Pat and Dave’s Tremendous Tropical Trek – PART 3: Panama and Jamaica

In Part 2 of this blog series, I described our shore excursions in Cozumel, Mexico, Belize City, Belize, Roatan, Honduras, and Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. Now it’s on to Panama and Jamaica before returning to the USA.

Colón, Panama Wednesday, March 15, 2023)

The ship sailed from Costa Rica Tuesday evening and arrived at the at the docks in Colón at 9 AM Wednesday morning. Our shore excursion for the day took us on a 45 mile, one-hour bus trip to the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve.

Along the way, our tour guide told us that Colón is a poor city that rarely receives the promised government funding which instead goes mostly to Panama City, at the western end of the canal. As you can see on the map above, Gamboa is located roughly at the midpoint of the canal. As we neared the reserve, we passed by the prison where the infamous Manuel Noriega spent the final years of his life. The guide regaled us with her version of Noriega’s capture by the US military – while holed up in the Holy See’s embassy, US troops surrounded the building and played Van Halen music at ear-splitting volume for days until Noriega unsuccessfully tried to walk past them dressed as a woman. I suspect she may have embellished the facts a bit.

The Rainforest Reserve is associated with a rather fancy resort, where we stopped for a pre-tour rest break including a refreshing tropical punch drink.

View from Patio at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Then it was on to the aerial tram. While waiting to board, I was bitten twice on my hand by mosquitos. I quickly applied some repellant, but I wouldn’t have needed to. Interestingly, I never saw another mosquito before or after that on the entire trip through the tropics. That was surprising to a Minnesota native who sometimes gets multiple bites every minute in Grand Marais in the summertime.

The tram carried us up through second-growth rainforest to an observation tower high on a hill once known as “naked hill,” since it was clear-cut during the canal construction in the early 1900s, but it is now thriving with lush, green jungle plants due to rainfall in excess of 200 inches per year.

Rainforest View from Aerial Tram
View from Aerial Tram
View from Aerial Tram

Once we reached the top of the tramway, we took a short walk through the jungle to the observation tower. On the way up, we passed an old tank-like structure formerly used as a toilet for visitors. I learned that it was closed many years ago because people did not like the idea of sharing the toilet with native fauna such as boa constrictors. When we reached the top, the observation tower provided spectacular views of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal, including the eastern end of the so-called Culebra Cut through the continental divide.

View from Observation Tower
View of Chagres River and Lake Gatun from Observation Tower

After our return trip on the tram, we were treated to a tour of several exhibits at the Reserve displaying hummingbirds, butterflies, orchids, and sloths.

Orchids at the Rainforest Reserve
Butterfly Exhibit
Blondie the Sloth — she thinks she’s very special
The sloths at the reserve are all rescue animals

Then it was back to the ship, which dropped anchor at about 6 PM to join the queue for our transit through the Gatun Locks and into the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal (Thursday, March 16, 2023)

Here’s an expansion of my map showing our transit through the canal locks:

We had never heard the full story of the building of the canal before attending lectures on board the ship, and we found it absolutely fascinating. I’ll try to condense it down to a few sentences.

The initial work on the canal was begun by the French in 1881, buoyed by their success in digging the Suez Canal from 1859 to 1869. The French plan was to dig all the way down to sea level as they had done in Egypt. However, excavation was far more difficult due to the terrain and the raging torrent of the Chagres River during the 10-month long rainy season. Worst of all, the laborers were decimated by malaria, leading to eventual abandonment by the French in 1899. The US, which had previously built a railroad spanning the Isthmus, then negotiated a treaty with Colombia to build the canal. When the Colombian parliament rejected the treaty, Teddy Roosevelt engineered a revolution by local rebels, and the newly independent Panama then agreed to the treaty. Roosevelt later summed up his efforts by stating, “I took the Isthmus.”

The US effort began in 1904 with an enormous mosquito eradication program led by Dr. Walter Reed, since by then it was known that mosquitos are the vector for transmission of Malaria. The US design also abandoned the sea-level concept in favor of a more feasible plan: a huge inland lake, Lake Gatun, was created by damming the Chagres River, and locks were built at each end of the Isthmus to raise and lower ships between sea level and the lake level. In this way, the excavation through the continental divide, known as the Culebra Cut, was reduced by 85 feet of elevation, eliminating an enormous amount of effort. When the canal was finally completed in 1914, one man famously described the feat thusly: “We have married the seas by divorcing the mountains.” Even with this revised plan, the building of the canal is still heralded by many as the greatest engineering feat in history.

