The first thing one thinks of when the name Panama is mentioned is, of course the Panama Canal. A trip to this beautiful country would truly be incomplete without a look at this Modern Wonder Of the World and it was high on our list.
For centuries the world had searched for a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific (or vice versa) that didn’t require the weeks-long trip to the tip of South America and back up the coast. As exploration of Central America opened up in the 1800’s, it became obvious there were two possible routes, one in Nicaragua and the other in Panama. Both had an extensive lake and river system sufficient to reach most of the way however there was still dozens of miles of thick rainforest on both that would have to be worked through to make a canal a reality. It was thought that the Panama route would be the simplest so in 1880 the French government began the daunting job of clearing and dredging the terrain.
Things didn’t progress as expected however and after 10 years and the loss of 22,000 lives to environmental dangers especially malaria and yellow fever spread by mosquito, only a few miles were complete and construction ceased until the Americans stepped in and beginning in 1904 managed to complete the canal in the same amount of time, 10 years.
Before the Canal though came the Panama Canal Railway (though it wasn’t originally called that). Early in the 19th century, it was decided that the next best thing to a canal would be a railway to connect the two oceans. The railway however was not such a formidable undertaking as the Canal would become and began construction decades earlier in 1850. It was completed in 1855, running through the jungle alongside the waterways that would later make up the bulk of the Canal.
We knew that a Canal tour would be a necessity and we could have combined a quick tour of the Miraflores locks with a visit to Panama City but we wanted something a bit more in-depth so we chose to go to the Caribbean side (the Miraflores locks and Panama City are on the Pacific coast) to the city of Colon where the new lock expansion center is located and take the Panama Canal Railway back to Panama City. We though this train trip would be a somewhat interesting way to end the day but it turned out to be a highlight.
The train is now only used for this particular trip, ferrying tourists (and some business professionals back and forth to work) from Colon to Panama City on a 1 hour journey through beautiful jungle and alongside incredible waterways.
The car itself is decorated in a plush turn-of-the-century style with a 180 degree observation dome and features an outdoor viewing deck at the back. A small snack box was provided as well as drinks if needed.
There are many rail enthusiasts who crave such experiences and although I’m not among them (growing up in an increasingly rail-free Canada has given me relatively little exposure to train travel), this experience certainly made the appeal understandable. I look forward to sampling other rail options in my life like the Venice Simplon-Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railroad and Canada’s own Rocky Mountaineer but the Panama Canal Railway was a short, sweet way to whet my appetite..