Panama Canal - 2012/13

An Enrichment Voyage:  December 6, 2012 - January 5, 2013

Last year I picked up a fascinating book, “The Path between the Seas,” by David McCullough. The Pulitzer prize-winning author tells the incredible story of the building of the Panama Canal. One section describes the overwhelming enterprise as “The Greatest Engineering Feat Of all Time”… and that the great locks “surpassed any similar structures in the world.”

I loved that book! In fact, I decided that one day I had to see first hand this incredible feat of engineering. Soon after, I received a new brochure from Travltips outlining an upcoming Enrichment Voyage, scheduled for December 2012/January 2013.

There it was!  My golden opportunity—a voyage through the Panama Canal---and I could actually spend a month doing what I love best--join travelers who, like me, value the special academic experiences offered by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Shipboard Education. Its between semester Enrichment Voyages are a unique sidebar to the outstanding 50-year-old Semester at Sea study program for university students. As the brochure said, I’d “sail with leading academics, scientists, authors and artists who will share their knowledge insights and expertise with you.”

Of course, I was hooked! I’d have an amazing trip aboard a ship that I knew intimately from the previous year when I sailed up the Amazon River. Only this time I’d be learning how the massive locks of the Panama Canal move ships elegantly from one great ocean, the Atlantic, to the Pacific.

The plan fell quickly into place.

My friend Jackie Johnson, who lives in Niagara-on-the Hudson, Canada, jumped aboard as my travel companion/roommate. She was “in” as soon as she read the itinerary.

Departing from Nassau, the Bahamas, the MV Explorer would anchor first in Montego Bay, Jamaica, then on to Colon, Panama, transit the Panama Canal in an all-day journey, and reaching the Pacific Ocean, would sail south down the west coast of South America. The ship would dock in Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru before returning north to cast anchor in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Mexico. The voyage would end in San Diego, California---a bonus for me since my brother lives just north of San Diego, and I’d take time to visit with him for several days before returning home.

Here are a few photos of  my journey.

At the Hilton Hotel in Nassau, a bride-to-be arranged her party for the big event just outside my door.

In Montego Bay, Jamaica, we chatted at a craft market without understanding a word of each other’s language—but the baby was beautiful.

Herman, our taxi driver/guide, drove us into the hills of Montego Bay to show us where the “real” people live.

Life on board the ship was easy.

In a taxi tour of Cartagena, Columbia, our driver/guide drove us around the shore highway to see the fortress and into the narrow back streets of the city.

Keynote speaker, Sandra Day O’Connor, the retired Supreme Court justice, talked about her life, career, and difficulty being hired early in her career. The other keynote speaker, Julian Bond, focused on the history and his involvement in the civil rights movement.

In Guayaquil, Ecuador hordes of iguanas lounged in Iguana Park. The cathedral facing the iguana park was a cool respite on a very hot tour of the city.

Museums, huge cacao plant, colorful craft markets with guitars, dolls, sweaters, and people---Ecuador and Colon, Panama presented interesting day trip destinations.

A late night visit to the crowded Water Park in Lima, Peru, featured huge lighted fountain displays.

The daytime transit of the Panama Canal was a highlight of the voyage. As passengers moved from deck to deck despite overcast skies and drizzling rain, we watched a changing panorama---the opening and closing of locks,  tiny tugboats, cruise ships preceding and following us, workers waving, waters rising and falling as gates opened and closed--- an experience to be remembered.


---The concept of a water passage through the jungle dates back to 1534.  King Charles V of Spain first conceived the idea of a waterway to reduce transatlantic voyages and connect with parts of his distant empire.

---In 1819 Spain announced construction of the canal.

---The US got interested in 1848 when gold was discovered in California and the mad scramble to join the Gold Rush began.

---In1882 the French government began to try to build a canal across Panama. The builders encountered massive problems—impassable jungle, torrential rain, impossible heat, poisonous reptiles, jaguars and pumas, and tons of insects.  An enormous death rate of workers resulted in over 22,000 deaths due to malaria, yellow fever and accidents.  Financial and political maneuvering and chicanery caused the project to be dropped.

---The US helped Panama gain independence from Columbia, leading Panama to assume the project from the French in 1904.

---The US took over under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt, and the Panama Canal was completed on August 15, 1914, two years ahead of schedule. About 5,000 Americans died working on the project.


---Lake Gatun rests at 85 feet above sea level. The purpose of the locks is to lift a ship in stages up to the lake level and lower it back down to sea level in three stages on both ends of the canal using a double door system of iron water gates.

---It takes 8-10 hours to transit the canal and about three hours to pass the locks.

---Today, container vessels capable of carrying as many as 4,500 20-foot containers pass through the canal, and each year between 13,000 and 14,000 ships transit the canal which never closes.

---A deeper, wider canal with two new flights of triple locks is being constructed today. This will double existing capacity and allow transit of vessels with three times the current cargo when the upgrade is completed in early 2015.

---In Manta, Ecuador, our daytrip on a decorated 1920s bus featured an entire roof-top
band blasting away to serenade us through little villages on the “Montecristi by Chivas” ride. Our destination was a village where Panama hats are hand-made.

---Following passengers carefully down the gangway, we stepped ashore in Puntarenas, Costa Rica and headed across country for a daytrip on the Tarcoles River.  On the Christmas Day eco journey up the river we watched for crocodiles, tropical birds, and howling monkeys along the muddy shoreline.

---The Puntarenas beachfront was lined with craft stalls, beach goers, food cubicles and happy vacationers.

---At the last port of call, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, what else but five-star hotels, timeshare condos, numerous sporting opportunities —speed boating, parasailing, snorkeling, glass bottom boat excursions-- and exclusive shopping venues.

--The enrichment voyage on the Explorer was all I had expected.

---At my brother’s home in Rancho Santa Fe, California, I recuperated from bronchitis in peaceful surroundings, a nice ending to a great trip.