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Day #8: Colon, Panama

For most folks, today was the “main event” for this cruise, it’s raison d’etre, why we’re all here. For Libby and me? Not so much. Transiting (or, in this case, partially transiting) the Panama Canal just wasn’t on our bucket list. It’s not that we didn’t think it was a monumental feat of engineering or of historical, economic, and social importance. Interesting? Perhaps. An added bonus? Sure. It’s just not something that has ever really excited us. What’s always jazzed about this itinerary was the relatively high “new country” count, baby.

Indeed, I sat smugly at breakfast this morning talking about how I wasn’t even sure if a partial transit really counted for a Panama Canal transit for someone wanting to scratch it off their bucket list. (For the record, I’m still not sure, but I’ll go with “why not” if pressed.) While others scouted out prime spots on deck long before our arrival at the first lock, I munched on one of HAL’s sublime bran muffins confident in my superiority. Yet, as we finished breakfast and approached this wonder of the modern world, I couldn’t help but find myself a bit excited by the prospect of experiencing it firsthand.

Of course, by this time the bow of the ship was positively crammed with fellow passengers.

Undeterred, we watched closely the movement of ships ahead of us and exiting the canal in the other direction. For those that don’t know, the locks of the Panama Canal work like a kind of escalator for ships: the lock gates open, a ship enters, the water level rises/falls to match the water level in the direction of travel, the opposite gates open, and then the ships moves on. That’s how all canal locks work. Of course, the Panama Canal does this on a grand scale (and even a grander scale for the new locks, which support ships considerably larger than the historical Panamax size).

To get a private, front- (well, back-) row seat, we returned to our aft-facing balcony cabin on the stern of the Zuiderdam.

Entering the first of the Gatun Locks…

This provided an unobstructed view of the operation of the lock gates behind us.

Leaving the first lock…

In the second lock, watching the water rise…

After making our way through all three of the Gatun Locks, the ship stopped in Gatun Lake and disembarked passengers (including us) going on excursions in Panama. Our plan for the day? An ecological adventure on the man-made Gatun Lake in search of native wildlife, especially monkeys.

Unfortunately, it was a bit rainy (that’s our ship on the lake!)…

Zuiderdam on Gatun Lake

But, hey, it’s the rainforest! This is part of the adventure! Besides, we took a lot of sea-spray from the boat on the river anyway.

Being at water level on the Panama Canal really changes one’s perspective. It allowed us to better examine the topography of the land and imagine the islands of today as the hills of a bit more than a century ago.

Boating along Gatun Lake…

We did manage to see some monkeys (though the photos are much better on my SLR — I’ll have to upload those later).

Following our two-hour boat tour, we all were thoroughly soaked for our return to Colon, where our ship was awaiting us. It had transited the Gatun Locks in the opposite direction while we were on tour. Needless to say, our shipmates were all keen to get out of their wet clothes and warm up. As such, nobody had a desire to explore Colon on our arrival there, which was a good thing as Colon has a bad reputation (not a place to wander outside of the port gates).

Indeed, I have to say the town looked fairly rundown and rather seedy. This was one of the nicer streets:

Colon, Panama

All in all, we had a fun day… I like a mild adventure and sense of slight discomfort sometimes when traveling (which isn’t especially easy to do on a cruise). It makes me feel a bit more alive.

Today’s box score: +1 country (Panama)

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