Searching for sloths and the Panama Canal
It’s Panamanian, and they say it’s one of the greatest engineering marvels of all time. Not the century, but of all time. And no, I’m not talking about Panamanian actress Jordana Brewster, whose performances alongside acting-greats, Paul Walker [too soon?] and Vin Diesel, in the Fast and Furious franchise rocked the apprehension-spiked angst-ridden core of my closeted 19 year old college self. I’m not talking about her. The miraculous engineering feat I’m talking about; the one spawned on the backs of hundreds of thousands of native Panamanians 100 years ago (August 15, 1914 to be exact); the one that makes billions of dollars annually for the Panamanian Government and yet none of that mullah seems to trickle it’s way down to the pockets of the citizens whose grandparents died constructing said feat; yeah that’s—the Panama Canal. Or as I’ve started calling it, “the cleavage of Central America.”
Originally I came up with the “Crack of Panama,” but seeing the ears perk up on that ferocious drug-sniffing Beagle in US customs made me rethink that name. That beast was out for blood!
So I searched for something a little more maternal, welcoming, and life-affirming, like breasts! And that naturally brought me to cleavage. Why am I referring to the Panama Canal as “cleavage,” you ask? Well, it’s because I had to think of something that would make it a little more exciting than it actually was/is. Think about it. It’s a retrofitted river that big boats use to go from the Pacific to the Caribbean with more speed, and less fuel. Sounds cool I know, but to see it in person…well, let’s just say it’s not much more exciting than a teacher explaining the physics of buoyancy using only a paint bucket, a hose, and a rubber ducky. The exception of course being structural engineers, they were practically jerk’n-off at the site of the canal locks in action…which explains the Purell dispensers all over the visitor’s center.
But it’s friggin “the Panama Canal” for crying out loud. This is something I’d been hearing about since Junior High. And as an adult, I’d read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, an amazing book illustrating the untold dramas behind the Panama Canal. And it’s that book (later coupled with The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein) that opened up my eyes to the real greed, puppetry and manipulation associated with international development and in this case, masked by this engineering marvel—the Panama Canal.
Here’s some general history as I understand it. Back in 1914 the country that controlled the Panama Canal, was the country that controlled the pace of our global economy. At first it was the US, and we essentially commandeered the parts of the country surrounding the Panama Canal, so we could siphon off our share of the loot being collected in fares. With Americans expected to reside down there, the place needed to be westernized (aka civilized and suitable for international business, which is probably just a fancy way of saying, we wanted the place to look legit enough so we could launder money through it a la Wolf of Wall Street). So we sent representatives from our largest international contracting firms down to Panama. While there, they met with the wealthiest of Panamanians and sold them on the dream of being a first world country, and dangled the baubles of paved roads, raised speedways, new bridges, plumbing, water filtration systems, sewage systems, a reliable utility grid, and more in their faces. And the wealthy Panamanians who couldn’t wait to be as rich as the American economists they were hanging with, said “sign us up!” But Panama was too poor to afford an upgrade; an upgrade it wasn’t even sure it needed. These improvements may not have been necessary, but they sure sounded swell, coming from a handsome clean-cut American Economist stroking the symbolic Panamanian-cock with ideals like “the American Dream,” and “opportunity for all.”
So what happened? The US loaned Panama the money to improve the infrastructure of the country, and in doing so, tacked on some pretty hefty interest rates, making the loans nearly impossible to pay back out of pocket. So they did with the sale of any natural resources America wanted, political favors, and through the promise of years of income and operation of/from the Panama Canal. Juicy right?
Well, even with this backstory, we’d just gotten up early in Casco Viejo, had our café con leche and simple eggs and toast from Hotel Casa del Horno (it was part of our room rate at Hotel Casa Nurrati), and waited for our derisive tour guide for the day (Kevin, from Barefoot Panama).
