By Margarita de los Ríos
Photos: Javier Pinzón
I want to make the mythic journey between Panama City and Colón in order to put together a proposal for a different day. I travel by train, of course, because it is the best way to travel the fifty miles that separate the two cities, passing through forests and lakes and penetrating the very landscape. I hire Robert, a young urban guide, to wait for me at the Colón station and take me to points of interest on the Atlantic side. After an arduous tour, I have selected a list of the tourist attractions that no visitor to Colón should miss.
When the train reaches the blue waters of Gatun Lake and swiftly passes over, almost touching it, I begin to feel as if I am in the midst of a legend. Here in the foreground is the 1.25 cubic mile mass of water that feeds the Panama Canal. Behind, the untouched land and wildlife of one the most humid and rainy tropical forests in the world. To the left, the Panama Canal: the engineering feat that split the continent in two to unite the seas.
The railway I’m traveling on is a legend in its own right. Its construction began in 1850 with the goal of uniting the two seas as quickly as possible. It was laid over the footsteps of Pre-Columbian Indians who had discovered this narrow waist of the Americas in earlier times; over the roads opened by the Spaniards with the spilled blood of slaves and Indians, in the process of conquest and colonization, forever changing the fate of this narrow piece of land; and especially, over the memory of the 12,000 workers who died while building this marvel.
When the work on the railway first began, it was the time of the California Gold Rush; there was an endless pilgrimage of people from the east searching for the shortest route for their conquest of the west. The work was rushed but became the first modern means of transcontinental transportation, and remained the only one for nineteen years. It turned Panama into a vital transportation link between the eastern and western United States.
During the first twelve years of operation, the Panama Railroad carried more than 750 million dollars in gold dust, gold nuggets, and gold and silver coins. Today, the railroad moves almost 35% of the cargo arriving in Panama, towing more than two million tons and moving some two million passengers per year.
There were several milestones in the construction of the Panama Canal. One of them, perhaps the most important, were the locks through which ships entering into Panamanian territory are lifted 85 feet via water elevators to reach the level of Gatun Lake so they can cross to the other ocean, where they will descend once again to sea level. On the Pacific side, the elegant visitor center offers views, explanations, a 3D movie, museum, and a shop. On the Caribbean side, the center is simpler, but more exciting.
Here it’s possible to observe in detail the operation of the canal: the lock chambers are a just a bit more than 108 feet wide and 1,050 feet long. For 100 years these dimensions determined the maximum size of the ships that could use the canal and for this reason they were known worldwide as “Panamax.” But the active global trade pressed until the larger “post-Panamax” ships went in search of new shipping routes. Panama responded to this challenge by expanding the canal: a pharaonic feat that can provide passage to this type of vessel, turning the old post-Panamax into neo-Panamax.
Canal Expansion Observation Center
After an investment of more than 6.2 billion dollars and eight years of waiting, it is expected that in just a few months the expanded canal will increase the number of ships passing through Panama by 80%.
Since curious tourists coming to Panama from all around the world wanted to see the expanded Canal, the Panama Canal Authority built the Observation Center. It is a 988-acre park, with terraces and open platforms ideal for observing the construction of the new locks. The lookout, suspended 197 feet above sea level and 164 feet over the Canal, allows you to see the majestic Gatun Lake and two trails that lead to a rewarding stroll through the forest.
The expansion of the Panama Canal included the construction of two sets of locks, each with three levels, each of which had three water retaining basins per level: one on the Pacific side and another on the Atlantic side. Thanks to its size (1,400 feet long, 180 feet wide, and 60 feet deep), 10 to 12 neo-Panamax ships can pass through it per day, with total traffic of approximately forty ships daily.
The largest vessels used to be able to carry up to 5,000 standard-sized containers. The neo-Panamax ships (up to 160 feet wide, 1,200 feet long, and 49 feet deep) can carry up to 13,000 containers through the Canal.
The Forest and Fort San Lorenzo
You must cross the Gatun Locks to travel “down the coast of Colón” and visit San Lorenzo National Park. You will find 30,278 acres of forests, swamps, and coastal ecosystem where large wild mammals abound and huge families of howler monkeys can be heard high up in the treetops.
But nature is not the only thing that abounds in San Lorenzo. Within a distance of just seven miles, you can experience the history of the successive occupations that this land has experienced. The first thing visitors find are the remains of the Sherman military base, operated by the United States Army from 1911 to 1999. Then you can see a section of the French Canal, a titanic and ultimately useless effort that began in 1882 and cost the French more than 300 million dollars and national disgrace.
Camouflaged in the forest, the batteries built by the United States during the two World Wars to defend the entrance of the canal from international attacks remain intact. And down the road, facing the spot where the Chagres River gently and silently empties into the Caribbean, the El Real de Chagre Fort San Lorenzo can be found, built by the Spanish in 1597 to protect, unsuccessfully, the Central American isthmus from pirate attacks. After centuries of neglect, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1980.
The park also has beaches, swamp forests, and mangroves, and it is unparalleled for bird watching in a country where birds abound.
Don’t Leave Colón Without Trying Saril
Colón is an almost mythical city, where magical realism seems to have emerged, but right now it’s difficult for foreigners to walk along its streets, boulevards, and neighborhoods. However, an urban renewal plan has just been launched with an investment of 500 million dollars, which will deliver a totally revamped city in 2018. When ready, the view of the city’s Historical Monuments Complex will be unparalleled. Meanwhile, visitors can’t leave Colón without trying the exquisite “pan bon” bread and drinking a “saril” (Jamaica flower water), an icing glass (local drink made with Kappaphycus algae, which has supernatural powers attributed to it), or a ginger beer. To try these specialties you will have to go to Amador Guerrero Avenue at 9th street (Calle 9). Look for the Panadería Colón bakery, where the vision of businessman Melvin Cabey led him to professionally bottle the classic drinks that the people of Colón drink in their homes. In the bakery you can also find cod, meat, and chicken cakes and the very celebrated “plantintá” (originally plantain tart): a banana dessert dyed with beets, so famous that it recently starred in a gastronomic event at the Sheraton Hotel in Panama City where chef Jorge Maxwell shone.
But if you want a good lunch, the Hudson Restaurant, also on Amador Guerrero Avenue, offers exquisite seafood delicacies cooked in coconut milk. The chef and owner, Luis Sue, adds to the supply of natural drinks with vegetable punch and watercress with orange, among many other delicacies. Food critics also recommend the dishes at Dos Mares Restaurant, which has the best “pan bon,” a delicious brown bread full of dried fruits that, although customarily eaten during Easter in other places, is “bread for everyday” in Colón.
How to Get There
Monday through Friday passenger trains leave Panama City for Colón at 7:15 a.m. and return at 5:15 p.m. Tickets may be purchased only on the day of travel, so you might want to set the alarm early. There are five passenger cars, but only one is an observation car. For this trip it is a good idea to have a guide waiting in Colón with a car.
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Where to Eat
The restaurant at the Canal Expansion Observation Center offers a lunch buffet. A few miles from Sherman is Sheter Bay: a marina with a restaurant that provides a good place to stop before continuing to Fort San Lorenzo. Visitors should not leave Colón without dropping in at the Panadería Colón bakery, sipping a refreshing natural beverage at the Restaurante Hudson, and buying a souvenir pan bon (sweet bread with dried fruit) from Dos Mares.