Visiting the Panama Canal Locks

This is really a bit of a shaggy dog story but perfectly illustrates the challenges of navigating the confusing rules and contradictory information that often surrounds tourist sites, especially when one doesn’t speak the local language.

We figured we couldn’t visit Panama without seeing its most famous site, the canal, so I researched the options. Although the official websites are not very useful, offering only the most basic info, I found online reviews that provided better. The Miraflores Locks Visitors’ Center seemed like a good choice: it was reported that you could go in and eat in their restaurant overlooking the locks. With luck, a ship would come through the locks while you were there. One review mentioned that the visitor center posts the times that ships will pass through each day, so you can plan accordingly. Great.

We plan to visit the center on a Sunday and drop by in the late morning to find out when ships will be coming through. The center is large, modern, and seemingly well-organized. Air conditioning, escalators, lovely clean restrooms (always on the hunt for those when I’m travelling!) and lots of info about pricing for the exhibits and the giant Imax theatre.

There’s a pleasant young man fronting the entrance and I ask him about the restaurant: Do we need a reservation? Can we go inside to make the reservation in person for later today? (I’m cowardly about trying to communicate on the telephone in Spanish, so I figure a face-to-face with the restaurant maitre’d is a safer bet.)

Yes, we need a reservation. No, we can’t go in to make the reservation.

Hmmm.

Next, we check the “ships transiting” board. It hasn’t been updated for two days (a concern) and it indicates that there will be no ships going through between 9 am and 4 pm. Is that info accurate for today? We have no way of knowing.

Mark, the practical one in this duo, suggests we forget making a reservation and we simply return around 4 pm to dine. It’s unlikely to be full. We’ll have to take our chances on seeing a ship transit the locks.

Skip ahead a few hours and we return just after 4 pm. Mark approaches the ticket booth and asks if we need to pay the admission fee if we just want to go to the restaurant. She says no, just go upstairs to the fourth floor.

We start making our way up various stairways and ramps until we’re stopped by a couple of uniformed security guys who want to see our tickets. We don’t have any, we explain, we’re just going to the restaurant. No, apparently we do need tickets, and the guards send us to a kiosk. But as we’re walking away, one of them says, ticket is free. Sure enough, when we explain once again that we only want to go to the restaurant, the kiosk lady gives us free admission.

Now sporting our neon green wristbands, we are finally legit and we smugly ride the elevator to the fourth floor.

By this time, it’s 4:20. We enter the restaurant, a nice one, not a cafeteria or snack bar, but a sit-down place with linen tablecloths and actual servers. We tell the server who approaches us that we’d like dinner.

So sorry, restaurant is closing in 10 minutes.

What?! How can a restaurant that serves dinner close at 4:30? Besides, I remember some online reviews mentioning that they ate dinner at sunset while viewing the locks. Sunset in Panama is always around 6 pm (it doesn’t change much, unlike in our temperate zone).

It’s a mystery.

We’re very disappointed and the server can tell. He kindly suggests we could have a cold drink (always a welcome idea in the tropics) on the balcony. I jump on this, as it will at least give us a chance to see the locks, even though there is no ship at the moment.

He seats us on a small side balcony with a narrow view. Oh well, better than nothing. We linger over our drinks as long as possible, but eventually, we pay and start to leave. Then I see that there’s a much larger balcony that actually overlooks the locks. Ah, that’s where we really wanted to be. There are people wandering around out there.

Oh, I say to the maitre’d wistfully, could we possibly just pop out to the balcony for a moment?

“Of course,” she beams.

Out on the balcony, as we gaze at our much-expanded view up and down the canal, we can now spot a tanker just coming into the locks. That settles it: we’re out there for the long haul now.

Over the next hour, we get front-row views of the entire process as the locks fill/empty and the ship is towed through. The sun sets gloriously in the background. I keep throwing furtive glances at the restaurant inside as they shut it down, thinking any moment they will come and tell us to leave. But they don’t. There are lots of other people on the balcony and they obviously have no intention of leaving until the ship is through, so I guess the staff just don’t bother trying to clear the place.

