The Panama Canal Train Ride: Is it worth it?

Posted on 03. Jul, 2011 by in Central America, Panama, Panama, Travel Tips

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We had heard about the train ride along the Panama Canal months before arriving in Panama City, and there was no question we were going to do it. In fact, we had really been looking forward to it. I have been fascinated with the Panama Canal for years, and we both love train rides – an activity nearly non-existent anywhere else in Central America. The idea of connecting those two for a great day out was a no-brainer, with thoughts of speeding through the dense jungle which connects the Pacific and Caribbean coast, spotting exotic animals and fascinating flora, learning more about the canal and spotting the mega-container ships as they are lowered and lifted at locks along the canal. Unfortunately, the train ride didn’t quite live up to our imagination.

Panama Canal Train Station
Luxury on the rails?

Described as a luxurious train ride by two different guide books, we were so tempted by the experience, even in spite of the early morning departure time. The train leaves from Panama City at 7:15am and arrives in Colon on the opposite coast 45 minutes later, returning to Panama City at 5pm.

Panama Canal railway company sign

In reality, calling this trip luxurious was a stretch. Sure, the train car’s design harks back to the glory days of train travel, with carpeted floors, soft, low lighting and strong wooden paneling throughout the car. Waitresses served us each a very tiny paper cup of instant coffee, a small plastic cup of candy yogurt and a cookie. But that was as luxury as it got. No guide explained what we were seeing, no fun period music played in the background, no typical Panamanian food/breakfast/coffee was served on board. Panama City does luxury very well, and while this train ride was pleasant, it was by no means luxe.

Panama Canal Train Waggon

Being ‘cattled’

Only one train runs along these rails each morning and evening, and as such, this is not only a tourist train but also functions a commuter train. The 7:15 departure time is geared much more toward professionals than any sort of comfortable time for tourists. On arrival to the station, foreigners are led to a specific car of the train, and locals, who most definitely do not pay the $44 return fare, are seated in the five to six additional cars with the same views, minus the free coffee. Back in the tourist wagon, we were lucky enough to snap up the last seats with canal views, and those who came after us were seated on the other side of the car.

Panama Canal train lights

Where are the views?

Plenty of people went outside to the viewing platform outside and took pictures, but the views were okay at best. Where was the wildlife everyone was talking about? The train cuts through green jungle for most of the way, but we saw much more wildlife in the Metropolitan Park ($2 entry fee) right in the heart of Panama City.

The canal itself was only visible in parts and we spotted water through breaks in the flora until reaching Gatun Lake. This is widest part of the canal as well as the most beautiful, yet as quickly as the lake came into view, it disappeared again, very similar to the feeling of the canal ride in general. 55 minutes sped by so quickly it felt like as soon as it had really begun, it was over and we had arrived in Colon.
Panama Canal view from train

A snack box!

Before getting off the train – and not a minute before – every passenger was given a ‘Panama Canal Train Ride’ snack box with a mini-can of Pringles and small packs of cookies, peanuts and raisins. Despite its childish Happy Meal feeling, the main issue we had with this was wondering why on Earth these snack packs would not have been handed during the ride? Many of us had not had any breakfast and the station had no food at all, so most of us were already ravenous.

Panama Canal view

Will we get robbed?

The train ride does not even extend to the third and final set of locks, but rather right in the center of the city – known by all as one of the most dangerous cities in Panama. Locals had warned us not to visit Colon at all, but what to do for those nine hours before the train returns at 5pm?

Panama Canal Train

Upon exiting the train, it was expected that the tourists allow themselves to be corralled once more into one of the day trips to nearby beaches (for $100) or overpriced trips to the nearby Gatun Locks ($60 – the bus there was 25 cents) offered by taxi drivers with fancy (old, torn up) posters at the station, which every other traveler but us seemed to do. After fifteen cabs took the 40 passengers everywhere else but Colon, we were semi-stranded, alone, at a train station in a seriously shady area. We shortly found our way to the bus station and headed to the Gatun Locks.

