New Lock Leak “A Design Problem: Won’t Delay Opening”

Although it looks daunting, according to the contractor and the Canal de Panama, the leak problem is a “design problem” which can be corrected and will not delay the proposed opening date of the new locks. The filling of the locks was planned as a test and the test revealed the leak problem, so the new locks are now being drained so the problem can be fixed.

Steel Bars and Sealant

The GUPC construction consortium delivered an interim report last Friday to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) giving details of the problem. The report took about a month to produce says La Prensa.

The leaks were caused by an apparent problem in the design of the locks, which did not have sufficient steel in the areas where there were problems.

Part of the contractor’s proposal to the ACP says the issue will be addressed by placing steel bars and a sealant in the problem areas.

To do the repairs all the water has to be drained from the locks, which have been undergoing testing. Drai ining the locks on the Pacific side started side week. Once those repairs are completed, work will start on the Atlantic side. The repairs are being made to both new locks to prevent future problems.

GUPC must now deliver a full report on the problem, and that information will be checked by experts in structural engineering at the Technological University of Panama as well as by foreign experts.

To Open in April

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) said Wednesday it has received a long-awaited and highly anticipated preliminary update from the contractor behind the expansion of the Panama Canal on the causes and solution to a large crack that formed in one of chambers of the new lock complexes in August.

In a letter to the ACP from the consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal, S.A. (GUPC), who is responsible for the design and construction of the Third Set of Locks, the consortium wrote that that the localized seepage was the result of insufficient steel reinforcement in the area while subjected to stress from extreme condition testing.

The crack and water seepage appeared in August in the concrete sill between the lower and middle chamber of the Canal’s expanded Pacific Locks during a testing phase of the new locks. After photos and video of the crack began circulating online, the ACP was quick to point out that the issue would not delay the delivery of the project, although it later backtracked saying that the risk of delay was likely as it awaited a formal report from GUPC.

The ACP reported Wednesday that after careful examination of all the other sills in both lock complexes, GUPC said that in addition to reinforcing the sill that presented the issue, they would also reinforce the first and second sill in the Cocoli Locks and the first three sills in the Atlantic-facing Agua Clara Locks as a preventative measure, though the sills have not experienced any of the same problems.

GUPC also verbally indicated that the completion date for the expansion project will remain April 2016 as planned, however, the ACP is awaiting formal confirmation from GUPC in the form of a comprehensive report which should also include the root cause of the detected filtrations, the ACP said.

The ACP on Wednesday reiterated that GUPC’s contract with the ACP clearly states that the group is responsible for all corrections that may be required, and that GUPC is obligated to ensure the long-term performance on all aspects of the construction of the locks and to complete the expansion project following the quality standards established in the contract.

The Third Set of Locks project, the main component of the $5.25 billion expansion project, involves the construction of new, bigger lock complexes on the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Panama Canal, which will allow larger ships to transit and effectively double the capacity of the famous waterway.

The opening of the new locks was originally scheduled for 2014 to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the existing Panama Canal, but cost overruns and delays have pushed the opening to its current date of April 2016.

The GUPC consortium is led by Spain’s Sacyr Vallehermoso, with Impregilo of Italy, Jan De Nul of Belgium and Constructura Urbana, SA (CUSA) of Panama. GUPC won the contract for the Third Set of Locks in 2009 after beating out two other company’s for the project. [GCAPTAIN]

The Elephant In The Room

ZAaa 051Unlike the present Canal locks, there will be no engines or “mules” to assist navigation of the ships in the locks. Instead tug boats will be used at either end of the giant Post Panamax vessels. The elephant in the room that might well delay the opening of the new locks, even if the leak problem is corrected, is the assertion by the Panama Canal Pilots union that it may be unsafe to attempt to navigate the huge Post Panamax ships without assistance of the traditional engines.

Although the process works in models, and the pilots are practicing on simulators, the sure test will come once the locks are ready and before they are open to customers.  The Canal is chartering a Post Panamax ship so that the pilots can practice before April.

Another concern of the pilots has to do with the relatively narrow Culebra Cut.

