Overland miles: 5293 Tacocount: 73 Days without sodas: 20
After our stint in the Panamanian jungle, we were definitely ready for a return to the city so jumped aboard an express bus heading to the capital. Bagging prime seats at the front of the top deck, we were rewarded with amazing views as we made our way into the city. We entered the metropolis over the Bridge of the Americas (which spans the entrance to the canal), brilliantly lit up against the unfolding night with the modern sky rises of the downtown area in the distance. We soon realised this was one Central American capital city that stood out from its crime-ridden, polluted and downright ugly neighbours. Panama City was worthy of more than just a cursory stay.
Unfortunately, our arrival coincided with a three day national holiday to mark the country’s independence (first from Spain, then Colombia), and pretty much all shops and restaurants were closed. At our hostel in Casco Viejo (Old Town), we met up with Tiffany, who we had been travelling with on and off with since Costa Rica, and spent our first evening catching up on our separate adventures over a box of Chile’s finest exported wine, Clos.
The next morning we set out to explore the picturesque yet still slightly ramshackle colonial neighbourhood, watching some rather tuneless marching bands parade through the streets in full uniform, sweating under the beating sun. This, we’ve realised, is how Central American nations choose to celebrate their independence. We’ve now seen near identical parades of school children beating out the rhythyms to the tunes of Enrique Iglesias in Guatemala and Nicaragua.
One attraction that wasn’t going to let the national holiday prevent it operating as normal was the Panama Canal. The following day Tiffany and we decided to indulge in some transport geekery and visit Miraflores locks, the last set of locks on the infamous canal before it reaches the Pacific Ocean.
On arrival, we were ushered towards a block of lifts to the fifth floor viewing platform, high above the canal. From here, we had prime views of the gates and watched three ships squeeze themselves through with only inches to spare. The ships have to be attached to special locomotives which run on tracks parallel to the canal and basically guide them through the channel and through each gate.
Loudspeaker announcements in Spanish and English helpfully fed us nuggets of information, including the fact that in the lock chamber the water level drops 30 metres in just a few minutes, before the gates open again allowing ships to pass through. Another #lockfact is that each gate operates with the power of 300 elephants, although how they measured that statistic we could only imagine. After 100 years of operation, the locks are finally being extended to cope with the increased number and size of ships, with wider lock gates due to be opened next year.
Watching ships turned out to be a strangely hypnotic sight and before we knew it, it was five o’clock and we were being ushered back to the ground floor by a security guard as the platform was closing. Our afternoon of geekery had come to an end, and it was time to return to city life, and time to start getting excited about our forthcoming boat journey, from Panama to Colombia…