The great inter-oceanic railroad, from the Pacific to the Caribbean on the Panama Railway

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.

Panama Canal Railway station, Panama City, Panama

Panama Canal Railway station, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

The City of Gatun, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

The City of Gatun, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Carriage, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Carriage, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

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 Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

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.

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

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.

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

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.

Uyuni: tourists, trains and trash

No one, not even wearing the rosiest of rose tinted spectacles, could describe Uyuni as an attractive town. Sitting on a windswept plain at over 3600m, Uyuni seems solely composed of low unattractive buildings, dusty streets and piles of rubbish. To the untrained eye the main feature of parts of the town is the inordinate number of plastic bags that are scattered everywhere, as if Uyuni is a giant plastic bag graveyard.

Visitors from another planet, arriving in Uyuni for the first time, would be well within their rights to question the sanity of the thousands of human tourists from the four corners of planet earth who are packed into the town. The answer, of course, lies not in Uyuni itself  but in the region surrounding the city. Not 30km outside the city limits is one of the natural wonders of the world, the Salar de Uyuni, and beyond that the other-worldly landscapes of the Bolivian South West.

The immense Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The immense Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

At over 1000km sq, the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. To describe it as vast is to understate reality – it can be seen from the moon. It is the biggest draw in Bolivia’s tourist pack of cards and Uyuni is the main gateway to access the Salar and the South West. The town is full of travel agencies, 4×4 vehicles, restaurants serving dubious ‘international’ cuisine, dozens of hostals and one of the highest concentrations of souvenir shops anywhere in Bolivia.

Yet for its lack of charm, Uyuni is a frontier town full of history – a pioneering history that is proudly displayed in the centre of town. Founded in 1889, Uyuni was perhaps the most important mining and railway centre in Bolivia, and evidence of this is everywhere. Even today trains rumble through Uyuni on their narrow-gauge tracks carrying ore to the coast in Chile or south to Argentina, twice a week there are even rarer passenger trains – one of the last remnants of Bolivia’s once extensive railway network.

Uyuni railway station with old carriage, Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni railway station with old carriage, Uyuni, Bolivia

Typical street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Typical street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train made in Yorkshire, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train made in Yorkshire, Uyuni, Bolivia

Statue to Uyuni's industrial past, Bolivia

Statue to Uyuni’s industrial past, Bolivia

Typical Street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Typical Street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Sculpture, Unyuni, Bolivia

Sculpture, Unyuni, Bolivia

Wall art, Uyuni, Bolivia

Wall art, Uyuni, Bolivia

Railway relic of Uyuni's golden age, Uyuni, Bolivia

Railway relic of Uyuni’s golden age, Uyuni, Bolivia

Monument to the Chaco War, Uyuni, Bolivia

Monument to the Chaco War, Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over Uyuni, Bolivia

In one of those twists of fate, tourism may yet prove that Uyuni’s golden-age is still to come and did not end with the decline of mining in the area or the destruction of Bolivia’s railways. So far the tourist infrastructure is geared towards backpackers looking for cheap deals and cheap places to stay, but the hotel we stayed in points towards a possible different future for Uyuni – a more demanding set of tourists seeking more from their day or two in Uyuni.

The Hotel Petite Porte is an oasis of calm and relaxation in the Uyuni desert, and if you want a more comfortable stay this is definitely the place to head. English, French and Spanish are spoken, the hospitality is great and the rooms are very cosy – perfect for relaxing after a few days in a 4×4 on rough dirt tracks.

Hotel Petite Porte, Uyuni, Bolivia

Hotel Petite Porte, Uyuni, Bolivia