You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Trains’ tag.

As I near the end of my journey I’ve been wondering about the name you gave to the train from Jacobacci to Esquel: ‘The Old Patagonian Express.’
I liked the fact that the boy you were talking to on the train, Renaldo Davies, said: “This train is too insignificant to have a name. The government is talking about getting rid of it.”

In part the government have succeeded to do that as the only remaining segment of the train line that runs on a regular basis is from Esquel to Nahuel Pan and back again. A tiny section of the last train journey you took on your South American adventure.

But I stumbled across an interesting fact when talking with Hector, Argentina’s last remaining train expert. He informed me that the train has always been known as La Trochita, in translation, Little Gauge. Did you know this at the time or was it a fact you discovered later on, long after ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ had stuck? Your name sounds much more romantic and is now even on the current train tickets for La Trochita: The Old Patagonian Express as they now officially call it.

Getting hold of one of those tickets from anywhere else in the world apart from Esquel itself was near-on impossible as I have recently discovered, but having been immersed in some Patagonian literary research, it seems this is the beauty of the place; its isolation and solitariness.
The great expanses of nothing, the vast desolate plains and the lack of habitation which would turn into stretches of lush forests and snowy mountainous are overwhelming. These vistas led W H Hudson to feeling he was: “Incapable of reflection: my mind had suddenly transformed itself from a thinking machine into a machine for some other unknown purpose. To think was like setting in motion a noisy engine in my brain; and there was something that bade me still, and I was forced to obey.”

Perhaps this is the effect Patagonia has on its inhabitants, as I must admit to feeling something similar as I gazed upon the landscapes and marvelled at their rugged beauty.

Luckily upon my arrival in Esquel I was able to procure myself a ticket to your legendary train and the end of my journey. The Old Patagonian Express.

Best Wishes
Rachel.

Advertisements

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I ran huffing and puffing towards the train station, leaving my taxi abandoned in the traffic of Cuzco. It would be typical, I thought as I dodged the tourists and Indians, if I missed this, the most expensive train of my trip. Arriving at the station while cursing my heavy backpack, a smart guide ushered me through a room of welcome panpipe players and onto the train.
I was a mess: red, sweaty with a dirty backpack and a broken plastic bag containing my snacks.

The train on the other hand looked like the reception of a five-star hotel. The chairs were actually armchairs, the tables were adorned with tablecloths and gold-plated lamps and the other passengers looked haughtily up at me over their reading glasses.
I settled myself in trying to ignore their prying eyes and took in my luxurious surrounds. Wood panelled walls with gold trims and photos of the train from yonder year when the locals could actually afford the trip. At $220 for a one way ticket, there was sadly not a local in sight and despite enjoying the comfort as I sipped my ’welcome’ drink I felt frustrated that this rail journey had now been reserved solely for the moneyed holidaymaker.

Paul Theroux had not managed to take what is now called The Andean Explorer, strikes had meant he was forced to take a bus to Puno, like the locals now. I settled into the undulating Andean scenery, local farms and villages whizzed by as the occupants of the train, spurred on by their welcome drink, retired to the bar carriage to enjoy their expensive cocktails.
The train slowed at one of the villages and dirty children tried to sell us Llama dolls through the windows, I remembered a bag of lollies I had and decided to share them with the kids, they smiled and laughed as I passed them out of the train. One of the haughty women suddenly shouted across the carriage to me:
“Are you giving them lollies?”
“Yes” I replied
“Well tell them to clean their teeth then, all of these children have terrible teeth.”
I doubted that any of these children had ever seen a toothbrush, their parents picked at the teeth they had left with sticks and the kids probably did the same. I desperately wanted to respond to this idiotic woman but I knew that whatever I said would come out rudely so I did the mature thing and ignored her, fuming silently inside.
The train chugged through the centre of the town Juliaca, the market was either side of us selling everything imaginable including car parts and plumbing, haughty lady remarked to no one in particular: “This is the real Peru…I’ve been living in the real Peru for three weeks. It was hard but very rewarding.”
Suddenly a small group formed around her as she told of staying in a village, ‘without a hotel?’ someone gasped. I walked away unsure I would be able to hold my tongue when faced with more of her right-on preening.
The tourists got drunker and started dancing in the bar with the local band, in a very English manner I felt embarrassed for them and stayed in my seat reading Death in the Andes, a dark tale that had me gripped as Mario Vargas Llosa’s fantastic prose gave me an insight into some of the Andean towns I had recently travelled through.

