Please note: I am writing new 2015 editions of my Lazy Travelers Handbook Series, so it’s going to be a little crazy for me until the end of the year. I’m aiming at at least 3 new posts a week, but it doesn’t work out every time. Sorry about that.
Here is my previous report: Panama City and Beyond: Trip Report, Part One
Since my time in Panama City was limited–mainly due to my sickness–we could only take one side trip outside Panama City. I had planned four day trips initially, but alas, that was not to be. So we had to improvise.
Panama Canal Train Ride
The ride was very nice, but it wasn’t anything mind-blowing. If you like train rides like I do, you will enjoy this one. Where in the world can you ride between the two oceans in less than 1.5 hours enjoying the scenery alternating between beautiful lush jungles and lakes and rivers on both sides of the track? It was a very smooth and pleasant ride, and we were glad we took it. The ride costs $25 and includes unlimited coffee. At the end of our journey they also gave us a snack pack to keep us going, which I thought was nice.
But… There is always but, isn’t there!
The thing is, there are only two rides a day. The train departs from Panama City for Colon at 7:30 AM, and leaves Colon for Panama City at 5PM. It wouldn’t be a problem–why not spend a pleasant day in Colon, doing some sightseeing and learning about history, right? I’ll tell you why. Because Colon is a dump!
Please forgive me citizens of Colon, but you know it’s true. This city is a total dump! Yes, I know, it’s the second biggest city in Panama, but let me reiterate once again. It’s not another Panama City. It’s a dump. Spending a day in Colon is a losing proposition! There is nothing to do there, whatsoever. The city is broke, and it shows everywhere. But since I’m stubborn and won’t take anyone’s word for it, I asked our driver to drive us around downtown. Took about 10 minutes along the main street, and I was done. Seriously!
If you thought, oh, great, I’ll do some shopping in Colon while I’m waiting for my 5PM ride back to Panama City, well, no, you won’t. Yes, it’s a free trade zone, and they say it’s the biggest in the Americas. I have no reason not to believe that, but this free trade zone was not set up for shmucks likes us. It’s for big companies that are encompassed in a large commercial park. There is nothing for you to do there.
Have I already mentioned it’s a dump four or five times? There is another reason not to waste your time in this god forsaken city. It’s dangerous. The Panamians will tell you it’s the most dangerous city in the country in terms of not so petty crimes like muggings and murder.
Why is it, I wonder, that so many Free Trade Zones are such lousy places for people to live? In June, I visited Manaus in Brazil which is also a free trade zone–and also one of the most impoverished cities I’ve been to in Brazil. You can’t compare Manaus to Colon, though, because even dumps are not created equal. There are at least a few things that Manaus has going for it. OK, moving on.
Here is a hint. If you are taking the train along the Panama Canal, have a driver meet you in Colon and take you back. Or ask them to take you elsewhere–I’m sure there must be interesting sightseeing spots in the province of Colon, but I did not investigate. We arranged that our driver would take us to the Lake Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which is right on the way back to Panama City. But first, here are a few more pics of our train ride.
Gamboa Rainforest Resort
This property has mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, but we didn’t come there to stay. The highlights of our tour were the ride in a cable car and the observation deck. There are also a small thing they call an aquarium (LOL, they shouldn’t), an equally small, but enjoyable, butterfly garden, a half-empty terrarium and an orchard. The 2-hour tour cost us around $100 plus tax, and there were only two of us, so we effectively enjoyed a private tour.
The lobby is quite beautiful.
The view from the terrace bar were magnificent, and the pool area below looks very inviting. We didn’t partake, though.
Here are two more:
The cable car ride through the jungle was thoroughly enjoyable, and it took us to the observation deck.
The observation tower is 10-story high, and there is no elevator.
But it was not a problem because…
… the resort prides itself that their cable cars and even the observation tower are handicap-accessible. Thank god for the ramp! My auntie and I are not handicapped, but if we’d had to climb the stairs, we might’ve hesitated. Which would’ve been a shame because we would’ve missed these:
Panama Travel Afterthoughts
We returned to Panama City in a pouring rain. It had been raining every day we were there, but on that particular day we were really happy that the weather cooperated and we were able to complete our tour in peace. A few pointers if you decide to follow our route.
1. Go for it. Book a train ride to Colon and make sure a car is waiting for you there to take you back. You could try and haggle with a local cabby in Colon, but I think you would feel like a hostage if you haven’t arranged the ride back.
2. I had a great time at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, but I wouldn’t stay there, or I wouldn’t stay there more than a couple of days. I imagine it would get very old, very fast. Besides, the hotel rooms start at $200+ and if my $4 orange juice is any indication, the food cost must be astronomical in this captive environment. However, if you want to enjoy nature and unwind a little at a beautiful pool, then a two-day-stay might cut it.
3. There are a lot of reasons to like Panama. Panama City has enjoyed enormous growth in the last two decades. New skyscrapers, casinos, and shopping malls pop up everywhere. It has drinkable tap water, and every foreign traveler gets medical insurance for up to $1,000. There are plenty of road crossings equipped for handicapped travelers, and there are some great world-class restaurants (which I didn’t have a chance to experience between my sickness and frequent torrential rains).
4. On the other hand, it’s been a while since I was in a major metropolitan city that is waging a war against garbage bins. Spilled garbage is omnipresent in Panama City: in the Financial District, in the touristy Old City, next to banks, beautiful malls, fancy hotels, and restaurants. You can walk around admiring beautiful skyscrapers, but look down, and you will see this.
And while some pedestrian crossings are perfect for the handicapped, others have no markings and will make you run for your life. I didn’t find Panama City as dangerous as, let’s say, Rio–where playing cat-and-mouse with pedestrians is a national sport–but crossing a busy street in Panama City can get quite intimidating. Be careful.
5. Speaking of Rio: if you are craving for a perfect Caipirinha (I always do), Os Segredos da Carne is the place to scratch the itch. I discovered it because it was a 2-minute walk from my hotel, and I was happy I did. It’s a rodezio-style restaurant, quite upscale at $32 per person, and I found most of their meats to be tough (although the cold buffet was excellent). But they have a nice outdoor seating area, and their Caipirinhas are the best I have ever tried outside of Brazil! They have all kinds of Caipirinhas, but the classic is always the best. Highly recommended!
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