Saturday, March 24, 2012

From The Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean Beach

Friday, March 23, 2012:

The first activity this morning was visiting an indigenous village along a river that flows into the Lake supplying water to the Panama Canal Locks.  We had a 15 minute boat ride before arriving at a village along the riverbank.  The homes were built on stilts and had thatched roofs.  The residents greeted us by playing their drums.  We had been warned that their clothing were not western wear. They were definitely dressed as you would imagine indigenous peoples would be dressed. Thankfully the women’s chests were covered with pieces of bead work. Also they paint themselves with a black dye/paint made from plants – we could have gotten tattoos that would last 10-14 days!! We passed!
The thing about this group of people is that in 1958 this village was begun for the sole purpose of training US Military to survive in the jungle. Later NASA individuals were included in the training courses.  Jungle survival is an important part of training. The original indigenous man who began working for the US government passed away this past year at the age of 97.  He taught thousands of our military men how to survive for days in the jungle (if their plane was shot down or if NASA returned to earth in the wrong location) - how to collect drinkable water, what plants to eat, what roots to dig and eat, etc. This village even if it is now located in a National Park has continued in his honor, and several tours now include a visit here. They sell crafts made by the indigenous families to help support the village. They told us about their life and their crafts. The little kids were so cute (those too young for school) – see photos – as we were leaving one little guy grabbed my hand and didn’t want to let go.  I finally coaxed him (without speaking his language) to return to his little friends. When they are school age they go by boat on the 15 minute ride and then by bus to school. We were glad to know they sent their kids to school.  I think they learn Spanish at that point, as they have their own language, and some of the adults did not seem to understand Spanish. They live a very simple life. It was an interesting morning.  
Embera Indian Villagers Welcoming us to their Village - Katuma

Welcoming with Native Instruments
Village Houses - Exterior

Village House - Interior

Men's Native Attire
Woman's Attire with Paint

Mother with Child

Cal with Village Chief and his Wife

We arrived at the Royalton Resort on the Pacific coast by 1:30. LOVELY resort!  We are in a full apartment – maybe timeshare unit. After lunch we sat around a table in the pool drinking margaritas in the shade of the thatched hut!! This is an all inclusive hotel situation! By 4:00 when the sun was not so bright Cal & I began walking the beach.  I found a few shells here whereas in Costa Rica I found NO shells.
Royalton Resort on the Pacific Ocean

What we do every day in Iowa!!!

This resort is on the Pacific coastline southwest of Panama City and you would think we would see the evening sunset. WRONG! We will see the sunrise over the water of the Pacific. It just doesn’t seem right!  We have set the alarm for early in the morning so we can hopefully see the sunrise.  Tomorrow we are going to a village where they make special fabric crafts.   
We cannot believe our time in Central America is coming to an end.  We are going to enjoy the resort before returning to Panama City for one night before flying home. 
Saturday, March 24, 2012:
We were indeed awake at 5:45 for a walk on the beach to watch the morning sun arise.  I wouldn’t want to do that every morning but today was fine.

Sunrise over the Pacific Ocean
After breakfast we drove to the town of El Valle – it is a town situated in an immense dormant volcano.  It is not an ordinary town – it is a place with lots of summer/vacation homes as well as permanent homes of the wealthy.  We also went to their artisan market for those who wanted to shop. 

Flowers at the Market
Vegetables at the Market
Textiles at the Market

Two Young Shoppers
The afternoon was spent here at the Resort – a nap and in the pool. Actually it was cooler today as the sky was cloudy.     
Not much has happened today and we decided to post this blog before we go to dinner tonight.   

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Riding Through The Panama Canal - Partial Passage

This Caravan Tours of Panama is a total immersion of the Canal.  We have viewed two locks, one set on the Pacific side of Panama and the other on the Caribbean side, last night we viewed a Nova film on the history/building, and now today we were on a tourist boat going through the locks.  What an interesting day!  We boarded a tourist boat with other tourist this morning outside of Panama City.  Six hours later we had gone through the Miraflores Locks, Pedro Miguel Locks, and passed through the Culebra Cut.  We have not just ‘seen’ the Canal, but we have ‘felt’ the Canal.  
Another aspect that we did not realize – the country of Panama is an isthmus going east and west (we naturally think it goes north and south)  – due to its location, the sun actually comes up over the Pacific Ocean at Panama City and points along the Pacific coast – it is unreal, but true.     
Pictures will hopefully show you some of our experience. 
Approaching the Locks

Entering the Lock (Notice the water level)

Lock Gates Closing (Notice the Double Gates for Safety)

Water Level Rising

Leaving the Lock
The Culebra Cut

Container Ships moving through the Canal

Leaving Our Ship

Vacuum Dredge
Bucket Dredge
Dredge Connected to Drainage Pipes

Tomorrow we are heading to Resort on the Pacific beach.  Before we know it will be flying home to Iowa.   

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gatun Locks and Gatun Lake

We drove to the city of Colon on the Caribbean coast first thing this morning.  We visited the Gatun locks near Colon, and saw where they are putting in the new set of locks that they hope to have finished by 2014 – 100 years after the original opening. 

Gatun is a system of three locks.  Again it was interesting to watch the big Panamax’ed vessels – vessels that are so big there is only 2 ft of space on each side of the lock channel. The width of the canal limits the size of ships to less than 110 ft across, Panamax.  We actually witnessed more activity today than yesterday, and tomorrow we sail through the lock system. 

