Riding the historic Panama Canal Railway with panoramic jungle views is a must-do and here’s how to also combine it with a beach day in Portobelo!
The Panama Canal Railway opened in 1855 and was the world’s first transcontinental railroad, creating an easy way to transverse between the Atlantic & Pacific Ocean. It was also the world’s most expensive railroad per kilometer ever built, costing approximately $8 million at the time.
However, construction of the railroad took a deathly tole and it is estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 people may have died from hazardous working conditions and the spread of malaria and yellow fever. The body count was actually so high that the cadavers were sold to medical schools and they used the income to maintain company hospitals.
Today the train mainly functions as a tourist attraction and cargo transportation and operates Monday – Friday, leaving Panama City at 7:15 am and then returning from Colón to Panama City at 5 pm. The cost of the train is $25 each way, and this is purchased at the train station before you leave.
A ride on the historic Panama Canal Railway has been on my bucket list for a while. However, it’s one of those things that is so easy to do at any moment that it gets left until mañana. Well, I finally did it!
I arrived at the station at 7 am to purchase my ticket. I recommend using Uber to reliably get there (put Panama Canal Railway as the end destination) because I have heard stories of taxi drivers not knowing there is a train station and getting lost. Once at the train station, the credit card machine was not working and I ended up having to pay in cash so bring backup cash just in case that happens.
When we boarded the train all of the cars were empty except for the tourist car with panoramic windows, which was packed so I wish we had gotten there earlier! My friend and I ended up sharing a table with another passenger from Canada.
The train left PROMPTLY at 7:15 am so if you’re late, you’ve missed it.
It took about 15 minutes to get out of the city and the environment slowly transitioned into a luscious overgrown jungle. I immediately imagined what it must have been like to transition the same route over 150 years ago.
While everyone was taking pictures inside the train, I headed outside for the best view. There’s an open-air space between the cars that immerses you in the surroundings. Sometimes there would be a cargo ship to our left in the Gatun Lake and then the train would veer inland and the train seemed to be cutting its own path through the jungle. The whole experience is enchanting. Then if you want to grab a seat with no one around, head into the next car for a crowd-free, vintage train car.
The ride lasted exactly 1-hour with us arriving in Colón at 8:15 am.
While the train ride is wonderful, where it stops in Colon is not the safest area to walk around in so you need to make plans to leave the area. You can take a bus back to the city, go on a tour with one of the operators waiting at the station, or my plan was to head straight for the beaches in Portobelo.
Portobelo is a laidback fishing village in Colón that was once a center for trade in the region and home to several pirate attacks, including one by Captain Morgan. It has some small ruins that are worth seeing but the Caribbean beaches with clear water and white sand are definitely the highlight.
The walk from the train station to the bus station is 6-7 minutes but it’s a walk to take with caution (walking directions here). Leave your phone in your pocket and try not to look too touristy. There were a few people that had their giant DSLR camera out taking pictures and it’s better not to draw that type of attention to yourself. You can also take a taxi from the train station to the bus station for $5 if you don’t feel comfortable walking.
At the bus station, we had the option to take either the Costa Arriba or Portobelo bus. These busses are Diablo Rojo style so expect it to be basic but it’s cheap! Just $1.60/person and this is paid as you are getting off. While the bus is cheap, it added quite a bit of travel time getting to Portobelo.
It finally left at 8:45 am (remember we arrived at 8:15 am), stopped for gas on the way, and arrived in Portobelo at 10:30 am. A 1 hour and 45 minute travel time for a ride that should have taken an hour, plus the 30 minutes we spent waiting for the bus to arrive. If you have the budget I would splurge for a taxi that drops you off directly in Portobelo (approximately $40 depending on your negotiating skills) so you can be there by 9:30 am. If you just want to head back to Panama City after riding the train you can take the nice coaster bus from the terminal heading to Panama for $3.60.
Once in Portobelo take some time to explore this small town known for its Caribbean congo culture. The Casa Congo Art Gallery features beautiful artwork made by locals, the church of the Christo Negro is famous for its Black Christ, and you have to walk through the old Spanish fort of the original customs house before catching a boat to the beach. The boats that take you to the beaches are located next to the ruins of the Spanish fort.
There are three main beaches you can visit in Portobelo: Playa Huertas ($10/pp), Puerta Frances ($12/pp), and Playa Blanca ($15/pp). The price can be more or less depending on how many people you have in your group and your negotiating skills. They were originally trying to charge $20 per person for Playa Huertas since we were just a group of two but we got them down to $10.
Playa Huertas had the beautiful Caribbean clear water I was looking for, but the sand was very rocky compared to Playa Blanca, which I had visited previously. However, it was the most economical option and the best part was that we had the beach to ourselves (one of the best things about going on a weekday). Throughout the entire day, there were only two snorkeling groups that passed by, but they mostly swam out to the deeper water. Be sure to pack your own lunch, snacks, and drinks because there is not anything to buy on the beach.
We arranged for the boat to pick us up at 2:30 pm and when the time came around I did not want to leave! A day at the beach was just what I needed to recharge my batteries.
To get back to Panama City ended up being simple. There is not really a set bus schedule in Portobelo but locals say it typically goes by every 30 – 40 minutes, with the last one going back at 6 pm. Go to the main road in Portobelo and catch any bus heading for Colon (opposite side of the road you were dropped off on). The bus costs $1.50 (pay as you get off) and you need to get off at the El Rey Supermarket in Sabanitas (approximately one hour away) because you do not need to go all the way to the Colon Bus Terminal. Once at the El Rey Supermarket, use the pedestrian overpass to cross the highway and take any of the buses heading for Panama City.
This bus will cost $3.60 and they usually collect the payment during the bus ride. The ride lasts one hour and will drop you off at the Albrook Bus Terminal where you can then take the metro, bus, taxi, or Uber back home.
Overall this was an amazing experience that reminds me of how much of Panama I still haven’t explored. The historic train ride with the panoramic jungle views is a must-do and being able to combine it with the beach is a plus. My total cost for the day was $41.70 ($25 for the train, $6.70 in bus fares, and $10 for the boat). This was a cash only day so be sure to bring enough cash to pay for everything because there are not ATMs along the way.
If I were to change anything about the day it would be to take a direct taxi to Portobelo from the train instead of the bus, visit Playa Blanca or Puerto Frances instead of Playa Huertas, and I would still take the two buses back to Panama City at the end. Doing this type of tourism on your own is for the adventurous traveler that at least speaks a little Spanish, so I don’t recommend it for everyone. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this on your own there are options for tours that take care of all of the logistics for you. Panama Vacation Packages offers the most similar experience for $169 that includes the train, visiting the Portobelo ruins, and then relaxing at the beach on Isla Grande with lunch and a cocktail. Or if you’re not a beach person, the Historic Train, Fort & Canal Tour by Barefoot Panama allows you to explore old Spanish forts and see the new set of locks on the Atlantic side instead.