15 minute bus ride followed by a mile and a half hike in the rain forest. Looking forward to seeing what kind of wild life we will see.