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After the third taxi driver had informed me he did not know where the train station was, I began to doubt myself. Luckily after explaining the exact location to the next driver, who still did not look convinced, I was on my way.
I arrived ready for the 7.15am Panama to Colón at 6.30am. The train was already there, its shiny red and yellow engine visible from behind the station building. An American family stood on the steps waiting for the doors to open. She worked in environmental science and was travelling to Colón for work with her husband and two children, both looked under ten. That’s fairly brave I thought, but this was only the half of it.
“Do you know if Colón is safe to walk around in during the day?” I asked the husband.
“Well everywhere has a bad reputation” he replied chirpily “We were just in Colombia that was great, really safe and the people were very friendly.”
He added: “There are quite a few things to do in Colón I’ve heard, I’m sure it’s fine.”
This new opinion threw me. So far the most common words used when discussing Colón were ‘dangerous, robbed and very dangerous.’ Everyone I had spoken to and all I’d read (see here for a fellow travellers take on the city) had warned me against going there, this newfound optimism made me think again; so I asked one more person before deciding whether to investigate for myself: “Very dangerous, you shouldn’t walk around there, you‘ll get robbed” confirmed the lady at the station office, so a single ticket it was.
The train was just as delightful as it would have been 30 years ago. Beautiful wooden panelled carriages, with green reading lights and matching green seats. Being a tourist I was ushered into the tourist carriage. It was taller with a dome-shaped glass ceiling and horrible floral carpet.
About four locals boarded the train and around 15 babbling tourists. As the train slid out of Panama I discovered the disadvantages to being in the tourist carriage. “SLOTH”…. “TOUCAN” …. “Did you see that one?” bellowed a Panamanian guide to an American couple. I started by trying to see some of these animals but the train was going quickly and the jungle was thick, not to mention the fact that I had an inkling he was inventing the animals to keep the tourists amused. I instead tried to concentrate on the vista to the other side – the Panama Canal, the sight of two huge container ships passing each other in the jungle was certainly surreal. The jungle closed in on either side for a while, bursting with colour from the many birds of paradise, then gave way to a golf course.
“It was built for a new resort that was never made” said the guide, now I knew he was fibbing, that golf course had been there over 30 years ago and was built for the Zonians.
The train glided along and I took a stroll to the other carriages as the air conditioning in the tourist car was ferocious. The Canal appeared again, this time alongside some excavations, work has already started to widen the canal and the Panamanians are hoping to have this finished by 2012. It’s an ambitious project, but if it runs to schedule, will be very lucrative for the country. The Canal is so busy at present it’s predicted it will reach saturation point by around 2012.

All too quickly the train arrived in Colón and the jaunt was over. It was time to return to Panama, this time via bus, as I did not want to risk my safety by spending the day in Colón.
If a city can be judged on the expressions of its inhabitants then I was pleased I was not stopping. People in the streets looked sad and forlorn, reflecting the state of the dirty tenement buildings around them. I got onto the bus and found myself sat in front of a hideous horror movie, featuring Dennis Quaid. I didn’t know where to look, out at the sad people or at the torture on the television. My earlier train elation had all but disappeared. I cheered myself up with thoughts of my onward journey. To get around the Darien Gap Paul Theroux had to take a plane. Now there is the option to take a sailing boat, and in my quest to keep this trip overland and out of the skies, I would soon be boarding the Stahlratte, a former Greenpeace ship, bound for Cartagena, Colombia.

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