For the first two days in Panama City I booked tours to the Panama Canal and San Blas Islands.
Panama Canal History
According to Wikipedia:
The Panama Canal is an artificial 48-mile (77 km) waterway in Panama that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. There are locks at each end to lift ships up to Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal, 85 feet (26 m) above sea level, and then lower the ships at the other end. The original locks are 110 feet (34 m) wide. A third, wider lane of locks was constructed between September 2007 and May 2016. The expanded canal began commercial operation on June 26, 2016. The new locks allow transit of larger, Post-Panamax ships, capable of handling more cargo.
France began work on the canal in 1881 but stopped due to engineering problems and a high worker mortality rate. The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal on August 15, 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Drake Passage or Strait of Magellan.
Colombia, France, and later the United States controlled the territory surrounding the canal during construction. The U.S. continued to control the canal and surrounding Panama Canal Zone until the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties provided for handover to Panama. After a period of joint American–Panamanian control, in 1999 the canal was taken over by the Panamanian government and is now managed and operated by the government-owned Panama Canal Authority.
Annual traffic has risen from about 1,000 ships in 1914, when the canal opened, to 14,702 vessels in 2008, for a total of 333.7 million Panama Canal/Universal Measurement System (PC/UMS) tons. By 2012, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through the canal. It takes six to eight hours to pass through the Panama Canal. The American Society of Civil Engineers has called the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the world.
One thing that Wikipedia glosses over a bit that my tour guide really emphasized was the taking control of the Panama Canal Zone by Panamanians. Apparently, the US owned by treaty a huge swath of land on either side of the Canal. Panamanians were not allowed in it except through designated travel routes. This really upset a lot of Panamanians that they did not have sovereignty over their own land. Students protested this by climbing the walls. They were shot and killed by American soldiers. This precipitated the Torrijos-Carter Treaties giving control of the land and canal to the Panamanians. The students’ pictures are memorialized on a wall. My tour guide was very proud of this.
Visit to the Panama Canal
We got to the Miraflores portion of the Canal at about 9 am. and stayed to about 11 am when the last of the boats heading to the Atlantic were going through.
From Miraflores you can only really see the old portion of the canal and not the new portion where the massive ships pass through. That was disappointing. Apparently you have to go to Colon and the Gatun visitor sight to see the new canal.
I have to admit I was somewhat underwhelmed by the Canal. I am still glad I went though. It is something you have to see.
San Blas Islands
The next day I had booked a day tour to San Blas. Ok … I was completely unprepared for this trip. First, I thought I was going to the island of San Blas. I didn’t realized San Blas was a group of over 350 islands!
The tour bus picked me up at 5:30 am from my hostel 🙁 We then headed to a grocery store. No idea why. Later though I found out it was more for those people staying overnight(s) to get snacks.
Off we went. Well, at least until our bus driver decided he needed breakfast at some hole in the wall. We all waited in the bus until he finished breakfast.
As we approached the San Blas Islands we encountered a border patrol roadblock where we were suppose to show our passports. Being totally unprepared, I had forgotten mine 🙁 The driver sweet talked the police officer and none of us had to show our passports. Phew! He said that was unusual as they would normally have sent me back.
As we got closer to the islands we stopped at a view point.
Finally we made it to the drop off point to take us to the islands. Of course they asked me where I was going. I said San Blas. They laughed and said San Blas has over 350 islands. Luckily the bus driver came to my rescue and said I was going to Diablos Island for the day. I was directed to a boat and off we went.
After a long boat ride we reached Diablos Island, but just for a few minutes.
On the island we picked up an Israeli couple who were on their honeymoon. Such nice people. We had a great discussion on Israel and the traditions there. So glad I met them.
First, we went to a shallow part in the water to swim. Being unprepared I forgot a swim suit 🙁
Then we were off again.
We stopped at another island for a hour. In that time I walked around it twice ha ha.
Then it was back to Diablos island for a couple of hours and lunch. The couple from Israel had been there for a couple nights already. The island was small and they lived an a basic shack on the sand. They said there was nothing to do but play cards and go for swims.
It might have been nice to spend one night there. But then again maybe not. You are really isolated. In the end I was glad to just do a day trip, even if it was a very long day, and ready to head back to Panama City.