Ready for anything, clutching our bags and bodies with both arms, I asked a young man in Spanish which way to the train station. The response was kindly given, but with a machine gun rapidity and excessively long. Having a general impression of what he said, we walked in the general direction. There is a walkway in the center of the main street so believing this was the safest route we used it. The alternative was to use the sidewalk with was tunnel-like with stores on one-side and shanty shack stores on the sidewalk. We would have to dodge the crowd in limited space giving many opportunities to inflame someone’s ire. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head, but so did visions of getting beaten, robbed, or worse.
We asked directions two more times, each time getting us closer to our destination: the train station. Once it was within sight, we started across this desolate area to make our way. This well-dressed man who happened to be crossing the street in the opposite direction, started yelling at us. At first, we ignored him, but he continued. I stopped; Ron continued. He asked where we were headed. When I told him, he said we needed to do the walk around via the street even if we were dodging traffic due to a large puddle. The way Ron was heading was the RED Zone. He explained the RED Zone was one of the most dangerous areas of the city where you were pretty much guaranteed to get robbed or worse.
We safely made it to the train ‘station’ where this is the one and only train and track for passenger trains. There are other tracks used for freight. Modern looking on the outside, the interior is like stepping back in time. Most of the interior has dark wood paneling, tables and carpeted floors. Dark green glass shades covering bulbs softening the effect, line the walls. Wooden blinds cover the windows and the entire train is air-conditioned. There are several open-air viewing decks allowing passengers to step outside to watch the view pass them by. The train consists of five passenger cars each named after a river of Panama. The Rio Chagres car is a refurbished 1938 Southern Pacific Dome Car. Each car is equipped with a snack bar.
What threw us a bit was the cost of the tickets. They were no longer $20 a person, but $25. This depleted our cash on hand by $10, something we had not counted on. With the difference in bus tickets and now this, we are desperately short on cash. Trying to focus on the ride, I set aside worries about money for the time being. Trees whipped past us as we navigated through the rainforest as well as old US Army compounds.
We arrived in Panama City at the Corozal Passenger Station. Fortunately, for us, there was a tour guide on the train, so we could ask about transportation from here. As we suspected, the taxis would charge us a tourism rate of about $15 to get back to our accommodation, but he suggested we try for a taxi from the road where it would be cheaper. Between us, we had $7, plus change.
The road where we were supposed to try getting a taxi was in essence a freeway with speeding cars. We were not alone in wanting a taxi, having to compete with three other groups, two of whom could speak Spanish fluently. The odds were against us. After one taxi rejected the other groups, he was willing to take us for $12. More reasonable, but still too much for what we had. Walking down the side of the freeway was the only option, heading in the direction of a major supermarket sign with hopes it really was a store and not just an advertisement. After fifteen minutes of walking, a taxi stopped along the side. Ron figured that if we could get back to the Albrook Mall, we could get a local bus from there. The taxi driver wanted $3 to take us to the mall. Perfect and reasonable considering the traffic, had it been a metered cab, it would have been quadruple the fare. This left us with $4.00 in bills.
Now we were at the mall, but had no idea what bus to take. All the local buses line us behind each other. Not one of them is numbered and there are no routes or schedules posted to gather intelligent decision-making information. The only option is to ask the drivers one by one. After receiving several negative responses, we did get one affirmative or what we interpreted as one. We handed him money, but he pointed to a machine. There was nowhere to put money in the machine. Finally, a young woman noticing our dilemma used her bus card to swipe the reader twice so we could pass the turnstile. She spoke great English, so she explained that a Metro Bus Card was needed to ride public buses. You add money to the card as needed and then swipe it when using it. Each time you use it, it costs you 25 cents for the ride. We offered her the 50 cents, but she refused. She further explained that we would need to change buses as this bus was only going partially in our direction. She would be getting off before us, but she arranged for another passenger to warn us where to get off.
We thanked her profusely multiple times during the ride and as we said good-bye. As promised the other woman signaled where we were to get off and change buses. There was no familiarity of the area, nor did it seem to be within walking distance of getting us back. Scrounging through our change, we could come up with another $1.54 making our grand total wealth $5.54. At the bus stop where we were told to get off, there were no schedules or postings of which buses stopped there so we were again clueless about the next step.
Thinking we cannot be too far away by vehicle, we hailed a taxi. His quote was $5. We jumped in and off we went. He had a companion in the front seat that kept asking us if we wanted women or a casino. All we wanted was dinner. When we arrived, we gave him the entire $5.54.
The original plan was to get back earlier and have dinner at the vegetarian restaurant in our building. By the time we arrived, we only had 30 minutes before they closed. I left Ron there after we ordered and ran up to the apartment for money. We took it back and ate on the balcony reflecting on the day.
We had multiple opportunities to get mugged, beaten, robbed or worse all day long, but we managed to survive all of it while having a great adventure.