February 17 – Traversing the Continent

We knew before we arrived down here that the Panamanian lifestyle was laid back and that being “on-time” meant being at least 20 minutes late. Our tour guide Kenny was pleasantly surprised when we had all checked out of our first hotel and boarded the bus by 5:40am this morning, 20 minutes prior to our pre-determined departure time.

After an early breakfast at a local 24/7 cafeteria-style chain restaurant, we headed to Balboa, just outside of Panama City, where we reached the Panama Canal Railway Pacific Passenger Station. The railway line runs parallel to the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific stretching about 48 miles across the Isthmus. The infrastructure of this railroad was of vital importance for the construction of the Canal. It was the most expensive railroad to build, per mile, costing about $8 million USD. Its construction also led to the death of about 12,000 people from Cholera, Malaria, and Yellow Fever. When the line was completed in 1855, it cost $25 per person for the train ride. This morning, our tickets were the same price.

paulALP 16 Class Member Paul Hodgen gets ready to board the train!

We effectively traversed the continent in just under 1 hour in what was one of the most beautiful journeys through lush rainforest over Gatun Lake. Glass windows that climbed up the ceilings of the train allowed us to spot monkeys, sloths, and exotic birds high up in the treetops. Crocodiles peered up at us from the fresh water below.

SlothOne of the sloths we saw today.

Once on the Atlantic side in Colon, we visited the Zona Libre de Colon, or the Free Trade Zone. It’s a large, geographically distinct entity dedicated to importing and re-exporting a huge variety of merchandise as well as some agricultural products. It’s utilized by over 1,700 companies which can conduct international business with zero duties or quotas on imports and zero taxation on profit from re-exportations. It’s the second largest free trade zone in the world, trailing only behind Hong Kong, and provides numerous jobs to local Panamanians.

Zona LibreThe Free Zone was almost like a little city.

After leaving the Free Zone, we had the privilege of visiting the construction site of the New Panama Canal expansion project on the Atlantic side. The final project will double the capacity of the canal by creating a new lane of traffic and allow larger “New Panamax” size ships which are about one and a half times the current maximum length and width and can carry over twice as much cargo. The new locks have water-saving basins to reduce the volume of water that is needed in lock operation. Pictures just cannot capture the breadth and enormity of this construction project.

Expansion ProjectCanal expansion construction from the viewing deck.

For the next couple of nights, we’re lodging at a resort in Gamboa which is a small town in Panama, and one of a handful of permanent canal zone townships built to house employees of the Canal. A single lane iron and wood bridge crosses the Chagres River and is the only road access to Gamboa.

Hammock A view of the rain forest from the hotel room patio     

CapyberaA Capybara, the world’s largest rodent, on the hotel grounds.