The Panama Railway Canal

Posted on November 17, 2018


Eight weeks ago I’d read about a journey you could take along the canal passing the isthmus from the Pacific side to the Caribbean side of Panama. It was by train journey through the rainforest.

So far I’ve done most modes of transport this trip – plane, car, bus, taxi, submarine and now train. So I arose early again and headed down to the station. The train is a beautiful, old fashioned looking one painted in red, black and yellow. Inside it has dark green banquette seating and dark wooden tables. The average age this time was 60+ and all large tour groups. We were all put into one carriage.

The journey was affordable, $25 one way and lasted an hour. Arriving in Colon it’s apparent there’s not a lot to do. Plus the heavens had opened and the city centre is being worked on so it was gridlock on the roads out.

Panama has an extraordinary amount of rainfall. It’s what makes the canal system made up of complicated locks possible. When ships are raised and lowered a ridiculous amount of water is needed. The figure of litres per year goes into the trillions!

“Just great,” I thought looking at the blanket of water falling. I hadn’t really planned what to do on this side, hoping it would be obvious and I could ask someone at the station on the other side. Well there is no station as such on the other side. It’s literally a platform.

Development has been very slow. Panama city on the Pacific side has all the cash. Poverty here is rife and lots of Panamanians had told me that Colon was not the nicest of places and to be ware of crime.

Standing on the platform holding a shabby piece of cardboard with faded photos of the sites was a man named Emanuele. A tall, large black man of Martinique heritage with a deep voice and a broad smile. We chatted with the sound of the rain trying to drown out our conversation.

I asked him to take me to the nearest hotel with good wifi and coffee. It was still only 8.15am and I needed to hatch a plan what to do over the next eight hours. We agreed a price and I jumped in the rickety old white mini-van.

En route he told me about Portobelo. Allegedly Columbus named it Puerto Bella and the name changed over the years. Renown for its location (northern part of the isthmus) and for its gold and silver, it has the ruins of the forte fringing parts of the coast. There’s also the church of the black Jesus – now I’ve heard it all. Sir Francis Drake is also supposed to be buried in the bay a lead coffin somewhere.

Several hours later I was using his business card to call him to bargain a fee for a trip. The town is certainly pretty and it’s more than an hour away. The beaches are lovely and there is one dive school. But it’s slow season so most places are shut. He took me to a fantastic coffee shack run by an Italian who is married to a Venezuelan. We’d covered most of the sites quite quickly and by 3pm I found I still had several hours to kill.

The local bus back takes two hours and is just $4. The novelty ride out on the train was wonderful but the cash I could save would buy me a nice dinner. At 4pm I joined the locals at the bus depot. Layered up -why the air conditioning has to be on Arctic setting, I’ll never understand. And at 6pm the bus rumbled into Panama City.