The pilots who guide ships through the Panama Canal fear that the navigation methods chosen to guide post-Panamax vessels into the new expanded locks and through the enlarged canal channels run higher risks of accidents than existing practices.

Under the existing method, two locomotives tow a Panamax ship, a vessel with capacity up to 4,500 TEUs, into the 100-year-old locks, which raise or lower the ship to the level of the water on the other side. Under the new method, the Panama Canal Authority plans to use two or more tugboats to push the much bigger post-Panamax vessels into the new locks — which should open to commercial traffic in 2016 — that will accommodate container ships with capacities of up to 13,000 20-foot-equivalent units. The Panama Pilots Association says the new method will take longer and cost more.

The pilots also worry that even though the expansion project has widened the canal’s narrowest passage at the Culebra Cut, it will still be too tight to accommodate the transit of two post-Panamax vessels at the same time. They say it runs the risk of causing a collision and blocking the canal.

“We can’t afford to make a mistake on this, and the way this is going, that’s exactly what we are going to do,” said Rainiero Salas, president of the Panama Canal Pilots’ Association.

“The point right now is: How do we overcome the deficiencies that the new system has to have a safe and efficient system that is going to be successful not only for the country, but for the shipowners, for the clients, for the pilot, for everybody,” Salas said in an interview with

The pilots complain that the Panama Canal Authority never consulted them when it drew up the operational plans for the new locks. The plans call for the use of tugboats rather than the proved method of using two locomotives on either side of an incoming ship. “It’s less efficient and less safe,” Salas said.

The canal agency said the use of tugs for the transit of vessels is a “known practice” in canals around the world. It said it has been investing in increasing its tugboat capacity, purchasing 14 tugs built in Europe in the last two years at a cost of more than $11 million each. “We have high regards for the professionalism and skill of our pilots and remain confident that the training the ACP has determined to provide them will guarantee that they are adequately prepared to safely navigate the larger vessels through our new locks utilizing tugboats instead of locomotives,” it said in a statement in response to questions by

“The locomotives have been working safely for over 100 years,” Salas said. “Why would you want to do it any other way?” He said the Panama Canal Authority would have to spend much more money on a tugboat fleet than the older, tried-and-true method. Under the current method, each locomotive has an operator who is a member of the pilots’ association. Under the method planned for the new locks, each tugboat would have a crew of five, none of whom is a member of the pilots’ association.

The canal pilots, who are affiliate members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, make an average of $180,000 a year, but unlike other canal employees, their income is variable and depends on the number of ships they pilot through the canal.

Despite their reservations, the pilots did not object to the canal authority’s plan to use tugboats rather than locomotives at the time the plan was drawn up, but decided to protest when the authority said it would allow two ships to pass each other in the Culebra Cut while traveling in opposite directions. Salas said this was not part of the original plan.

“That’s it; I am drawing the line right here, “he said. “When it comes to the navigation of the ship, I am the only one who has anything to do with it. I am not going to put up any more with the administration not taking our input when it comes to the operation of the canal.”


Salas said the pilots’ association is raising the issue now to try to get a response from the canal authority. He said the pilots’ association does not plan any labor action, but that it had filed a notice of unfair labor practices against the agency.The Panama Canal Authority said it consults with its employees on the canal’s operations. “Decisions made by the Panama Canal Administration regarding the operation of the expanded canal are not made arbitrarily. They take into consideration the very valuable opinion of highly experienced workforce,” it said in the statement.

Salas said that under the original plan for the expansion project, which was published in 2006, the Culebra Cut was widened from 630 to 715 feet, which was designed to allow passage of one ship at a time with a beam of 150 feet traveling in one direction.

“They did a lot of homework and spent millions of dollars on studies and analyses,” Salas said.

One of those studies, the Technical Analysis of the Proposed Panama Canal Post-Panamax Navigation Channel, stated that “if some of the current operating restrictions were lifted once the Cut straightening and widening program is complete, select Panamax ships could be allowed to conduct two-way transits through canal entrances and the Cut.”

Salas said that in May the canal authority notified the pilots’ association that it would allow two ships with beams of 160 feet to navigate the 7-mile-long Cut while traveling in opposite directions. “We are talking about the same channel, the same width, the same depth and the same rocks because the rocks are still there, so what changed? That is the question,” Salas said. “All of a sudden (ships can pass with) a little more than twice as much size as we could do when they first did the study? I have to say it’s irresponsible.”

