Sunday, July 29, 2012

Visiting the Panama Canal from Panama City - 7-25-2012

Panama Canal 

Want to satisfy everyone at home who'll ask "did you visit the canal while in Panama?" Want to bask in the glory of human achievement? If so, then visit the Panama Canal. Two separate superpowers (19th century France and 20th century America), poured unfathomable amounts of money and lives into their effort to link Atlantic and Pacific. It is indeed one hell of an engineering feat, and getting out there and back from Panama City can be half the fun. The end of this article tells you how to get out there a couple different ways.

The nearest set of canal locks to Panama City are in nearby Miraflores, about 10 miles north of Panama City. First, I cabbed from my hostel to Albrook Bus Terminal for $6.00. All city bus routes in Panama City end at Albrook, and all buses leaving Panama City start there too. Traffic was awful; the 15 mile ride to Albrook took one hour. I did get to see a lot of Panama City, though. the cab driver dodged main thoroughfare traffic by ducking into working class neighborhoods hidden in hills. Back on the main road to Albrook, we passed ghettos and favelas, as well as American style strip malls anchored by recognizable chains like Office Depot.

Finally, we arrive at Albrook bus terminal. Albrook is a one-stop location from which passengers can grab buses leaving Panama City for other locales and grab buses that run routes through Panama City. Ticket windows line one side of the terminal from which customers can purchase tickets for intra-city trips. Buses that run routes within Panama City can be boarded by walking out to the main street. The new orange Metro Buses list their destinations on electronic signs on the bus' front. The diablo rojos, or red devil buses, usually have the neighborhood their route originates in painted on the front windshield. The red devils are heavily decorated (and heavily dilapidated) old US school buses pressed into service as public transportation. Most of these buses run incomprehensible routes through the city, but some run routes connecting Panama City to other places as well. A bus from Albrook to the locks at Miraflores costs $0.35 and takes about half an hour. You'll want to take the bus to Gamboa -- Miraflores is on the way. Pay upon disembarking from the bus.

Red devil drivers routinely pack their buses so heavily that people have to stand shoulder to shoulder in the aisle. My bus is no different. I ask the woman next to me if Miraflores is far and she gestures that it is. She also gestures to say she will let me know when we arrive. Sure enough, she touches my arm half an hour later and says "Aqui," as we pull up to a sign that says "Miraflores, home of the Panama Canal." I thank her and disembark. I cross the highway and follow the signs to the Visitor Center. It's about a 15 minute walk from the bus stop, partially uphill, that also passes a dammed river. Finally, I reach the Visitor Center. Prices for non-Panamanians are $8 for adults and $5 for students and retirees. It's three dollars cheaper if you want to skip the museum and theater and only see the observation decks. I came this far, so I pony up $8 and walk inside.

Container Ship at Panama Canal
Straight ahead is the lobby and past that, the first floor observation decks where throngs of people watch ships pass by. Just behind the observation decks is a small snack bar that sells hamburgers, hot dogs and similar fast food. The canal is busiest from 8AM until 11AM, and again from 3PM until 6PM. On the left side of the lobby are two theaters, but both were closed during my visit. There is an additional theater outside and to the right of the observation decks. This theater shows a 10 minute informational movie covering the history of the isthmus of Panama, the failed French efforts to build a canal, the American success, the handover of the canal from the United States to Panama, and the $5.5 billion expansion that is set to finish in 2014.

Panama Canal Museum, Miraflores, Panama
Back in the Visitor Center, you'll find the museum on the right side of the lobby. The museum has four floors; enter the first floor from the ground floor of the Visitor Center. The first floor covers the history of the Panama Canal's construction. It has videos, interactive displays, and several scale models of the dredging ships and locomotives used during construction. The second floor contains displays and videos about the relationship between the canal and the local environment, including life-sized displays of various butterflies and other indigenous animals. The third and fourth floors were closed during my visit.

The Visitor Center is also multistory. The second floor contains additional observation decks and administrative offices. The third floor contains Miraflores Restaurant and Bar. For $20, you are treated to a sumptuous Panamanian style buffet and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the canal. The fourth floor also held a restaurant, it was closed during my visit.

Your Author at the Panama Canal, Miraflores, Panama
Partway through my visit, I watched a few ships come in. Watching massive tankers and container ships navigate the locks and dwarf the crowd of spectators is indeed humbling. A loudspeaker announces the nature of each ship passing through and its length. Throngs of people crowd together to snap pictures of loved ones in front of each passing ship. I finally find someone to take a few pictures of me, too, but the ship has passed by then. It's OK. It's still a good picture.

The ride back to Albrook was uneventful, but steamy, loud and bumpy. Again, $0.35 and half an hour gets you from Miraflores to Albrook. Back at Albrook, I ask a few folks where I can find a bus home. I find the Panama Viejo diablo rojo bus and get on. This ride took nearly 90 minutes and cost $0.25. All diablo rojo bus rides within Panama City cost only $0.25. This ride took so long because I was riding at the start of rush hour. Off-peak, the ride should take about 60 minutes.

Getting here:
There are a few ways to get here via cab or bus. First, you can try to catch a cab here from Panama City. Some drivers will refuse depending on traffic into and out of Panama City. If you do this, don't pay more than $10 for each leg of your trip. I caught a cab to Albrook for $6.00 and then a diablo rojo bus to Miraflores for $0.35. Diablo rojo bus rides from Albrook will cost $0.35 for each ride. Finally, you can take a bus from Panama City for $0.25 to Albrook and then take a $0.35 diablo rojo bus ride to Miraflores. If you take a bus from Panama City to Albrook, I recommend the orange Metro Buses for their relative comfort and their air conditioning. Pick one up most easily along the Via Espana or the waterfront expressway that runs along the Cinta Costera between Panama Viejo and Cascao Viejo.

1 comment:

  1. Now one may take the Metro ( subway) -to Albrook Mall, and bus from there