A cruise ship diary takes us through the Eighth Wonder of the World on the eve of its transfer from American to Panamanian control.
5 a.m.It’s pitch-black off the coast of Panama as my wife, Pamelia, and I gaze out over the Caribbean at the stars and the moon and a string of distant lights. We have sailed from Puerto Rico to see the Panama Canal in its waning days under the U.S. flag. Now, as we study the string of lights, we share a flash of recognition: Is it . . . could it be . . . a traffic jam?
Sure enough, more than 30 ships are lined up like morning commuters on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. The canal is a bridge of sorts—a 50-mile, two-lane bridge prone to landslides, construction delays, and traffic-stopping midnight fog. Opened in 1914, it is the commercial bridge between the Atlantic and Pacific; the engineering-miracle that proved to the world America’s greatness; the death trap of a bridge that, for every mile of its length, killed nearly 500 workers, mostly through mosquito-borne disease.
To hear naysayers speak, it is today a doomed bridge that will fall into disrepair, run out of water, and be seized by Colombian drug lords not long after Panama inherits it from the United States at noon on December 31. Optimists insist it is a bridge to the future that will help transform Panama into a bustling center of trade—the Singapore of the Americas—and a must-see destination for ecotourists. The reality, like the rockiest stretch of the canal, lies somewhere in the middle
One warning about this metaphorical bridge: Loose change won’t cover the toll. Though adventurer Richard Halliburton was charged only 36 cents to swim the canal in 1928, our splendid little 790-foot vessel, the Crystal Harmony,has forked over $111,752.63, based on tonnage, presumably of shrimp and lobster at the captain’s gala buffet. As a cruise ship that has made a canal appointment far in advance and paid a premium, the Harmony will be allowed to cut to the front of the line. Pamelia and I head to the top deck for a cup of coffee and the view.
6:30 a.m. The predawn sky is a dramatic watercolor of light blue and pink-tinged white and storm-cloud black. As the sun bursts through the haze over the Cordillera Mountains, three facts come into focus: One, Panama is gorgeous. Two, the canal diggers picked a brutally rugged country through which to carve a ditch. Three, it’s going to be hot as hell today.
That is no shock. We are just 600 miles from the equator. More startling, we are due south of Pittsburgh. Panama’s geography is nearly as screwy as its history. President Teddy Roosevelt had a hand in creating the country, facilitating a revolution in 1903 to separate it from Colombia and obtaining a 10-mile-wide swath of land (the Canal Zone) in which to build the waterway. He gave the world an S-shaped nation where you can, in some spots, watch the sun rise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic. The canal defies our mental map; it doesn’t run east–west, but northwest–southeast, paralleling a flight from Seattle to Phoenix.
7:15 a.m. I have an epiphany at breakfast. It strikes me that I am at the so-called "Crossroads of the World" aboard a Japanese-owned, Bahamian-registered ship bound for Mexico with a crew representing 35 nations. I am wolfing down Caribbean tropical fruit, American shredded wheat, Norwegian salmon, Japanese miso soup, and, uh, Folgers coffee. This is a global breakfast. It symbolizes the future of the canal and the former Canal Zone, which under American rule became a sort of Mayberry with palm trees. Panama took possession of the zone under the Torrijos-Carter Treaty. Signed in 1977, the treaty provided for a gradual transfer of the canal to that country. Panama has been selling the zone off, building by building, manicured lawn by manicured lawn, to bidders from around the world. Welcome to the millennium.
7:47 a.m. We pass through a stone breakwater and enter the canal. A dolphin has surfaced to check the ship out, and half a dozen large frigate birds are looping and gliding alongside us. We are eight miles from the first set of locks.
8:05 a.m. To the right is Fort Sherman, a cluster of red-tile roofed buildings surrounded by seemingly impenetrable rain forest. This was the U.S. Army’s finest jungle training center. Panama, looking to convert it to a nature resort, has asked Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, designer of the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to review the master plan. Predictions: Hollywood will want to shoot Vietnam War movies here. Extreme-sports promoters will lobby for a Jungle Fever Triathlon—a Halliburton-like swim through the crocodile-infested canal, a ride on the exercise bikes at the new resort, and a run through a former munitions range that is still laden with unexploded shells.
8:35 a.m. Panama has 940 bird species, more than all of North America. Several birds chirp and whistle at us from the jungle as we move quietly up the canal. The deck railings are crowded with a confetti of passengers. Champagne bottles are out. When we enter the first lock, corks will pop; cheers will erupt.
