Colombia- Zipaquira and the salt mine cathedral

Zipaquira was a day trip from Bogota. A day trip? Five hours in total as its not far, only 50 kilometres or so.

We hired a white taxi for the journey with a driver who was Swiss and spoke some English. Zipaquira was worth the visit, but a bonus was to drive through the expanse of Bogota. We drove through wealthy areas, we drove in proximity, but not through, poor areas. The road was in good condition and when it crossed outside Bogota city limits the road was in poor condition. Bogota residents pay an additional tax that is used to service the roads within their boundaries. When I say these roads were in good condition, the driver completed a lot of swerving manoeuvres to avoid holes that are large.

We also passed very many long long greenhouses where the driver said flowers are grown. He said that Colombia is the World’s second largest exporter of flowers, behind Holland. I seem to recall that was said to us also about Ecuador. I’m sure they both export a lot of flowers.

The driver also provided us small insights into Bogota. He pointed out to us where his friend got robbed on the street by a group of five. This location was, disconcertingly, only 500 metres from our apartment. He pointed out streets that marked the boundary of where was safe at night. He pointed out favela style accomodation that had been illegally built and was clinging to the steep slopes that mark the cities geographic boundary.

Bogota has quite a number of cranes creating new buildings which I took as a positive sign for the financial health of the city. Some suburbs look like they could be part of Melbourne, containing a lot of mid rise buildings of red brick. Bogota builders do favour red brick, well more orangey red brick actually. I do not favour that colour scheme.

Zipaquira was a lovely little town. It was clean as Bogota is not. We spent little time in the town and most time down the mine. We liked it, a worthy day out.

The Plaza Mayor in Zipaquira had been brick paved and was clean.

The Plaza Mayor in Zipaquira had been brick paved and was clean.

In Zipaquira for the salt mine which starts with the stations of the cross.

The salt mine starts with the stations of the cross.

After the stations of the cross we the move onto several full on chapels that seat many

After the stations of the cross we the move onto several, full on, chapels that seat masses at masses

The mine is open to the locals every Sunday for services here.

The mine is open to the locals every Sunday for services.

The mine was very touristy and there were many opportunities to purchase gifts of carved stone and salt and to have a nice cup of tea and currant bun.

The mine was very touristy and there were many opportunities to purchase gifts of carved stone and salt and to have a nice cup of tea and a currant bun.

The scariest beings from other places in Dr Who were the weeping angels.

The scariest beings from another dimension and time in Dr Who were; the weeping angels.

These are the closest I have met. These sinister looking carvings can be found hidden around the place. I avoided eye contact !!!

These sinister looking carvings can be found hidden behind rocks. I avoided eye contact !!!

This one was particularly scarey as it hung over the carved nativity scene. Don't look up baby Jesus !!!

This one was particularly scary. It hung in the darkness over the stone carved nativity scene. Don’t look up baby Jesus!!!

 

 

 

 

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Colombia- Bogota transport systems

Bogota is a big city. Ten million people, many of whom wish to move from point A to point B at some time in the day.

To assist them they have Transmilenio (big buses in dedicated lanes), buses of various sizes and yellow taxis. White taxis exist and are mostly for tourists or employees of large businesses. There is no rail system, although we were told an underground is under construction. It’s a confusing combination for new arrivals, very confusing and made more difficult by the security processes that we enjoy here more than anywhere else.

Let us begin with Transmilenio. It is relatively new, opening lines progressively since December 2000 and arose as a compromise solution. An underground was expensive to build and so dedicated bus lanes were created above ground. The buses are what I refer to as “bendy buses”, a single deck bus with another single deck bus, minus drivers cab, stuck on the back and a flexible middle section that allows the lengthy contraption to turn. The system works rather well. We travelled from Central Bogota to Zona Rosa and it was one bus and very cheap and quite quick. We bought a one trip smart card and once we were shown how to get it to operate the turnstiles, all was well.

The Transmilenio worked so well that it is currently carrying 50% more passengers than its design specifications. Our taxi driver said that at rush hour the queues can be an hour long to simply get onto a bus !!!! The Transmilenio was envisioned to remove all the small annoying buses from the roads which tend to be great polluters and slow the traffic with their frequent and unexpected stops wherever passengers lurk. Nothing has changed, there are as many small old smokey buses as ever. The air is smoggy in Bogota, so smoggy that private vehicle drivers are obliged to leave their car at home during rush hours (6 of them are defined for each day), two days a week, according to the final digit of its number plate.

Transmilenio buses at Las Aguas parada. A very satisfactory form of transport.

Transmilenio buses at Las Aguas parada. A very satisfactory form of transport.

Despite Transmilenio the streets are still packed with an etrenal jam of old style buses and taxis.

Despite Transmilenio the streets are still packed with an eternal jam of old style buses and taxis.

The yellow taxis are a mystery unto themselves. They are prevalent, most certainly so. Guide books, internet chat rooms and Bogota based advisers are united on one matter. Don’t hail them in the street. This is a safety precaution as there are taxi cabs that look like taxi cabs but simply prowl awaiting a passenger to fall into their sticky yellow cab web. The passenger being driven to an unwelcome place and meeting unwelcoming people and losing a portion of their possessions or worse.

