After a couple of days of playing in Las Perlas we sailed to Panama City and anchored at Las Playita Anchorage. Before anyone could leave the boat, captain Ron had to clear into the country with the port captain, customs and immigration. That gave us a 72 hour visa to get to immigration for a tourist visa and wander around the city. The next priority was to begin the canal transit procedure. Many people hire an agent to take care of the paper work and many visits government offices required to get things done but captain Ron has been through the canal numerous times before and chose to be his own agent. This supposedly has potential to get an earlier transit date. Our date, in the end was 7 days after our initial arrival in Panama city.
The seven days between arrival in Panama City and canal transit were spent cleaning the boat after our 16 days at sea, re-provisioning, prepping the boat for transit and being tourists in Panama City.
Panama City is a fairly easy and cheap city to travel around if you’re good at haggling with the cabbies. It’s no surprise that they do have a tendency to try to take advantage of tourists who probably don’t know any better coming from countries with metered cabs. Funny how it cost $7 to get from the marina to the Casco Viejo tourist area but the initial quote to get back was $17. Hmmmmm …… In the end we paid $10.
Casco Viejo a.k.a. Casco Antiguo a.k.a. San Filipe is part of the old quarter settled in 1673 after Panama Viejo (original Panama City) was sacked by the English pirate, Henry Morgan. The old city has some fantastic heritage buildings some of which are being restored to their former glory in an attempt at gentrification. Others are crumbling to the ground leaving behind an empty shell. Quaint little restaurants are sprouting up out of the rubble across the street from abandoned buildings housing squatters. There is much to see and experience here, the Presidential Palace, Panama Canal Museum, National Theater of Panama and a few tourist markets to name a few.
It’s a long process just getting to the point where you are given your canal transit day. But it finally arrived and we were instructed to wait by marker 6 for our advisor. He showed up around 9am, approximately an hour and a half later than expected.
We watched the massive cargo ship Lingue pass us in the channel and were instructed to follow it into the locks. The big ships have to be towed into the locks by small mule engines on rails that move along beside the canal. Lingue took up the entire width of the canal so it was a bit unnerving pulling into the lock behind it. Thankfully we were in the centre canal position rafted up next to a tourist ferry that was next to the wall. The ferry workers had to do all the line handling while we played tourist on our boat. We hardly even noticed when the lock started to fill with water and the boats began to rise. When the lock was full the door opened to the next chamber. Lingue was pulled ahead by the mules, we untied from the ferry and all boats moved forward to the next lock where we rafted up to the ferry again and repeated the line handling dance.
The last lock was a bit farther along than the first two and in this one the smaller boats pulled in ahead of the big ship. After we finished tying up to the ferry we turned to watch the giant ship bearing down on us. Again, an amazing experience. Finally we were in Gatun Lake. We finished crossing the lake in the late afternoon and elected to transit the down locks to the Atlantic side the next morning. Anchoring in a fresh water lake proved a welcome opportunity to clean the salty sea air off our bodies. So we went for a swim in the crocodile infested waters of Gatun Lake and lived to tell the story. It also provided opportunity to practice a few rope coiling techniques. The expectation was that we would be working as rope handlers the next day in the locks to keep the boat steady and it is pretty important to have an efficient technique that prevents the ropes from being tangled.
The next day we woke up bright and early for transit. We waited and waited and waited for word on when our advisor was to arrive. Finally Captain Ron called in to find out when we were getting through. They told us to expect our advisor at 3pm for transit at 4pm. Apparently it was yet another national holiday (the second one in 7 days) so advisors were hard to come by. Lame! Finally we got our advisor at 3:15 and headed towards the locks. This time we were positioned in the centre again but rafted up with a very fancy new Panama Canal tugboat on steroids. Another opportunity to be tourists as the tug worked the lines along the side of the canal.
We finally floated into the Atlantic side at dusk and proceeded to the drop off area in Canal Flats where we left our advisor. A quick top up of diesel fuel in the dark and we motored outside of the huge breakwaters that protect the Atlantic side canal anchorage. Beyond the breakwaters were strong winds and 1.5 meter swell (a.k.a rather rough conditions compared to the sheltered calm of Gatun Lake and the Panama Canal!) for our overnight sail to the San Blas Islands.