Canal and Carnaval in Panama

We turn up early to the bus station in San Jose and get one of the few seats in the waiting room.  The 11pm bus leaves only two minutes late, we are nice and comfy courtesy of Ticabus blankets and pillows and soon snooze off.  We arrive at the border crossing about 3.45am and queue up expectantly at the office which, according to the guidebook, is open 24 hours – ha, don’t believe everything you read!  At 5.30am the toilet attendant arrives (just as well!) and confidently tells us the officials will be here at 6am.  Finally about 7.30am we are speeding on our way again, good roads and lush scenery, and we arrive in the melee of Allbrook bus terminal in Panama City about 4pm, just a tad tired.  We learn later that it’s manic on the buses as today is the first day of a five-day holiday for their national Carnaval, the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday.
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We are still about 3 miles or so from our hotel, but we manage to negotiate the taxi fare down to a reasonable price.  Although we’ve been staying in budget hotels most of the time we had trouble making a reservation here, so we’ve stepped up a grade – a very comfy bed and pillows, soft towels, little tubes of shampoo, and no ants !  It also has a functioning cable television, so we can continue our attempt to watch  ”The Mummy III: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”, dubbed into Spanish, in every country in Latin America.  If we watch it long enough, we may even understand it.
The following day is the first day of Carnaval, so we walk down to the waterfront to see what’s occurring.  We’re vastly early, it’s only midday, so mostly there are thousands of policemen checking the perimeter, and people setting up beer and food stalls.  The music is already loud, the sun is hot, hot, hot and the smallish crowd is being cooled by torrents of water sprayed by large hoses from water tankers.
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We’re just standing around innocently when a family standing nearby decide to empty a bag of confetti down our shirts, inside and out.  This is common during Carnaval, when you can be sprayed with foam or water, or coated in paper at any moment.  Shortly thereafter, we’re sitting on a grass verge when we are approached by two photographers and what proves to be a reporter, from the national paper, Prensa.  They “interview” us, tricky as our Spanish is improving but not really tippy-top yet.  We are surprised to find we are actually in the paper the following day, billed as Pablo and Diana Davies.  Here’s a picture of me holding a can of Balboa.
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The following day, we decide to tour Casco Viejo, the old town of Panama City.  This suffered decades of neglect, and is still attached to a rather sketchy neighbourhood, but is gradually being restored.  It’s on a promontory which gives a good view of the not-so-old part of Panama City, which has many skyscrapers.
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The restored parts are really quite spectacular: this bit below could easily be in Italy somewhere.  Unfortunately, all of the museums and the like are closed because it’s Carnaval, so after a while we walk back along the sea wall towards the largest concentration of beer vendors in the country, past the fish market.  Here we pause briefly to have ceviche, possibly our favourite Latin American dish: fish marinated in lime juice, basically, but with variations from place to place.
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Again, we’re a wee bit early for the main action, but we do spot this guy.
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We hang around for a while again, but there’s still not much happening, so we resolve to come back later.  In the event, we don’t make it.  On our way out of the hotel at about 6 that evening we run into a couple we met on the bus, and they report that there are only about 5 floats in the main procession, and they didn’t roll up til late, so we scrap the idea and head instead for the Istmo Brew Pub.  This holds the prospect of a drink of a beer other than lager, and in fact it is so.  It’s still a bit fizzy, but their Amber Ale is nice.  They also do hookah pipes, according to the sign below.  Perhaps they should get them in the Bell in Bath.
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There’s only one thing left to do in Panama City: visit the Canal.  You have to do this while ships are actually passing through, otherwise it’s a tad boring, so we join the queue to get in at 9:15am, and watch the Sunshine Express enter the first lock, Miraflores.  Vessels which pass through are charged according to length, so old Sunshine here will pay a great deal, perhaps many tens of thousands of dollars, to travel the fifty miles between the Atlantic and the Pacific.  The smallest amount ever paid was $0.36, by Richard Halliburton, who swam through, while the most expensive regular toll to date was to the cruise ship Coral Princess, which paid $380,500.
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The little trains keep the ship in the centre of the canal, as there is only 24 inches clearance on either side.  The size of ships around the world is influenced by the width of the Panama Canal: the largest size which can pass through is called Panamax.  They’re building a new set of locks which will be able to accommodate even wider ships in the future.
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There’s a cinema as well, showing a film about the building of the canal.  The French had a go, lost many thousands of workers to malaria and yellow fever, and gave up, then the job was finished by the Americans, who ran the canal and the zone around it for decades.  It was finally signed over to Panama by President Carter in 1977.  So, a final night in Panama City, and then we’re flying off to Bogota, Colombia, and South America.

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