The Panama Canal Through The Eyes of a Line-Handler

While we were in Bocas del Toro, we spoke with two Canadians who told us about their experience volunteer line-handling through The Panama Canal. Their story sparked our interest and we decided this is something we had to do. They informed us that each boat was required to have 4 line-handlers to pass. Most captains end up paying the locals $75-100 per person; so we figured we could volunteer our services for an opportunity to see The Canal. We posted a sign at the Balboa Yacht Club and within a few days received our first call. We met with a captain named Charles and discussed his boat and what was expected of us. At first, he seemed like a great person minus his chain smoking). We would be sailing on a 38ft Trimaran. He purchased the boat in Mexico 2 months prior and sailed it down to Panama. When he purchased the boat it was not sea worthy and he had spend 5 weeks getting the boat ready to sail. The morning of our departure we met our other line-handlers; local Panamanian boys. Around 8am we left the dock and headed towards the first lock.
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We pulled into the Miraflores lock beind a huge cargo boat with whom we were going to share the lock with. Since our boat was so small compared to the lock and the cargo ship, we tied up to a tug boat to keep us in place while the water rushed into the lock and we were raised 20-30 feet. The Miraflores is composed of two locks and we went through the first.
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After the Miraflores we passed through a lake which serves as a waiting area for the boats before they pass through they next lock. The lock is called Pedro Miguel and the last of the locks going up(three up and three down).
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After reaching the top of the three locks we slowly motored through a long channel and into Gatun Lake, which is an artificial lake created by a dam on the Gatun river. While on the lake one of the cushions from the boat flew off and into the water. While reversing we heard a crack and the boat stopped moving. Charles ran to the back of the boat and cursed. We all knew this was a bad sign. Upon inspection, we discovered that the motor had pulled put of the screws and rotted wood and had fallen in to the lake. Luckily the motor was tied to a rope so it was recovered after some teamwork to pull it back onboard.

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What was supposed to be a one day trip was beginning to seem like it could be much longer. This was not pleasant news to us as we had plans to go to San Blas islands in the next day or two. Since night was upon us we tied to a buoy waited for the morning to decide what could be done about the motor situation. Charles assured us we would be repaired and on our way the following day. The next day passed with no progress and the moral began to fall. As tensions began to rise, we were desperate for an escape. Charles informed us that a transport to shore would cost $170. We were feeling desperate and about ready to pay until a huge catamaran pulled up next to us. We looked over at the boat full of cheer and yearned to be on it and free of Charles and our troubles. After a sleepless night of worry we rose in the morning ready to make moves. Our Panama Canal trip was turning into a prison sentence.

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The catamaran was beginning to depart and we realized this was our only savior. We waved towards the boat and they unfortunately said that they had to get going and didn’t have time to take us. As our mood worsened, we saw them turning around and we frantically rushed to gather our things. Within minutes our situation did a complete 180 and we were on a luxurious 75ft catamaran. We were first greeted and helped aboard by the young pleasant crew. We thanked the captain for saving us and headed back towards Panama City.

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We went back the way we came through the canal however, this time with a much more comfortable ride. The boat was beautiful with 7 cabins, a living room and a full kitchen. The captain was from Australia and very pleasant which was a welcomed change for us. After a successful transit back into the city, we talked with the captain and he offered us an opportunity of a lifetime. He is headed to Australia by way of Galapagos and Tahiti and offered us a place on his crew. After much consideration and lack of money we decided to pass on the offer.

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Panama City Week 1

After a disappointing trip to the deserted beach town of Santa Clara, we headed to Panama City. At first we were very unsure of our decision ….would almost 2 weeks in Panama City be too much time? We were droped off at the busy bus station and greeted by the warm city air. Panama City is divided into the old city and the new city. We chose to stay at the popular backpacker hostel known as Lunas Castle. Lunas Castle is located in the Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo district of Panama City. Casco Antiguo displays a mix of architectural styles, which in turn reflect the cultural diversity of the country: Caribbean, Republican, art deco, French, and colonial architecture mix in a site comprising around 800 buildings. Most of Panama City’s main monuments are located in Casco Antiguo, including  the National Theater, Las Bóvedas, and Plaza de Francia. Casco Viejo used to be an area regarded as dangerous but it is going through a positve change. Much of the city is being re-done and transformed. The streets are also protected by the Turism Police and the Military which makes us feel more comfrotable. 

