I left Havana with relative ease this morning. Cuba is an interesting and amazing country. It can be hard work, but is often worth the rewards. I was asked on the plane about the currency of Panama by some Uruguayan’s. It technically is the Panamanian Balboa, however 1 Balboa is equal to $1 USD. So US dollars are used interchangeably here and you have to be careful with your coins as a quarter Balboa is the same size coin as a quarter US coin. Only problem is changing a Balboa outside of Panama is almost impossible!
Arriving into Panama and finding my guide Oscar was also relatively easy. I had booked a private day tour but two young girls from the states wanted to do the tour also and thus it saved me $50.
Oscar told us all sorts of stuff about the canal and how it is written into Panamanian consitution that the Panamanian government can not interfere with the running of the canal. For all intents and purposes its almost its only country run by the Panama Canal Authority. It used to be USA owned and run until the year 2000 when it was handed over to the locals. They have just finished a much bigger canal parallel to it for the bigger ships. I asked how this would affect plans by Nicaragua to build a canal and the response was they are crazy, who would invest in that, Panama could just decrease its fees and the new canal would go broke.
We drove out on the Amador causeway for views of the city clouded in mist. It had apparently rained last night the first for a long long time. The marina had a lot of very expensive yachts!
After the causeway we visited the old city of Panama, that is undergoing rejuvenation everywhere and is starting to look quite beautiful. It apparently used to be quite run down and dangerous and now money is dictating restaurants and hotels. The churches are also benefitting with renovations galore. Its chalk and cheese compared to the high rises of the new Panama City.
Oscar had been keeping us busy all day because the Panama canal works on a schedule, whereby in the morning ships enter the canals on both sides of the country and during the middle of the day they pass each other on the lake that forms the middle of the canal before leaving later in the day. The lake itself was also manmade and there are a few smaller lakes between the locks of the canal.
We arrived at the lock with not a ship in sight, but the enthusiastic Oscar drove down the road to Miraflores lake that sits after the Miraflores lock and there was a grey military ship coming. So we drove back to the Miraflores Lock visitor centre and museum. Basically every single tourist in Panama were at the museum to see these huge ships pass through the locks.
It takes about 12 minutes for the lock water level to lower down to the next level. All up the ships are lowered or raised 3 time in 3 locks. The Miraflores locks lowers or raise the ship 16.5m which doesn’t sound like much but looks much more impressive in real life. The total height change from sea level to the Gatun Lake in the middle is 26m. Oscar also explained that every time the locks are use water is released from the lake into the ocean. They had been going through an El Nino event and suffering a drought, which means the operation of the canal was at risk. The new canal recycles the water so it future proofs the canal, which provides most of the income of the Panama government.
Even though there are two lanes, ships only come or go at the same time. Its an engineers sad dream to see this marvel in operation but it was well worth the slight detour to see this today. I’ll attach a few more photos at the end just because it was an amazing thing to see.