MM 7 — Day 7: Panama Canal by Ship, Rain Forest by Gondola

When I woke up at around 5:30 this morning, I quickly dragged1 myself out of bed to peek through my curtains, but we were still waiting for our time slot to enter the Gatun Locks, the Eastern entrance to the Panama Canal. Excellent! Some more time for a few extra precious snores in bed.

When I woke up next, we were already inside the locks, so I got dressed, grabbed my camera, and went out on deck to watch this spectacle.

The Panama Canal viewed from the aft of the ship.

Pulled along by diesel locomotives, the MS Volendam traversed through all three steps of the Gatun Locks and into Gatun lake. In front and in back of us, other ships made it through the locks, as well, and to take in the sights of these huge vessels from this close — stunning!

The Panama Canal viewed towards the bow of the ship

Just as stunning was the green color of the lush vegetation surrounding Gatun lake. This being my first trip to the rain forest and my first trip to South America in general, I was amazed by how warm and soft tropical rain was that accompanied us all the time during our maneuver through the locks. And which did not prevent any of my fellow-passengers from getting up, getting out, and getting all excited about the whole thing, as well.

Tendering out to the shore excursions while the ship is anchored on Gatun Lake

After we made it through the locks, the ship anchored in Gatun Lake next to some other “parked” ships, and we were taken ashare by tender boats — which made for a fun roller-coaster-like experience — to board the buses that would take us on today’s excursions.

Never having seen the rain forest before, my choice for today’s excursion was clear as soon as I saw the words “45-minute treetop gondola ride” in the brochure, and I was delighted to have my newly-found-on-this-cruise friends Chris and Jill, as well Jonathan (a “fellow-Aruba-Jeep-tour-survivor”) share this experience with me.

That gondola ride would take place at the Gamboa Rain Forest Resort, and a “short” ride in a minibus would take us there. This ride turned into a little adventure in its own right: the lush vegetation, the reddish-brown soil, the decrepit lumber trucks on the road, the “typical” Latin American scenes, houses, people. So new and exotic were these sights and sounds that I felt like a kid in a toy store, taking it all in with wide-open eyes and mouth agape. And due to a few roadwork sites on our route, as well as heavy overall traffic, I had ample time to do so.

All during the ride, our guide gave us lots and lots and lots of information on Panama by handing out countless info sheets, showing local animals, fruits, vegetables, flowers, foods, etc. — you name ’em, those sheets listed ’em.

Eventually, we arrived at Gamboa which felt as though it was located right in the middle rain forest nowhere. Once we all safely disembarked our little Toyota bus, we got in line for the gondola ride, and having the Pogues directly behind us in the queue added some serious entertainment value.

When I prepared for this excursion, I had decided to leave my camera on the ship, because, first, Chris did bring his high-end SLR, and him being a pro photographer, I’d be able to get the finest photographic memories from him anyway; and second, I often have this urge to take as many photos as I can to make sure I don’t miss anything. Which has the annoying drawback that, just as often, I am not really enough “in the moment,” bothered with taking pictures instead of really letting myself become immersed in the actual experience.

Turns out, I made the right choice, since Jill had also brought an SLR, and I gladly helped her find some interesting motives to capture (while selfishly offloading to her the burden of actually photographing them).

Back to the gondolas: they looked like gondolas from a kids’ ride on the fairgrounds, felt like a kids’s ride on the fairgrounds, and provided the exact same feeling of safety as — a kids’ ride on the fairgrounds. But, man, was this some awesome ride!

Slowly “flying” through the dense foliage of the rain forest canopy towards the peak of a hill, most everyone fell silent with awe, gazing at the trees and brushes and breathing in the humid, even tangy air.

And this ride was even topped by what expected us at the top of the hill: an observation tower whose peak cleared the tree tops, so we could gaze out over the forest and part of the Panama Canal. This was, so far, easily the most moving sight of the whole cruise. And it reminded me of a quote by Albert Einstein:

> He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.

And pause, we did; and stand rapt in awe, we did; and so alive we were, and our eyes so open!

When we returned down the hill, it felt as if we had experienced something big, transcendental. Something that cannot be put into words, so I won’t even attempt it.

During the ride back, it was pretty quiet on the bus. But the sights were just as interesting and exotic as when we came in, so, although I was drained, I couldn’t help stare outside the window and observe all the details of this strange, exciting, different world.

As scheduled, our ship had already left Gatun Lake, going back through the Gatun Locks, and was now docked in Colón. Our departure was late by about 30 minutes, because a landslide had delayed the return of the bus of another excursion. How “exciting” that must have been.

Two-thirds of the cruise are now behind us, and tomorrow’s stop at Puerto Limon in Costa Rica will be the last one before two consecutive sea days that will take us back to Fort Lauderdale. The excursion I have booked will leave at 6:30am tomorrow morning (read: “middle of the night for a geek”). Well, at least we will all gain one hour tonight, as we are moving into yet another new time zone, setting our clocks back one more hour.

Still, I will skip “fine dining” tonight and meet Jill at the bar for a snack, a few brewskies, and for basking in the “sustain” (for you non-musicians out there, feel free to substitute “afterglow”) of this fabulous day.

  1. For someone with my sleep rhythm, “quickly dragging” is not an oxymoron. 

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