Puno itself is a small bustling town with more tourists than I had imagined, scurrying to and from the floating islands on Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian border. I enjoyed a beer in a rock bar with graffiti all over its walls and spent some time reading the daubings, my favourite being: ‘We got them out on Lake Titi.’ Lovely.
The bus to the border and La Paz awaited. It’s torn seats and smelly interior filled me with a new dread, I had heard many a horror story about Bolivian roads and buses and this particular one seemed to be living up to its reputation. Paul Theroux had enjoyed the luxury of taking the train from La Paz all the way to Buenos Aires but the details of this part of my trip were hazy as that train no longer runs. The thought of spending substantial amounts of time on Bolivian buses worried me somewhat, but the stunning sunset over Lake Titicaca and the mountains stopped my concerns until I was shaken awake by a Bolivian army guy and asked to get off the bus.

I was confused, he was pointing me towards a little boat where the rest of the passengers were waiting, it appeared we had to cross a small stretch of water, us in a little boat and the bus on what looked like several planks of wood that would then be punted to the other side. I looked around hoping to see a bridge, but there was none. The situation was so bizarre and I was so sleepy I wasn’t sure if I was in a dream, but sure enough after waiting a few minutes on the other side of the water our bus came bobbing towards the shore and we were back on the road. Marvelling at the strangeness of the situation I had no time to be complacent as not much further along the road we came to a sudden halt. I peered out of the back window into the dark to see an overturned bus on the road and a backpacker limping towards us. The driver had been going too fast around the corner and the bus had toppled. I checked that the backpacker was okay. He was very casual about the situation, I think he must have still been in shock:
“I’m fine, I just clung onto the luggage shelf while the whole thing seemed to go in slow motion, but it was really nothing. Where are you planning to stay in La Paz anyway?”
I couldn’t get over how calm he was being as the twinkling lights of La Paz appeared before us. I was excited about seeing this city, one of the few that Paul Theroux had actually praised.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was the second time I’d seen the armadillo, but this time it was covered in confetti.
As I stood and pondered why there was a dead armadillo chained up outside a Cuzco internet café, a toothless man popped up next to the animal and cheerfully informed me it was the armadillo’s birthday, hence the confetti, while cackling madly.

It seemed despite being a tourist Mecca Cuzco was not without its idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t decide if I loved or loathed the place. After all the little Andean towns it was strangely comforting to see so many tourists marred only by the fact that all of them were clad in ‘activity’ trousers teamed with llama wool hats and large cameras.
The Plaza de Armas was a mob of relentless restaurant, massage and tour hustlers. But I had decided to avoid a tour and take the train to Machu Picchu in peace and without a guide, so I thought, but it seems the Bert Howie’s of Paul’s day are still around and have grown in number. The tour group surrounding me on the 4.15pm Vistadome were all already sporting Machu Picchu sun hats, one had some sort of Peruvian instrument in a hippie bag and several wore utility jackets.

The Urubamba valley was immense, its high peaks, left undisturbed by the world until Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911, towered over the river and train tracks at the bottom of the valley. I didn’t want to like the ‘Vistadome’ train, named thus for its windows in the ceiling, I wanted to prefer the locals trains I had travelled on, but I had to admit that I rather enjoyed being able to see the peaks of the mountains as the train rattled along the tracks.