9:12 a.m. The 370-ton steel doors of the Gatun Locks begin to open (pop! cheers!). They are propelled by a mere 40-horsepower motor. Such engineering miracles define the canal. Each lock is a thousand-foot-long concrete chamber that works like a liquid elevator. It fills with 26 million gallons of water pulled down by gravity through pipes from manmade Gatun Lake, which looms above us. The three Gatun Locks—a three-step staircase—will lift our 50,000-ton ship 85 feet to the lake.
9:34 a.m. The temperature is on its way to a thickly humid 92 degrees, but I have slipped into the air-conditioned bridge at the invitation of Captain John Oekland and Vice Captain Jan Ove Lidal. Neither is commanding the ship. Two freshly boarded canal pilots are. "Do not scratch the paint," Lidal tells one of them, Bob Bacot, as Bacot squeezes the Harmony into the lock with only six feet of clearance on each side. The tone is jestful. The request is serious. Bacot later admits he would just as soon be piloting the less pristine Taiwanese container ship being shoehorned into the set of locks alongside ours. Its hull is scraped and bears a dent from a recent collision with a cruise ship in the English Channel.
9:54 a.m. Eight locomotives—four on each side—are ushering us through the locks. We are attached to them by cables. The locomotives’ electric motors emit a low whine. This is the only mechanical noise in our remarkably peaceful passage.
10:12 a.m. A representative of the Japanese Shipowners’ Association is visiting the bridge. Former captain Koichi Akatsuka says his group fears that Panamanian government officials will try to squeeze every dollar they can out of the canal by increasing tolls and skimping on maintenance.
But Bacot, and most Panamanians, see hope in newly elected president Mireya Moscoso. She is a reformer. She believes her country’s canal is a precious asset, one that must not be squandered.
10:48 a.m. We leave the locks and enter Gatun Lake. It looks like a parking lot of cargo ships, yet it is lovely, dotted with tiny jungle islands. Fishermen ply the green-brown waters for peacock bass. There are manatees, too, brought in decades ago in the false hope they would eat the water hyacinth that was clogging propellers and intake valves. "You might see a manatee early in the morning," Bacot says. "The best time to fish is really early, 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. At that hour it can be spooky—you shine a light on the water and see the red eyes of the crocodiles looking back at you."
11:45 a.m. On the lake’s largest island, Barro Colorado, is a principal field station of the world-renowned Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). I had interviewed STRI’s director, evolutionary biologist Ira Rubinoff, by phone 10 days earlier and asked him about the wildlife on Barro Colorado. "We have five species of primates on the island—six, if you count graduate students," he replied. Because of its isolated setting, Barro Colorado supports just about as many howler monkeys (1,300) as it has annual visitors.
Rubinoff, a transplanted New Yorker who has lived in Panama for nearly four decades, believes that soon more ecotourists will come. He feels Panama is sincere about pursuing a pro-nature strategy. New policies are halting deforestation. A $25 million rain forest resort is being built farther up the canal. A former U.S. radar installation has been converted to a bird-watching center. "That’s an excellent example of turning swords into plowshares," Rubinoff said. "Panama has a chance to become a leader in showing other countries how to take advantage of this kind of opportunity."
Noon Speedboaters and a jet-skier zoom by, yahooing at the ship. After they pass, there is a beautiful calmness. The broiling sun has driven virtually everyone off the deck. A pelican floats past. Two passengers spot a 12-foot crocodile lazing on shore.
12:30 p.m. I leave the bridge, and on returning to my room, I check for messages from Jimmy Carter. There’s no reply. I emailed him some questions from the Harmony’s computer center several days ago. It could be that the the former Leader of the Free World is busy this week. Or it’s possible Mr. Carter just doesn’t want to go down in history as the first former president to grant an interview to a passenger on a cruise ship.
1 p.m. We have sailed by dredging equipment, a 420-foot-high crane nicknamed "Herman the German" (it was captured from the Nazis in World War II), a ramshackle jail, and a cruise ship going the other way (everybody wave!). We leave Gatun Lake and enter the eight-mile-long Gaillard Cut, carved through solid rock
1:37 p.m. Black clouds have rolled in. There is a resounding clap of thunder. Between sheer walls rising hundreds of feet, we cross the Continental Divide. We are on the Pacific side of Panama.
