The Panama Canal Train Ride: Is it worth it?

Gatun locks Panama

Last Updated on October 27, 2021

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 signIn 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 ($4 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 TrainUpon 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-upThe 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 Panama Canal 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!)

Tags : panama


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

    1. 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…

  1. 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 😛 Thanks, for sharing this. I plan to travel in this region next year and will definitely avoid this train ride.

    1. 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!

  2. 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.

    1. 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?

      1. 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?

        1. 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, 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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?

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

    1. 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 🙂

  7. 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.

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

  8. I took the train across Panama this week. Fortunately, I had heard the disclaimers and also used it as a leg of my journey out to Isla Grande. Although I found the $25 for a ride of less than an hour a bit pricey, I am still glad I did it. I enjoy trains and have been reading McCullough’s history of the canal, so this was up there on my list. Once in Colon, I took a $2 cab ride to the bus terminal, a $3 bus ride to Guayra, and a $2 boat across to Isla Grande. I was there midweek and low season… It was wonderfully quiet, although I hear holidays it is packed. I wouldn’t recommend the train on its own, but as a way to hop across to this part of the Pacific and then bus to points beyond, it was worthwhile. (I would also recommend bussing back to Panama City rather than a roundtrip train ride, both for cost and convenience.)

    1. Dennis – thanks so much for sharing your experience!! Great to hear that you had an enjoyable experience 🙂

  9. Dany……………so sorry your trip on the rail was a bummer. I can see why and as modern times came upon us – the good things in life got left behind. My youth living there in the Canal Zone back in the 40-70’s were a life you would not understand – but enjoy for sure. The train back then was one of the thrills we had – “coast to coast in an hour and half for 1.25” All day long – back and forth.

    I have in my house now two of the original train seats = they are a prized treasure that exist in so few home today.

    Had I been with you – the trip would have been more exciting. John


    1. John – wow, that sounds amazing! I love that you have two of the original seats in your house! And yes, doing that trip with you would have been more interesting for sure. I bet you have the most fascinating stories to share from your time living by the Canal 🙂

  10. The time of 1.5 hours was that the train back then made at least 7-8 stops along the way. I lived in Pedro Miguel and always boarded there………..the stops on the route were part of the thrill – and our route went along the lake — many changes. None to my liking.

  11. As a rail fan I enjoyed the train ride. Not sure it was worth the$159.00 each Princess cruises charged us. Any one who got the ride for $22. really got a bargain. Wish we had been able to ride back on the train instead of old noisey bus!

  12. I was in Panama quite a few years ago. I took the train from Colon to Panama city. At that time it was only $1.75 or $2.75 for the air conditioned car. It was night and i wanted to open the window so I chose the $1.75 non air conditioned car. It looks like prices have really gone up since then. I did like the train ride and it was really a bargain price. The train was not crowed at all. Is Colon still pretty much a dump or have they fixed it up?

    1. Warner, you were lucky back then! It’s not possible to travel in the local (read: cheap) car anymore 🙁 And yes – Colon is still a dump, even though you’d think they’d give it makeover considering how many cruise tourists take the train ride these days.

  13. We took the train ride from Panama to Colon back in 2007, having been seduced by the guide books talking of a tax free shopping haven in Colon. The train ride itself was good, but lack of decent views and facilities was a let down. But the biggest disappointment was upon arrival at Colon, everybody gradually disappeared in taxis and we had no idea how far or where the main centre was. We wound up in a really run down part which turned out to be the centre of Colon. I cannot stress what an awful place this was. Nowhere to get a drink or eat, no toilet facilities, no shops. It was a very scary experience and it was just me and my husband. We found a taxi and negotiated a rate to take us back to Panama City, no way we were going to wait until 5 to take the train back Even that turned out to be risky, when the driver stopped after about 5 minutes down a side street and another man got in who he said was his brother and wanted a lift to Panama. I was really scared on the ride back and felt quite sure we would be robbed, or worse along then way. Thankfully we made it back in one piece but we would never recommend the rail trip to anyone.

    1. I’m glad to hear I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t impressed!! I heard that Colon was a scary place – hopefully that’ll get better over the next few years.. Seems like they managed to ‘clean up’ Casco Viejo in Panama City, would wish for the same to happen in Colon.

  14. I am taking a cruise from Spain which ends in Colon. I’d like to know what to do/how long to stay in Colon. I like to follow that stay by taking a boat from Colon via the Canal to Panama City and then explore there for a few days before flying out. I’d Really appreciate any suggestions you have and thanks for the advice on the train-not.

    1. I suggest you get out of Colon as quickly as possible. Not a great place to linger around, trust me. Panama City is much nicer, don’t miss Casco Viejo, the historic quarter there.

      1. I was in Panama for like 3 yrs back in the 70s. The train was like a buck and a half. Maybe I am just a bump kin but it was great. Hell I was boxing so went to colon for a fight. Train broke down 5 miles or so out. So my buddy and I jumped off and cut a trail thru the jungle. I guess being in the military helped but to me it was just another adventure. My first dive was a Gator lake. I see now they have croc infested waters guess I didn’t know how lucky I was. I hope to move there this yr. Can’t beat the place.

  15. very informative and to the point. I am planning by myself, adult female 73, and all your description, blog and comments help me to rearrange my itinerary. Thanks..

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