More than one person has told us we really should not miss riding the historic Panama Canal Railroad. Billed as one of the great train rides of the world, who could resist? My father worked for a railroad most of his working life and I did a two-year stint working for the New York & Long Branch Railroad in my youth. The ride promises to traverse the lush rainforest with possibilities for animal and birdlife sightings. Interestingly, the railroad is responsible for the creation of the city Aspinwall, now called Colón. Kansas City Southern RR and Mi-Jack Products from Chicago currently own it. For more information on the history, visit here.
Today, the rail service is mainly for tourists or business people who are commuting between Colón on the Atlantic Coast and Panama City on the Pacific. Being informed that the cost of the ride was $20 per person each way; a one-way trip was sufficiently going to drain our budget. Service is limited to once a day in either direction. You can go from Panama City to Colón at 7:15 am or return from Colón at 5:15 pm. These are the only two options. Travel time is one hour.
After reading a great deal about Colón, we knew it was the pit. Any Google search for Colón was rife with articles to make the back of the head hairs stand up and cry for mercy. In order to do this train ride and not really wanting to get to the Panama City train station by 7:00 am to catch the outgoing train, we opted for a return trip instead. The plan was to take a mid-afternoon local bus to Albrook Mall in PC and from there, we could take the inter-city bus to Colón to arrive just in time for the train back. We did considerable figuring of how much money we would need for the day. Reason dictated that if you are robbed, lose the least amount of money you need to, so we planned accordingly. The best laid plans…never seem to go as planned.
After considerable walking, we did find the bus to take to Albrook Mall. Traffic is horrific, so what should have been a 20-minute ride took closer to 45 minutes. We passed through some rather unsavory parts of the city, finding the ‘open air markets’ with fruit and vegetable vendors side by side with police men with machine guns patrolling the streets. This section of the city was beyond derelict.
Albrook is not only a mall, but also the terminal for all buses, local and otherwise. Arriving around 1:30 pm, we had plenty of time to get our bearings and further develop our plan. Checking with the ticket agent for the Colón buses, getting information was impossible. There is a glass wall with a tiny opening to pass money, but nothing to allow communication to flow freely. After screaming our questions through this glass barrier and receiving some response, we were still as clueless as when we started. The noise level in the terminal was equivalent to a gang of ghetto blasters all blaring full volume at once.
Even if we were both speaking English, I would not have been able to hear what he was saying. We walked away frustrated. It was weird a ticket was needed to leave the bus station to enter the area where the intercity buses were loading. It was not necessary for the local buses. In frustration, we went to the mall, deciding to return later and try again.
The Albrook Mall at first glance looks like any other. It is only after spending ten minutes there that you realize you have entered another world. This has to be the largest mall I have ever been in after Mall of America in Minnesota. There are 469 stores with an additional 400 kiosks. Other than Christmas time, it is still decorated with hot air balloons, sculptures of wild animals (used to designate exits), and an Italian carousel. There are four humungous food courts, the largest seats over 400 people and we had a difficult time finding a table. The latest information I could find about its size was from 2011 when they were still adding on.
“It takes 5,592 steps to walk Albrook Mall; roughly equal to going up and down the Empire State Building twice plus a few more New York City blocks. Within the total area of Albrook Mall you could build 36 football fields or five Sidney Opera Houses. For the exercise minded one full walking circuit of Albrook Mall is 2.4 km (7,874.016 feet) and would burn 204 calories. It is huge!”
One would think with this number of food courts, that it would be easy to find something to eat. It wasn’t. Nothing looked good, because we are not really into fast food. After much deliberation, we finally settled for a slice of pizza, which turned out to be surprisingly good. We walked and walked before and after our snack working off the minutes until we had to deal with the bus once again.
Returning to the terminal, we were able to determine with the help of a young man that the Colón bus left every hour on the hour. We pay the driver; there was no need to buy at ticket at the ticket counter. How non-intuitive is that? Here is where we were flummoxed. To get to the bus, you had to buy a Metro Bus card. When we tried this, they wanted Ron’s picture ID. I could not figure out why his and not mine. Later, I realized he asked if there were a senior discount available. We held up the line for a good ten minutes while they hemmed and hawed over whether a photocopy of his passport was good enough. After $1.25 passed hands, we were able to scan the card for both of us to cross over to the other side. Even for this we needed the aid of some local angels to show us the way.
Once on the modern, air-conditioned express bus to Colón, we found the fare to be $3.75 each for the pancontinental journey. We had been told by others it was $2.50 each and this is what we had budgeted. ETA for Colón was about one hour, give or take depending on traffic. For an express bus, we made a number of stops.
As we entered Colón, it felt like we were entering a different country. Poverty polluted the air. Buildings were in severe decay. Litter decorated the streets where they were not pock marked with holes large enough to get lost in. Loose electric wires hung from poles like Maypole streamers. This is where the bus had its final stop or we presumed; everyone left the bus here, though we were not at any type of terminal, but just a crossroad in the center of town.
Continued with part 2.