1:52 p.m. A tropical rainstorm hits. The canal receives as much as 160 inches of rain a year. Even so, there are fears that the felling of rainforest in the canal’s watershed could turn off the spigot. This is theoretically possible. STRI data indicate that no decline in rainfall has yet been detected. Nor is there any sign that Panamanians, who now represent 93 percent of all canal workers, lack the technical competence to keep it operating smoothly. In fact, our ship is now being guided toward the Pacific-side locks by Panamanian canal pilot Sergio Sanchiz, a savvy nine-year veteran who, rest assured, will not scratch the paint.
2:20 p.m. Unlike one of the world’s longest palindromes—a man, a plan, a canal, Panama—the canal does not read the same in either direction. On the Caribbean side, a ship ascends a single set of locks. The Pacific side, on the other hand, has two sets. We enter the first of these two, the Pedro Miguel Locks, and drop 31 feet in one step to the chocolate waters of tiny Miraflores Lake.
3 p.m. I have missed the three-toed sloth. Our ship’s photographer, sent ashore to shoot the Harmony from land (although the Harmony,like most other cruise ships, has no ports of call within the canal), has taken a picture of the vaguely monkey-like creature along a road. It is another reminder that wildlife abounds here. A rare puma was recently seen on Barro Colorado Island, which is home to 102 species of mammals. To our left, three hunters stand waist deep at the edge of Miraflores Lake, trying to catch an iguana. In Central America that lizard is the other white meat, jokingly known as "chicken of the tree."
3:50 p.m. We enter the two-step Miraflores Locks to descend to the canal’s final stretch. Hundreds of Panamanians, most of them children, wave to us from the adjacent visitor center. The ship’s narrator for the canal crossing, Tony Grenald, delights me with a bit of sports trivia: His country’s greatest baseball player, Hall of Famer Rod Carew, was born aboard the Panama Railroad, whose tracks run alongside the canal.
4 p.m. For a brief moment, people in every corner of the planet can see me. I am staring up at a camera stationed near the lock. It supplies a video feed of the canal to a Web site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I can only hope that Jimmy Carter, wherever he may be, is among those who have logged on and are paying attention.
4:37 p.m. Pamelia, along with our six cruise-long dinner companions, has been invited to the bridge by the vice captain, who is also the host of our nightly table. Paula, Mark, and Marilyn are marveling at the gleaming skyscrapers of Panama City, which have suddenly appeared beyond the jungle to our left. Lynne and Jim are looking ahead at the graceful Bridge of the Americas, which arches over the canal. Lynne’s son flew a helicopter full of Navy Seals under the bridge 10 years ago when the United States invaded Panama to oust military dictator Manuel Noriega. Bruce has used his foot-long camera lens to capture a picture for the ages: It’s a photograph of the American and Panamanian flags flying side by side along the canal’s shore.
5:35 p.m. Nearly 10 hours after passing the breakwater and entering the canal, the Crystal Harmony passes buoys marking the end of the world’s Eighth Wonder. We have been on a remarkable journey. Pamelia’s shoulders are sunburned, and her camera is all but smoking from the seven rolls of film she has fired off. As the sun sinks back in the direction of the Atlantic, we see a familiar sight: A fleet of more than two dozen ships is sitting in the Pacific, waiting to enter the canal.
Panama Canal Cruises
Many cruise lines, including Crystal, Carnival, Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean, and Seabourn, offer a variety of Panama Canal cruises. Fall, winter, and spring are the popular seasons (summer is too hot; most of the ships are in Alaska, Europe, and the Caribbean), with cruises typically ranging in duration from 10 to 21 days.
There are many opportunities to enjoy shore excursions. Among west coast ports of call are Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Puerto Caldera, and others. On the east coast, the Caribbean islands, Costa Rica, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Dominica, and Colombia are some of the possibilities.
There’s a long list of tour options, such as a rain forest aerial tram in Costa Rica, snorkeling in Grand Cayman, exploring ancient Mayan temples, sportfishing, golf, and scuba diving. Theme cruises, such as wine and food festivals, big band, health and fitness, and golf, are available. And there’s a large selection of ship sizes and levels of luxury.
AAA members are eligible for discounts on many cruises, such as the AAA 2000 President’s Centennial Cruise (October 5) with Princess Cruises. Members can sail beneath San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and through the canal to Fort Lauderdale, enjoying both special savings and activities.
For information on Panama Canal and other cruises, visit your nearest AAA Travel Agency or call (800) 272-2155.
Illustration by John Mattos
Photos by Buddy Mays/Corbis, Corbis, Corbis/Bettmann, Leonardde Selva/Corbis, and Will & Deni McIntyre/Tony Stone Images
This article was first published in January 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.