A railway, the descendant of the famed Panama Railroad built for the Forty-Niners during the California gold rush, ran constant daily trips back and forth across the isthmus during the Canal Zone days. It ran along and sometimes over stretches of the Panama Canal , was billed as the world’s fastest and cheapest transcontinental journey, and was used as a commuter and cargo train.
Panama’s military government inherited the railroad and allowed it to fall apart during the 1980s. In 1998 the post-Noriega Panamanian government signed an agreement with two U.S. companies, including Kansas City Southern, a railroad holding company, to create the Panama Canal Railway Company and rebuild the rail link between the Atlantic and Pacific. The result is a 47.5-mile (76.5-kilometer) railway used primarily to move cargo across the isthmus.
However, the train does make one daily passenger trip, leaving the Pacific side of the isthmus at 7:15 a.m. and returning at 5:15 p.m. It’s quite a step up from the utilitarian train of the old Canal Zone days: The cars in this one have dark wood paneling, leather banquettes set around tables, large observation windows, and waitresses in conductors’ outfits who serve coffee and muffins. Be sure to step onto the spacious platforms between cars, which offer great views and pleasant breezes.
It’s also quite a step up in price: The fare is US$22 one-way, half price for those 12 and younger. The passenger train was designed as a commuter service for affluent businesspeople who work in the Colón Free Zone, but it increasingly caters to tourists.
Seats are limited and most are set aside for daily commuters, so make reservations if possible (tel. 317-6700, www.panarail.com ). If not, show up early. Be sure to ask if there’s space in the glass observation car. Sometimes there is only standing room on the between-car platforms available, which is actually quite pleasant since the ride is short.
The train doesn’t quite go from ocean to ocean. The new Pacific terminus is at the old Canal Zone townsite of Corozal, about a 15-minute drive away from downtown Panama City . The Caribbean terminus is at Colón . The train is an express and makes no stops en route. The trip lasts about an hour.
Those who take the train from Panama City to Colón can either hire a taxi and spend the day exploring Caribbean-side attractions, such as the nearby Gatún Locks , Fuerte San Lorenzo , and the Colón Free Zone until it’s time for the return train, or else catch a bus back to Panama City at the Terminal de Buses in Colón.
However, the logistics of this are a bit dicey. Those who can afford it should instead arrange a tour that includes the train trip and a car that meets your group at the Colón station. It can’t be emphasized enough that Colón is a crime-ridden city and not safe for visitors. The immediate area around the train station is safe enough, and there’s a guard at the gate. However, typically not many taxis meet the train; beware of phony cabs. Only get into a licensed taxi, which will be painted bright yellow and have a license plate that matches the number painted on its side.
The bus terminal is a five-minute walk straight past the end of the rail line. Do not cross the road into Colón. Be alert at the terminal. It may be possible to find a cab there as well.