Subsequent work has included building of a second dam on the Chagres River in the 1930s, on the south side of Lake Gatun, to add reservoir capacity for canal operations, and the construction of additional locks as described below. The US agreed to return the canal to Panama in a treaty signed by Jimmy Carter in 1977, and Panama assumed complete control on December 31, 1999. Operation of the canal has subsequently been a great success for Panama.

We awoke early on Thursday morning as the ship was approaching the locks, excited to witness our passage into Lake Gatun. I went up to the main deck at about 6:30 to find a good spot for watching, but unfortunately the best spots were already occupied by a throng of earlier risers. I jockeyed around to various spots taking pictures left and right, but eventually decided to go back to our stateroom and observe from the balcony, where Pat had wisely decided to spend the morning. I’ll try to explain what we observed from our various positions during our transit of the locks.

As we neared the canal, a tender boat pulled alongside our ship and a canal pilot boarded the Viking Star. Somewhat later, a larger tender boat arrived and some sixteen or eighteen canal workers boarded the ship. I’m not sure what they all did, but some of them deployed ropes that were used to attach the ship to electric vehicles called “mules” which run along tracks on both sides of the channel. More about those later.

Approaching the Gatun Locks (to the right). The Aqua Clara Locks are on the left.
Entering the Gatun Locks
Looking back toward the Atlantic Bridge

We entered the Gatun locks at about 7 AM. The series of three Gatun Locks each raised the ship by 28 feet. As we passed through the locks southward from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Gatun, other ships were also traveling northward toward the Atlantic in a parallel channel. Passage through each lock required three steps: closing the gates behind the ship once it had entered the downstream chamber, opening valves that allow fresh water from the next chamber to flow in and equalize the depth in the two chambers, then opening the gates in front of the ship. This process required about thirty minutes, so that our passage through the three locks took an hour and a half.

These locks, built at the beginning of the 20th century, are only 110 ft wide. The Viking Star is 94 feet wide, relatively small for a ship passing through the canal these days. Even so, this leaves a gap of only 8 feet on either side of the ship if it is perfectly centered in the channel. Many larger ships have only a foot or two to spare. As the ship passed through the locks, the mule operators adjusted the cable tension at the front and back of the ship to ensure that it did not impact the canal walls during transit under its own power.

I was amazed to learn that each passage of a ship through the Gatun Locks results in a discharge of a stunning 26 million gallons of fresh water from Lake Gatun into the Atlantic Ocean. Then, when a ship passes through the Pacific locks, or returns through the Gatun locks to the Atlantic as the Viking Star did, another 26 million gallons of water flow out of the lake. 52 million gallons per ship every time! When I heard those numbers, I was initially consumed by guilt. My desire to see the amazing canal was contributing to the wasting of an incredible amount of potable water that is desperately needed in other parts of the world.

Of course, that initial thought doesn’t actually make any sense, since even if there were no canal, the vast majority of the 200 inches of annual rainfall would still flow out into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the raging Chagres River. All the dams and canal are doing is regulating the outflows in a manner that allows ships to pass through the Isthmus, while also generating power through hydroelectric plants at the dams. Once I realized that, I got back to the business of reveling in the brilliance of the world’s greatest engineering achievement. However, it is worth noting that climate change does in fact threaten the viability of the canal. Should the rainfall diminish significantly over time, canal operations may be limited by the water available in Gatun Lake.

Also of note is that a second set of locks was built in parallel with the original ones, the Aqua Clara Locks, completed in 2016. These locks are much wider and longer than the Gatun locks to accommodate modern vessels, and the operation of those locks is designed to recycle 60% of the fresh water, significantly reducing the potential future impact of climate change. We did not see the Aqua Clara locks in action. We also  did not see the locks at the Pacific end of the canal, but they are similar to the ones on the Atlantic end – the original locks completed in 1914 and newer, larger locks with the water recycling design completed in 2016.

At any rate, when we had passed through the third lock, the mule cables were disconnected and our ship sailed into Lake Gatun at about 8:30. Tender boats again came alongside the ship, this time to pick up the pilot and the other workers. The ship remained in the lake for some three hours. Off to the east, we could see some larger ships approaching the new Aqua Clara locks for their passage to the Atlantic. Around 11:30, our ship began to head back toward the Gatun locks, and I headed to the front of the ship to secure a good spot for a bird’s eye view of our return transit. Once again, tender boats delivered a pilot and other canal workers before we entered the northbound channel of the Gatun locks at 12:30. I watched from the front of the ship until we had passed through the first lock, then once again went back to our stateroom to join Pat on the balcony for the passage through the other two locks.

more After all that blathering, it’s time for some pictures, don’t you think?