The city is very muggy and hot mid day so it is best to explore early. Our first day we decided to do a walking tour around Casco Viejo. We didnt have an exact route, just wondered around. Our hostel provided us with a map and informed us of the “red zones” or the danger zones. As we wondered around we explored the old buildings and ruins. We also walked through the markets and the French quarter. After working up a sweat and a thirst we headed to the Coca Cola Café. It claims to be the oldest café in Panama, opening up its doors in 1875 and a World Heritage Site. It is also the only café in the world to be named “Coca Cola,” a namesake endorsed by the Coca-Cola corporation. This no-frills establishment is known for cheap panamian food. We both opted for the fried fish with fries which cost $5 a plate.

The following morning we awoke to the hot panama sun and needed an escape. We came across The Panama Canal Musuem and decided to give it a try. For a $2 entry fee we entered and greeted by a cool blast of A/C. Although everything was in Spanish, we were able to figure out what most of the things said (or at least we thought so). We learned that infact most of the canal was constructed by the French and then later finished by the Americans. 

After craving something other than rice and beans, we headed to Las Bóvedas. This utterly unique French restaurant is set in the vaults of a 300-year-old fort that housed political prisoners for most of the 19th century. The whole experience was very enjoyable from the setting to our fantastic tunasteaks. 

To feed our constant desire for fresh seafood we explored the local fish market. We were able to smell the market before we could see it. Once inside the building we were greeted by rows of vendors selling all types of fish. There were also famous ceviche stands dishing out the popular snack for around $2 a cup. So far Panama City has been very enjoyable for us and we look forward to the following days where we hope to explore the Panama Canal. 

Exploring The Small Towns of Panama

After getting through the holiday rush we arrived in Santa Fe. Santa Fe is a less developed version of Boquete, however, with real estate buildings popping up it looks like it won’t stay that way for too long. We stayed at Hostal La Qhia in the small mountain town. The hostel was a beautiful Swiss style home with an outdoor kitchen. The wood beams and rock decor was a nice change from the cement rooms we were getting used to. We spent most of our time relaxing in the hammocks; looking out at the mountains. Our best meals came from the small restaurant attached to the bus station offering chicken, rice and beans for around $2.50. On one sunny afternoon we went tubbing down the local river. There were some intense rapids… The closest thing we’ve come to white water rafting thus far!

After a few days in the mountains we were in need of some salt water and warm breezes. We headed to the popular beach town of Santa Catalina. We were told by many books and people that this was the place to be. However, we were greeted by black sand and rough waters abundant with jellyfish, not ideal for us non-surfers (Santa Catalina is the top surf destination in Central America). We had plans of staying many days in Santa Catalina but decided it wasn’t for us after 2 nights. The town offered over priced rooms and a depressing 2 isle grocery store with dusty shelves.

After going back to our guide book, We headed to El Valle in hopes of better luck. El Valle is another beautiful mountain town. In fact, the whole town is inside a volcano crater. The town offers a wide range of hotel options mostly in the upper markets. We were able to rent a room in the back of a local restaurant. The town is a landmark for hikers and bird watchers. We spent the day at the local market and hiking to the waterfall, Charros Las Mozas. The waterfall was a local hotspot and the teenage boys were crazy jumping off everywhere possible into the small but deep pools below the falls. Willy was brave enough to go for a jump as well! We also ventured to the hot springs where we were able to apply healing mud to our faces and then soak in the warm waters.

