by Dave McBride
The cheapest toll ever paid to the Panama Canal was charged to adventurer and travel writer Richard Halliburton, who swam the length of the canal in 1926. Based upon his displacement tonnage, he paid 36 cents. The most expensive toll ever paid was just coughed up by the first giant container ship to fit through the new and wider locks. The Cosco Shipping Panama paid nearly $600,000. The more mammoth the ship the more mammoth the toll.
We scored press passes for the Panama party where 30,000 flag-waving Panamaniacs roared like Springsteen fans each time the big ship in the locks blew its horn. Two days later, we watched the fourth NeoPanamax-size ship enter the other side of the canal from the Caribbean. It was a liquefied petroleum gas tanker by the name of Astomos Earth, and it arrived in Panama from the huge Port Arthur, Texas, refinery on the Gulf of Mexico and a week later was heading northwest across the Pacific off San Diego, bound for South Korea.
The way we got from the Pacific end of the canal to the other side is a cool story about trains. I’ll make it a short story. Train tracks were built before the canal to carry miners from the US East Coast to the gold fields of the California Rush. When the French canal-builders went bust Teddy Roosevelt’s engineers recognized that the project wasn’t as much a digging challenge as a disposal challenge. The U.S. built a train system to haul away carloads of rock and dirt every minute of every daylight hour 6 days a week for a decade, and at night it hauled in fresh coal for the steam shovels. The Panama Canal Railway transcontinental line is still used for freight, but once a day a comfy passenger train carries tourists and locals from the Pacific side of the canal to the Caribbean side in the morning, and back again in the evening.
Apple Vacations arranged tickets for the ride one-way and a tour bus met us at the other end. Fun fact: Panamanian Major League Hall of Famer Rod Carew was born on a transcontinental train on this line and named for the doctor passenger who delivered him.
Make sure you leave your comfortable leather bench seats and tables in the wood paneled observation salon to stand on the open-air platform between cars and watch Panama glide by in a green blur. You travel within view of the Panama Canal from one side of the continent to the other in the time it takes to watch NCIS.
Our bus-o-fun collected us at the station and delivered us to the Agua Clara Locks on the Atlantic side within two hours of having left the breakfast buffet at the resort on the Pacific side.
After watching the ships climb the stairs to Gatun Lake, we visited the seaside 16th century town of Portobelo in Colon Province, where Spaniards built fortifications to protect against the bona fide real-McCoy pirates of the Caribbean, and still Captain Morgan sacked the place.
He also sacked Panama City where the ruins still stand. Still a record-holder for sacks in the Caribbean League, today Captain Morgan appears in the blenders and umbrella drinks of resort bars across Panama, still causing ruin.
Speaking of the resort, since the word canal is Spanish for channel, you will discover many more than one canal in Panama. On the HD flat screen in your room, CNN is Panama Canal 3.
Note: The train station is a primo t-shirt shopping opportunity.
The guide for Apple-partner Gamboa Tours, Patricio, was a funny living-breathing encyclopedia of everything Panama and our driver, Inocencio (Ino to us), was exceptional. To them both I must tip my Panama hat, or as they call it in Panama, a hat.
Veteran Newsman Dave McBride is an award-winning news radio reporter, anchor and program director and creator of fan-favorite Dave’s Raves. Dave has received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Writing for Radio/Large Market and the 2010 and 2011 Murrow for continuing news coverage. He was awarded the New York Festivals World Gold Medal for Best Writing for Radio. In his first year in Florida he received the Florida AP award for Best Long Light Feature in both first and second place. Dave is currently based in South Florida.