The Gatun Dam to the east as we entered Lake Gatun
Biding time in Lake Gatun after our southward transit of the Gatun Locks
Approaching the Gatun Locks for our northbound passage back to the Atlantic
Attaching the mule cables and entering the first lock chamber as a southbound ship passes by
Approaching the closed gate in the first lock chamber
Lock gate opening
Tender Boat arriving to pick up the canal workers

At about 2:05 PM, we sailed out of the Gatun locks and under the impressive Atlantic Bridge into the waters off the Port of Colón, where the tender boats returned again to pick up the canal workers. Finally, at 2:45, we headed for Jamaica, still in awe of the amazing marvel we had witnessed.

Incidentally, we were told that the fee charged for our canal transit amounted to $150 dollars for each stateroom on the ship plus other fixed fees, amounting in total to approximately $140,000.

Montego Bay, Jamaica (Saturday, March 18, 2023)

Our ship docked in Montego Bay at about 8 AM on Saturday after sailing for 41 hours from Panama. A deejay with huge speakers was set up on shore to entertain us throughout the day with festive reggae and other upbeat music. Our tour for the day didn’t leave until 1:30 PM, so we had a lazy and relaxed morning and lunch on the ship before heading for the bus. The tour was also quite low-key as we travelled to a privately owned bird sanctuary where we were able to get up close and personal with swallowtail and mango hummingbirds in an open veranda beneath a thatched roof. We also strolled around the well-kept grounds admiring the lush vegetation, other bird species including finches and doves, and a small herd of ultra-cute goats.

The veranda at the bird sanctuary
View of Montego Bay from the veranda
Swallowtail hummingbird approaching Pat for a drink
The swallowtail enjoyed his or her drink …
… while I enjoyed mine — a world-famous Red Stripe Beer, brewed in Jamaica
The goats were kind of shy …
… until they got to eat as well
Foliage at the bird sanctuary

During the tour, we experienced the only rainfall of the entire trek. However, it very conveniently waited to rain until we were seated in the covered veranda, then stopped as we took our stroll, then began again as we rode the bus back to the ship. On the bus, our guide taught us a bit of Jamaican patois, the commonly spoken language on the island. The easiest words? “Ya mon!” Before we passed through the security check back at the port, the guide explained that the security person would board the bus and ask to see our shipboard passes. We were instructed to hold up the cards and exclaim: “Seetcha!” I presume that was derived from the English: “See it here!” The dozen or so guests performed this duty to perfection, and the smile on the face of the Jamaican woman lit up the entire bus.

After returning to the ship, we stood on our balcony and joined many of the other passengers in singing along and dancing to Bob Marley’s “One Love” and other favorites while the music blasted from shore. As the ship left the dock at about 5 PM, our Jamaican deejay enthusiastically thanked us for visiting, wished us peace and happiness, bid us farewell, and asked us to come back again soon. We sailed off toward the US in fine spirits, prompting some of us to emulate the well-known Jamaican hero and fastest man on earth.

Sailing away from Montego Bay
Channeling my inner Usain Bolt

Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Tuesday, March 21, 2023)

After two more days of sailing, the ship returned to the same dock we had departed from two weeks previously. I had hoped to see some other islands as we sailed back to the US, but once Jamaica faded from view, we were never close enough to the other islands to see anything but the vastness of the Caribbean Sea. Reflecting on the journey as we sailed, Pat and I both agreed that, while the Ocean Cruise was great, we enjoyed our River Cruise experiences more, primarily because we were always doing something interesting every day, with more frequent stops and easy access to the shore locations even when not on the Viking excursions. In fact, while the long days of cruising in between the six stops on the Ocean Cruise were very relaxing, they also grew a bit tiresome since neither of us was super excited about the multiple onboard activities available.

After our final breakfast on board, we disembarked from the ship, walked through a skybridge to the port terminal building where we found our luggage, and proceeded without incident through US customs. We boarded a Viking bus and were ferried back to the FLL airport in plenty of time to catch our return flight to MSP. While at the airport, we had one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten, a sloppy, half-cooked buffalo chicken pizza, and we knew that our fabulous vacation was over.

So, there you have it, readers. It was a fantastic trip, any way you want to evaluate it. Farewell for now … until we venture on another blog-worthy trip sometime in the future.

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