The canal authority statement said simply that the Culebra Cut is currently being widened to 715 feet, which should allow two post-Panamax vessels to navigate side by side through the Cut.”

When Salas asked the canal authority for studies and analysis showing that two ships could safely pass each other in the expanded Culebra Cut, “the authority said they do not exist,” he said.

“They can increase the throughput of the Panama Canal, but they risk having an accident and shutting the canal down,” Salas said. It’s not my intention to scare the customers away, but we have enough time, but the administration and the pilots have to get together now to work out how this is going to work.” [JOC.COM]


Questions Continue About Nicaragua Canal

The Nicaragua/China proposal to build a canal across Nicaragua has raised serious questions and doubts from the start.  The deal was consummated between Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua, and a Chinese without any vote of the people.  The deal gave the Chinese company a swath of land across the country cutting through some of the most beautiful and environmentally sensitive areas.  Environmentalists have been critical of the project from the start.  With a price tag variously quoted as $50B to $75B nobody knows for sure how the numbers were derived and where the money will come from.  Widespread opposition has developed among the Nicaraguan people.   Some believe that the proposal for a canal was just a smoke screen for Chinese interests to secure rights to develop projects for mostly Chinese tourists including hotels, golf courses, and Pacific coast cruise ports for the rapidly growing Chinese cruise industry.

Supposedly work began back in December 2014, although there isn’t much work to show.  Both Nicaraguan officials and the Hong Kong-based company behind the canal have dodged questions about sources of money to build the canal., whose estimated cost is four times Nicaragua’s gross domestic product.  The proposed canal will be 172 miles (278 km) long, over three times the length of the Panama Canal.

Many believe the Chinese government is secretly bankrolling the plan, which both China and Wang have repeatedly denied. “If the canal goes ahead … it will be because the Chinese government wants it to, and the financing will come from China’s various state firms,” according to Arturo Cruz of the INCAE business school, an ex-Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States.

The aim is the canal,” said Cruz, “But even if they only build a Caribbean port, this country will have achieved something it hasn’t managed in 500 years.”

Originally proposed without locks, challenges of the project being an unparalleled environmental disaster, caused a revised plan that includes locks on both oceans.  The path of the proposed canal cuts right across Lake Nicaragua and involves digging a huge channel out of the lake wrecking havoc on one of the most beautiful areas in Latin America and uprooting and displacing local residents.  Much of the drinking water supply comes from Lake Nicaragua and it is a food source for locals.

According to one environmental consultancy, the project is “fraught with risks and uncertainties,” and could cause more harm than good unless the government and its Chinese builder fund a host of mitigation measures.

According to Reuters,

“The social and environmental impact study by the consultancy, Environmental Resources Management Ltd, echoed many of the same concerns. It urged Nicaragua’s government to verify project builder and operator, Hong Kong-based HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co Ltd (HKND Group), complied with international standards before construction begins.

The study was commissioned by HKND. The company is controlled by Chinese telecom mogul Wang Jing, who has dodged questions about his financial backers and much of his business background …

Environmental Resources Management said the canal was likely to have an overall positive impact on Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in Latin America, but only if it follows international standards, such as protecting biological reserves and assessing possible hazards from earthquakes.

The report was particularly critical of the project’s planned five-year timeline, saying it would create “logistical, procurement and workforce challenges.”

HKND had planned to start excavation this month but has pushed the start date to early next year, amid planned further studies.

The consultancy also said HKND had not followed transparency standards, including sharing information with about 30,000 people who might have to move from their homes or lose their assets or livelihood…  the consultancy warned that a worst-case scenario, where the project is begun but not completed, could harm while providing none of the proposed economic benefits.

Without secure financing, a strong business case for the canal and measures to limit the project’s environmental impact, “Nicaragua may be worse off than doing nothing,” the report said.  [REUTERS]

And The Money??

