Crossing the Isthmus of Panama by rail has to be one of the great rail journeys in the Americas – not that there are many of the continent’s once magnificent railways left. Although I’m no train spotter, the journey is worth the $25 one-way ticket for the historic and atmospheric route passing through jungle alongside the Panama Canal.
At only 77km it isn’t a particularly long trip – it takes an hour from Panama City on the Pacific to Colon on the Caribbean – but the route has a history that has defined Central America. The overland route has been used for over three hundred years from colonial times onwards; people and cargo were unloaded on one side and crossed overland to the other. By the nineteenth century the growth in global trade and the arrival of steam trains gave rise to a daring plan to construct an inter-oceanic railroad.
Spurred on by the California Gold Rush, construction of this incredible engineering feat began in 1850 and was completed in 1855 – just as the Gold Rush was coming to an end. During the American Civil War troops and materials travelled along the railway between the coasts of the United States because it was quicker and safer than travelling overland. In the 1880s and 1900s the railway played a pivotal role in the attempts to build a ship canal.
Today, the railway still carries large quantities of cargo from shore to shore. The huge container ships that won’t fit into the 100 year-old Panama Canal locks unload their cargo on one side of the canal, the railway carries it to the other side, where they are loaded onto waiting ships. Nothing has really changed in four hundred years, but now new locks, big enough to carry the super-sized cargo ships, are being constructed and the railway’s day may be numbered.
The day we went, the rainy season seemed to have arrived, just without the rain. The sky was a battleship-grey and it looked like it was going to pour with rain at any minute. The journey began at 7.15am and we soon passed the Miraflores Locks close to Panama City. Soon though, we were travelling through dense forest with views of the canal and ships heading towards the Gatun Locks and the Caribbean.
I’ve read some accounts where people have felt cheated by the journey. While its no Trans-Siberian, I thought it was great. Tourists get put into a panoramic carriage with air conditioning and, while the complimentary coffee was welcome, the snack box was very underwhelming. Customer care aside, we saw lots of boats from the outside viewing platforms and the dark, brooding sky seemed to add an extra dimension to the journey.
If there is one down-side to the whole trip it is arriving in Colon. There isn’t a train station at Colon and passengers are just disgorged onto a platform in the middle of nowhere, where a number of touts and taxi drivers try to sell vastly inflated trips to the Gatun Locks, an old Spanish fort or to the beaches on the coast. We were planning to do a trip but on arrival in Colon it started to rain and we decided a hasty retreat was probably wiser.
Being stuck in Colon isn’t a great experience, it is Panama’s most crime ridden city and the idea of spending more time in it than necessary is not appealing. The train back doesn’t leave until 5.15pm, giving you nine hours to fritter in a city with nothing to fritter it on. In the end we negotiated a taxi to the bus station and took one of the regular buses back to Panama City – an eye-opening experience, as it passed through very poor and run down neighbourhoods that you’re unlikely to see on any tourist borochures.