And that’s how we got a perfect view of a ship transiting the locks without paying the admission fee or buying dinner. We had just the right combination of foreign cluelessness and naïve brashness. Sometimes—if you’re lucky—that works.

Panama Memories

With our recent three-week trip to Panama still fresh on my mind, I am sorting through some 1,500 photos. The best part about travel photos is that they remind you of moments from your trip that you might otherwise forget, and so I’m recalling the day-by-day highlights (and a few lowlights).

Highlights:

  • Howler monkeys waking us at dawn with their whoops and roars.
  • Plunging into the gorgeous pool at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort after a long, sweaty hike.
  • Watching a stately tall ship sailing up the canal.
  • Awe-inspiring tropical rainstorms that pound the roof and create torrents on the streets.
  • Feeling the whoosh of a hummingbird’s wings as it flies by your ear.
  • Bobbing in the warm waves off your own deserted beach at Playa Blanca.
  • A long, slender, brilliantly green snake visiting us on our hotel balcony at Morillo Beach.
  • Cheering for tiny baby turtles as they struggle across the sand to reach the sea.
  • Ripe papayas, bananas, pineapple, and passionfruit for breakfast.
  • Hiking jungle trails at dawn when everything is still dark and silent and the bugs haven’t yet arrived.
  • Nutella cheesecake and glorious local Kotowa chocolates in Boquete.
  • Seeing the flashes and rumbles of distant thunderstorms in the surrounding hills as you lounge in the mountainside pool at La Brisa del Diablo.
  • Superb dinners at La Brisa prepared by Olga.
  • Stripping down to your underwear to swim in an emerald crystal river because you didn’t bring a swimsuit and it’s so incredibly hot and you can’t resist and there’s no one else there anyway, so why not?
  • Witnessing the life-and-death battle of a hawk and black snake played out just a few feet from the road.
  • Tiny frog on the path, smaller than my pinkie fingernail, and giant cane toads bigger than grapefruits sharing our pool at The Golden Frog Inn.
  • The excited nightwatchman at our inn calling us over to show us a sloth climbing (very slowly) along the power lines.
  • French pastries at the St Honore bakery near Gamboa.
  • Flocks of gregarious and noisy parrots and parakeets congregating at their night roosts each evening.
  • Enjoying the technological majesty of the Panama Canal locks at close quarters.
  • Not stepping on a miniscule snake along the trail, a snake that I first thought was a big worm until it slithered away rapidly in typically snake style.

Lowlights

  • Mosquito bites on top of “chagira” bites on top of other bites. I don’t know what those chagiras are, but despite their size (a pinprick), they bite like horseflies and leave blood, swelling, and maddening itchiness behind. Oh, and did I mention the ticks? Yes, it’s a jungle out there.
  • Traffic around Panama City. Unbelievable. Multiple lines of cars, buses, taxis, trucks, and motorcycles fighting to move forward a few feet. The only guidelines seem to be: try not to hit anything or anyone. Beyond that, anything goes.
  • Potholes. The main roads are mostly good, with just the occasional pit to keep you on your toes, but some of the side roads are more holes than flat surfaces.
  • Losing my monopod. Sigh. In the excitement of trying to photograph a mixed flock of birds, I must have dropped my monopod and forgot to pick it up. It’s probably still lying in the grass at the road side.
  • Mexico City airport security confiscating the tiny Allen wrench from my photography kit. This was a piece of metal about two inches long and half as thick as a pencil. It has passed through many previous security scans without comment. “No pasa,” the guard said sternly. Mark commented later that they were clearly afraid I was going to attempt to disassemble the plane.

Panama Hats and Other Misnomers

In the category of Who knew?! I offer this tidbit: Panama hats are not from Panama. The materials used to make them do not come from Panama. They are not made in Panama. They are, in fact, made in Ecuador.