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Volunteer Week 2/ 3

The past 2 weeks at Casa Orquidea have flown by! We have finally begun to get into the swing of things and time is cruising along. We wake every morning to the sounds of chattering birds and other animals outside our door. By 9am the sun is high in the sky and beating down on us so we take advantage of any shade that we can get. Our daily chores include weeding, edging and raking. We have also been working with their local caretaker, Alex. Alex only speaks Spanish, so it has been good practice for us! Alex also invited us out on his boat for some fishing. 5 days after the full moon, Needlefish gather by the shore to breed. This freenzy draws locals from all over. Willy tried his luck, and was able to catch 2 fish and he also spotted a sea turtle and dolphin from the boat. The hardest part of it all was learning how to gut the fish. 

ImageOur afternoons are spent wandering around the gardens or reading in our hammocks. After reading some of Trudy’s herbal medicine books, we have been experimenting with the local plants. They have spice and medicinal gardens which offer a variety of plants to aid in wounds, headaches and stomach issues. We are also fortunate enough to be able to pick fresh basil and oregano from the garden. There is a giant grapefruit tree and lemon tree next to our house which has provided us with fresh juice in the morning!

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View from our porch

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Sunset

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First Rain

 

La Fortuna

After a quick pit stop in San Jose, we made the 5 hour journey to La Fortuna(Arenal Volcano). Once we arrived we were greeted with lush vegetation and cooler temperatures. After shopping around for 30 minutes,  we decided to call Hostel Backpackers La Fortuna home and ventured out around town. The massive Arenal Volcano can be seen from almost everywhere in town when it is not covered by clouds. The best views of the volcano can be had early in the morning. Although the lava is no longer visible, there is still smoke coming out of the top. The main street is lined with tour centers, restaurants and hostels. La Fortuna is an adventure paradise. There are tours for zip-lining, white water rafting, volcano hikes, waterfalls and hot springs just to name a few.

After a good nights´rest in the great orthopedic beds of our hostel, we decided to take on the day! We woke up early and caught a glimpse of Arenal before the cloud coverage. We then headed to the La Fortuna Waterfall. We choose to take a cab to the park entrance because it is quiet the hike up. The falls cost $10 to enter and can(and should) be done without a tour guide. After hiking down over 400 steps we arrived at the pristine falls. With a 200ft drop and beautiful green-blue water below, it was very breathtaking.  We jumped in the water to cool off. The current and force from the falls was very strong but very refreshing. We hiked back up the steps and back down to the town. After the long hike up and down our legs were feelings like jello so what better way to refresh them, than with the local hot springs.

There are plenty of tour groups that offer packages to the Baldi Hot Springs. We shopped around and found the best deal from Red Lava Tours. They offered us transportation to the springs, pool access and dinner for $38 per person. The Baldi Hot Springs are one of four hot springs options in the area. We chose Baldi because they have over 25 pools ranging in temperatures and water slides. The whole place was like an adult water-park complete with swim up bars. We spent the evening exploring pools ranging from 93 to 116 degrees! 

Our stay at La Fortuna is short but well worth it! We are off to Manuel Antonio.

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Arenal

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La Fortuna Waterfall

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Baldi Hot Springs

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Baldi Hot Springs

Brighter Days In Granada

It is a new day, so that means a new journey. We are staying at this awesome hostel in Granada called Hostel Oasis. There is an english speaking staff who is very informative. The hostel also has 2 courtyards; one with a pool and the other with hammocks. The hostel is filled with other travelers both young and old! We have met some really great people so far, and it has made my loss a little bit easier to deal with. A nice couple from California gave me an extra backpack and a few clothes. Granada is filled with markets and local thirft shops so we have also been glancing through them. After visiting the police station 4 times, I finally recieved my police report. I think I should be back on my feet in no time! 

We hiked up to the top of the church to catch the sunset from the bell towers and it was fantasic. It only cost $1 and is highly recommended. We were able to see the city in all its glory, with the brightly colored buildings and people filled streets below. 

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Hostel Oasis Courtyard

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Bell Tower