Panama: Panama City & Panama Canal

I stopped in Panama on my way back from Chile, because a three-day stopover didn’t cost any more than flying straight home. After a few weeks of other miscellaneous trips to see friends and family, I’m finally getting around to sharing some highlights.

Panama City

Panama’s City’s skyline is bigger than San Francisco’s and probably most cities in the United States. The skyscrapers stretch along the edge of the the Pacific Ocean. A giant road called the Cinta Costera was built above the ocean so that cars can avoid going through the busy streets in old town. Fortunately, city planners also added a path for bicycles and pedestrians with great views of the old town and the new city. Walking along the road was a lovely relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of the city itself.


view of downtown Panama City from the Cinta Costera

I visited MAC Panama, the contemporary art museum in Panama City and saw an entire exhibit by the Venezuelan op artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. He spent most of his life exploring color and the movement of color.  Due to his commercial success, he is one of Latin America’s most well-known artists, but sadly, just a couple weeks after I saw this exhibit, he passed away.


works by French-Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez

I honestly didn’t eat much Panamanian food while I was there, but I did get some delicious fancy vegetarian food at a lovely restaurant in old town called Tio Navaja. On my last day, I stopped by a street vender to buy a passion fruit raspado, full of icy goodness.


vegan patacones, tacos, and a creamy passion fruit raspado

Agua Clara Locks

Of course, the main thing I wanted to see in Panama was the Panama Canal itself. It’s the 51 mile shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that most cargo ships take to shorten their journeys. Because of the topography of the land, locks are needed to move boats safely from one side of the isthmus to the other. They need to go up 3 sets of locks  and down 3 sets of locks.

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Panama Canal diagram (link to original on Wikipedia)

I visited the Agua Clara Locks which were expanded a few years ago to allow more and bigger boats to go through, while doing a better job of recycling the water needed to run the locks. Guides to the locks will say that the Panama Canal expansion is good not only for the global economy, but also for fighting greenhouse emissions. First, taking the canal route alone cuts down the amount of fuel needed to get from one ocean to the other. Instead of going around the long way, they wait around for about a week and then go through the canal once their turn arises in the queue. Second, this expansion allows bigger boats to go through (the new Panamax style) that can carry 120,000 tons of cargo, which means less boats need to be coming and going.

I’m not sure I buy their arguments, mostly I think it just means more ships and more stuff will be going through the canals. It’s like when cities build more roads to accomodate more cars, but then the roads fill up with even more cars. This is called induced demand and although I’m glad they’re doing work to make these locks more energy efficient and water efficient, my guess is that there’s still a net positive of carbon emissions after these were created.

The locks, regardless, are fascinating to watch in practice. On the big new Panamax ship in the photo below, it took six tugboats to properly align the boat with the lock, two on each side and one at the front and back. When the boat enters the canal, a Panamanian captain takes control for the duration of the canal transit. There’s just a couple feet of safety room on either side so the captain is in constant communication to all the tugboats while maneuvering the boat into the lock. Once inside the locks, the tugboat at the front and back stay with the boat until it exits. This boat in this photo was on its way out to the Atlantic Ocean and had started its journey in Hong Kong.

new Panamax cargo boat transiting through Agua Clara locks with support tugboats

One of the coolest parts of being near the canal is watching the different types of boats go by. Some carry oil, some carry containers, some carry natural gas, and some carry cars! The boats that carry cars are completely enclosed so that the cars arrive in pristine condition. They are are called RORO because cargo is rolled-on, rolled-off.

RORO cargo boat entering the Panama Canal from the Atlantic Ocean (view from right before the old locks near Agua Clara) and leaving to the Pacific Ocean (view from my hotel)

It takes about 8-10 hours for a ship to go through the Panama Canal. I saw the boat above enter the locks on the Atlantic side in the morning around 7am and then around 4pm, I watched it head towards the Pacific from my hotel balcony in Panama City.

Boats generally arrive up to a week in advance and they wait around until they are directed to go through. Although tiny private vessels go through for a few thousand dollars, the big ships cost around half a million. Apparently, the current record is around $1.2 million for one of the new Panamax ships loaded down with cargo. One guy swam through a while back and under the old rates was charged 36 cents, which was calculated based on the carrying capacity of his stomach. 🙂


recent view of Panama Canal traffic (from

Last fun fact about the Panama Canal: It was almost built through Nicaragua instead because the land topography meant less digging would be necessary.

Fort San Lorenzo

This fort is on the Atlantic side of Panama and was originally built in the 1500’s to protect the treasures arriving from the Camino de las Cruces, the earliest colonizer route across Panama. Some of you might remember reading about the silver mines in Potosí, Bolovia. All of that silver (along with gold from other parts that were being plundered in South America) was shipped up to the Pacific side of Panama and then transported along this route by people, mules, and boats to the other side. Once they arrived at this fort, the precious metals would stay there until the annual “treasure fleet” set sail back to Europe, traveling in a convoy for protection.

Eventually, the pirate/privateer Henry Morgan (yes, Captain Morgan rum is named after him), attacked the fort and left it in ruins, but it was rebuilt ten years later.


