This turned out to be a very tiring but very satisfying day. Arise at 5.15 a.m., breakfast in the room at 5.45 a.m., picked up by car at 6.15 a.m. to be dropped off at the station about 6.35 a.m., where there´s already a crowd of tourists waiting. A few minutes later, they actually open the station and allow us to board the waiting train. I eschew the preserved ´Vista Dome´ car (where all the tourists hang out) in favour of standing on one of the open observation decks (which are actually provided for smokers because the train itself is non-smoking). The train doesn´t leave until 7.15 a.m. and as departure time arrives, the train starts to fill up with local business people taking the one hour trip to Colon.
I´ll keep the technical stuff for a separate post (for this relief, much thanks, I hear you say). Suffice to say, the train ran on time and gave some fascinating views of the Canal, Gatun Lake and the forested, jungle area that the railway traverses. We arrived at Colon, sandwiched between two container ports, and I quickly found my guide for the day, Jose, together with our driver and a smartly turned out SUV. Colon, about 50 miles from Panama City, is a small city with a population of about 400,000 which includes the important Colon Duty Free Zone. However, we made our way towards the National Park area to the South West.
This means crossing the canal, where we stopped at traffic lights at Gatun Locks. Just a hundred feet away, the special electric locomotives called 'mules' were easing a massive Maersk Line container ship from the Atlantic approach passage into the first of the three lock chambers at Gatun which would together lift the vessel eighty-odd feet on its journey to the Pacific. Immediately behind this vessel, a similar ship was being simultaneously moved into the second, parallel set of locks. I was transfixed by the scene. Once the two ships were safely in the lock chambers, the massive mitre gates closed behind them and the process of filling the lock could commence. Smaller intermediate gates were closed and our roadway, across the top of these gates, was reinstated. As we crossed, we had an awesome view of the immense lock gates and the stern of these two ships.
We avoided the marina area and took the road into the National Park. The rainforest is a thick, impenetrable jungle, much heavier then the 'Bush' type of forest. In fact, we passed through the accommodation areas of a long-abandoned U.S. Army Camp where they formerly undertook jungle training. We parked on a headland overlooking the Atlantic commanding splendid views of the Chagres River to our left. There was some sign of the old Spanish fortification but, as we explored, the full extent of the major fortification of San Lorenzo became clear. Spain derived immense wealth from its American operations and its history is a complex tale involving slavery, exploitation, piracy and enough skullduggery for a host of Hollywood movies. We saw lizards and some of the local birds. We could hear the Howler Monkeys calling but did not actually see them. Only with reluctance did I leave this fascinating area.
Returning to the locks, we only had a short wait this time before the lights cleared and we headed North East towards Portobelo National Park, where our route lay close to the Atlantic shore. When we stopped for lunch at a restaurant featuring the traditional architecture of the region, it was no surprise that seafood featured heavily. After a pleasant lunch, we carried on to the small town of Portobelo itself. Despite its small size, the port held immense strategic importantance for the Spanish and three forts defended the area. After visiting the church with an unusual and revered black Christ, we studied the remains of the nearby fortification then visited the restored Customs House. The large size of this building hints at the fact that, at one stage, one third of the world's gold supply was passing through this modest seaport. The convoluted history of the area was interpreted through displays and an audio-visual presentation. None of the European protagonists acquitted themselves with much honour, as you may imagine.
We then made our way back to Panama, my mind reeling with the events of the day. We became caught up in the 21st century miseries of road works and traffic jams on the main road to Panama City. Finally, we became embroiled in the rather agressive, apparently uncontrolled business which is the city centre traffic. To the accompaniment of a lot of horn sounding, vehicles appear to head in all directions at once but it actually seems to work rather well. At the hotel, I said goodbye to my guide and driver. Jose had been a well-informed guide and excellent company. Finally, I walked to the nearby shops where I was able to purchase a couple of excellent maps of Panama plus a 'heavy' book on the building of the Canal before collapsing in my comfortable suite for the rest of the evening.