For 164 years, the Panama Canal Railway has carried passengers and freight between the bustling metropolis of Panama City and the Caribbean port of Colon. Today, travelers take the train from Panama City to Colon to step back in time and experience the historic railway for themselves, along with lovely scenery in the interior of […]
For 164 years, the Panama Canal Railway has carried passengers and freight between the bustling metropolis of Panama City and the Caribbean port of Colon. Today, travelers take the train from Panama City to Colon to step back in time and experience the historic railway for themselves, along with lovely scenery in the interior of the Panama isthmus.
The 47.6-mile (76.6 km) train route runs parallel to the Panama Canal, cuts through dense rainforest, and even crosses Gatun Lake, all in about an hour. Along the way, you can catch glimpses of the Canal through the jungle and enjoy seeing ships line up in Gatun Lake.
Read on for details about the railway’s history and current operation, plus our recommendations on things to do in Colon and the surrounding area.
To enjoy your Panama Canal Railway experience to the fullest, take the time to learn about the fascinating history of the railway and the Canal beforehand. Or, book a tour with a local guide who can tell you all about the train’s history and point out attractions along the way. You’ll be able to appreciate the train ride even more when you realize all the hard work that went into its construction.
The thin isthmus of Panama has long been a favorite crossing point between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific. In the 1500s, the Spanish transported gold across Panama the old fashioned way: on mules, via the trails Camino Real and Camino de Cruces.
The invention of the railway in the 1800s opened up new opportunities to cross Panama even quicker. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, prospectors were clamoring for a faster, safer way to get to the west coast of North America.
Construction of the cross-Panama railway began in 1850 and finished in 1855, making it the first transcontinental railroad. Since then, the railway has seen both prosperous and difficult times. It went nearly bankrupt after the 1869 completion of the Central Pacific – Union Pacific Railway in the US, which made travel to California much easier.
The railway surged back to prominence as an essential support to the construction of the Panama Canal. But between 1914 and 1998, the railroad fell into disrepair as most freight used the Canal. Since 1998, the Panama Canal Railway has been restored and reopened to the public, allowing visitors to enjoy a lovely train ride.
Panama Canal Railway Schedule and Prices
The train from Panama City to Colon operates Monday to Friday, leaving each morning at 7:15 am. The return train from Colon to Panama City also runs Monday to Friday and leaves at 17:15 pm. A one-way train ride takes about 1 hour.
A one-way ticket costs $25 USD for adults and $15 for children 2-12. There is a senior citizen price of $17.50, but that is only for Panamanian citizens and permanent residents.
You can purchase your ticket in person at the train station, but be sure to bring cash, in case the credit card reader is not working. If you are traveling with more than 10 people, contact the railway in advance via their website to reserve your spots.
Panama Canal Railway Route and Nearby Attractions
Recommendations and What to Expect
First, make your way to the Corozal Passenger Station in Panama City, which is between Albrook Mall and the Miraflores Locks. You can take a taxi or Uber to get there.
We recommend arriving by 6:45 am at the latest, a half hour before the train leaves. If you get there early, you will have a better chance of getting a good seat in the dome car with the glass roof, where there are no reserved seats. The air conditioning in the dome car is sometimes quite high, so bring a sweater if you get cold easily. For the train from Panama City to Colon, sit on the left-hand side of the train for the best views.
The other train cars are also lovely and not usually as crowded, with vintage wood paneling and a carpeted floor. There’s also an open-air observation platform.
Complimentary coffee or tea on the train is included with your ticket. You also get a small snack of chips, cookies, candy, and raisins, but the train employees may not give your snack to you until the end of the trip.
During the ride, you’ll see a lot of thick rainforest, with some brief views of the Canal locks from the train. Some of the best views come along as you are crossing Gatun Lake on a causeway.
Once you arrive to Colon at about 8:15 am, you have a variety of options about what to do next. Colon has a history of crime and safety issues, so we do not recommend walking around the city alone. Instead, take a taxi to visit the Gatun Locks and Fort San Lorenzo, or head to the nearby town of Portobelo.
Watch gigantic ships pass through the Panama Canal locks from observation decks at the Agua Clara Visitor Center. You can also watch a short film about the Canal’s construction and walk on a short nature trail. The visitor’s center includes a restaurant, coffee shop, gift shop, and playground. The entrance fee is $15 for adults and $10 for children.
Fort San Lorenzo
Travel back in time as you explore an ancient Spanish fort and learn about its dramatic history. The Spanish built this fort in the 1500s to guard the entrance to the Chagres River. Since then, it’s seen its fair share of action, as it was attacked multiple times by pirates such as Francis Drake and Henry Morgan. After being damaged by cannons and burned to the ground, the fort was rebuilt in 1761. This site was essential to the Spanish gold trade and control over the region.
Day Trip to Portobelo
This historic town is about an hour drive from Colon. Hundreds of years ago, it was an important port for the Spanish gold trade. Visit Fort San Jeronimo for a taste of its past. Within town, also check out the Church of the Black Christ and the Casa Congo Art Gallery to better understand local culture.
In addition to history, Portobelo has some beautiful beaches and islands close by. Playa Huerta, Playa Frances, and Playa Blanca are three nearby beaches that offer snorkeling and the chance to relax. They will charge between $10 and $15 as entrance fees.
A little further along the coast, you’ll find the islands of Isla Mamey and Isla Grande, both of which are great spots for snorkeling and beach activities. Isla Grande has excellent restaurants and the oldest lighthouse in Latin America.
You can take a taxi to Portobelo for about $40 (make sure to agree on the price beforehand). Another option is to take a taxi to the Colon bus station ($5), then take a $1.60 bus to Portobelo. Keep in mind that this journey takes longer, about 1.5-2 hours.
As you come to the end of your day trip, you have a number of different options to return to Panama City. You can take the train again, which leaves at 17:15 pm. Alternatively, you can take a bus for $3.60 from the Colon Bus Terminal. While you can take a taxi from Colon to Panama City, it could be $90 or more. Keep in mind that if you are returning by car or bus in the evening, you may run into rush hour traffic.
If you’re a history buff, a train enthusiast, or just looking for a fun day trips from Panama City, enjoy a unique experience by taking the train from Panama City to Colon.