The Japanese couple beside me relaxed and put on their slippers as their mulleted tour guide bleated on about the difficulties of the Inca trail and how taking the train was ‘easy peasy, lemon squeezey, Japanesey.’ Not very politically correct considering his audience.
I felt strangely alienated from these wealthy tourists and they in turn seemed not to know what to make of me, so left me alone.
Perhaps they took me for a ‘freebooting backpacker’ just like the ones Paul encountered in the seventies. The breed still exists but they now seem to spend any extra pennys they find on cheap, potentially dangerous adventure sports. I’d seen many of them busing into towns, white-water rafting, trekking and then busing out without even a glance at the local community or culture.

I felt alienated from these travellers also, with no inclination for adventure sports or buses if I could avoid them. I felt like a strange observer neither in one camp or another.
This feeling reminded me of Paul’s comment: “ I had neither a tourist badge or a rucksack. I trod a narrow implausible line between the two…” (although I do actually have a rucksack and often wonder how Paul managed this journey with a suitcase.)

The tinny pan pipe music on the train suddenly changed to an upbeat dance song and it was announced that we were to be subjected to an alpaca fashion show, unfortunately not including alpacas themselves, just embarrassed train staff in rather nasty jumpers parading up and down the carriages. As we neared Machu Picchu I wasn’t sure who felt more embarrassed, me or them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Huancayo is a buzzing little Andean town, full of colour, people and life. Certainly not the cold, sad picture that I had imagined after Paul Theroux‘s descriptions:
“There was something about the damp walls of every room in this town, and the muddy roads leading out of it that made the isolation palpable; it’s chill conveyed a physical feeling of remoteness.”
No longer so isolated from the rest of Peru, with good connecting roads, the town has blossomed into a thriving Andean centre, famous for its Sunday markets and even boasting a modern shopping centre.
The square was a veritable social club, always full of chatting families and street sellers. I had arrived on the weekend of Halloween and the pavements were mobbed with miniature vampires and ghosts, while a Christian concert took place on a makeshift stage. It all felt a little surreal as I watched little children dressed as devils sing Halleluiahs with their parents.