Gatun locks ship close-up

The visit was fascinating, and a more intimate affair than the Miraflores Lock in Panama City. The staff was full of information, answered questions personally, and visitors were few and far between in comparison.

However, after an hour, with no museum, no café, no visitors center, we weren’t sure how to spend the next several hours before the train returned. We opted instead to return to Panama City by bus, which, at a fraction of the fare was just as fast and brought us directly to Albrook Mall in the city, rather than the train station which is a cab ride from anywhere.

Gatun locks close-up

Would we recommend the train ride?

Absolutely not.

Here is what we do recommend:

If you only want to have seen the Panama Canal, visit the Miraflores locks from Panama City. For all other travelers who are truly interested in the Canal, we would recommend a visit to the Gatun Locks for a glimpse of the massive container ships head into the Caribbean or into the Canal to head out to the Pacific. Take the bus. It’s $1.50 instead of $22 per person.

If you are looking to spot wildlife, go to Parque Metropolitano or Metropolitan Park, a jungle right inside Panama City.

For day trips to the beaches, rent a car. Four people pay $88 for the train one way, and a Panama City car rental costs less and gets you to the beaches and back.

If you are looking for a quick beach escape, take the ferry out to Taboga Island instead. From here you can see the container ships lined up to pass through the canal, all while sipping on a cold beer from the comfort of the sandy beach.

Gatun locks with container ship

Have you ever anticipated an excellent place/tour/experience and were disappointed by the outcome? Is there an experience or tour you have done that you would advise people not to take part in? Please help everyone to avoid such rip-offs in the comments (oh, and if you have done the train ride and enjoyed it, feel free to let us know about that as well!)

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21 Responses to “The Panama Canal Train Ride: Is it worth it?”

  1. Rease

    04. Jul, 2011

    I am sorry your train ride was such a disappointment! Instant coffee and snack packs? Lame!
    Rease recently posted..How to Use an Argentine AC

    Reply to this comment
    • jess

      04. Jul, 2011

      Totally Rease! What disappointed us the most was the potential the train ride has to be really informative, fun, and first class.

      Reply to this comment
  2. Alex

    05. Jul, 2011

    What a shame! I absolutely love train rides so I probably would have gone for this as well. Thanks for the heads up.
    Alex recently posted..My Top Ten Foreign Countries

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    • jess

      05. Jul, 2011

      Hey Alex, glad we could help :-) Central America’s not really the best place for train rides. There’s a train connecting San Jose to Heredia, Costa Rica (about 45minutes, commuter train) but we didn’t see much else there. Outside Merida in Mexico we took donkey-led cart rides along old train tracks to see the cenotes, that was cool…

      Reply to this comment
  3. Nomadic Samuel

    07. Jul, 2011

    What a colossal disappointment! Although I’m not surprised. When I was traveling in China there were plenty of temples in Yunnan that were massive letdowns; however, the guidebook didn’t provide such a clear statement. I’ve often only been forewarned by other travelers or just done it & realized it was mistake afterwards. I suppose not every travel experience can be stellar :P Thanks, for sharing this. I plan to travel in this region next year and will definitely avoid this train ride.

    Reply to this comment
    • jess

      10. Jul, 2011

      We don’t usually post negative tips – don’t do this, don’t go here – but this one was just not worth it, and yet something that people might be tempted to do. Guidebooks have to be much more diplomatic than we do and don’t tend to say ‘this place sucks, don’t go!’. We ended up in a place in Honduras, called Omoa, that the guidebooks said was a beautiful, quaint beach town – it was tiny, half-dead and the water had completed eroded the beach and came right up to the restaurants, so nothing at all to do but sit and look out. We’ll keep your China temple tips in mind, too, for when we’re in those parts next year!

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  4. Lisa @chickybus

    15. Jul, 2011

    Shame that it wasn’t what you thought. I just got back from Panama a couple weeks ago and wondered if I missed something (feel better having read your post). I only went to Miraflores and thought it was decent for the money.

