Locks, but No Hats

Panama City is one of our primary connection points whenever we fly to or from Ecuador, but we had never actually spent any time there. This time, we built in a stopover for a few days. Our main reason is the subject of our next post, but almost as important was a chance to see more than just the airport.

Before we go any further, let me just get this off my chest. The famous Panama Hats do not actually come from Panama. They are made in Ecuador in the region around Cuenca where we live. During the building of the canal, many people wore these hats to keep the fierce sun at bay, and the Americans who didn’t know any better erroneously called them Panama Hats. Whew! I feel better now.

001 Panama Hat

Hecho en Ecuador, baby!

Okay…Panama City! Stephanie (being Stephanie) managed to get us a hotel (on points) right on the Panama Canal with a view of the Miraflores locks and the ships that pass through them. It’s surprisingly fun to just watch the freighters and tankers sail by.

On our first day, all we did was take the hotel’s shuttle to a local mall, and walk back 90 minutes to the hotel in order to see the lay of the land and find a grocery store.

On our second day, we were all set to check out the visitor’s center at the locks. We got there at 10:30 to find that the last ship of the morning was almost all the way through, and that the next one wouldn’t be there for hours. We contented ourselves with checking out the complex where our hotel was. It turns out the hotel was built on the former military base from when the U.S. controlled the canal.

After that, relaxing at the pool, baby!

The pool at the Radisson

On day three, however, we went to the visitor’s center at the locks, and alternated watching the ships with learning about the Canal.

We're at THE Panama Canal

We’re at THE Panama Canal

Lesson time:

  • The Panama Canal actually consists of one set of locks (the Gatún Locks) on the Caribbean side, a man-made lake (Gatún Lake) in the middle, a long canal, and then the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks on the Pacific side at Panama City. Each lock has two lanes to double your fun.
  • There are no pumps anywhere along the canal. The entire thing is gravity-fed with fresh water from Gatún Lake that is replenished by rain.
  • There are a total of 40 sets of gates in the locks that were built in Pennsylvania (yay Pennsylvania), and have been in near-constant operation since 1914.
  • The cost to traverse the Panama Canal varies depending on the size of the ship as well as its cargo. Boats under 50’ pay the minimum cost of $800. The high end fees top out around $400,000, with most ships averaging between $100,000-$200,000.
  • Construction has almost finished on new lanes that will be faster, accommodate larger ships, and most importantly, conserve 60% of the water used for their operation.
  • The original agreement was that the USA would own the rights to the canal forever, but in 1999, we returned the canal to Panama (‘cuz we’re cool like that).

Watching the ships go through was fun too. Last time we saw the Panama Canal we were on a cruise ship, so this afforded us a new perspective. It’s amazing to see them raise or lower a huge cargo ship by 15 meters in less than ten minutes. The tankers were neat to watch too. It’s not that often that one sees a tanker ship. I thought they were all named the “Nosmo King,” on account of the huge lettering on them, but then Stephanie pointed out that it was just a warning not to smoke anywhere on board.

Wanna see the Canal in action?
Video 1 – Locks opening
Video 2 – Yacht in the locks
Video 3 – Gates closing
Video 4 – Filling the lock

For our next day in Panama, we found a tour that let us kayak the canal in Gatún Lake. Before you get too excited, no, we didn’t go through the locks, but the lake is full of little islands populated with monkeys, crocodiles and birds. All through Gatún Lake, we paddled past skeletons of trees that were killed when the area was flooded to make the lake. It was kind of cool paddling through the treetops. At one point, we even shared the canal with a freighter. We were nice enough to let him pass. After paddling for a few hours, we had lunch in the jungle before returning to our hotel and Stephanie’s beloved swimming pool.

Exploring the tropics

Exploring the tropics

Racing the freighter

Racing the freighter

We fully expected to spend our last day doing a whole lot of nothing, but we met some new friends while kayaking who had chartered a boat for a day of deep-sea fishing, and they invited us to join them. Having never been deep-sea fishing before, we were excited to tag along. A day zipping across the sea would have been cool enough, but we each got a turn on the rods, and we each reeled in a good-sized red snapper. We even saw a whale playing happily as it breached and then slapping at the water with its fins.

We stopped at a beautiful little island where we walked on the sugar-sand beach, and snorkeled a bit before looking for more fishing grounds.

Then we passed all the ships waiting their turn through the canal as we headed home again. Our new friends, Dan & Tina, were nice enough to give us a lift to the airport where we spent the night in a comfortable lounge before hopping our flight to…



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