But I could not linger long, I was going to take a train that even Theroux himself had not managed to get on; he had returned to Lima from Huancayo and flown to Cuzco, as in the seventies, when he took his trip, there was no passable road or railway through the mountains to the east. Now it is possible to take the train to Huancavelica then a bus to Ayacucho and then two more mountain buses across the Andes to Cuzco.
This was in fact the same route which Michael Jacobs took in his book Andes, so I started mentally preparing myself for the bus rides, which sounded a little rough. Although I should have perhaps focused on the train ride which was also a little less than comfortable. Even the queue for tickets was an experience in itself: I was serenaded by a man in a wheelchair and his son, sold bread, offered sweets, moisturiser, tiger balm and flowers. So distracted by these offerings I failed to notice a man push in front of me, which caused quite a stir when the security guard picked him out of the queue giving me a disparaging look and a telling-off as he did so. The ‘queue’ was a colourful melee of shouting, pushing and a distinct lack of personal space, so taking a deep breath I stuck my elbows out and pushed forward in an attempt to get a ticket while wondering why on earth I hadn’t thought about booking in advance.
I was still wondering this when I found myself sharing my bag, which was now being used as a seat, with a small family of three, off to visit their relatives in Huancavelica.
The mother, dressed in the usual Andean outfit of smart hat, brightly coloured flared skirt and belongings tied in a shawl on her back asked me:
“What is the traditional dress in England?”
That’s a good question I thought to myself and ashamedly I could not give her a very satisfactory answer.
“What kind of food do you eat in your country?” was the next question, crikey I thought, this is going from bad to worse, I tried explaining fish and chips, the lady looked less than impressed.
The scenery was beautiful, craggy peaks and tiny villages passed by as we climbed to a height of 3676 metres. A “classic” Andean train journey as described by The South American Handbook. We clung precariously to the side of the mountains whilst negotiating numerous tunnels (38 to be precise) and bridges.
From my perch on the floor I marvelled at the goings on in the train: families squabbled, children cried, strange looking foods were consumed and the jostling continued. I peered jealously into the buffet class car. This car had been full when I reached the ticket office, it boasted numbered seats and no one was allowed in the aisles or doorways. It’s attendant was tasked with serving food to the entire train. He tottered up and down carrying plates piled high with food, his skill in this task was impressive as he never seemed to spill anything despite the numerous obstacles in his path – including myself.
At each village people poured off the train and even more climbed on. At one point I was nearly hit in the face by a lamb bleating in a bag. After a while an English teacher from Huancayo took pity on me and offered her seat for half an hour, I gladly accepted as the man now sitting next to me had fallen asleep and his breath was less than fragrant. As I prised his head off my shoulder and relinquished the space on my bag-turned-seat the teacher explained:
“Sorry, that’s my brother.” She added apologetically. “He drinks.”
I took her seat in the carriage to be faced with what felt like hundreds of people staring at me, as we bobbed along I enjoyed the views which were unlike anything I had seen on a train ride before, the towering mountains took my breath away and the peering locals made the experience all the more unusual.
The peering did not stop once I had disembarked from the train in Huancavelica, a charming little town nestled in the craggy mountains. Sitting in the square after a stroll I watched a little boy try and teach his brother how to ride a bicycle, the little boys inability to balance was not the only problem in the venture, a stray dog, of which there are many in Peru, was nibbling at their ankles as they circumnavigated the square. I was happy to have something to watch, it took my attention away from the local inhabitants who were mostly staring at me, this was somewhat unnerving as it appeared I was the only tourist in town.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lima did not feel as downtrodden as I had expected. Most people I met had advised me to avoid the city altogether, perhaps because my arrival coincided with the choosing of a new mayor the place seemed in a jubilant mood.
The “lovely cream-coloured railway station in Lima,” as described by Paul Theroux, is now a bright shade of yellow and is not solely the train station, as it doubles as the ‘Casa de la Literatura Peruana’ housing many literary exhibitions and a new Mario Vargos Llosa library.

I was very excited about taking the train from Lima to Huancayo and also slightly nervous, I had only just got over a bout of altitude sickness and Paul Theroux’s descriptions of ailments on the journey concerned me. Determined to be able to enjoy the stunning mountain vistas I took an altitude sickness pill and hoped for the best.
Luckily I was not disappointed. Sat in classic (cheap) class as the train clattered out of Lima I felt happy to finally be on the tracks and travelling a good distance. The train, which reaches an impressive height of 4781 metres, making it one of the highest in the world, takes 12 hours to creep to Huancayo and is even slower now than it was in the seventies.
We started the trip with bright blue skies and as the train climbed out of the suburban Lima slums the brown shrubby mountains appeared.
Llosa in his book, Conversation in the Cathedral, describes some of the houses in Lima as “… cubes with gratings on them, caves cracked by earthquakes, inside there’s a traffic of utensils and reeking little old women with slippers and varicose legs.”
Sadly this description came to mind as the train passed by row after row of half-built one-floor hovels with ill-fitting windows and grimy occupants spilling onto the dirt roads. I was moved at the sight of a sad old man standing alone in the middle of a derelict football pitch, a ball poised at his feet while he waved and smiled forlornly at the train.

Sitting across from me was a honeymooning couple from Wales who were very excited about the journey, so much so that not a second passed on the entire trip when the new bride was not snapping a photograph, accompanied by the rolling of her new husbands eyes: “If she hasn’t taken a picture of it then it hasn’t happened.” he mentioned to me at one point, I pondered on this rather frustrating concept for a while and tried to contain the urge to ask what on earth they did with these millions of photographs.
The scrub on the mountains started to turn green and trees appeared as we climbed ever higher and the train negotiated bridges and tunnels while clinging to the mountains edge.
I took a walk along the train’s corridors and met a holidaying family from Lima. They were in high spirits and talked of their weekend plans for Huancayo.

