There’s something utterly romantic about train travel, an allure that just simply does not translate to being stuffed into a crusty bus seat and staring out at bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway. Unfortunately, bus travel makes up the vast majority of my movements, with ferries and flights filling in most of the gaps.
So when I first heard about the historic Panama Railroad, which traverses the entire width of the American continent in just under an hour, it was a lock-in on our itinerary.
When the Panama Railway first rolled across the tracks in 1855 after five years and $8 million in construction, it was the most expensive railroad per kilometer ever built. Today, it costs $25 to ride from sea to shining sea — perhaps one of the cheapest ways to get from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, and certainly the most unique.
Unfortunately, fulfilling your locomotive dreams isn’t logistically easy in Panama. The train runs once a day in each direction — from Panama City to Colon at 7:15, and from Colon to Panama City at 5:00pm. Problem is, Colon is not the kind of place you want to cruise around unattended for nine hours — in fact, it’s considered Panama’s most dangerous city. The solution? You can join a tour in which your guide will fetch you at the Colon station and whisk you off to any number or attractions, or you can return to Panama City by bus like my friends the Globetrotter Girls did. The Globetrotter Girls actually had quite a poor experience, which made me all the more grateful that we teamed up with Barefoot Panama for their Historic Portobelo Tour to enjoy make sure we’d have the best rail-riding experience possible.
After a groggy pre-dawn pickup, we arrived at the train station early in order to snag the best canal-facing seats and wave goodbye to our tour guide Jeff, who would pick us up in Colon. Meanwhile, Anders geeked out over Danish shipping company Maersk’s logo on the cargo containers idling on the tracks — a reminder of Panama’s status as the gateway of the world. Soon the train doors lurched open and we were throwing elbows trying to snag seats in the train’s upper level viewing seats.
The train was crowded. We were lucky to grab one of two small loveseat sections on either side of the stairway, as those in the large booths eventually had to squeeze in cheek-to-cheek to make room for other passengers. Full , forced snuggling with strangers is not my jam, so had we not found our little loveseat I probably would have retreated to one of the completely abandoned first floor cars. But as the locomotive lurched to life, I felt luck was on our side.
As we raced alongside the canal, I filled Anders in on the history I’d read up on before the tour. The cost of the railway’s construction was more than monetary. Like its neighbor the Panama Canal, the Panama Railway has a bloody past. Yellow fever, malaria, and other construction-related hazards killed an estimated 12,000 laborers during the creation of the railroad. In a macabre twist, so many bodies piled up that officials began selling their bodies to medical schools in order to fund a hospital within the Canal Zone.
While we didn’t spot any of the wildlife our guidebook suggested would be bursting from nearby foliage, we did love watching the width of Panama pass us by while experiencing such a fascinating piece of its history. After the ride was over, I was bummed to learn there had been open viewing platforms where I could have taken photos without a pane of glass between me and the action, but I did manage to sneak outside to grab a between-the-cars selfie while searching for the bathroom.
After a fairly hectic early morning wake up followed by the scramble for seats, the ride could not have been a more relaxing antidote.
After reading the Globetrotters Girls’ fairly negative experience with the train ride (we are best blogging buddies, so I really value their opinions) I had been somewhat nervous about my own high expectations. Thus far, I was loving every second — but I couldn’t help but burst out laughing when we were thrown our complimentary snack boxes as we shuffled off the train, just as Jess and Dani had lamented. Um, Panama Canal Railway Company? We want the snacks on the train, not as we walk out the door. Get it together.
Luckily, Jeff was more than willing to let us nosh in the car. In response to my deluge of questions about Colon, he also agreed to do a quick drive-through the notorious city. The contrast with Panama City was staggering. All the rumors were true — it was run down, dirty, and reeked of imminent purse-snatchings. And not in the sexy way (y’all, don’t try to pretend you’ve never found danger sexy).
Our first stop along Panama’s beautiful Caribbean coast was the New Visitor Center at the Gatun Locks Expansion site, where the Panama Canal is being expanded in order to accommodate even larger modern ships. Jeff’s commentary provided a refreshingly honest counterbalance to the Visitor’s Center’s rosy explanations of the controversial project. A few weeks after our visit, construction on the expansion was halted due to problems with funding. Yet someday — if it’s ever completed — it will be pretty cool to say “we were there when…..”
I was somewhat disappointed to hear we weren’t stopped at the Gatun Locks themselves, but my frown was turned way upside down when I realized we’d be driving through them. We patiently waited for the last vessel to lumber through the locks, watched as the car ramps painstakingly lowered, and then, eye level with idling ships, we drove perpendicular across the Panama Canal.
We meandered through Chagres National Park and the abandoned US Fort Sherman before arriving at Fort San Lorenzo. There were two other cars in the parking lot, prompting Jeff to note he’d never seen the place so busy. Anders kind of missed that comment, sprinting as he was towards the ocean — he was still pretty captivated by his first experience at the Caribbean coast. Though the Fort was declared a World Heritage site in 1980, we truly did have the place pretty much to ourselves.
The setting of the fairly intact ruins could not have been more stunning, and the history not more bloody. The stories I had been reading in my guidebook were brought completely to life by Jeff, a Panama City expat who Anders and I had a huge tour guide crush on, and who we’d come to bump into over and over again in Panama.
This was the first of two excellent experiences we had with Barefoot Panama. Both tours were incredibly unique and completely made by the sharp-witted, smartly sarcastic, local-secret spilling guides. Also, while they initially gave this bargain-seeker sticker shock, I came to realize they were good value. For example, this full day tour costs $160 (which includes the $45 in entrance fees for the train, park and visitor’s center), but a round trip taxi ride from Colon to Fort San Lorenzo will average $60 alone! Adding in other transportation costs, it’s easy to see how you’d spend almost the same amount to replicate the day yourself, and have none of the benefits of hanging out with a cool group and guide.
I ended the day with a huge smile — I’d checked something major off my Panama wish list and learned so much about the country’s fascinating history in the process. Panama was once again blowing me away.
What’s the coolest train ride you’ve ever taken?
Barefoot Panama extended us a discount in exchange for media coverage of their tours. As always, you receive my thorough and honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.