Chinese billionaire funding Nicaragua’s US$50b rival to Panama Canal sees fortune fall 84%

Telecoms entrepreneur Wang Jing, 42, listed among world’s 200 richest people with net worth of US$10.2 billion in June, is now worth only US$1.1 billion, says Bloomberg Billionaires Index

The Chinese billionaire who is using his personal fortune to help fund a US$50 billion Nicaraguan challenger to the Panama Canal has seen his net worth tumble following the equity market slump in the world’s second-largest economy.

Telecommunications entrepreneur Wang Jing, 42, was listed among the world’s 200 richest people with a net worth of US$10.2 billion at the peak of the Chinese markets in June, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

However, following the fall in the stock market his net worth has since fallen to only US$1.1 billion.

Wang’s 84 per cent drop so far in 2015 is the worst recorded by the index, which provides a daily ranking of the world’s 400 richest people.

The Hong Kong-based developer, HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Group (HKND), led by Wang, said in 2014 that the canal would be operational by 2020.

Work started in 2014 on the Chinese-led Grand Canal of Nicaragua and should be operational by 2020, Wang Jing has said. However, one risk adviser said the decline in Wang’s fortune could raise questions about whether the canal remained a viable proposition.

The canal could give China a major foothold in Central America, a region long dominated by the United States.

However, protesters in Nicaragua claim the project will hurt the environment.{Bloomberg]

Pizza, Coffee, Rum & Mail

pizza cReal Neapolitan Pizza in Boquete

I’ve waited 11 years for great pizza in Boquete, and now we are blessed with the real thing!

What does a young, high-flying celebrity chef who presides over one of the most highly rated restaurants in Asia do when he gets bored and tired of the rat race? Move to Boquete and open a restaurant: what else? Retrogusto will be opening on Avenida Central in Boquete very soon.

David Care has a passion for food, and making pizza, and sharing the experience of real Italian comfort food with everyone … at an affordable price [$4 for Margarita, the original pizza first created in Naples for Queen Margarita, when she got hungry late at night and the chef had to come up with something with the kitchen already closed!] . David makes his own dough, his mozzarella cheese and sausage and the pizza is cooked to real Naples-standards, in a wood-fired oven for 90 seconds. And it tastes amazing!

Not willing to wait for his restaurant to open, David is making pizza for the “masses” … well, those of us lucky enough to live in Boquete. He’s set up shop with his portable oven in Alto Boquete right across from the gas station.

It’s Coffee Harvest Time!

DSC_0109This is our favorite time in Boquete!  One of the great things about living, not in a gated, guarded gringo enclave, but in the real Panama, just up the mountain from Boquete town, is to be a part of the coffee culture that has been the tradition of Boquete for a hundred year.  Now is the time we get to reap the rewards of watching our coffee bloom, ripen, and now harvest our excellent Arabic coffee.  Harvest started early this year and we’ve already picked some which we have processed, are sun drying, and will hold out for ourselves and family.  Most of what we will harvest now will be sold “in the cherry” to local beneficios where they process the coffee.   Since we are a small farm, by coffee standards a very small farm, we don’t have Ngabe Bugle pickers come in from the comarca for the harvest, but we use our Ngabe neighbors, folks who live here and are our neighbors year round.  It is a fun, festive family affair.  Our neighbors come with dogs and kids (no day care to dump your kids in) and it is fun and festive time.  Many of the same folks have picked for us for years.


experience itUnfortunately we are both at the stage of life where we need to downsize and retire from our “retirement” … second retirement time.  We have some health issues and I’m usually off on ships 4 to 6 months a year.  No, we’re not leaving Boquete, just looking to downsize.  But we do have a beautiful house and coffee farm, and it is for sale.  So if you really love coffee why not stop just reading about it and standing in line at Starbucks or Tim Horton’s and escape to paradise and grow your own?

Incredibly Great Rum

Twenty-five years ago Jim Wassan and his business partner, tow young guys at the time, began buying up the best cane juice in Panama. They partnered with the world’s leading blender of rums, who had come from Cuba to Panama after the Revolution. They began making rum … and storing it in oak barrels in a giant warehouse in Panama. Now 25 years later they are releasing their first 25-year-old rum named Panamonte, after Boquete’s famous hotel. The industry standard is that if you put a little say five-year-old rum into the batch you can sell the whole batch as rum aged five years. But Panamonte is different: every drop is 25 years old! So it has a hefty price tag of about $450 a bottle. I had opportunity to sample it with Jim and some friends … and of course we emptied the bottle. But it is incredibly smooth and I wouldn’t dream of corrupting it with anything except maybe a cube of ice [just like I wouldn’t dream of corrupting our home-grown coffee with sugar or cream!]. At any rate, Panamonte is slowly coming onto the market in very high-end outlets.

