65. Panama City (Day Five)
We headed down to the kitchen for our daily free breakfast, usually consisting of toast, peanut butter, jam and bananas. This morning was different. While all the staples were there, on the table was an additional item. Vegemite. How a jar of Vegemite ended up in a hostel in Panama City I will never know, but it made Danny's day. Danny isn't usually much of a morning person; today he was almost dancing down the hallways. Later in the day he received half price beer at the brewery and scored a free bus ticket, so he was on a roll. If only we knew how to buy lottery tickets here.
We split up again today, so I could explore more hiking trails in the area and Danny could drink beer. I caught the "red devil" bus (brightly decorated, old-school public buses, similar to chicken buses) out to Gamboa, as there was a specific trail I wanted to visit in the Soberania National Park. The bus reached a suburbian district in Gamboa, turned around and started heading back to Panama City. Where was I supposed to get off? I thought there would be an obvious sign or announcement, but there was nothing. The driver spoke no English and wasn't able to help. I slumped back in my seat, thinking that maybe Danny's plan was better than mine today (not that I would ever admit that to his face).
As I sat staring out the window, weighing up my options, we whizzed past an arrow pointing towards the park. I quickly jumped off and headed back to the sign, finding a short, poorly maintained trail through the forest. The trickling cascade was nice, but most of my time was spent figuring out how to get around the collapsed bridges and balancing on rocks crossing creeks. The only wildlife on offer were hundreds of small lizards, a few brown-coloured frogs and the sound of howler monkeys in the distance. I was done after 30 minutes. To say it was a let down was an understatement.
On my not-to-scale map I noticed another trail further on down the road. I commenced walking towards this trail, thinking it would take me maybe an hour to get there. I was there in 10 minutes. This track was much longer and much more popular. It consisted of a wide, dirt road with gentle undulations, and followed the course of a river through the trees. Hikers were definitely in the minority; here it was all about mountain biking. Every couple of minutes another bicycle would fly by, as though they were attempting a fastest known time for the course. I spent a lot of time hugging the edge of the road (although apparently even that wasn't enough room for some cyclists). The scenery was beautiful but again not many animals were spotted. Lizards, butterflies and one squirrel was the quota for the park.
Mountain biking mecca, apparently.
Back out on the road I stood and waited for a bus to come along and take me back towards Miraflores locks on the canal, where I planned to meet Danny. After 15 minutes a couple of guys, who had been cycling along the path, offered me a lift in their car. I immediately accepted, thinking that surely mountain bikers were friendly people who were not out to kidnap solo female tourists. I was right.
The Panama Canal was obviously a must-do for us while we were in the country, but I really wasn't that eager to visit the locks. A few ships passing through a canal as the water level moved up and down - how could they make that exciting? Surprisingly, it turned out much better than I anticipated.
Danny and I met up at the locks as planned and walked through together. First impressions: a four-storey museum may be a bit overboard. While it was great at providing the whole story of the construction of the canal (which I knew nothing about), I questioned the point of some of the displays ("Here's a piece of rock we dug out of the ground"). Statistics were plastered all over the exhibits, which, being a numbers person, fascinated me. The operation of the lock system was ingenious, as not a single pump was used to transport the boats; it was all reliant on gravity. The downside was that it was extremely water-wasteful: 100 million litres of freshwater per boat, all flushed out to sea. No wonder it cost so much for ships to travel along the canal (we're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars per vessel). The new expansion planned to include a water recycling system, which it desperately needed.
The observation decks were the highlight, looking straight over the lock as ship after ship was slowly lowered to sea level. A few passenger boats sneaked through with the ships, which I was sure was stupidly expensive but would also be very cool to do one day. I lost track of how long I spent watching action, but it was probably in the multi-hour range. I don't know why I was captivated - even Danny gave up after a short time. In the end it exceeded all my expectations. I was glad I had made the effort to visit Miraflores.
Down she goes.