The very fair question arises of how do I use a yellow taxi? Are any of them safe to use ? To answer in reverse order, yes and as follows. You telephone a cab. You telephone the number of a trusted phone company. They despatch a cab and provide you its registration  number. For the protection of the cab driver ……… recall that taxi drivers have the same and probably greater safety issues than Joe Punter. For the protection of the cab driver you have to provide him (never saw a her, for understandable reasons) …..you provide him a code and he puts it into his machine. If it matches, you are the person who called and the transaction and ride proceeds.

For a visitor to the country there are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, you need a phone, secondly, you need an understanding of spanish……..in my experience no one in the yellow taxi industry speaks english….no one. Thirdly, you need patience with humanity. The background to this comment is as follows:

Taxi drivers are not well paid. Petrol costs the same as in Australia, cars are the same price or greater, fares are about half those in Australia. There is an overwhelming volume of cabs on the road, which means ample supply for the market and negative impacts to a driver’s yield. The back of my envelope concludes that taxi drivers are very poorly paid, they are in a profession that is unskilled and carries risk of robbery and injury.

In my experience of 8 yellow taxi journeys, half the taxi drivers will try and augment their poor salaries by inflating the fare. The system of metering the fare assists them in this endeavour. The meters in the cabs, visible to the passenger, do not record the price of the fare, they record the units. A translation sheet of units to value, is, by law, available in every yellow cab. Mysteriously, this sheet often seemed to disappear when we got into cabs. It was only the fabulous memory of the driver that enabled us to understand the final price of the trip!!! The inflated value was usually only a few dollars by someone who needed those dollars more than I. Alternatively, you can argue the point, but you may not be quite certain how confrontation may end in a place like Bogota. So perhaps pragmatic to just pay the few extra dollars. For those who wish to see how much they are inadvertently “tipping” there is a calculator on one of the taxi apps such as Tappsi.

Yellow cabs. Usually tiny cars, usually without operating seat belts in back. Frequently driven by people who mislead you to pay more than is regulated. Number plates on doors as well as front a rear for ease of verification.

Yellow cabs. Usually tiny cars, usually without operating seat belts in back. Frequently driven by people who mislead you to pay more than is regulated. Number plates on doors, as well as front and rear, for ease of verification.

Tappsi is another method of ordering a cab which validates user and cab in the same way as the call centre for the cab company. I never used it because I did not have the wifi access when I was in a place I needed to get a cab. I used a similar app (Taxi99) in Brazil and it was very good and Tappsi had same look and feel.

The amusing difficulty we had with calling cabs arose from the location of our apartment. It was on the 20th floor of an apartment block (amusing in hindsight, painful at the time). We would call a cab and record the registration plate from the phone as the cab was assigned to us. By the time we had caught the lift and made it outside the front door the cab had arrived, waited very little time, and had gone. This extremely quick service reflects the enormous supply of cabs and the proximity of our apartment to a big Avenida full of prowling cabs. We calculated we had 3 minutes between receiving the number plate and getting to the front door. We organised children to be ready, holding open the apartment door, and as soon as we had the rego, we ran. We ran out of the apartment, down the corridor, into lift………………. endured its lethargic descent………………prayed no one else was going to halt its journey…………. and finally we hit ground floor and flew out of the lift . We were quickly into the street to hopefully see, three familiar letters followed by three familiar numbers on an approaching cab, or one temporarily paused before us. It was a race we could win, but only if the lifts in the apartment were kind to us, which was about half the time. And the other half time……….well we trudged back upstairs and started again.

Now imagine getting a yellow cab to somewhere. How do you get back? The answer is that the restaurant calls, or there are safe arrangements at airport or bus station, or there are white cab arrangements at the up market shopping malls. Or, as a visitor, you speak spanish and call and explain where you are. We found all of this more difficult than is our usual experience.

One of the solutions to the problems of the yellow cab, is to take a white cab. White cabs are about twice the cost of yellow cabs. They are reliable, have seat belts on all seats, are a modern, better maintained fleet, are comfortable and clean. Their drivers seem to regard you as clients and not targets, so from all angles they are the safest option. Unfortunately, we stayed in an apartment. White cabs can only be accessed from a contracted relationship with a hotel. Its that safety thing again about knowing the identity of the person with whom you deal and placing a trusted third party intermediary to record the transaction.  Now we did manage to side step this using elite car service. Not sure how they managed to operate outside this cosy arrangement, but they did. It was perhaps that they were a US company and I assume that was where my paypal funds were directed. They were very good. They were the only such provider we could find without schlepping around the hotels…..we couldn’t always access them when we wanted. That supply/demand thing.

Transport on buses between towns. Joy. They are great. We have travelled on Libertadores and on CopoTran both fabulous. Much leg room, toilet, TV, air conditioning and all luggage tagged. In fact CopoTran’s point of differentiation was that it had two toilets, advertised as ” for the comfort of the ladies” …..although I saw no gender imbalance in the passengers that suggested their tag line was winning this audience. They were big Scania buses or big Mercedes buses and I felt comfortable. Everyone had a seat and was obliged to sit in it, and no folddown seats  between the fixed rows. Four hours cost us $11.5 first trip and $16 second trip, very reasonable fares, no chickens or any other livestock. Libertadores had a man in a uniform who screamed the buses destination from the moving vehicle at any likely looking passengers. He told me that it was a sackable offence for them to allow livestock on their buses.

