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 contact, 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.
The coolest train I’ve ever taken was from Bern to Paris in February 2006 – at least until it became pitch dark outside and I couldn’t see shit anyway.
Anyway, it was so lovely crossing the snow-capped Swiss Alps (I think the term “Swiss Alps” is so lovely) as mountains made for a majestic scenery.
That sounds stunning! I’ve yet to lay eyes on the Alps, but I’m sure it will be magical 🙂
This reply is for Heather, I live in Canada and you can take the ViaRail going through Canada not the Amtrak. Amtrak is the States only
That’s pretty awesome you got to go through the locks! Train travel has been a mixed bag for me, with amazing experiences in Japan and quite the reverse in France. I’d love to do a historic ride, like the Trans-Siberian, or take Amtrak all the way across Canada!
I once took Amtrak from Chicago to the middle of Montana — it was awesome! Too bad it was pre-blog and pre-digital camera 🙂
You can WALK across the locks if you want, when the bridge is down – note the barrier rail separating cars from pedestrians on righthand side.
What a cool experience – the photo of you and Anders is the sweetest! Though I can’t believe they were selling bodies to fund a Canal hospital, craziness.
Not sure I’d call it cool, but my most memorable train ride was 72 hours on a hard seat from Beijing to Kashgar. By the end my friends and I were so deliriously tired and physically numb that it was kind of hilarious, but not something I would ever, ever recommend, haha.
I was so fascinated by that funding factoid! The amount of lives sacrificed to built the canal and the railway and other man-made wonders around the world is astounding. It makes me pause and remember to be grateful for modern medicine!
I love this post! I find train travel romantic as well and it make me even more excited for my trip through the Alps on the famous Bernina railway this coming Sunday!
I’ve also found that “splurging” on a tour doesn’t turn out to be much more than you would spend on your own,and the experience is usually much richer. If I’m not visiting a friend in the area, I like to take at least one tour. Thanks for sharing!
That’s true about tours Natalie. I need a good mix… sometimes I love to just wander a new place in silence or with my earphones in. But other times I want to chat with a local, and get the insight that a great guide can provide! (Oh, and, you know… just take a vacation!)
Great photos! I would agree that traveling by train is far more romantic as enjoyable then by bus, even though most of my trips are on a bus too. Panama is a country is love visit, in large part to this post. The coolest train ride I’ve ever taken was from either Florence to Rome or from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Raton, New Mexico. I got to see a different part of the United States then what you’d typically see on a freeway.
Train is by far the most beautiful way to travel in the US! Normally I take the bus between Albany and NYC, but when I’m really splurging I go for the Amtrak 🙂
I love train travelling, but also bus travelling. Any travel goes as long as the views are beautiful! The best train travel I have experiences is probably in Finland (during Summer) or Ireland. Magical!
Both of those sound like they’d have beautiful scenery. I need to do some rail riding in Europe someday!
What a fun experience!!!!!! Love your pics!
Thanks Andi! I can see you on this luxury train <3
Wonderful to compare your take on this train ride to the Globtrottergirls. Both seem valid observations but you certainly went ‘with the flow’ and they resisted. Too bad they didn’t read your post first – but we have. Thanks!
Well, actually I think I was quite lucky that I was able to learn from their experience — maybe they just didn’t have the same opportunity 🙂 It’s definitely a trip that requires a lot of advance planning and research if you aren’t planning on booking a tour.
I really love taking train rides. I’d pick a train over a plane anytime. I especially love taking the high speed trains in Asia. I had my first overnight train experience earlier this year too- here in China. I guess my coolest was the one in Ecuador where you can ride on the roof of the train (do they even still have that there?). Gorgeous photos in this post Alex! (And I love your pink dress!).
Thanks J! I haven’t tried any of the high speed bullet trains! By train is my favorite way to travel in Thailand but those are the dinky slow ones 🙂
I love this post. You have become quite an aficionado of history. Wow. I would definitely do the train ride and tour when I get to Panama.
Remember I texted you from this train ride? 🙂 I knew you would love it! Wish you could have been there with us. You’ll have to do this tour someday!