Also gradually coming on the market is Panamonte’s much younger sibling, Panama Red, a wonderful, full-bodied, incredibly smooth, over proof run. [Named, by the way, not after the 60s-favorite Panama Red joints, but after a red-headed gal who once owned a bar in the Casco Viejo who went by the name Panama Red.] It’s coming, so watch for it!

And Now The Mail!

From Nigel …

Hi, Richard, I’m pretty much down to the granular stage – arriving in Boquete on Nov 10th – right now, I just need to know a few things:
Who do you use to reliably handle parcels and mail forwarding from the States? I need to set up a USA address in order to notify all my contacts, bank, etc.
I’ll be in San Jose on the 30th of this month (the following week in a dentist’s chair), then onto a one-way bus to Boquete via David. Will I need a visa to avoid border issues? If so, what is the best way to get one and what kind? Pensionado? From the Panamanian Embassy in San Jose, assuming there is one?
Can you suggest a reasonable place to stay after I arrive? I am open to a room in a private home or a motel that is reasonable (I’m not a Hilton-type traveler – by budget or inclination) while I look around for more permanent lodging.
Lastly, is there an eBook or PDF (NON-Kindle) version of your book, Escape… ? It will save me having to buy the paperback and scanning it in. I am more than willing to pay the paperback price of $20 (Amazon).

I’d also like to chat with you about your cruise experiences. Thanks, Nigel

Hi Nigel!  First, about mail – There are several mail services. When we first came here we subscribed to a mail-forwarding service … and ended up getting a lot of junk, or repetitive messages from insurance, etc., stuff we had already requested “paperless” [so now we got it by both email and snail mail!], catalogs [try getting off their lists!], and it got quite expensive for a lot of junk mail. So we got a box at the post office and people who want to contact us by mail, or feel they must [read alumni associations] can pay to send it to our Panama address. I’ve also ordered books from Amazon that I’ve gotten through the Panama postal service. Where we do have packages we use Mail Box, Etc. and pay a one-time charge depending ont he package weight. Our official address is still in the States at my daughters and she piles up unimportant stuff for us to throw in the garbage when we visit, and if it looks like something we’d want to see scans it and emails it to us.

I believe you can buy a tourist visa at the border [there are lots of online sources for this information] but you will need a round-trip ticket, so it probably pays to get a ticket back to Costa Rica, or if you have an airline ticket from Panama back to home you should be fine.

There is a whole process for getting permanent residency and a Pensionado visa and you can find details online. AFter you’ve done the research, while you are here, I’d recommend working with a Panamanian attorney who can guide you in the process as to what you will need. The most difficult thing for most people if you’re from the States is getting the FBI report, it’s a very precise process and if you do it wrong you’ll waste time and money.

I assume you are coming for a visit to check out Panama as a potential place to live. I’d really recommend the Panama Relocation Tour for people who are thinking of moving to Panama. It’s a boots-on-the-ground tour and Jackie Lange will answer questions you never thought about, but should be thinking about.  And the guidance about getting Pensionado and visas is almost worth the price of the tour.

Boquete is loaded with low-cost hostel hotels, BUT you are coming at the PEAK, PEAK time, so I’d recommend finding places online and making a reservation in advance.

THE NEW ESCAPE TO PANAMA is available in paper or on Kindle.  The Kindle version works on most smart phones, laptops, and readers.  There is no PDF version nor will there be.

