I thought I would write up my experiences looking for passage
as a line handler through the Panama Canal
because a lot of the information I found is out-of-date. This is current
as of Oct 2012. I know there are other backpackers like myself that are willing to do this, and I think this'll be useful for boat captains as well, so here's a little info:
There used to be more marinas
where you could easily find someone passing, but they have apparently been torn down (somewhat abruptly, I'm told).
On the Atlantic side is Colon. I went to Club Nautica first, which is on the east side of town. I went there twice - the first day, the guys there told me there had just been a Panameno looking for line handlers. The second day, he had never returned and they said they generally don't get a lot of boats that cross through the canal. It has a restaurant and it looks like they do some repairs
there. I speak plenty of Spanish, and there was only one guy there that spoke some broken English
- keep that in mind if you go looking there. From the central street where the bus drops you off, expect to pay between $1.25-$2 for a taxi to get there. It's walking distance, but most people would be more comfortable in a taxi.
I was next directed to el Autoridad Maritima, the Maritime Authority. This is very close to the main bus terminal on the west side of town - you need to walk in the direction of the canal. There are a bunch of official looking buildings behind a chain link fence (you can walk right in). The building is blue and white and has a small sign, so make sure, if you go there, that you ask for it so you don't miss it.
The people at el Autoridad Maritima were helpful in telling me they couldn't help me - they don't maintain a list or anything. They were perfectly nice. I did meet two guys that were at Shelter Bay Marina which is the other marina I was told about in Colon and appears to be THE marina for boats going through the canal. These two weren't going through, but gave me some other info. Shelter Bay Marina is pretty far out of town and will be $20-ish or more by taxi one way. The marina has a shuttle that stops at El Rey supermarket on the main street in Colon. They suggested that I could take the shuttle ($8 roundtrip, if I remember correctly) if there was room. I thought about taking the shuttle, but ultimately decided to try my luck in Panama
City as they hadn't known of anyone going through the canal soon.
I've been traveling in Central America
for awhile, so I am accustomed to a lot. Colon is the complete opposite of the monied parts
City - very dirty, lots of visible poverty, and people are more likely to approach you (I always consider this a bad sign.). I sort of liked Colon, but I wouldn't spend more time here than you have to. If you spend the night, the cheap
places are by the hour.
This is not a place to take pictures, flash cash, look rich, or look friendly.
Buses are constantly running between Colon and Panama City, cost $3.15 one way, and take 1.5 - 2 hours depending on traffic. The last ones run around 9-10 pm. There is also a train that would probably be worth taking in the daytime - I think it's $20-ish one way, $35-ish roundtrip.
In Panama City, it sounds like the best place to go is Balboa
Yacht Club. Out of several taxi drivers I asked, not one knew what or where it was, and two wanted to drive me down to the bay between Casco Viejo and downtown. There is a marina there, but I don't think that's the place to go to.... From Allbrook Mall, where the main bus terminal is, it should not be more than a $3 taxi ride to go to the club. FYI, there used to be a Balboa
Yacht Club in the same location that burned down, and the new one was built next to the old one. Tell your taxi to go to Balboa Yacht Club in Amador and you should both be able to find it. There are two other yacht clubs further out that I didn't go to, but I never saw them mentioned for canal-goers.
Balboa Yacht Club has a bulletin board next to the bar - you'll see other people's postings for line handling, so put yours there.
If I was going to do this again and I was pressed for time, I would post something at Balboa Yacht Club in person, then email
Shelter Bay and ask them to post my email
If you are a pressed captain
looking for line handlers, I would consider posting
something or asking around at Luna's Castle Hostel in Casco Viejo. It's a very popular hostel and you're probably going to go to Casco Viejo at some point, which is probably on the verge of becoming a tourist trap. Careful, because some backpackers are flakes, and I suspect that it'll be a little harder to get backpackers to wake up Saturday and Sunday.
At this point, I haven't crossed the canal, but I have from now until the 4th of November to get through, so if anybody knows anybody....