Cockpit Chronicles: Taken for a ride in Panama City

I called my friend Captain Dave the day before our trip.

“Dave, we’re going to hit the ground running in Panama City so we can check out the canal. I’ve got it all figured out. Just get to bed early,” I said.

Dave was up for this. He actually traded one of his Barbados layovers to fly this trip with me. Sometimes it’s worth it to fly an ugly trip with a good friend. We’ve been flying together for about five years and we always have a good time discussing current events and hanging out on layovers.

I studied up on the Wikitravel Panama City entry and figured we could get a taxi over to the Miraflores Locks where there was supposed to be a decent restaurant overlooking the canal.

When I met up with Dave in operations, he had quite the story to tell. He went to bed the night before at 7 p.m. and, you guessed it, woke up at about 10 p.m. After tossing and turning a while longer, he figured he might as well come into work a few minutes earlier than normal for what he thought was a 5:30 a.m. departure. It wasn’t until he arrived at the Boston airport that he realized the flight departed at 6:45 a.m. He was almost three hours early. He tried to nap on a recliner in the crew lounge, but I imagine it’s hard to get much sleep when you’re kicking yourself all the time.

%Gallery-17310%I showed up on time and relatively well rested. I have to give credit to Dave. He was as determined to see the canal as I was, even after what would be a long day of flying. We left on time from Boston to Miami and continued on to Panama City just an hour later. Flying south to Panama took us directly over Cuba, which has excellent controllers, then through Jamaica’s airspace before finally talking to Panama control.

We landed in Panama City at 2 p.m. and made it to the hotel an hour later. Surprisingly, Dave was still willing to take the trip to the canal. We changed clothes and checked with the concierge about getting a cab to the locks. The Wikitravel entry mentioned a flat rate of $25 if you want to hire the cab for the entire day. The concierge spent a few minutes talking to a cab driver before deciding that we’d be better off with a private taxi since the cabby couldn’t speak much English.

Louis was probably close to eighty years old and he looked harmless enough. We hopped in the car and he drove about 50 feet before he turned to us and said, “No drugs!”

“What’s that?” I said, while sitting in the front seat.

“No drugs. I can take you anywhere you’d like, show you anything, just nooo drugs.” He said.

I know we’d been awake for close to 14 hours at this point, but how bad did we look?

“We’d just like to go to the Miraflores Locks for dinner.” I told Louis.

Louis said he’d be willing to do that, but he could also take us to Casco Viejo and some other interesting locations as well. And for all that, the total would be $80 for the day.

Now here’s a tip. Don’t get INTO a taxi until you have the price negotiated. Since we were already in the cab, our negotiating leverage was pretty much nil.

“$40 a person, OK, fine, I suppose.” This better be one heck of a tour, I thought.

Louis drove us toward the locks and explained that it was a great way to see the canal. Had we gone to the observation deck, it would cost $16. But if we went to the restaurant, we could eat at a buffet for $21. That worked for us. I was happy to save some money after agreeing to pay for Louis’s car payment for the month.
The traffic northbound out of the city was really slow going. It was the Friday before Mardi Gras and the celebrations were just starting, which meant a main road was closed in the city. Our drive took about 45 minutes, but Louis did his best to give us some of the details of his city. But it was hard to hear all the stories over the snoring that Dave was doing in the back seat.

Dave hasn’t stopped nagging me about the time I took him on a packed subway so we could find my favorite bathroom in Paris, so I knew I’d be hearing about this extravagant cab ride for many months to come.

We made it to the Miraflores Locks, which are the last locks before the Pacific Ocean. After climbing a few flights of stairs, we picked up some free passes that would get us past the guards to the restaurant. It was 5:30 p.m. when we sat down for dinner by ourselves on the balcony overlooking the locks. The view was spectacular and we soon realized that we needed to stay there for a full dinner, even if we had to miss out on touring any other parts of Panama City.

In order to see how the canal works, take a look at this 30 second animation showing the entire canal, and then this one that illustrates the way a lock operates.

Any visit to the canal wouldn’t be complete without a few mind-blowing facts about what some call the eighth wonder of the world:

  • 27,000 workers died during the construction.
  • On a New York to San Francisco trip, the canal saves 7800 miles.

  • Each canal door needs to be replaced every ten years and weighs 750 tons (the same as 12 Boeing 757′s).
  • Ships are prioritized by a bidding system. The more you’re willing to pay, the sooner you can enter the canal.
  • The canal averages 40 ships per day or 14,000 a year.
  • A typical passage by a cargo ship takes 9 hours to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Crossings cost as little as $650 for a sailboat to $141,000 for a cruise ship.

Dave and I watched three or four huge ships pass through during our two-hour dinner there. I’ve included a gallery showing the view from the restaurant as well as some aerial shots of the canal I took when we passed overhead earlier in the day.

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The buffet dinner couldn’t have been better and we enjoyed the local Balboa beer as well. Every country we fly to in the Caribbean and Central America seems to have their own beer and surprisingly they all taste exactly the same. I’m not complaining as I do like them all, but I can’t tell the difference.

Louis came up twice to check on us; probably to be sure we weren’t skipping out on his taxi bill, but also to let us know that we were going to miss seeing the other parts of town. We knew we’d be back, and we had found the perfect place to eat and enjoy the monumental view.

The drive back to the hotel took an hour because of the traffic. I marveled at all the construction and found a few open wi-fi spots with my iPhone as we crept through the city. Dave slept in the backseat. Fortunately we didn’t have to leave for another eighteen hours, so he could catch up on a lot of sleep back at the hotel.

The next day we flew to Miami and then on to Caracas, Venezuela where we laid over for sixteen hours. The rest of the trip was uneventful, but I did manage to get some nice shots of the sun going down on the way from Caracas to Miami.

One of the benefits of this job has been the ability to travel to some interesting places that I might have otherwise missed. If you don’t think you’ll ever make it to Panama, at least you can check out this webcam from the top of the building where we had dinner. It’s the next best thing. If that’s too slow for you, take a look at this almost hypnotic video below of a week’s worth of traffic through the Miraflores Locks compressed down to a few minutes.


Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.