Fort San Lorenzo entrance, moat, and the view out over the Panama Canal

Monkey Island

Panama is home to amazing wildlife and rainforest. I would love to come back and see more of it. The only glimpse I got was a visit by boat in pouring rain to briefly see Monkey Island, where we got to spot some capuchin monkeys. They were cute though. 🙂


white-faced capuchin monkey



Week 18: Molokai


I met Tim and Torrey on my first day hiking the O Circuit in Torres del Paine. Months earlier, we’d all signed up for basically the same campsites along the 9 day trek and they soon became my trail family. No matter which of us got to camp first, we would always set up our tent right next door. I never really felt like I was solo hiking, because every night at camp, I knew I’d have company. After they brought me some treats on trail, I started calling them my fairy godparents. They invited me to come visit them, and since I’d never been to Molokai, I decided that sounded like a great way to end my adventure.


Glacier Grey and us in Torres del Paine, all of us on the beach in Molokai

Molokai is more Hawaiian than any of the Hawaiian Islands. There are not many tourists that visit and there is only one hotel and some condominium rentals for people who don’t live there. On the main road, there is a big sign that states, “Visit, spend, go home.” The people who live here don’t want their island to turn into Oahu or Maui. The three of us talked a lot about how it feels to be a part of a community in which you weren’t raised and why they might be more accepted than some of their neighbors. One thing is clear, both of them are extremely adept at understanding and participating in local cultural practices. Living and working within the community, instead of only coming and building a retirement home, also has a definite impact.

I was still getting over jet lag from New Zealand, so I did a lot of relaxing while I was in Molokai. I read some books and stared at the ocean. They did drag me out snorkeling one day.


me hanging out on the west side of Molokai (thanks Torrey for the awesome photo), beach scene

We managed to see a bunch of fish, a sea cucumber, some nice corals and a cone snail. Notice the triggerfish in the upper right. That’s the state fish of Hawai’i, known in Hawaiian as the humuhumunukunukuapua’a which I saw for the first time back in Mauritius.


top: marbled hawkfish, convict tang, reef triggerfish (Hawai’i state fish)
bottom: sea cucumber, coral, cone snail

They also took me out on a beautiful kayaking adventure with some of their friends. One of the places we stopped, there were three huge manta rays basically swimming in a circuit. They would swim the length of the beach and then flip upwards so that their underbellies showed and then swim back to where they started. I ran back to the kayak and grabbed the snorkeling gear, but the water was so murky I couldn’t see anything even though they were only a foot away in the water. Manta rays are such incredible, majestic creatures.


Tim and neighbor in their kayak, Tim standup paddleboarding, glimpse of a manta ray in the water

I also took myself out on a couple of adventures. One was to Pālā’au State Park to see the view out over Kalaupapa. I could barely see anything through the fog, but this was the old settlement, established in 1866, where people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were forcibly taken away from their loved ones and forced to live. Since the 1940s, the disease has a cure and many people rejoined their estranged families. The site has been turned into a national park, and a few of the original residents still live there and will be allowed to live there until they die. There are restrictions around visiting and since a landslide occurred, the only way to visit is now by air or sea.


fantastically foggy forest, view of Kalaupapa Colony, fertility rock

There’s also an old sugar mill which reminded me a lot of both the sugar factory in Mauritius and the money mint in Bolivia. This process of making sugar from cane is very similar in both places, but in Mauritius, the leftover sugarcane was burned and used to power the wheels that crush it. However, on Molokai it was mule, oxen, and horses walking in circles that caused the wheels to rotate. This is the same way the mint in Bolivia worked and how metal was flattened thin enough to make coins.

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place where livestock walked in circles, sugarcane extraction, passion-orange-guava icee (not nearly as good as I was expecting)

On my last day, I tried to do a cultural hike to see the Halawa Valley.  It was unfortunately canceled due to too much rain and the potential for flash flooding. Nonetheless, the scenery on the drive there was stunning. Molokai is so green.


Halawa Valley panorama

Much love to my fairy godparents for being such incredibly awesome people and inviting me to come visit. 🙂

San Francisco

Coming home is always a fascinating experience. My backpack exploded in all directions and I was left seriously wondering how all of my stuff fit into my pack in the first place. I found souvenirs I bought months ago that I forgot I had stuck into random pockets. After all the time of the road wearing and hand washing the same clothes over and over, many were headed for the trash. I tried to repair the holes while I was traveling, but now that I’m home, it’s time to let them go.

last days

backpack explosion, 4.5 months of mail, piles of dirty clothes

It’s bittersweet to back. I love sleeping in my own bed and cooking, but I miss the constant discovery and seeing new things every day. I love seeing friends and getting hugs from people who care about me, but I miss meeting new people. I love doing laundry and having a whole wardrobe to choose from, but I miss the ease of not having options. Like every transition, this is a good reminder of the need for balance. Every new phase means changing some parts of my life that were previously cherished, but also gaining and discovering new aspects of my life that will soon be treasured as well.