Gatun Locks - Caribbean entrance (Mules guiding the Ship)

Cal with a Mule - Electronic Engines that Guide, "Not Pull", the Ships Through The Canal
Gates Closing Behind a Ship

Ships Going Opposite Directions Through The Locks

Gates Opening For the Ship to Move Forward into the next Lock
Ship Moving Forward

Rachel and The Ship
This afternoon we took a boat trip on the Gatun Lake in the Panama rainforest area, looking for wildlife.  We saw the white faced monkey up close and personal.  The captain of our small boats feed the monkeys (7 or 8) grapes, so that they were actually jumping onto our boats. As we approached the captain would whistle for them and sure enough they were coming for food. Really it is awful to feed wild game like this, but we did see them close.      

White-faced Monkey

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Panama City and The Miraflores Locks

This morning we drove to the ruins of Panama Viejo (Old Panama).  This city was founded by the Spanish in 1519.  It was a gateway to gold in the Inca Empire.  Some of the stones from this first city were used for the second city - Casco Viejo.  In Casco Viejo we visited the San Jose Church and saw the famous Gold Altar, saved from the famous pirate Henry Morgan.  A priest covered the altar with mud and painted it black so when the Pirate arrived and saw it, he did not realize it was covered with gold.
Bell Tower Ruins of the Old Church in Old Panama

More Ruins in Old Panama

San Jose Church in Casco Viejo, Panama City

Famous Gold Alter in San Jose Church

We learned about the early years of Panama, the exploration, and beginning of the building of the Canal by the French.  It was interesting to see the French influence in the building in Casco Viejo.  It looks so much like New Orleans, accept that at this point it is in poor condition.  However Panama is committed to restoring this area of the city and they have started – construction is everywhere. 

French Influenced Architecture

By lunch we drove through downtown Panama to the Panama Canal Visitors Center at Miraflores Locks, where Caravan had reserved a 3rd floor room with a balcony from where we could observe the Canal and eat our lunch. It was wonderful, to watch ships go through the locks.  We saw three car transport ships, one tanker and a grain transport so through the locks.  Ships are simply lined up, waiting to go through the canal.  As we few into Panama City, we could see the ships simply waiting.  It cost $200,000 dollars for one of those car transports to go through the Canal.  It is not cheap to use the Canal, but it saves time, salaries and fuel instead of going around the tip of South America.  Many of the container ships come to the docks on either coast, unload the containers onto railway cars that take them across the isthmus to the other Ocean, where they are reloaded onto other ships.  Car transport ships are totally closed on the front and sides so the salt water does not reach vehicles. 

Things did not go well for the French in 1882 – they lost lots of lives due to disease and accidents.  In 1907 the US began on the project.  A lock and lake system had to be part of this canal as there is a significant different tidal movement in the two oceans.  The tidal difference in the Caribbean is 2 to 3 ft, whereas on the Pacific side it is 12-18 ft. The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15, 1914.

It was an interesting day.  Tomorrow we leave Panama City and are driving to the Caribbean port city of Colon.            

Monday, March 19, 2012

San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City, Panama

Sunday morning we said goodbye to the beautiful Pacific Ocean and the luxury JW Marriott Resort.  It was a long drive back to San Jose, but we took time for a boat cruise on a river known for its crocodiles – big ones!  However our boat captain was slightly crazy!  His legs were NO more than 8 inches from the mouth of several crocs when he was feeding them chicken meat.  It was so dangerous that I could not watch the whole time.  He had to coax the croc to snap for the chicken, but the croc could have snapped his ankle just as easy – dragging him under the water – they drown their prey.  The caption on his T-shirt said, “Send more Tourist! – the last one tasted great!” 

Crocodile along the River

Feeding a Crocodile
Feeding a Crocodile

Sunday evening we had a dress up farewell dinner in a restaurant at the top of the downtown Holiday Inn, after which we took a group photo. We began saying good-bye as some of those on early flights had to leave the hotel by 4:00am.  Our group was so friendly, congenial, prompt, and considerate – we commented several times how it was amazing that a group of 40+ people could get along so well and no one was late.    

We left the hotel at 7:30 this morning and had an uneventful flight (what we wanted) to Panama City. Caravan Tour personnel were there to meet us and sent us on a shuttle to the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Panama City.

Sky Line of Panama City
I really have not said much about Caravan Tours.  This is actually the first Tour Company we have used so we cannot compare them to others.  The travel agent in Iowa City who Iowa MOST uses to book plane tickets recommended Caravan to us.  From our experience in Costa Rica they have been wonderful – taking care of every detail. The Costa Rica Tour explored lots of wildlife, and the rainforests.  We did not feel like we were being caught in tourist traps, and yet if we wanted gifts, there was availability.  Our Tour Director Elston, a Naturalist by training, was helpful, good looking, smart and knowledgeable - we wonder how anyone can be as good as him.

As of tonight we have now began our Panama Tour with dinner and then orientation at 8:00.  This tour will be different from Costa Rica as it will be based primarily around the Panama Canal.  When we met our Panama Tour Director we realized Elston had major competition - a cute Panama Tour Director!! Tonight at the Orientation we met our new tour-mates. We will be learning a whole new set of names and personalities.               

Tomorrow morning we will be on the bus by 9:00.