We went to Colon and didn't get robbed!

Trip Start Nov 13, 2010
Trip End Jul 20, 2011

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Where I stayed
Eco Inn Avila Hotel

Flag of Panama  ,
Friday, January 14, 2011

Travelling by train is one of my favourite things……anywhere, anytime. Travelling by train along the side of the Panama Canal is just one of those bucket list experiences.  When we were here a couple of years ago we just could not fit it into our schedule.  It was the same for Louise and Wayne – they too had always wanted to do it.  The difficulty with this train trip is that it leaves at 7:30 am, used to only go once a week, now it is daily, and it returns only once a day, at 5:30 pm. It runs directly along the Panama Canal from Panama City to Colon, Panama.  Doesn't sound like a hardship or a difficult day until you start to hear or read about Colon.  It is the second largest free trade zone in the world – after Hong Kong and probably has the largest legends regarding incidences of crime I have ever encountered.  The fear of this city is truly legendary.  The Lonely Planet Guidebook, which usually takes a pretty liberal view of the world, joins all the others is writing…….it is not an 'if you go to Colon you will get robbed" they purport "when you go to Colon, you will be robbed”. 

So the three geeks we are, and all very seasoned travellers, Wayne, Louise and I took to researching recent blogs and travel writings about Colon.  The two of them on their I phones, me on my laptop.  We were going on the train, that was not negotiable.  What we did once we got there and how to be safe was another thing.  Between the three of us we read a zillion blogs – all saying how dangerous the city was.  Every person in Panama City we told that we were going to Colon warned us not to.  Funny thing was that very few of the fear mongering writer gave personal accounts of their own victimization……one even said that you would come back red….from stabbings……

So we  decided we would be the first three to go to Colon and not be robbed and/or stabbed and we would write about it……..so here it is…….Ok, we technically went to Colon but instead of making it into the City we got interrupted and went to Plan B.

First, about the train.  We actually tried to book a tour because of the whole fear mongering stuff – we figured that this was maybe the one time we would suck it up and join a group – more safety in numbers…..tried but the tour people said that the early January mudslides had closed some of the roads so the tour was only half operational – the train part.  We could do the train ourselves. 

We got varying versions of where and when to get our tickets…only available the day of travel…..so we decided to be on the safe side and took the majority advice to be at the train station by 6 am to ensure a seat.  We dragged ourselves out of bed and headed for the station – about 5 km away from downtown and arrived right at 6 am – still fully dark.  We were the third, fourth and fifth idiots who took this advice.  

The station was closed and the sign indicated it opened at 7:15.  We were pissed that we hadn’t had the insight to pack a breakfast, have the cabbie stop at a gas station to grab a coffee or a juice, or even just throw in a granola bar.  Further discussion with the other idiots indicated that we were indeed a homogenous group – no one had anything to eat or drink and we were in the middle of nowhere at a train station that opened in over an hour.  By 7 am the crowd thickened to about 25 people…….it is a really big train…….for those of you reading this for advice……sleep in, have the free breakfast at your hotel, pack a granola bar and a picnic with your body armour and get ready to enjoy the one hour ride.  Yes, it only takes one hour to get to the gates of Hell.  And the journey was worth the wait in the chilly air.  Being so few of us and at the front of the miniscule line, we were able to score seats in the observation car – the glass domed unit and that was really nice.  The train moves pretty slowly which allows you to see the wildlife, birds, sloths, crocodiles, no monkeys.  It winds along the Canal – you can see the big ships waiting and the construction of the second and third lanes.   It goes along Gatun Lake, where you can see the protected islands that were constructed from the dredge.   Really nice - $22 one way and worth it.

As we pulled into Colon you could feel the anxiety build amongst the few of us.  Most of the people were on organized tours…the few of us who weren’t,  prepared to be robbed and pillaged. The three of us had nothing really valuable other than our cameras.  As we exited the train we were all trying to figure out how to get out of Colon right away or what to do for 9 hours.  The guidebooks said to go and lock yourself in the duty-free building and not step out until time to return.  We stepped off the train and regrouped.  Within minutes Louise was chatting up a taxi driver…there were only a few taxis there which seemed very odd to me….he showed us his ID and suggested a tour.  After all of the horror stories we had heard and read, I was glad to be in a group, albeit small, but still I questioned the legitimacy of this driver who was making a strong pitch to us.  Shortly we recruited another guy – Bill, from Maine, who was travelling alone and patiently waiting for his robbery and assault to occur.

And so the day began.  With a big leap of faith that perhaps Jorge’s Taxi licence and tour guide credentials had not just been minted at Office Depot….ok, being the professional sceptic,  I was not convinced until around 3 pm that day…….Just in case I had taken pictures of all the evidence – his ID, his Taxi licence plate, the vehicle, his Taxi licence and his mug shot so that whomever stole my camera later would have a full record of some black guy at the train station in Colon.

It just didn’t happen and it went from good to better and poor Jorge worked his butt off for his money.  He drove us around for 9 hours, put hundreds of kilometers on his car and showed us a side of Panama we didn’t even know existed.  Part of his tour was a trip over to the Caribbean Coast to the town of Portobello.  It has great historical significance for the country but has a very recent tragic history from this month.  The rain started on January 1 and it rained nonstop for 8 days.  On the eighth day the mountains gave way and the landslides destroyed many houses killing a lot of people – 10 in one house alone.  The road was washed out – hence the tour companies not going that way yet, but Jorge got us there and we saw the sad town of Portobello.  It is a very impoverished area – drastically different from the sparkly skyscrapers of Panama City and definitely different from crime ridden Colon.  Some of it looked like the photos of Haiti – same red soil and same destruction.

Bill from Maine was a delight and Wayne from Calgary is also a great guy – both of them very laid back and funny and just plain easy to be with.  We had a lot of fun with Plan B.  Plan A was the robbery and assault victim scenarios and while I hope everybody on the train made it back safely, I did see two women whom I would put money on that they wouldn’t have returned with all of theirs.  Stupid is as stupid does.

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amber Pettem-Shand on

Love it when the planets align and all goes well if not fantastically when the odds may be against it!

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