Long distance buses are a positive transport story to end. The opening positive story was of Transmilemnio. Let me relate a quirky aspect of that experience. I indicated that we were shown how to use the smart card to get through the turnstile, to where the buses stopped. In fact, Alex was the last through and the person who helped us gave her, his card. He operated in a very particular industry. I attach his card below below, no need to translate it. Alex did not look at the card until we got home at the end of the day and was amused. When I said I had taken a photo and was to put it on the blog she wanted one matter clearly understood ……………..it wasn’t just her to whom he was providing his card !

The young gentleman who helped us at the Transmilenio station kindly provided his card to Alex. No issues in that department thank you !!!!!

The young gentleman who helped us at the Transmilenio station kindly provided his card to Alex. No issues in that department thank you !!!!!

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Colombia- Central Bogota and the Candelaria

It was not clear to me if Central Bogota and the Candelaria were one in the same. I always assumed so and shall use the terms interchangeably. We stayed in Central Bogota in an apartment on the twentieth floor with fabulous views over the city, even though Central Bogota is not the most photogenic of cities .

This location that was a very short walk to many of Bogota’s best features.

The gold museum was our favourite feature. We liked the gold museum in San Jose (Costa Rica). In fact, that was about all we liked of San Jose. The gold museum in Bogota is similar in content, except it has about five times the number of  pieces. A fantastic museum over four floors  and a cafe serving magnificent coffee in the basement. We were told Colombia exports all its decent coffee and to expect to be disappointed. Well the gold museum seem to have stashed away a few sacks before they reached the docks.

The most famous gold object here seems to be the Muisca Raft. It was of course in a thick glass cabinet and sadly my camera was confused by either the thick glass or the dancing lights and provided me only an impressionist image of Muisca Raft. I have not included its blurriness here.

No idea what this is. I liked it and it appears on a few posters for the gold museum. So it must be important.

No idea what this is. I liked it and it appears on a few posters for the gold museum. So it must be important.

This was the very first piece that started the gold museum collection. Purchased by the Bank of the Republic, which I understand owns the collection.

This was the very first piece that started the gold museum collection. Purchased by the Bank of the Republic, which I understand owns the collection.

The Botero museum was also a great experience. It is housed in a delightful building which was previously the Archbishop’s house. Not sure where the Archbishop lives now, hopefully in humble conditions, as were sufficient for our Lord……….yes I doubt it also, but I digress. The museum came into being when Botero gifted 123 pieces of his own work to the city in 2000. He also donated 85 other works from his private collection by unknown Europeans such as Picasso, Miro, Renoir, Freud, Bacon. So knocking out portraits of fat people, still lifes and some sculptures of chubbies had been very rewarding for Botero.

We were very pleased to see the originals of two prints that we faced each Wednesday morning for two terms. The prints were hung on the wall of our Spanish classroom in Little LaTrobe Street.  I didn’t really like Botero’s work. It wasn’t really fat people, it was exaggerated inflated individuals that created a flatness or smoothness of texture. All were unsmiling, except for a dog in one portrait. Having stayed four nights in Bogota I empathise as they can have had little to laugh about. Having said that, well worth a visit……….and entry comes at my favourite price point, yipppeeee.

The Emerald Museum sits on level 23 of a tall office building. The children thought it was a great museum. I felt that there was a strong element of it being a lengthy sales pitch until the tour ended in front of a $200,000 emerald, on a necklace, in the emerald shop. I liked the emeralds, I didn’t like them to the extent of $200,000. To be fair, and I usually see no need to be fair. To be fair, it was instructive and we did learn a lot about emerald production in Colombia. My favourite story was of miners who found quality stones and quickly swallowed them. The brotherhood bond of miners is less strong in Colombia than I had imagined was usually the case for men bound together in dangerous occupations. If the swallowing miner was observed by his colleagues they may say nothing until clear of the mine and its daily grind. The thieving miner probably had an idea that he would wait for nature to take its course and then he could provide he and his family a better life. His colleagues had ideas that they would hasten the extraction process in a manner unnatural. Not a pleasant conclusion for the thieving miner.

The visit to the museum also concluded a little less successfully than we may have hoped………the lifts broke down. After twenty minutes we walked down to level 19 and eventually, and luckily, halted an elevador. We, the small tour group of the emerald museum, bonded in these difficult circumstances. No one was disembowelled, which was another positive for the day.

The church of Santa Clara was built from 1629 and we were told it is the oldest building in Bogota. Very ornate and worth a peak, although finding it was a bit tricky. The police had cordoned off the street the day we were there. They were happy to search us and let us through to gain access.

Santa Clara. A strange mannequin takes centre stage with what I assume to be a sacred heart.

Santa Clara. A strange mannequin takes centre stage on the alter with what I assume to be a sacred heart.

The very heart of Bogota is the Plaza de Bolivar. Looking  West.

The very heart of Bogota is the Plaza de Bolivar. Looking West.

Plaza de Bolivar looking East

Plaza de Bolivar looking East with a hint of the Northern aspect.

And Plaza de Bolivar looking South, which I found to be the best vista

And Plaza de Bolivar looking South, which I found to be the best vista

Our eyrie as viewed from the street. A very pleasant eyrie in a building that lacked charm when viewed from its exterior. Count down four floors from the top and that is us waving from the far left window.

