Between Two Seas - Panama Canal Cruise

Summer 2004 CSANews Issue 51  |  Posted date : May 10, 2007.Back to list

The thought of covering two seas in a 10-day period was intriguing. Crossing the continent by way of the Panama Canal added to that intrigue. Especially interesting was the fact that the journey would be made on a small ship, capable of calling at places that were inaccessible to large Ocean liners. My wife and I decided that here was an opportunity to explore new destinations, or revisit a part of the world that had been beckoning us to make a return, then relax with strangers who would become friends. We had experienced the canal several years ago. At that time, we looked down upon the activity of going through the locks from the height of a five-storey building. This time, we would see what was going on, at eye level.

Starting out from Panama City, we crossed the Continental Divide by bus. Ordinarily this would be a fairly quick way to get to Colon on the Caribbean side of the country. However, traffic as we reached this port city of 300,000 slowed to a standstill, and we were not able to take advantage of the duty-free shopping before boarding our ship. The inconvenience of our late arrival at dockside was overcome by the warm welcome we received at Cruise West's Pacific Explorer. With space for just 100 passengers, it seemed the ideal choice for a trans-canal sojourn.

Sailing the shallow waters of the Caribbean, we were able to enjoy the panorama provided by the 365 or so San Blas Islands and the mountainous coastline of mainland Panama. At our first dinner aboard, Rudy Zamora, the ship’s explorations leader gave us a preview of what we were in for, plus some necessary precautions. "This is a tropical area," he said. "Use plenty of sun screen. Especially those who burn easily. Some people," he joked, "get burned sitting under a 50-watt light bulb!" Dramamine and/or Gravol were handed out to those who were leery of ‘ocean motion.’

The only rough sea we encountered was on the first night, as our vessel made its way to one of the few inhabited San Blas Islands. Owned and governed by the indigenous Kuna Indians, the populace still clings to its cultural past. Most Kuna women have a long black line drawn on their nose, which is pierced to hold a gold ring. You can photograph them, but the usual charge is one dollar per picture, per person. Men take canoes (now motorized) to the mainland to work their farm plots; the women spend their time sewing ‘molas,’ decorative appliqués used primarily to enhance their colourful blouses. Visitors who buy them, paying anywhere from US$3.00 to $50.00 or more, may have them framed as wall hangings.

We spent the following day ashore at the historic village of Portobelo, once the embarkation point for Spanish galleons loaded with golden loot taken by the Conquistadors. An early-morning walk with the ship's naturalists gave an indication of the wealth of wildlife in the region. Giovanni Bella set up his scope in the village square and within 10 minutes, had identified a dozen or more colourful birds. We were to find several more species just on the edge of town and, after our canal crossing, a good many more.

It was still daylight as our turn came to enter the canal. We watched as a large freighter completed its journey from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Another vessel followed us into the channel and the two ships became lock-mates for the crossing. At eye level, as promised, we watched two workers paddle a row-boat out to meet our vessel, retrieving the fore and aft lines thrown to them by our crew. Shore-based personnel attached the lines to electric locomotives, nicknamed 'mules,' whose job it was to tow the ship into the first of three locks. There were a dozen mules at work at each set of locks.

The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15, 1914, and now serves an average of 38 ships during a 24-hour day. The locks are gravity-filled with water from Lake Gatun, manmade by damming the Chagres River. Ships are lifted 85 feet in order to pass through the Gaillard Cut at the Continental Divide. The Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks on the Pacific side gently lower the ships back to sea level. The coast-to-coast crossing took nine hours. We were privileged to see the operation in daylight and, of even greater interest, under floodlights at night.

A few hours into the Pacific, we dropped anchor off Darien National Park. Here we were introduced to the Embera people. Unlike the Kuna, these natives of Panama had not become mercenary, in the sense that they welcomed your camera without asking for money. Indeed, we were told not to give money, nor even candies or pens and pencils to the youngsters. By agreement with the chief of the Embera at the village of Playa de Muerto, it was felt that the locals would be better served if left to their old ways.

Snorkelers, swimmers and kayakers had their day when the Pacific Explorer stopped at Granito de Oro (Little Grain of Gold). The islet is one of many in Panama’s Coiba National Park, home to 147 species of birds, 69 species of fish and more than 15 species of coral.

Flowers took centre stage on day seven, our first stop in Costa Rica. Going ashore at Casa Orquideas, we met owners Ron and Trudy McAllister, transplanted Americans with an interest in botany. Over a 20-year period, they had transformed their seaside property into a beautifully landscaped botanical garden. Our ship’s naturalists accompanied us on a walk through plots of palms, bromeliads, ornamental plants, fruit trees and a hundred varieties of orchids, hence, the name.

Following an early breakfast the next day, we slid onto our zodiacs for a wet landing at the Osa Peninsula’s Caletas Beach. The National Park here is known as Corcovado. While small groups were enjoying a three-hour nature observation hike, the Pacific Explorer crew was preparing a beach barbecue. Following our picnic, we reboarded the Explorer and moved a few miles up the coast where zodiac tours were operated as Jungle River cruises. Once again, Giovanni Bella spotted birds and wildlife for us. Included this time were sightings of both two- and three-toed sloths, capuchin and howler monkeys. At our turnaround spot, several of us cooled off in the inviting waters of the river.

Manuel Antonio was a Costa Rican politician who worked diligently to convince his government to establish national parks. As a result of his efforts and in his honour, one of the most beautiful set-aside areas bears his name. Very popular with locals are three magnificent beaches, behind which jungle trails offer more opportunities to view birds and other wildlife. Optional tours were offered from this location. Some passengers chose the "Rainmaker Canopy Tour," a chance to look at the jungle from swinging walkways suspended along the treetop. Others, the less adventurous, decided on a short trip to Quepos, a small community ideally situated to take advantage of the tourism growth potential of the Pacific coast, just a couple of hours out of San Jose, the Costa Rican capital.

Disembarkation was smooth on our final day. Most headed for the San Jose airport for a flight home. Others had arranged to see a little more of Costa Rica, which has become a mecca for environmental enthusiasts.

Cruise West operates the Pacific Explorer "Between Two Seas" from December 18, 2004 through March 27, 2005.