Hope that helps, and let me know when you’re in town since I’d like to meet you.  Regards, Richard

From Elizabeth …

Thank you so much for all the great information. I would love to visit the coffee farm . I’m traveling on the 13th of October and spending a few days in Casco Viejo. You helped me plan my trip! My next stop will be Boquete. Thank you for the book ” The New Escape to Paradise” I totally enjoyed it. Well written with a lot of info. I consider you and your wife very successful, and great people. I read books about Panama before, I’m even a member of International Living, but coming across your information and being able to read your book was the best honest information I got. Thank you, Elizabeth

Thanks Elizabeth. Please, please, anybody who has read THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE … write a review on Amazon. Strangely enough, even if you say the book sucks [which I hope you won’t!] the sheer number of reviews, good, bad, or indifferent, helps with the books ranking and placement on Amazon.

On Adjusting to Living in Panama …

Good tips. I would add that I never felt integrated into the community until I became involved with a volunteer organization. Not only is this an opportunity to make friends, but it also is an opportunity to interact with and better understand the locals. Using just one organization as an example, Buenos Vecinos de Boquete provides food to over a hundred impoverished individuals and families in the community. The volunteers have forged friendships through gatherings to divvy up and package individual monthly food supplies, and then deep satisfaction in delivering the food and meeting the individual clients. This type of work–and there are many other types of volunteer work locally–broadens both one’s social circle and cultural understanding. It also feels incredibly good to get outside of oneself and help others. Bonnie Williams

Another good post Richard. We are so happy that we both read your book before coming over and visiting. We felt that there were very few surprises when we arrived. Panama is not the US or anyplace else, it is Panama! When we moved to Maui we had similar experiences and still hear the tourists complaining that “that’s not how it is back home”. Nope, Maui isn’t just like home——-that’s why you left home to experience something else! John Henry

On Whether Jesus Would Vote for Obama …

Since Jesus was the first Communist/Socialist, I would say “yes”, and I mean this in a good way. The essence of Christianity is based on very communal concepts such as taking care of your brother and sharing, communion at Mass, etc. Communism, in theory, is also communal . On a personal level, I am not as Catholic or Republican as I once was. Both organizations have left me and my convictions in the way they are practiced. However, I have been scarred by communism in a very personal way. I was one of the Pedro Pan kids that left Cuba without their families in the early 60’s. This and my total life experience makes me view Obama as quite a socialist and on my list of personas non grata. His delivery of a speech translated to Spanish in my head reminds me too much of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Obama’s “Yes we can” slogan is reminiscent of Hugo Chavez’ “Si se puede”. An aside, I am strong in my faith, but down on religion, the more organized the more I dislike it. Respectfully, Ernie Garcia

Thanks Ernie and hope to meet you when you get to Boquete. And thanks for your Amazon comment about my book …

Hello Richard,

I just finished your new book. I enjoyed it, value it and gave you a glowing review on I hope to make the “leap” after due diligence in about 2 to 3 years. I wish it could be sooner, but being realistic is part of the process. My situation is a bit different from your general audience in some distinctive and important ways. Both my wife and I are fluent in Spanish (Cuban-American-I hate the hyphenation but it describes us well in this case) and our customs and heritage are similar (not the same) to those of Panamá. So some expat concerns (language, local food, greeting people in an elevator) do not concern us. Thad said, we are thoroughly Americanized and would like certain amenities. We would like to become almost locals, the operative word being “almost”. Do you know of any source that could give me that perspective? An aside, I did jungle training in the Panamá Canal Zone with the US Army in the early seventies. Thank you for your insight and a great book, Ernie Garcia

Ernie’s Amazon review …

Informative, thorough, well organized and personal, I like it a lot. Mr. Detrich weaves very pertinent information about Panamá with his personal life experience that is both eye opening and entertaining, as well as self reflective and sobering on occasion. It forces you to look inward and outward to make a decision about the rest of your life, whether you move to Panamá, elsewhere, or stay where you are. His delivery is sophisticated yet not stuffy and also down to earth; what a combo? It is worth reading and keeping as a guide to Panama and life, especially for us of a certain age. Richard (I feel like I know you already), thank you for such a great book, THE NEW ESCAPE TO PARADISE.Ernie Garcia

Somebody Doesn’t Like Jesus, Obama or Me …

I need to put your ignorant ass in the SPAM file. Dennis Turk

OK, on that unhappy note it’s time for bed. But I really do enjoy hearing from you … flak or flattery.