Our eyrie as viewed from the street. A very pleasant eyrie in a building that lacked charm when viewed from its exterior. Count down four floors from the top and that is us waving from the far left window.

From that eyrie comes this view of Central Bogota. From this distance you cannot see the dirt, but the screams can be heard quite clearly (thin glass, I thought best not to lean on it)

From that eyrie comes this view of Central Bogota. From this distance you cannot see the dirt, but the screams can be heard quite clearly (thin glass, I thought best not to lean on it)

I conclude with revealing the location from which we viewed Bogota. We were in Central Bogota and recall that Bogota has ten million inhabitants. So while we were in the middle, the middle is but a speck of the total city.

 

 

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Colombia- Bogota, what the supermarkets tell us

I have not explained a country on the basis of its supermarkets for a number of weeks. A short plane ride from Panama City dropped us into Bogota where the shopping aisles talk to us once more.

We rented an apartment in Bogota, with a kitchen and took the opportunity to cook dinner four nights in a row. This meant we had a proper opportunity, and need, to expand our supermarket experiences.

We rented just a short volume of paces from Exito, the supermarket most prevalent in Bogota.

Exito comes in different sizes. We saw monsters that sold everything Walmart style and this, our local, was a minimart on the first floor of an office block

Exito comes in different sizes. We saw monsters that sold everything Walmart style and this, our local, was a minimart on the first floor of an office block

This local minimart and the larger outlet about 500 metres down the road both had a man at the door. The man at the door checked your bags as you exited, excited, from Exito. He didn’t just check your backpack for stolen delights, but he checked your plastic bag of purchases against the receipt. At the minimart he also marked the receipt so you couldn’t reuse it to steal a double portion of the goods you had previously honestly acquired. That was a first for me. I didn’t find the man very thorough in his checking, but maybe he was not very thorough because we were not Colombian, and had honest John faces.

There was also private security at both Exitos, as there are people with “Seguridad Privada” written on the back of their jackets in many places in Bogota.

The lady in front of me at the local Exito above paid with a credit card. Her goods totalled about $5 and she was required to both PIN and sign. I saw this a lot in Brazil also. I concluded that this was because its safer not to carry cash. It may be an incorrect conclusion, but it where I’m sticking with it until a more compelling explanation arrives.

We had problems finding milk. It was because we were looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. Milk at Exito was not in the refridgerated cabinet and was not in plastic  bottles.

This is milk on the open shelves in the aisles.

This is the milk. It’s on open shelves in the aisles.

There were lots of varieties of milk and it was all UHT. It was all in plastic bags like cat biscuits, but a squidgy liquid plastic bag whereas your cat biscuit bag has a more granular texture to it. We did eventually find some pasteurised  milk. It too was in a plastic bag, it was in the refridgerated cabinet, but in very small quantities compared to the UHT. I’m not sure what this tells me about the people of Bogota or the cows of Colombia. It may suggest that Bogota is hot and refridgerators are few and far between. This is not true, Bogota is at about 2500 metres and cool, I have worn long trousers again every day. I have seen as many fridges as I would expect to see in  any other place. I do not know the reason for all the UHT, it is a mystery.

When we purchased our evening meal at the supermarket we also put into the basket a bottle of wine off the shelf. When we went to the register, the lady would not let us buy the wine. She held up her hand, thumb against first finger, with the other three fingers waving in the air. We finally understood that she meant we could not buy wine until 3:00pm and the current time was 2:30pm. There was a very small very high sign that said the same thing near the wine shelves. We hadn’t run foul of liquor licensing laws in any other place.

Now to broaden the shopping experience. We went to Zona Rosa one day. Its posh, ooohhh very posh and there are two shopping malls there Andino and El Retiro. All the upmarket brands have an outlet, we went to buy sleeping bags and then went to the car park to get a taxi back to the apartment. Waiting downstairs for our taxi we could see the  shoppers cars coming into the car park. Each one was inspected by a sniffer dog before it was allowed in. It would be quite slow to do that at Chadstone, as it was quite slow to do it here.

We usually paid by cash when we shopped. We obtained that cash through ATM’s. The ATM’s here have a feature I liked and should be copied in Australia. To prevent anyone filming your PIN number, all key pads have a plastic guard that sits over the top of them. Enough room for your hand to get underneath and press the buttons, but shields those fingers from onlookers or a camera.  The ATM’s often have signs on them indicating the ATM ceases to operate between 10-00pm to 5-00am. This is to protect the owner of an ATM card from the bad people that come out at night. I am hopeful we don’t need this security feature in Australia, or only in very selective locations.

Broadening again the shopping experience. When we come out of apartment we turn left down Avenida 19. Its a big street and a few hundred metres down on the left is a small shopping centre, that goes back from the road, no more than 50 metres long. But such a 50 metres. We counted fourteen tattoo and piercing parlours in this small strip. I don’t think I have ever seen such a concentration of such establishments. I had not noticed that Colombians are big consumers of tatts. Perhaps they locate their tatts in areas normally hidden by clothes. If I ever attended a swingers party in Bogota maybe I would find myself  embarrassed to be naked………no tatts. My invitation to a Bogota swingers party never arrived.

Fourteen tattoo parlours and one sex shop in this small shopping arcade close to the apartment. This is a service our local Exito did not offer.

Fourteen tattoo parlours and one sex shop in this small shopping arcade close to the apartment. These are services our local Exito did not offer.