“A Panama hat, also known as an Ecuadorian hat or a toquilla straw hat, is a traditional brimmed straw hat of Ecuadorian origin.” (Wikipedia)

The art of weaving the traditional Ecuadorian toquilla hat is unique and important enough to be included on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of the world.

My Fodor’s Panama guidebook reads: “Any such headwear you do find for sale here [in Panama] should be labeled ‘Genuine Panama Hat Made in Ecuador.’” I’m glad that’s clear.

How did the straw hats wind up with a false identity?

“Straw hats woven in Ecuador, like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing for their destinations [worldwide], subsequently acquiring a name that reflected their point of international sale—‘Panama hats’—rather than their place of domestic origin.” (Wikipedia)

In 1906, when celebrity president Teddy Roosevelt made a stopover at the construction site of the Panama Canal, he was photographed wearing one of the hats, cementing its connection—in the buying public’s mind—with the Central American country.

All this must drive Ecuadorians to distraction. (I recall one of our guides ranting about how Ecuador gets no credit for all its accomplishments. “Who do you think of when you think bananas? Costa Rica! But Ecuador is the largest exporter of bananas in the world.* Who do you think of for roses? Holland? Ecuador grows the most and best roses,** but no one knows!” I had never thought of where roses come from, so I couldn’t argue.)

Perhaps it’s time for nations to trademark their names to avoid this kind of confusion.

For example, how often in my travels have I heard people refer to Canadian bacon, which has nothing to do with Canada? In the United States, they mean “a form of back bacon that is cured, smoked and fully cooked, trimmed into cylindrical medallions, and thickly sliced.” (Wikipedia)

Huh? Having been born in Canada and lived my entire life here, I’ve never eaten such a thing.

You could be forgiven for assuming the Australian shepherd dog came from the land down under, but the breed was actually developed on American ranches in the 19th century. No one knows how the Aussie got its name. One theory is that Basque sheep herders from Europe took their dogs to Australia and later, when they moved on to California, again, with faithful dogs in tow, Americans assumed the dogs were an Australian breed.

The devastating 1918 influenza pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide was often called the “Spanish flu,” although it almost certainly did not originate in Spain. Current hypotheses favour the United States, France, or China as the culprit.

So why “Spanish flu”? When the new and deadly influenza strain first appeared in January 1918, it was what would be final year of the First World War. The United States and much of Europe were under censorship, neither side wanting to show signs of weakness, so reports of the flu were suppressed. In Spain, which was neutral in the war, there was no such censorship, so the horrifying reality of the sickness was widely published both locally and internationally, especially after the Spanish king fell ill. Because of this, people outside of Spain thought of it as the “Spanish” flu, while the Spanish themselves sometimes referred to it as the “French flu.”

With Irish stew and Danish pastries, we can at least say the foods did originate in those countries, but what do they mean today? Danish pastries can be the sorriest, soggiest, amalgams of cardboard-like dough and gooey-sweet fruit-flavoured glop found in the bake section of many grocery stores, while Irish stew might be any bland, chewy, mash-up of meat and tubers a restaurant chooses to slap the name on. Can Danes be proud of their pastries now? Can the Irish hold up their heads in the international culinary arena based on the “Irish” stew of today?

I say it is time for a moratorium on inauthentic, inaccurate, nation-based nomenclature. Let the Ecuadorians reclaim the brimmed hats that pair so fashionably with light-coloured and linen suits. Give the Basques back their bob-tailed sheepdogs. Relieve the Spaniards of the burden of one of the deadliest viruses known to humanity. Require restaurants to rename their dish as “a meat and veg stew of indeterminate origin and ingredients” and demand that stores sell “round, fake-fruit pastries” without blaming the Danes.

America, we Canadians give you back your bacon. Please rename it after your local pigs, who richly deserve the credit.

*”Banana Exports by Country” (2018)

**”2018: A challenging year for the cut rose industry” Floral Daily