Panama Canal Zone
After thoroughly enjoying our time in Bocas del Toro, it was time to head south to Panama City and prepare our truck for shipment to Cartagena (Colombia) aboard a giant container ship.
Geography buffs will know that it is impossible to drive the relatively tiny stretch of roadless wilderness between Panama and Colombia known as the Darien Gap. Instead you find a buddy with another overland vehicle and you share a cargo container, the same type that is used to ship millions of pairs of Nikes, iPhones, and plastic lawn flamingos across the oceans each day.
Our tundra/camper combo was a tight fit; we had about 3 inches of spare room on each side of the truck after loading. Definitely a case of measure twice (or thrice!) before plunking down money on your container rental. Once your precious truck is loaded and secured, the container is craned aboard a ship and it sails the short distance from Colon, Panama, to Cartagena, Colombia. And, given the fancy technological world that we live in, you can track your ship remotely as it steams across the Caribbean Sea.
But first we had to get to Panama City from Bocas, no small feat as it was over a killer string of mountains and the (one and only) highway had been blocked for a week due to a protest demonstration. (That’s a thing here. In Mexico we had to take a painful detour due to a strike that involved cutting down trees to literally block the highway.)
But clearly we’d done our worship dance just right and appeased the gods because the strike ended and we made it to Panama City in two days’ time, enjoying the best stretch of road we’d seen since the United States. The PanAmerican highway in Panama is GORGEOUS. Two lanes of smooth, gently undulating asphalt stretching for mile upon mile of countryside. Now, granted, we did travel for several hours on the wrong side of the highway due to road construction which was slightly terrifying because it was our first night driving experience AND we got a speeding ticket because oh my god there were so many cops but the point is that we made it in one piece and I could have kissed that beautiful road.
And then we crossed the Bridge of the Americas and settled into our hotel with the aforementioned bridge playing center stage from our window. The first morning we woke up to this:
Funny story about that cruise ship: this is the very beginning of the Panamal Canal on the Pacific side. From here ships navigate two sets of locks, through Lake Gatun, and then one last set of locks before reaching the Caribbean Sea. We saw this ship here at the beginning, later in Gatun, and then it popped up again three days later outside our apartment in Cartagena. Clearly it was stalking us.
It took us a solid week (more on this in a subsequent post) to get the truck shipped and us on a plane bound for Colombia. And when I say ‘we’ I mean Chris who did it all by himself, a monumental task, given his level of spanish proficiency and the staggering amount of bureaucracy required for an international shipment.
It was lovely, mostly because we saw these Titi monkeys (also called the Geofferoy’s Tamarin, the Panamanian monkey, or the rufous-naped Tamarin). However you choose to refer to them, they were the cutest monkeys we’ve seen to date. These guys had been fed by unscrupulous boaters and came right down to explore the boat.
Sorry monkey, you’re a cutie patootie (as Emma says) but no goodies for you.
Actually, I’m not sure if cute is the right word. That two-tone mohawk makes for one bad-ass old man monkey. Give him an earring and he’d fit right into Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. I’m digging it.
Right up until you realize that those two floating bumps in the middle of the lake is a giant croc. And suddenly swimming doesn’t sound nearly so appealing.
It’s easy to forget that you’re in a busy shipping chanel as the twisty backwaters and coves keep the main thoroughfare hidden from view. And then, between the islands, a massive cargo ship glides by and suddenly you are reminded why this waterway exists in the first place. It’s slightly disconcerting, honestly.
Here is your interesting fact of the day: the Panamanian authorities that control the canal are fiercely protective of the dense jungle that surrounds the waterway on both sides. The forest acts as a sponge, absorbing the heavy tropical rainfall and gradually releasing the water into the lake over a period of several months. Each ship that passes through the locks uses an estimate 52 million gallons of fresh water. In order to get through the dry season, engineers need that jungle to slowly (and continuously) keep adding water into Lake Gatun. If they allowed development (and deforestation), there would be no sponge action as impervious surfaces such as roads and buildings simply channel the water quickly into drains and storm water sewers. Thus, the shoreline of the canal is a startling hotspot of biodiversity in what is unquestionably a very industrial area.
And then, suddenly, the tour dumps you back into the main channel and you are face-to-face with some of the largest ships on the planet. They are enormously imposing and makes your boat feel like a tiny piece of plankton aside a majestic blue whale. I’m typically not one to wax poetic about either roads or ships but this post is clearly an ode to human-made feats of engineering. This would be a good time to recommend reading The Path Between The Seas by David McCullough about the creation of the canal. It’s a hefty volume, however, so give yourself a good head start on reading before you arrive.