The brown earth turned a startling shade of red as I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sitting and contemplating on my green faux velvet seat on the train.
All too soon the sky followed the earth and coloured bright red before darkening, signalling our arrival in Huancayo.

I was wondering, did you take a plane, or rather a ‘carpeted metal tube’ from Guayaquil to Lima because of the lack of trains on this part of your trip?
I was a little flummoxed at this sudden plane ride in your journey. Why not take a bus as you so disliked flying?
I’m continuing this part of my trip overland in order to try and fill in the missing chapter from Guayaquil to Lima. I hope you’ll find it somewhat interesting. My reading companion is now Michael Jacob’s Andes. A heavy, informative tome that has been weighing me down for some weeks now. Yet an inspirational read and a great insight into the history of the Andes and their present day reality, I’ll be drawing on some of Jacobs’ insights to help guide me along the way. Starting on the coast I’ll then move into the mountains before getting to Lima and hopefully taking the train east as far as I can get.
Best Wishes
Rachel

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For a moment I thought I was at home; a cup of tea in one hand, cricket on the radio and a contented feeling. But this unusual peace was soon disturbed by a din outside, I looked down onto the street to see a very strange sight. A young man was enthusiastically playing an accordion, not so unusual for a Colombian street, but his audience was rather out of the ordinary: A group of about 20 armed policemen. They were dancing and singing around the accordion player, snapping photos of each other with their guns swinging precariously from side to side as they gyrated.
Ah yes, I’m in Bogotá I remembered and sipped my tea whilst watching the shenanigans below.

I was staying in an area of Bogotá called La Macarena (yes like the dance) with a journalist friend named Jon and his wife Susi. Their apartment was opposite the police station where apparently these sights were very common.
“We’ve seen them in dressing up costumes before, zebras, lions, bears, quite amusing.” Jon told me.
“But don’t be fooled they look a good bit scarier dressed up in all their riot gear.”

Police and military were everywhere in Bogotá and as far as I could tell not many of them looked older than about 22, but they were all toting huge guns and attempting to look menacing, well when they were not dancing around, texting their girlfriends or listening to their iPods. I couldn’t decide whether to be scared or laugh.

Bogotá has certainly changed since Paul Theroux’s visit. He was upset by the number of homeless street children he encountered and spent his time staggering from church to church, suffering from the altitude.
The altitude, luckily, did not affect me and there were far fewer homeless than in Paul’s day, although apparently far more drug dealers.
There seemed to be a plethora of memory stick/usb sellers every few metres as I strolled down Calle 7, I needed a usb so entered into a conversation with one of the men, but rather than a straightforward transaction things got very complicated, it was too much for my limited Spanish so I walked on, later learning that his usbs were only a front for selling cocaine. I saw a good many shoelace sellers on the streets also and pondered on their technique for selling cocaine if this was also a front. Did the length of the shoelace you purchased represent the amount or strength of cocaine you required?

When I had got my bearings I took a walk to the train station. The last piece of track on the line from Santa Marta to Bogotá was still being used for a Turistren and I was determined to investigate. I managed to purchase tickets for the steam train, which departed on Sunday, but before I left I was treated to some traditional Colombian hospitality in the form of… a Welsh pub.

Edgar, the pubs owner, had married a Colombian lady he had met in Spain, 40 years ago. The couple had lived in Bogotá for most of their lives, but I’m pretty sure Edgar still missed his homeland as he had created an authentic Welsh pub in his lounge room. The strange thing was it even smelled like a pub, photos of Wales and old issues of Mersey beat adorned the walls and a welcome glass of wine was placed in my hand. The situation felt rather surreal as Edgar regaled me with tales of his youth in London and Wales while several other ex pats arrived to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
It was as if I had been transported to Wales itself and I wasn’t sure if I was happy with that.