Looks like a fun experience Alex! Something I would love being a big train nerd. I once got on a train from Interlaken in Switzerland bound for Lucerne thinking it was just an ordinary train. Turned out to be one of the Swiss scenic trains and because it was so early in the morning we had a carriage to ourselves. We spent the whole journey moving from one window to the next trying to get the best view of whatever we were passing. We climbed mountains, passed lakes, waterfalls and snow capped mountains. It was an incredible experience and probably one of my favourite travel tales.
Sounds like the Alps are a fantastic place to do by train 🙂 This is why I love all the comments everyone leaves here… I get so many great ideas for future travel!
wow, a 60 dollar cab ride- I’ve been in India too long. I’d cry if someone told me that now! I also love train rides but they are not so romantic here, they are crowded and dirty. Luxury trains in India exist but are over 2000 USD for an overnight ride! When India actually DOES luxury, they do it big!! Now I’ve got to read what the Globetrotter Girls did differently.
Tell me about it Rachel! We just had just arrived from Ecuador so we were definitely choking on the prices. I think transportation is actually the most expensive aspect of travel in Panama… anytime we had to take a cab we were crying!
You need to get the price before you get in the cab. A little bargaining also helps!
I like trains and I like canals, so this sounds ideal! Glad to hear you had a better experience than Jess and Dani – this tour is definitely something I’ll keep in mind for when we make it to Panama!
And so much history! I think you would love it. Panama City would be a great place to settle down for a while too.
This was such an awesome post to read – and I have immediately added the Panama Canal Railway to the higher ranks of my bucket list – it looks incredible.
I love the pictures too, really beautiful!
Thank you! xxx
My favourite train ride was a journey from top-to-bottom in India. Possibly the most entertaining 52 hours of my life! Highly recommend!
I’ve heard so much about the trains in India! I’m hoping to someday try them all… the crazy backpacker local variety and the super luxe version too 🙂
You hear some horror stories, but I’ve loved every train ride I’ve had in South-East Asia.
Vietnam & Thailand have provided a few highlights, and longer train trips provide great opportunities to meet new people!
(Although Sarah and a girlfriend of hers had a shock in India when a passenger opposite pulled a gun out of his trousers to polish it it!)
I had absolutely horrible bus experiences in Vietnam… when I return it’s train rides all the way!
great article, cool pics, glad to have you ‘on board’!
Thanks Kevin! We had such a great time.
We used to play a cool game called ‘this would make a great bong’. Your canon picture suggests to me you’d be a good player.
P.S. ‘The Ghan’. You’re welcome.
Googling “The Ghan” has led to some serious wanderlust and daydreaming. Yes please! Let’s do it.
Ive just stalked your entire Panama section-im going next month, and im bloody glad i did. I was thinking of skipping it once i got the boat from colombia and heading to better dive spots in belieze and utila. Pahhh, not any more, canal train here i come. So excited to blog about it all along the way. Thanks for sharing!! Great site. Sarah at coffeewithasliceoflife.com
Awesome Sarah! Panama deserves your attention! And stay tuned… I have so much more content coming up about everything from the mountains to the beaches!
Sarah – I grew up in the Panama Canal Zone and know lots of people still living in Panama. I also know a couple of Panama Canal pilots, now retired, who own sailboats and travel the world at whim. One of them told me the snorkeling in Kunayala (Spanish name = San Blas) – a sovereign nation within Panama’s borders of an indigenous tribe living on an archipelago of about 350 islands in the Caribbean – is the best in the world. The snorkeling is fantastic, coral and fish both. I stayed on Yandup Island – spectacular. No menus, just all the fresh fish, fruit and veggies you can eat. You can fly there from Albrook airport on the Pacific side. https://youtube.com/watch?v=_Z6RmB8HVL8
Thanks for this nice report and beautiful pics. Were these “touristic” wagons or were they the regular ones? (they just look great with mixture of old school, modernity and windows everywhere).
Anyway, this gets on my to do list, after the Blue train or Transsiberian, merci!
Hey Alex! I’m not sure what you mean — like, were locals on the train as well? I had heard the train is used as a commuter train as well but I doubt the locals would be throwing elbows for the crowded viewing car like we did 🙂
That’s what I meant! Some trains are only for touristic purpose, like the Orient Express on special occasions. So, these wagons were viewing cars, cool, they are great, I guess the regular ones are not bad either! My dream train line list keeps on growing on every continent…
The train IS used as a commuter train, but in 2010 the monthly pass was $600, so only business executives can afford it.