Last year Panamanian authorities completed additional locks next to the first that are bigger, deeper, and wider than the original versions. And the boats are now super-sized: this is a panamex vessel, built specifically to fit the new locks.
According to our guide, this Holland America vessel is only the second cruise ship to have gone through the new Miraflores super locks. It looked like quite a festive occasion for passengers: they had a band playing and a guide giving history lessons over the loudspeakers. Several smaller boats were packed full of cruisers taking similar outings amongst the islands. It was like a mother hen and her brood of baby chicks being ushered down the road.
While we were busy ogling big ships, the kids decided they’d had enough touring. Crocs and monkeys are more their jam. Despite the sleepy kiddos, I highly recommend the tour for both adults and children; it was terrific (more info at the bottom of the post).
This girl loves her Mimi. In writing this post (several weeks later), it’s making me miss having Chris’ parents with us. This trip has been a fantastic time for our family of four but it’s been isolating beyond that. Nothing fills that social void like beloved family and old friends.
Chris was able to join us for a day of exploring the locks. We took an Uber to the Mira Flores locks and enjoyed poking around the museum and watching a ship make it’s way out to Lake Gatun. My only observation is that you cannot see the new super locks from this location; my understanding that the Gatun locks near Colon do have viewing platforms for the larger locks. If you have the time, it might be worth a jaunt north to see the super tankers move through. Call or check a schedule first though, as not many ships go through each day during daylight hours.
Recommendations – Panama City
Country Inn & Suites By Carlson, Panama Canal, Panama
This hotel was recommended to us by another Overlander and it served us well. It’s big and busy (with a giant conference center) but also has a guarded parking lot that was the perfect place for us to prep the truck for shipping to Colombia. Additionally, it’s a bit removed from the mayhem that is the traffic situation in Panama City (seriously: it’s insane) and is relatively close to the police inspection building (that must be done prior to shipping). The buffet breakfast was terrific, it had a business center (for making copies of port documents), and the wifi was…ok. But it had a pool and a great view of the ships entering the canal under the Bridge of the Americas. website. The only downside: there aren’t any nearby restaurants save for the expensive and lousy TGIFridays. Uber will be your friend here as you’ll want to go out for gastronomic adventures.
American Trade Hotel, Casco Viejo, Panama City
We didn’t stay here but my in-laws did and had lots of nice things to say about it. Their room was gorgeously decorated and looked right onto the central square. There were many beautiful colonial buildings and excellent restaurants within walking distances. We wanted to stay in Casco Viejo but couldn’t find a hotel that had secure parking for our camper. And I’ll be honest: I’m actually glad we didn’t stay in the old city as it would have been an absolute nightmare driving down there: tiny streets, tons of traffic, and no safe parking. Also, while the area around the hotel was nice, neighborhoods immediately adjacent were super sketchy. Chris’ Uber drive took a wrong turn and they both thought they were going to get mugged. Plain and simple, it’s a great place to stay if you don’t have a vehicle.
Panama City does have Uber but one the whole we had some exceptionally bizarre experiences with several drivers, namely they refused to follow the directions on their GPS, they were constantly getting lost, and it would often take 30-45 minutes for them to arrive after being called. Also, expect that they won’t have seatbelts in the back seat. We used a few taxis, always negotiating the price before we got in. In general, Uber was cheaper than taxis but we couldn’t get Ubers in some areas. It was a weird experience and we’re still scratching our heads. Unfortunately, Panama City traffic is INSANELY BAD. A ride that should have been 15 minutes often stretched to 45 minutes or longer. Expect everything to take twice as long, especially if you’re headed across town (or to the airport).
Panama River Boat Tour – Ancon Expeditions
My in-laws treated us to this canal cruise and it was BY FAR my favorite activity in Panama City. Ancon picked us up from the hotel and we drove an hour to Gamboa where we set off onto Lake Gatun with both a guide and pilot in a private boat. When the dam was installed it flooded the valley and turned the hills into biologically-rich islands. Cruising amongst them is fascinating. We saw birds, sloths, monkeys (3 types), crocs, and a variety of other species. Lunch was included. Seeing the monstrously huge ships passing in the canal was also a highlight. website.
A note about the locks: See if there is a posted schedule of ships going through the lock before you arrive. Generally early morning or late afternoon is best. We arrived around 11am – just as the last ship was exiting the lock. The next wasn’t expected until 3pm and we weren’t willing to wait around. They have a very nice museum and short movie (in english) but the highlight is really watching the ship-moving process. website. Also, as noted above, you can’t see the super lock (which is hidden) from the visitor’s center. We were told that the new locks are visible from the Gatun Lock visitor’s center so it might be worth the journey across the isthmus to view that feature.