Overall, I offer a conclusion that shopping is different in Colombia and possibly a little less safe than at Woolworths.

I offer a second conclusion: shopping in Bogota is a little more safe than Woolworths because of the precautions in place…….although life is a little less safe should you ever step outside a supermarket.

 

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Panama- Panama Canal

Before we arrived in Panama City we arrived at the Panama Canal. The canal is a ten dollar cab ride west of the city, we were in a bus, a very small bus that stopped on the way to Panama City from Santa Catalina. The canal made a very positive first impact, which may have been more to do with getting off the very small uncomfortable bus than the canal itself. I am not the owner of an anorak, but I did enjoy the visit to the canal immensely, so much so, I repeated the experience the very next day. At some point a passing interest in an engineering project steps over an unseen boundary and becomes an obsessional preoccupation. It is at that point an anorak is purchased. I returned the next day, anorak in hand, to not only stare at the canal but to stare at it while sitting on a boat passing through some of the locks and the lake.

In these modern days there is no need to sit on an uncomfortable bus for six hours to arrive at a viewing platform to watch ships pass in the daytime. A remote experience is entirely available to you from your armchair at…………… http://www.pancanal.com . If it is working !! It will provide you a live view from the very same visitors centre at Miraflores locks.

Let me append photographs, punctuated with merry facts I absorbed from Panamanians who make a living talking to people from overseas through microphones.

A map of the canal. Locks at each end, another set of locks near the Atlantic end and a lot of man made lake.The Panama Canal journey is the Panama man made lake journey.

A map of the canal. Locks at Pacific end, another set of locks near the Atlantic end, and a lot of  artificial lake in between.The Panama Canal journey is mostly the Panama, artificial lake, journey.

Building was completed in 1914 which meant a centennial celebration occurred in August this year. New locks are being built that will handle bigger vessels and were due to be completed in time for the 100 year celebration. We just gloss over the status of the build and certainly there is no public disclosure of a revised cost estimate. Revised completion date, end of 2015 .....oh yeh!!!

Building was completed in 1914 which meant a centennial celebration occurred in August this year. New locks are being built that will handle bigger vessels and will operate in addition to, and alongside, the existing locks. They were due to be completed in time for the 100 year celebration. But were not. Revised completion date, end of 2015 …..oh yeh!!!Revised cost estimate apparently not shared.

First lock after the lake if travelling South. Its Pedro Miguel, just one chamber here.

First lock after the lake if travelling South. Its Pedro Miguel, just one chamber here.

The lock gates are double doors. They are hand rivetted , not welded, because welding was not used when these were built. The hand rivetted gates are the originals. There are two in case a vessel crashes into one and breaks it, the chamber can still operate.

The lock gates are hand riveted, not welded, because welding was not used when these were built. The hand riveted gates in operation today are the originals from 1914. The lock gates are a double door construction….. if a vessel crashes into one gate and breaks it, the chamber can still operate using the second gate.

At Miraflores locks ( last set before hitting the Pacific) there is a double lock. These are operated one way with the direction reversing every four hours.

At Miraflores locks (last set before the Pacific) there are two locks in parallel. The ships using the locks travel one way, with the direction of the one way reversing every four hours.

I imagined an enormous volume of ships traversing the canal each day. Just 40 a day paying about $4million a day in transit fees. When the construction of the new locks is complete and the big ships traverse those new (totally separate locks) the canal revenue will double. But only 4 enormous vessels will traverse the canal each day. My calculator says they will be asked to pay $1m each  to cross.

I imagined a large volume of ships traversing the canal each day, but there are less than that. Forty a day traverse the canal and they  pay about $4million a day in transit fees. When the construction of the new locks is complete and additional larger ships are able to traverse the additional new locks the canal revenue will double. Only 4 larger vessels are expected to traverse the canal each day through the new locks. My calculator says they will be asked to pay $1m each.

The rates to traverse the canal differ depending upon the cargo. The most expensive cargo to move through the canal is people. Cruise ships get whacked the most and the largest fee ever paid was by a cruise ship. Our tourist pleasure launch was charged $4000 for its journey on the basis that it is able to carry 300. Even though the day we visited I counted 74 paying passengers only.

The rates to traverse the canal differ depending upon the cargo. The most expensive cargo to move through the canal is people. Cruise ships get whacked, and the largest fee ever paid was paid by a cruise ship. Unfortunately for the canal company only one and a half percent of journeys through the canal are made by people carriers. Our tourist cruising launch was charged $4000 for its journey. Passenger vehicles pay by passenger capacity, not actual numbers of people on board during the crossing. Our tourist launch paid on the basis of its capacity of 300 passengers. On the day we visited I counted 74 paying passengers only on board.

Bulk storage vessels are a different rate category. The tugs help keep the vessel in the channel. And for the duration of the journey through the canal command of the vessel is in the hands of a canal Pilot. No exceptions. No matter how large or small your vessel. A Panama Pilot takes ten years to train.

Bulk storage vessels are a different rate category. The tugs help keep the vessel in the channel. For the duration of the journey through the canal, command of the vessel is in the hands of a Panama Pilot. No exceptions. No matter how large or small your vessel you are guided through the canal by a Panama Pilot who takes ten years to train. We traversed the locks with a smallish yacht tied up to us and were able to watch the Panama Pilot assigned to this small vessel. An easyish assignment for him. He had little to do except inspect the ropes and knots.I have to say he was very rigorous in discharging his duties, which was irking the yachts crew….suck it up boys and girls.