Good to know, Margaret! Thanks for sharing your local knowledge!
This post has me dying to take a train ride somewhere exotic like this! I rode via train from Florence to Milan, and then to Venice, before… the Italian vistas were marvelous, but it didn’t come with extremely cool train cars or interesting history lessons. One day!
I haven’t done a single train ride in Europe… unless you count the London tube 🙂
I love the look of the huge windows in the train. I have never seen this before. What a clever idea.
There aren’t too many opportunities for train rides in Latin America, but this one kind of makes up for it!
Oh I loved the train! We stopped in Colon by ourselves though… then caught a bus to the fort. Was an interesting experience. 🙂
Read about it here: https://www.rebeccaandtheworld.com/americas/panama/the-best-way-to-see-the-panama-canal-2/
Glad you enjoyed it too, definitely seems like people have a mix of experiences! And I didn’t realize there was a bus to the fort. Kudos to you!
Wow great pics of panama canal railway. it’s looking very romantic trips.
I always think that train travel is so romantic. Thanks for reading!
The journey looks like a great idea for travel. I have never been to Central America before.
It’s one of my favorite parts of the planet. Thanks for reading!
Just came across your blog and love it! Just booked a random trip to PC, leaving in 48 hours. Wanderlust always wins, eh?! Cannot wait! I love this train trip idea, but the link for the trip on your blog “Historic Portobelo Tour” with Barefoot Panama no longer works. Do you think this trip is similar to the one you did? https://www.barefootpanama.com/panama-tours/day-tours/historic-train-fort-canal%e2%80%8e/ I would LOVE this if so! Also, where did your trip from? I’m a single woman traveler and want to safely do this trip. Thanks Alex!
Hey Brooke! They must have just changed the name because yup, that looks like exactly what we did. We were picked up from our hotel in Casco Viejo. An awesome trip, hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
I too have ridden a rain through Panama. My favorite train trip was an overnight train trip through Egypt.
Ugh, I wish I took the train in Egypt. My latest post makes it clear why 😉
The best train ride? It would be hard to pick! Here’s three great rides I’ve taken. (1) The California Zephyr full route on its original route, in it’s hey-day, the 1950s, in a Pullman suite, with the Zephyr’s Vista Domes, Zephyrettes, and friendly staff. Go Stand on the back platforms in the long tunnels. (2). The Santa Fe Super Chief full route, in its heyday, and (3) The Panama Canal Railroad as (a) a guest engineer non-stop across the continent (in an air-conditioned F-40, no less), and (b) an incredible sunset ride and exquisite dinner on that train with the Panama Canal Steering Committee. Still on the bucket list is Canada’s luxury train, The Rocky Mountaineer, all three routes.
Okay, these all sound incredible! I really need to add a few more train rides to my bucket list…
This is such a great post on Panama! We had a great family trip there- so many fun experiences. We took the bus across the country and that was something! Next time, I want to experience the Panama Canal Railway!
I loved Panama so much. I’d love to go back some day, especially to explore San Blas!
Thx for great info, super foundation as we start planning our upcoming adventure! My top train ride: 30-day Amtrak/ViaRail pass from Tuscon, AZ to SF, CA then across the US (UT & CO were incredible!) to Niagara Falls then from Boston to Baltimore and DC, cut down to New Orleans then UP to Chicago before ending in Albuquerque, NM. A BLAST!Got hooked on dipping pizza in mustard, trying to shake up the budget menu a bit, LOL! WORST train ride ever: 19-hr horror goimg south to Luxor, Egypt. No working toilets, a disgusting “river” floating through the aisles, homeless fellas sleeping under our seats, and thugs trying to force us to buy snacks we repeatedly declined. Sprang for flight back to Cairo! Fun little.train on Hood River, OR does western themes with actors on board–as well as an Elvis themed ride–to get up close and personal with Mt. Hood! I do love trains!
Okay, you are making me feel better about my bus rides in Egypt 😉 That does NOT sound fun — the rest sure do though!