Monday, February 14, 2011

Panama Canal & Portobelo

We hired a taxi driver/barber for a day of sightseeing from Panama. We had him for our ride to Panama Viejo ruins in the city and he seems to be an honest guy from San Pedro Sula Honduras. We negotiated $8/hr. But apparent he thought we are just going be around Panama City instead of all the way across to the other side of Panama to Portobelo on the Caribbean side even though I told him before that we wanted to visit Portobelo. It must be my poor Spanish. He also had us pay the gas, which we weren't expecting. He arrived at hotel 20 minutes late and in a beat up Landover with no ac, but it was ok since was careful with driving and good smooth ride, very important for my mom.

We set out for Panama Canal’s Miraflores gate on the Pacific side; it has very nice visitor center and display as well as view platforms. What can I say about the canal? It certainly a modern engineering wonder with genuine human toll. Also just think some of items in our house passed through these locks. We arrived shortly after the visitor center was open, but there were some tourists already. But just enough room to get good pictures (and still decent lighting). We watched few of the big ships (as well small ones) transit through the lock and on its way to Atlantic side. The rise and fall of water in the lock is all by gravity, no pumps! The cost of transit is very expensive, you can even swim across, but that will cost you as well.

As a kid I have seen the photos from my dad when he transited through the canal on the ship he was working on, so it was especially nice to see what my dad saw and experienced. After hand over of the canal to Panamanian government, the Canal Authority has planned for expansion for deepening and widening of the canal and as well additional lock to accommodate the modern mammoth ships. The expansion work is already underway. China is said to looking for an alternate transit beside Panama Canal, it will be interesting to see if it did go ahead with alternative project.

After the canal visit, I told the drive we want to goto Portobelo, but he insist we goto a nearby place called Gamboa. So I figure, it is on the way anyway, so why not. But he forgot to make a turn (I saw the sign, but didn’t tell him) and we ended near the toll road to Portobelo. He wanted to head back to Gamboa, but told him forget about Gamboa and just take us to Portobelo, that when all the misunderstanding came to ahead. He finally agreed and head for the toll road, but got on the wrong direction toward Panama City! There are no exits between where we got on and Panama City, so he made an illegal turn in tiny opening in the medium divider. I was ok with that. We pass through few toll booths and he wanted us to pay for the toll, which I was ok with it since the fast road save us time. Then as we approached a turn off for Portobelo, he pulled into a gas station and asked for money to pay for the gas, we all kind upset, since we didn’t expect it. He lost our confidence and appreciation as a result after that.

Anyway we arrived at Portobelo without further incidents. Portobelo was once a greatest Spanish port in Central America. It was destroyed by British admiral Edward Vernon in 1739. It was rebuilt in 1751, but never achieved its formal glory. Today it is a sleepy fishing village with ruins scattered around the town. It is a nice and quiet town to explorer for half a day. There was flooding in Panama back in December 2010, and part of town and part of the ruins were destroyed again. It also has couple beaches nearby as well as offshore island Isla Grande for more R&R, but to do all that one needs to stay here for couple nights. We skipped lunch and just walk around the town and ruins while dodging rain showers. We stopped by Lobster beach on the way back to Panama.

One way back our hotel, we hit major traffic jam again, Panama City traffic really sucked! The driver wanted to know if we still want transport with him to the airport on Wednesday, and I told him if we do, we will call him the night before. After the communication fiasco, we are reluctant go with him again.

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