Once in the locks, no tug boats, no room. The vessel moves under its own power but these little locomotives on each side of the lock use cables to keep the ship centred.

Once in the locks, no tug boats, no room. The vessel moves under its own power but these little locomotives on each side of the lock use cables to keep the ship centred in the chamber.

The mules run on tracks each side of the chamber and the cables are tightened and slackened according to the orders of the Canal Pilot who has taken control of the ship. The Canal Pilot talks to the locomotive drivers through a one way voice system. The locomotive drivers ring a bell to confirm they have received and understood the order. No idle chit chat happening here. But fascinating as the dinging tells you how many times the orders are being given to adjust the tensions and steer the vessel. More frequently than I thought would be neede.

The locomotives (called mules) run on tracks each side of the chamber and the cables are tightened and slackened according to the orders of the Panama Pilot. The Panama Pilot talks to the locomotive drivers through a one way voice system. The locomotive drivers ring a bell to confirm they have received and understood the order. No idle chit chat happening here. But fascinating as the dinging tells you how many times the orders are being given to adjust the tensions and adjust the position of the vessel. All the dinging I heard evidenced orders being given much more frequently than I thought would be required.

This chart in the Canal Museum at the Miraflores locks details each of the different types of cargos and carriers to which different tariff rates apply.

This chart in the Canal Museum at the Miraflores locks details each of the different types of cargos to which different tariff rates apply.

The ship alongside us at the parallel channel in Miraflores locks was a Panamax vessel. It is built to the maximum size a vessel can be to squeeze through the locks with 24 inches gap on each side between it and lock wall. We counted 1200 containers on the deck and were told that Panamax vessels carry 2000 which means 800 in the hull or poor counting on our part.

The ship alongside us at the parallel channel in Miraflores locks was a Panamax vessel. It is built to the maximum size a vessel can be to squeeze through the locks. When built to the maximum Panamax dimensions there is a 24 inch gap on each side between the hull of the Panamax ship and the lock wall. We counted 1200 containers on the deck and were told that Panamax vessels carry 2000 containers. This means 800 containers in the hull…………..or poor counting by us.

Things on the canal we did not expect to see. This is General Noriega's house. Well its a prison actually and he is housed here. We shouted hallo, but heard nothing back.

Things on the canal we did not expect to see. This is General Noriega’s house. Well its a prison. He is housed here. We shouted hallo, but heard nothing back.

Things we didn't expect to see. This is Alex modelling a terraced hill. Why? Well let me ask you this. Where does Central America end and South America begin? The answer is behind Alex's left ear. Actually it is along the border of the Rio Chagres which is the only river that flows into both Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and its course creates the boundary on the Isthmus between the two continents. You live, you learn , you forget.

Things we didn’t expect to see. This is Alex modelling a terraced hill. Why? Well let me ask you this. Where does Central America end and South America begin? The answer is behind Alex’s left ear. Actually it is along the border of the Rio Chagres . The Rio Chagres is  the only river that flows into both Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and its course creates the boundary on the Isthmus between the two continents. You live, you learn  you forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had it in my mind that the Panama Canal was an East West construction, because those bulky Oceans are most certainly on the East, and the West. The canal actually runs from the Atlantic, in the North, to the Pacific, in the South.

I had it in my mind that the Panama Canal was a gigantic structure of locks. The locks I saw were fewer in number and much smaller than the ones in my imagination. Most of the engineering effort (to my untrained eye) had gone into creating the lake and the navigation channels between the locks.

I had it in my mind that a lot of people died from malaria building the Panama Canal. That’s not actually true. A lot of people died from malaria and yellow fever not building the Panama Canal. It was the French who first tried to build a canal before there was an understanding of the role of the mosquito in spreading disease. 22,000 people died and the french company set up for the venture failed, financially, and in every other way. This opened the lock gates to Avuncular Sam. Avuncular Sam started construction in 1904 and finished in 1914 and used a much more advanced understanding of mosquitoes and their lifecycle. The death rate shrank considerably to a number I cannot recall, but am confident was in the low thousands. While that level of mortality would be completely unacceptable for a project today it does illustrate the enormous progress that was being made in medicine and construction techniques. Well done Avuncular Sam. Their engineering triumph was rewarded with a stretch of territory that was star spangled until handed back to the Panamanians as the current millenium dawned.

It was said to me that 35% of the vessels operating on the seas today,  are too big to pass through the Panama Canal. They exceed the Panamax dimensions. The new locks will cater for these, but it was not clear to me that they would cater for all of these. It was not clear to me whether there was a still a percentage of vessels that are larger than the PosPanamax dimensions.

If the Panama Canal had not been built a ship would need to motor around the South of America. That would take 22 days and, for a Panamax ship, that would cost $100,000 a day in fuel.

If you don’t wish to pay the Panama Canal fee there is a cheaper way of transporting containers from west to east or vice versa. That is, to put them onto a  train. Panama will unload and load your ship at each end and chug the cargo between on rails. Surely, this is the Jetstar model as used by Qantas. I had not had this in my mind. Even though land passage was the original method of shifting South American spoils from the West coast of the Americas to the East where the plunder could be wasted on wars by Spain.