Visiting the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal
The advantages to working with an expat Bostonian-antiestablishmentarian-Panama-City-tour-guide like Kevin from Barefoot Panama, are that he speaks English; although his Mass-hole accent was thick at first, and he’s capable of pointing out all the differences between life in Panama and how things are in the US, which is exactly what we were most interested in. He also understood our sense of humor, and the concept of good customer service. This last point is something to take note of too, because Panama is one of those countries in the middle of a transition. Sort of like the Czech Republic was in 2005. When the rest of the world first realizes it’s a great tourist destination, it takes a few years for the locals to figure out how best to monetize on that interest, and customer service is like the last lesson learned, because let’s face it, it’s best learned on the job. Thanks to him and his Panamanian wife who runs the operations of their local tour guide business, we had a VIP Panama Canal experience. A local who knew who, where and when we should be going, and a fellow American to hold our hand through it, was the perfect combination.
Our day started with a visit to the Miraflores Locks.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Takes 15-20 mins for a boat to go through one set of locks
- Each chamber is 110 feet wide by 1,000 feet long.
- The Panama Canal operates 24/7
- The first half of the day boats travel through in one direction from the Pacific to the Caribbean. They go the other way the second half of the day.
- It takes 8-10 hours for a boat to go through the entire Panama Canal
- The Canal is 48 miles long from end to end.
- About 40 ships pass through a day
- The Panama Canal was completed in 1914
- It’s currently being expanded.
- Some ships (like cruise ships) pay more than $300,000 to use the Panama Canal once.
- It saves ships going from New York to San Francisco over 7,800 miles of travel, and of course gas!
- The motors/engines responsible for opening, and holding the lock gates shut are only a few hundred horsepower. Which is pretty small considering the motor in cars today are much more powerful.
- It takes about 8 minutes to fill a lock chamber and raise a boat.
- These little towing locomotives (aka mules) ride the tracks on the sides of the locks and tug the ships evenly through. Each one costs more than $2 million.
- The total volume of concrete used to build the locks was 3,440,488 cubic meters.
Best practices when visiting the Panama Canal locks:
- Go to the Miralflores locks since they’re only a 15 mins drive from Casco Viejo and the others are much further away.
- Get there just before the visitor center opens around 10am, because that’s when the boats waiting to go west-to-east are first let into the locks after the schedule shifts.
- When you get there, push your tour guide to work his way to the front of the lines, while you and your group wait near the rope on the side (to the left of the lines) where they actually funnel guests into the building. Good tour guides know how it works.
- Skip the exhibition and go straight to the top floor where the balcony viewing deck is and you’ll probably see a ship going through the locks. If you go in the reverse order, by the time you get upstairs, you’ll be pushing and shoving to make your way to the railing.
- Avoid the exhibition all together, and watch the movie, which gives you the highlights of the Panama Canal and locks’ system. Notice the propaganda and pro-Panama messaging too. Very funny.
- Don’t plan on eating at the visitor center. It’s not good and way over priced.
Here’s how the canal locks work:
The boats in the morning line up near Puerto Balboa on the Pacific side and wait their turn to get into the locks.
The towing railcars latch onto the boats and pull them into the chamber.
The gates close behind them.
The chamber fills with water over the next 8 minutes. Watch the wall on the far side of the chamber to see the ship is rising in the chamber.
Once it’s full, the gates on the far side of the lock open.
The ship is tugged out to the edge of the lock until it can sail on it’s own to the next lock.
Boat Ride Along the Panama Canal in Search for Sloths
After spending 10 of the 40 minutes we spent at the locks in the gift shop, we decided it was best to get on with our day. We met Kevin at the van (brand new spacious mini van with awesome air conditioning) so he could take us on a short boat ride along the Panama Canal and into some of the mangrove forests and tiny jungle islands crusting the sides of the canal. This is when our search for the elusive slithering sloth began!
Kevin had taken care of everything, and after a 10 minutes drive down the road from the Miraflores Locks we were in our small boat on the Rio Chagres (Chagres River). The boat left a small rickety dock across from the Gamboa Rainforest Resort restaurant (which Kevin advised was overpriced, not good, and not worth your time) and out into canal traffic. This was our boat driver.
The canal was undergoing an expansion so the digging and construction churned up soil and mud, making the water murky like a weak masala chai tea.
But once we branched off the canal onto some of the smaller waterways it was calm and shallow….and it looked like this.
We saw birds everywhere. Some were in flight….
and some just watched us stroll by.
No toucans though.
We pulled up to an island notorious for a family of sassy white-headed capuchin monkeys. The put put put put of our boat’s motor in neutral was magic to their ears, and like children hearing the ice cream man’s truck approach, they came running.
