Saturday, April 14
We left Audrey's house with Jesse and Tim and drove to Boston's Logan airport. Although the plane was delayed an hour, we had no trouble driving straight through I-90 into the airport and finding the Economy parking as well as the shuttle bus. (Of course it was early Saturday morning - no traffic!) The flight to Atlanta was smooth; it was Timmy's birthday and as he put it, "the conductor" on the plane to Panama City gave him wings to pin on his shirt as a "souvenir". The boys thought the immigration line in Panama City was way too long (who doesn't?) and we finally got a cab for the hour-long ride to our hotel outside the city, the Gamboa Rainforest Lodge. We all shared a room here, which had a fabulous balcony overlooking the jungle, and boys spotted (I swear) every animal and bird in the vicinity, which they learned the names of instantly. The balcony had a terrific big hammock too, very popular.
Sunday, April 15
The kids got up at dawn and went out on the balcony to see the place in daylight and spot more birds and animals. After breakfast, we met our Classic Journeys guide, Chis (a guy), who hit it off with kids, was a great naturalist as well, and was overall wonderful. Our first adventure was a trip on the Panama Canal in a small open boat with a bimini top. Most of the area, and a large portion of the canal is Gatun Lake, man-made and much like any other man-made lake, reminding a bit of lake Powell in Arizona,( except that the shores are dense jungle here and in no danger of drying up as in Lake Powell). Monkeys and birds abounded, and there were several ships making their way through the canal. Each has a pilot and often a tugboat for assistance in the locks - all required by the Canal authority. There was so much backwater to explore that it felt quite different from the Erie Canal - more like a narrow long lake. Jesse and Tim loved seeing and identifying all the wildlife. After a couple hours, we eventually ended back at the marina and drove (we had a van and driver too) to Miraflores Locks, the last before the canal empties into the Pacific Ocean near Panama City. There we had lunch in a restaurant overlooking the locks (there are two, side by side, to take care of two ships at once). A couple of the ships we had seen in Gatun Lake arrived at the locks while we ate, and we observed the tight fit and the automated diesel engines that guided the ships in with only a foot or so on each side to spare. We had a good view of a huge container ship in one lock, as well as a US Navy ship (a stealth-clad mobile command post heading for the Korea area) in the next lock along with three sailboats tied together across. Jesse was surprised to see how smoothly the locks works - I think he originally thought that the ship would sort of "whoosh" down the lock as the water ran out. The site had a museum depicting the building of the canal too.
We were back at the hotel with plenty of time to have the boys swim in the enormous pool, where there was an iguana (big guy they named Fred), lots of birds and "rodents of unusual size". The literature had said the pool had a 60' waterfall. OK, no one ever said 60' high, but that's what we had thought - it was actually a few feet high and 60' wide!. Gorgeous, lush landscaping.
Monday, April 16
Today was a real adventure as we drove to the Chargras River and embarked upstream in real dugout canoes crafted by and steered by the indigenous Embera. These people used to live in the Darien area close to Columbia, but a hydroelectric dam flooded their lands. They have chosen to maintain their traditional way of life in several villages along the river. We visited the furthermost village, accessible only by canoe (with outboard). The water level was very low because it was the end of the dry season, so the motor was assisted by a poler standing in the front who also navigated. After about 45 minutes on the hard little bench seats. we arrived at the village and were greeted by the people who live there. After we were seated in aspen-sided gathering hut, their history, customs, and crafts were explained in Spanish, translated by our guide. Lunch was served - deep-fried tilapia fish and deep-fried plantains (kind of a banana) - all eaten with fingers. Delicious and the kids loved it too (especially using fingers!). Dessert was fruit, and then we were entertained with music on their instruments and dancing. We were free then to wander around and shop in their excellent craft market right there.
On the way back downstream, we stopped for a hike to a waterfall where we had a great swim before heading back to the van. Lots of wildlife was evident - birds, caimans (a type of crocodile), and monkeys.