 

 

 

 

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Panama- Bastimentos and Boquete

Panama looks a lot like Costa Rica and Nicaragua and Honduras. It is green, it has a Caribbean coastline and a lot of low hanging clouds. There are some volcanoes but fewer and less lively ones than we’ve experienced previously. There are sloths and there are humming birds, that I did not hear hum, as I did not hear them hum in each of the other countries, but they seem a little larger here.

The island life on Bastimentos is languid. A fine word is languid. Its in the North East of Panama in an area called Bocas del Toro.

The island life on Bastimentos is languid. A fine word is languid. Its in the North East of Panama in an area called Bocas del Toro.

Island living is generally not wealthy living for the residents of Bastimentos.

Island living is generally not wealthy living for the residents of Bastimentos.

But its warm of weather and warm of ocean and the water taxis are a relaxing way to get around. From those taxis are sighted dolphins and mangroves.

But its warm of weather and warm of ocean and the water taxis are a relaxing way to get around. From those taxis are sighted dolphins and mangroves.

The beer I choose to drink in Panama exhibits the National flavour.

The beer I choose to drink in Panama exhibits the National flavour.

The other national flavour is coffee. At Boquete we stay at a coffee farm called Tree Trek.  A funny old name but a comfortable stay that bordered upon luxurious. This is it looking very coffee farm.

The other National flavour is coffee. At Boquete we stayed at a coffee farm called Tree Trek. A funny old name but a comfortable stay that bordered upon luxurious. This is it looking very coffee farm.

And here it is looking very coffee plant and particularly its award winning Geisha bean.

And here it is looking very coffee plant. This is its award winning Geisha bean, a coffee that tastes like tea (apparently appeals to Asian buyers)

 

 

And finally crossing the river at Tree Trek. A bouncy bridge connecting coffee plants to lodgings an restaurant.

Crossing the river at Tree Trek. A bouncy bridge connecting coffee plants to lodgings and restaurant. The coffee is very good here.

This part of Panama has two seasons. The wet season and the not so wet season. We were in wet season. Behind the fluffy white clouds is a volcano to the left is our room. During our stay the rain arrived around lunchtime and thundered down until the early hours of the morning.

This part of Panama is at an elevation and the moist clouds from two oceans greet its altitude by raining upon it. As a consequence we were advised that this place has two seasons. The wet season and the slightly less wet season. We were in wet season. Behind the fluffy white clouds is a volcano and to the left is our habitation. During our stay the rain arrived around lunchtime and thundered down until the early hours of the morning. We really liked it on this mountain. We would have liked it more if it hadn’t rained so much……..but we still liked it a lot.

 

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Panama- The introduction

When you enter or leave a country through its airport things are usually quite neat. There is an orderly and intuitive progression of events. On leaving you might pass a counter collecting departure tax with a small window and a queue. There is some type of security for carry on bags and immigration is the next stop. More queues, all indoors and at some stage a customs point or not. All of this occurs in a relatively small area and commonly there are outlets selling food and drink and plentiful toilet facilities.

Arriving in a country by air is similar. A counter collects any taxes that are to be collected, if they are not already included in the airfare. Immigration stamps the passport and receives a completed form that you filled on the aircraft or at the counter just before immigration. There are queues but these are well defined and roped. Baggage is then collected and perhaps another queue and another completed form. A cursory glance, or thorough search of your bags take place and you then follow others, out into the light. All of this occurs in a relatively small area, sheltered from the elements with clean, even, polished floors

Border crossings are not always so neat and are usually less neat. The leaving of Costa Rica and arriving in Panama is the most unneat crossing we have experienced. It occurred at a place called Sixaola which is at the South East of Costa Rica and the North East of Panama. It is close to the Caribbean Sea, but far enough away, for the Sea to not be visible.

We approached the border on a public bus. A short journey with ample leg room but hard seat. We knew we had arrived at the border as the road stopped and (thankfully) so too did the bus. Alongside the road where the bus stopped were a series of grubby houses that fit the description “shanty”, if I am feeling uncharitable in my descriptions. I wasn’t feeling uncharitable in my selection of adjectives when I arrived. I was feeling uncharitable by the time I departed, as I experienced a time interval greater than I had expected, in circumstances less comfortable than I had expected. One of those scruffy shops is more significant to travellers than any other of the shops. It sells shorts and other clothing and its stock is hung up outside the front of the small entrance. Two large signs also tell me that it is possible to pay my utility bills here and another two signs tell me I can buy credits for my phone plan. That shop is significant because it is where the exit tax is paid. How would you know? We queued there because everybody else queued there. I circumnavigated the shop and then I found it. A hand written sign, blue ball point overwritten three or four times for emphasis, on a plain white background, with many misspellings, indicated, this is the place at which exit tax is paid. It is hidden from the view of departing tourists by the shorts for sale, and by virtue of the fact that it is on the opposite side of the shop from which a departing tourist approaches. USD 8 and a quarter of an hour and that step was complete and we were provided a small white ticket indicating our qualification to proceed to the next place.

Time now to drag bags ten metres up a hill to another road and along that road to the location of the next place. This higher point was exit immigration. A small office containing two windows, behind which, sat two individuals. Each had an ink pad and stamp which rotated as days concluded and recommenced.