The next day saw the Turistren chuffing out of Bogotá’s La Sabana station. It really was a tourist train and any hopes I had of finding a real passenger train still running in Colombia faded into the distance with each raucous band that passed through our train carriage.
Despite this it was a great day out, topped off by a visit to a real country fair in one of the local villages. Bands warbled on the makeshift stage and men on horses paraded nearby. There was even a float parade, but to me it looked rather like several battered pick-up trucks camouflaged in various bits of tree.

The conversation in Bogotá had been very enjoyable, I was happy not to have to explain where I had travelled to or from or discuss the merits of how cheap my accommodation was or for how many years I had been on the road.
On the train to Bogotá Paul Theroux was plagued by a Frenchman with a sore throat who extolled to him the virtues of getting the bus because it was cheaper. This is a very common travellers boast and also a most tiresome one.
With these thoughts in mind I packed my bag and prepared to hit the road again. This time with plans to lie entirely about myself, my trip and the cost of my accommodation the next time an inquisitive traveller thought to ask, which was in fact on the way out of Bogotá as I headed southwest towards the Quindo pass.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Walking around the headlands near Santa Marta I heard the distinct “poooop poooooop” of a trains whistle. I stopped, rooted to the spot, “pooop pooooooop”. I wondered for a minute if my ears were playing tricks on me, but then the sound came again. It was without a doubt a train.

So far I had only been in Santa Marta for a day and had yet to locate the station, the debilitating heat was stopping me from thinking never mind moving, but all of the people I had asked told me there was no train, one even told me this as we were standing next to the train tracks.
Santa Marta had not inspired me, I had been there for only a few minutes when I stumbled on what I like to think was a man sleeping in the street, he was also bleeding, heavily. Only centimetres away from him were people sat around on their plastic chairs, drinking beer. I shuddered and felt torn between trying to help the man and running away, I chose to walk away, swiftly. An uncomfortable feeling descended on me which I could not shake so I decided to stay just outside Santa Marta in a fishing village named Taganga.

Once a sleepy place Taganga had suffered an influx of tourists in the past five years and the plethora of hostels, dive schools and eateries reflected this. Despite this Taganga was a very pleasant place to stay, on a picturesque bay surrounded by tropical green mountains and speckled with fishing boats.
After a stroll around the town which involved negotiating the rubble piles that passed for roads and trying my utmost not to trip or stub my toes, I discovered a cosy café which sold great coffee and chocolate muffins. I got talking to it’s Swedish owner: “The train is just for cargo now, bananas and coal I think.”
I asked him my chances of being able to perhaps bribe my way onto the train.
“Not a chance, I really don’t think so, why don’t you just take the bus or fly?”
The Swede, who had already annoyed me by trying to tell me exactly which places I should and shouldn’t visit in Colombia and then regaled me with tales of his drunkenness made me even more determined to get on the train.

I decided to head to the station to investigate for myself. I approached a taxi driver, who looked rather sinister with a side parting that started at his ear and sunglasses which said ‘police’ on the left lens, he looked confused when I explained where I wanted to go. After a fair amount of persuasion and haggling he agreed and we were on our way. A bumpy ten minutes later the driver pointed at some tall concrete walls, topped with razor wire and a guard tower.
This was the most heavily guarded train station I had ever seen.
I strode purposely towards the office and bent down to speak to the guard through a tiny space between the glass and bars.
“Excuse me, is it possible to take the train from here to Bogotá?” I asked.
The huge security guard and his friend starting laughing and when he had recovered he slowly started shaking his head. “Mucho problemo, mucho problemo. Los siento, no.”
I went on to explain I was a writer and about my blog, but these explanations fell on deaf ears. I asked if I could go into the station and take a picture and received the same answer but with a grumpier and more forceful tone.
Finally I asked if I could take a picture of the station from the outside, it seemed this may have tested the guards patience.
“No, my boss, the president will not allow this and neither will I, mucho problemo, mucho problemo.” he almost shouted.
All of this time out of the corner of my eye I had noticed more and more armed security guards appearing out of nowhere, looking interested in my conversation.
I decided that whatever was inside that station I was not going to get to see or photograph, so before anything of a scary nature occurred I cut my losses and jumped back into my waiting taxi. The sinister driver seemed to be enjoying the debacle and took great joy in speeding away from the station and on the way out I snapped a couple of illicit pictures praying that the huge security guards and his armed friends had not spotted me.

