Saturday, January 12, 2013

A visit to the Gatun Locks, Panama

2013.01.08-IMG_7233 While attending a meeting in Panama (the 6th Global Plants Initiative meeting), I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Gatun Locks (10 January 2013). Many years ago (1999), I had the chance to visit the Miraflores Locks (on the Pacific side of the country), so I was interested in seeing the other side. Also, the Panama Canal is in the midst of a major expansion, so it was an historic time to visit.

There were about 12 of us riding with Coast to Coast travel, with our guide Eduardo and driver, Elvis. We took a route I was familiar with, out through the city, past the Pedro Miguel locks towards Gamboa. We veered off through Parasio and took a nice little diversion across the Centenary Bridge (from 2003, done in the current trendy bridge style with central cable supports).

Taking the toll roads (free to all at the moment due to floods on the other routes), we soon hit the outskirts of Colon. From there we went to the Gatun Locks.

Those of you familiar with locks would quickly get the set up; the only difference is the scale. Massive locks that raise ships nearly 26 meters with double locomotives to pull them through. Gatun (like Miraflores) has a visitor pavilion where you can watch the process of filling and emptying the locks. We watched a ship leave and a ship enter and then were back on the bus.

2013.01.10-IMG_7419Our destination was the new visitors' center that overlooks the construction of the three-bay new locks. And it was an amazing site. The size of over three football fields, the area was a beehive of activity (and, we were told, three shifts a day for a 24/7 operation that will have the project finished on target in 2014).

2013.01.10-IMG_7429 After a group photo and some more exploration and touring of the visitor center, we re-boarded the bus for lunch at Shelter Bay. But there was one more adventure ahead.

2013.01.10-IMG_7470 We drive off towards lunch, but have to cross the Canal. How do you cross the canal? Well, you drive down to the edge of the canal and there is a rickety metal bridge that doesn't hold a bus full of people, so you get out of the bus and it drives across the bridge. Then you go two by two across the little walkway (while a giant cruise ship is in the lock above you and your 20 feet from the lock gates, while the lock is filling to lower the cruise ship. Then the guard changes his mind and you go three by three because the cruise ship is lowering faster. The group makes it across and the gates open and the cruise ship floats away. Back on the bus.

2013.01.10-IMG_7473 Thirty minutes later we arrived at Shelter Bay (formerly Ft. Sherman, a US base) which is now a resort and yacht club. We head into the Dock Restaurant and sit down. I choose the corvinas (a sea bass-like fish). Corvinas is the national fish dish of Panama (so it seems) and I've had it a number of times, but this was, by far, the best I've ever had.

Back on the bus, we retrace our route (mysteriously taking the bridge with a bus full of people - was the previous trip just for our entertainment?) and in less than an hour are back at the hotel.

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