In front of this small building was a queue of around two hundred people who snaked themselves alongside the cyclone fencing. This queue was uncomfortable for two reasons. Firstly, the queue was in the open air. The men with the sophisticated technology waiting for us to approach them sat in an air conditioned house. We, the people, who had just paid the tax to fund their wages and their comfortable, cool, dry house were exposed to the beating sun and very high humidity. Secondly, this queue was 90 minutes long.

Now this queue did not dissolve in accordance with egalitarian standards of fair play taught to us on the green playing fields of England. Nor was it survival of the fittest queuing, where the young and the old are cast aside and trodden upon. I understand this is the version of gamesmanship taught on the dusty playing fields of Italy.

This queue was one where a business class system of preference applied. For the amount of $5 provided to a Costa Rican man better dressed than his countrymen, you would be accelerated to the head of the queue. Apparently, our tour guide had declined this service on our behalf. Part of me felt noble that we were not encouraging facilitation fees in other countries. The other part of me, the larger part of me, the much larger part of me, admired the application of the economic system to this aspect of the service industry. I cursed the tour guide for his absolute impudence in making this decision on my behalf. Although, I confess I am partly to blame for not taking advantage of the “fast lane” as I sort of knew this was happening, even if I did not witness the exchange of cash. The sun on my head had made me lethargic of thought process and the sun on my head had made it impossible for me to take decisive steps to improve my circumstances. I was the frog in the water being heated.

There were no food stalls to service the sweaty tourists nor drink vendors of the traditional type. However, an enterprising elderly gentleman on a bicycle began to ride up and down the waiting line. He had a white sack attached to his handlebars and a shriek and leer that suggested some type of mental instability. Inside the bag were coconuts. For a very reasonable 40 cents he would sell you one of his coconuts. As soon as you handed over the money his pulled out a vicious looking machete and hacked a hole in the coconut to expose the liquid contents. His sales were few despite the heat. I attributed this poor performance to the combination of his mannerisms and his skilled use of a very large, very sharp machete. I avoided eye contact and sipped carefully from my plastic bottle of tepid water. I reached the front of the queue as my water was consumed and my sweaty patience was rewarded with a dated exit stamp.

The next process was the one where we laughed in the face of danger. We were now free of Costa Rica and on our way to Panama. Panama was on the other side of a wide river. Linking the two banks of that river were two bridges. One was a nice new concrete bridge for trucks, no pedestrian walkway and no pedestrians permitted lest they be crushed by trucks. The other was an old bridge. It had been built for trains and wasn’t just old, it was very old. The trains had not run across it for decades and it was hard for me to imagine the bridge would any longer tolerate the weight of an engine. The bridge was not just old, but also rotten. Planks had been nailed alongside the tracks to make it easier for pedestrians to walk with their luggage. But not very easy. The new planks themselves, were no longer new, they had become old and many were very rotten. Nails had loosened themselves over the years and great gaps had appeared, exposing the raging muddy river below, gaps large enough to swallow a mule. There were no mules with us, but there were plenty of tourists smaller than mules and plenty of tourists bags smaller than both mules and the tourists. The rotting bridge looked to me to be held together by the rusting railway tracks. The bridge was quite long. The river was quite wide. A deep breath and off I go.

I tried not to look down. I tried to place my feet onto planks that were in good condition and nailed and I tried to similarly drag my case along planks that looked little rotted. I ignored the large holes. At one stage I heard a large, and loud, and very unnerving splash behind me. Clearly one of my fellow travellers had lost their backpack or their footing or both. Nothing I could do about it, so on I went, concentrating even more fiercely on the location of the solid nailed boards. I later discovered that the splash was a small boy. He was one of many local small boys climbing the outside of the bridge and leaping into the river. I was pleased no dredging for a corpse would be required, but more pleased I had reached the Panamanian side, with luggage, and without personal incident.

At the Panamanian side more confusing events. On this trip I have discovered the virtue of following others without question or comprehension. This again stood me in good stead and led me to the door of a small concrete shack, dirty and unmarked. It was where entrance taxes were collected. A small stamp was attached to my passport for the price of 3 USD.

We negotiated our bags down a ten metre slope that featured an incomplete set of concrete steps. We loaded our bags onto a truck. We translated our remaindered Costa Rican Colones into US dollars, at an appalling rate, to a fat man with a fat wad of currency. We were mentally ready to leave when it was brought to our attention that we should walk down another incline, past the parked trucks and there, magically, we would find immigration. It was true, past the parked trucks, there, magically, was immigration. A very short queue. A lady stamped my passport. I showed her proof that I would be departing the country. She showed me no interest. Clearly she had me assessed as a person who had little desire to overstay his welcome in Panama.

We were onto a bus and off we went. I reflected afterwards that there was no customs post on entry, unless it too had been hidden behind further trucks. But the process was not as complete as I had thought it to be. Five kilometres down the road a police patrol halted all vehicles. They demanded of each person in those vehicles evidence of the passport stamp acquired from the office past the parked trucks. Two hapless boy tourists had not been advised of the existence of the counter hidden by the trucks. Consequently, they had not visited the counter hidden by the trucks. They now had the unenviable task of trying to return to the counter hidden by the trucks without any transport apparent in this location. The police were looking distinctly unprepared to offer assistance. As we sped away we waved, our wave was meant to say, “good luck boys”, but the boys showed no interest in our wave.

 

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