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Where is the Panama imigration official? There he is, in plain cloths sitting in that old garage!

Roadside market stalls sell traditional handmade items.

Housing estates dominate the urban areas

Passing by interesting brightly coloured houses

Poverty is not as evident in the countryside as the other South American countries.

Driving at night is possible on the dual highway with a good surface, just for a change.

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

Modern highrise buildings of Panama city

The bridge over the Panama Canal just before it goes into the Pacific ocean

El Toro waiting to be shipped to Columbia in front of Girag's busy shipping office.

Panama

31/10/04

As soon as we crossed the border the roads improved. A concrete highway and we are able to easily maintain 110kph, but it's still going to be dark before we reach Panama City. As we head through the low lands of Panama, it already seems to have more character than Costa Rica. Quite a few women are wearing bright coloured dresses and there seems to be a strong desre to preserve customs of the past. Not much evidence of poverty but rather large expanses of high density housing estates and also many brightly painted houses that stand out amongst them.

Panama has had a colourful history and is probably best known for the canal that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and is a major passage for world shipping. (map –1) The notion of a canal was first considered as far back as 1524 but it wasn't until 1878 that a French organisation was awarded a contract to build the canal but the task was more difficult than anticipated and they went bankrupt in 1889. The rights to build the canal were subsequently sold to the USA in 1903 and the project was completed in 1914. A monumental task, it remains one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th centaury.

However, all was not plain sailing. Prior to 1903, Panama was part of Colombia and the Colombians wouldn't agree to the USA constructing a canal. One of the key Panamanian players had a lot to gain if the US built the canal and a deal was struck whereby Panama declared independence from Colombia and the USA immediately supported the new government. The Colombians attempted to regain control of Panama but US battleships thwarted their efforts. The US and the US military have therefore had a long association in Panama and controlled the canal up to 1999. Panama now controls the canal but the subsequent loss of US troops and money has seriously harmed the economy.

Because the roads were so good and because we really needed to be in Panama City tonight, we elected to ride till we got there. First time on this trip we have ridden in the dark and even though we got to where we wanted we did feel that we missed out on some of the scenery by riding in the dark.

A comfortable hotel for $20.00 and we slept well. Interestingly, the US dollar is the official currency in Panama.

1/11/04

We had hoped to be able to phone GIRAG freight and make some arrangements to freight El Toro to Bogota on the 2nd. but we couldn't get through on the phone so we would have to go there and sort things out.

The Cargo terminal is near the International terminal but on the other side of town so it's going to be a challenge to get there. Fortunately we had some good instructions from a fellow Horizonsunlimited.com member once we were at the International airport.

An hour and a half later we were at the GIRAG offices and could see why they hadn't answered the phone. The whole building is being remodeled and there is construction equipment everywhere. Eventually got on to someone who spoke a little english and he assured us that if we brought the bike back at 2.00pm tomorrow it would be on the plane that night and in Bogota the next morning. Feeling reassured we headed for the International terminal and confirmed our booking with COPA airline to fly out at 7.30pm.

Everything was going according to plan and with the afternoon now free we headed for Miraflores to see the huge ships go through the canal. We hadn't anticipated the traffic being so bad and eventually made it to the locks just after 4.00pm. The facility closes at 5.00pm so we haven't got much time.

The canal has three sets of double locks, the Miraflores locks are the closest to the city and a viewing platform provides a good spot to watch the huge ships going through. An interesting 4 story museme explains the construction, the environmental considerations and the operation of the canal. Some interesting stats. are

• In 2003 11725 ships passed through the canal and paid $666 million in tolls

• The longest ship to pass through was the 'San Juan' at 299 meters long and 32 wide

• The fastest transit through the canal was completed in 2 hours and 41 minutes but the average time in transit is 8 to 10 hours.

We watched electric locomotives pull a huge cargo ship through the locks which are necessary because of the different water levels and tides between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Tides at the Pacific end of the canal rise and fall about 3.8 meters a day while tides on the Atlantic side change only about 60 centimetres.

We were fortunate enough to see the 'Japan Star' go through the locks. Apparently the skipper had to pay US$81 000.00 in cash for the toll. Quite impressive to see this huge container ship be lowered several meters in about 20 minutes.

2/11/04

Big day today as we leave Central America and enter our third and final America. Since we knew the bike was under control we decided to take a run out to the Pacific coast to enjoy the beaches. We were both feeling a little edgie though so about lunch time we headed out to the GIRAG offices and completed the paperwork for El Toro.

With that completed and the battery disconnected we left the bike in the capable hands of the GIRAG staff who assured us it would be in Bogota the following morning. We handed in the temporary import permit at the customs office and took a taxi to the International airport and checked in.

If all goes to plan our next up date will be in Bogota. Columbia, South America.
Next page will take you there.

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©Haydn and Dianne Durnell 200