I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to take the bus to Bogotá, as the “Lux” Tayrona, with sleeper, diner, 1st class coaches and motorcar transport (as described in Cook’s Timetable in the seventies) certainly no longers exists. As we drove through the streets of Santa Marta the taxi swerved to avoid a man sprawled out on the road one shoe on, one off, looking less than healthy. It was the second time in 48 hours that I thought to myself: Is he napping? Or is he dead? I hoped this was not going to turn into some sick game on my long journey through Latin America. My uncomfortable feeling reappeared and I felt obliged to retreat to the nearest bar for solace.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had never seen a windscreen adorned with a feather boa before. Nor had I seen a bus gearlever and steering wheel covered in matching pink sparkly tape. I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen a bus with Hugo Chavez and Osama Bin Laden painted on the back of it either, but in Panama City they are not your average buses. Decorated with bright murals and each with its own theme, they are full of character. I’ve been on pimped up buses with spiky hub caps blasting out rap at ear bleeding volume, chintzy buses with floral-covered seats playing violin concertos and loud r ‘n’ b buses with teenagers at the wheel and their friends dancing in the isles. Getting around the city is good fun, certainly more fun than the 16 hour Tica Bus journey from San Jose to Panama City. The freezing air conditioning which gave way to what felt like a heat wave, did not make for a comfortable trip. Although when I wasn’t adding or taking off layers of clothing, the beautiful mountains and lush green countryside made for a good distraction. As did my book, A House for Mr Biswas.
I digress, it was the teenage party bus with the pink feather boas that dropped me a ten minute walk from the Miraflores lock on the Panama Canal. A visitors centre and selection of viewing platforms were built next to the lock in 2000, the year that the Americans handed control of the Canal to Panama (31st December 1999 to be precise). I spent a sweaty couple of hours marvelling at this engineering feat, enjoying the exhibition and then an informational video, which was strangely accompanied by music that would have been better suited to a squat party in the East End of London.
As the London Express container ship passed through the lock I decided to leave and with no party buses in sight I hailed a cab. The taxi driver took me though what used to be The Zone, where The Zonians lived when Paul Theroux was here. Things have certainly changed since then with the Canal a success for the Panamanians and the planned extension of the locks underway.
The driver pointed out the old US houses, the airbase, which is now a national airport, and what was once Balboa High School, where Paul gave a talk to some rather disinterested students. It’s still a school but now for the children of the Panamanian families who work for the canal. I asked my driver how life had been since the canal had been handed over: “I used to drive the Americans everywhere, between bases, to meetings, back home. Since they left there is less business for me, but some people are happier, it depends who you ask.”
The next stop for me is the 7.15am ‘Balboa Bullet’ to Colon. Happily, the first train journey of my trip. I’ve chatted with a few people about spending the day in Colon, as the train, resurrected in 2001, runs at the same time as it did 30 years ago: one train a day departing Panama City at 7.15am and returning at 5.15pm. Most people have described Colon as: “Very dangerous with high unemployment” and made comments such as: “Please don’t go there, you’ll get robbed.”
The Lonely Planet guidebook does not fill me with enthusiasm either: “A sprawling slum of decaying colonial grandeur and desperate human existence.”
I’ll be getting on the Balboa Bullet, for certain, how much time I’ll spend in Colon remains to be seen.

Categories

Enter your email below and click on the sign up button to be alerted when Rachel posts on her blog

Advertisements