Kevin brought a bunch of bananas that he ripped into smaller pieces and tossed to the cute little monkeys who got real close, but not close enough to touch. Kevin told us that they’re cute, but that it’s not really a good thing if and when they board the boat, especially since the mother monkey might feel competition from the women on board and maul them to death.
But no sloths…none.
The boat ride was about an hour-long in all. And it was pretty cool sailing along behemoth shipping boats like this, not to mention doing it on the iconic Panama Canal. For what it’s worth, I don’t think a formal day cruise down the canal is worth the time, money, and effort, when it’s really a 1-2 hour experience in all (IE: seeing the locks and riding the canal a little).
Mi Ranchito and the Sloth
The third part of our half-day trip to the Panama Canal with Kevin from Barefoot Panama was lunch—obviously! While leaving the boat in Gamboa, Kevin presented a few choices of where to eat, and we settled on Mí Ranchito, which was local fare at a decent price. The restaurant parking lot was next to the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute, and Kevin thought there was a good chance we’d see a sloth there.
I don’t know why, but I really wanted to see a sloth. Maybe it’s because they’re endangered? Maybe it’s because they’re never just “out and about,” because they sleep around 20 hours a day? Kevin told us the trees near the parking lot have a family of about eight sloths that just hang out there, because the nearest jungle area for them to get to is on the other side of the Amador Causeway. Which is too much effort for a lazy sloth to cross.
And right in the middle of the parking lot, Kevin stopped the van. He waved us over to an electrical junction box along the wall of the parking lot. And there it was, my sloth. This cute little furry guy, curled up in a quiet shady spot. I tried waving at him to get his attention, and took a few pics, but all I got was a little flatulence-shift in his waist. I’d never seen anything like it. It sort of reminded me an old hairy Jewish man covered in bad-toupe hair who’d fallen asleep with his chin in his own gut. Which is why I’m calling him Uncle Schmooly!
We saw a larger sloth up in the trees, but we figured it was also taking a nap, because it wasn’t moving fast enough for us to notice.
Mí Ranchito feels pretty tropical. The main dining room is under one giant thatched hut with smaller huts on the side.
The staff is on top of their game during the busy lunch rush, and within minutes of ordering, our food was being served. Off in the distance we could see downtown Panama City, and the start of a tropical storm approaching. Kevin said we had a good 40 minutes before it was raining on us, so we ate quickly.
Here’s what we had:
Seafood cream soup (crema de mariscos). This was actually a really good New England style clam chowder only it had more than just clams in it, and it was light on the potatoes.
A sautéed mushroom and walnut salad. This salad was really good; hearty, crispy, fresh, and full of flavor. Since arriving in Panama City, we’d seen few salads on menus and none of us wanted to get scurvy or anything. Kevin said he’s responsible for getting this salad on the menu in the first place, because he’d been bringing his American tourist clients to the restaurants for years, and most of the women were looking for a healthier salad option to chose from. So all salad eaters at Mí Ranchito have Kevin to thank!
The mixed seafood platter for two. This was all fried seafood and it came with a side of clams cooked in garlic sauce. The plate had fried calamari, fried octopus, fried fish sticks, and fried shrimps. I know this looks like a plate of cardiac arrest, but if you can believe it….the batter and fry seemed light and less greasy than most.
The clams in garlic sauce were amazing and perfect on top of the white rice they served us.
One of us ordered the grilled jumbo shrimp (langostinos a la plancha) and a side of fried plantains (patacones). These came with the shell on, which is good for flavor and to protect the shrimp meat from over cooking. They were scored too, which made them easy to peel.
And someone else ordered the same grilled jumbo shrimp (langostinos a la plancha) with a side of steamed veggies and order of their coconut rice. The coconut rice isn’t on the menu, but Kevin with his insider tips said it was good and that they could make it. And it was! And if you haven’t had this kind of coconut rice before, just know it’s not too sweet, and you only get a hint of coconut in each bite.
Kevin ordered a plate of breaded jumbo shrimp (langostinos apanados) with a side of French fries (which were perfect) and a side of veggies.
And we left the restaurant satiated, before that nasty little rainstorm hit.