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      18. Jul, 2011

      Yes, it really was a shame. We loved the Gatun locks though, so the train ride was at least somewhat good in the end. And we went to the Miraflores locks too which we enjoyed a lot. Did you visit other places in Panama besides Panama City?

      Reply to this comment
      • Carolina

        28. Sep, 2011

        Any recommendation as to best place for a couple to stay in Panama City? we land at 9:30pm.. and plan to stay a few days in the area (to see the canal, and parks etc.) before heading to Bocas Del Toro… But i can’t seem to find a great place to spend a few nights in while in the city.. our budget would be $60 max a night…. Any good reccomendations?

        Reply to this comment
        • Dani

          28. Sep, 2011

          Hello Carolina, we stayed in Casco Viejo, which is a beautiful neighborhood (the old town) and has some really nice boutique hotels, but it’s the furthest from Panama City Airport. If you stay in a downtown hotel, you are much closer to the airport and you can find great hotel deals for the business hotels on Hotwire, Booking.com or Expedia. You will definitely find something for $50 to $60 downtown – Casco Viejo is a little bit more expensive I think. If you have time in Panama City, I would still recommend you visit Casco Viejo – it’s much nicer and more charming than the business district. Have a great time in Panama City and Bocas and feel free to get in touch again if we can help out with anything else.

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  5. Matthew Magellan

    22. Aug, 2012

    Yep, I was tempted to do this with my one free day in Panama City because I absolutely love train trips, but no more. Headed to the park instead I think!

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  6. Once again we appreciate your honest opinions! Point (s) taken as we plan our time in Panama.
    Karen @ Trans-Americas Journey recently posted..Rock Show – Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

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  7. trencherman

    21. Feb, 2013

    We did the End of the World Train ride in Tierra del Fuego on a cruise last December. The weather was terrible, raining the whole time. The scenery was rubbish, not that you could see much of it through the steamed-up windows. As for taking photographs, forget it, the only windows were tiny ones at head height.

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    • Dani

      22. Feb, 2013

      Oh, I didn’t even know that there was an End of the World train ride – interesting to know since we should get there at the end of next week! It doesn’t sound as if it’s worth it though – do you think you would’ve enjoyed it more had the weather been better? How much were the tickets?

      Reply to this comment
  8. Julie

    08. Aug, 2013

    Thanks for the info
    I did enjoy the train ride through Copper Canyon from Chihuahua to Los Mochis in Mexico

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  9. Don Smith

    29. Sep, 2013

    I would only recommend this trip, if it is still available as a cruise ship excursion, from Colon. We did and it was wonderful.. IT was a complete package to and from the ship and with a guide on board the train The only complaint we had was our group was split up . Half went to the Pacific locks, the rest to a tourist trap shop in Panama City. The group that went to Panama City never got to view the locks due to torrential rain.

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  10. Matt Manhattan

    30. Dec, 2013

    Thank you for your outstanding advice. My girlfriend and I were going to take the train tour but thanks to your post we just visited the Miraflores Locks instead and had a great time. We are going to Isla Taboga on your advice as well, thank you!

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      31. Dec, 2013

      Hi Matt, great to hear that you’re including Taboga Island in your Panama itinerary :) Definitely a better choice than the Panama Canal train ride! We’re still thinking about our time at the Panama Canal Locks a lot – what a fascinating place! Enjoy Panama City :)

      Reply to this comment
  11. Cheryl

    10. May, 2014

    So sad you didnt get to see Colon! it can be dangerous if you dont know where to stay away from. So many nice restaurants and Sona Libre(Free Zone) is my favorite place to shop! I grew up in Colon so im more familiar heheh.

    Reply to this comment
    • Dany

      13. May, 2014

      Cheryl – I guess with a guide we would’ve been more comfortable but people in Panama City advised us not to go to Colon! :(

      Reply to this comment

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