The Panama Canal: Crossing a continent

The train in front of me is a beauty: an old-fashioned red, black and yellow locomotive that looks wonderfully at home in the Central American sunshine. Inside, its wood-panelled, lamp-lit coaches feel like they belong to a classier age of rail travel.

By Glen Mutel
Published 10 Mar 2015, 14:10 GMT, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 16:39 BST

However, one carriage in particular stands out — the glorious, glass-domed, 1930s observation car that's to be my home for the next hour or so.

Today, I'm doing something unusual: I'm crossing an entire continent in less time than it normally takes me to commute to work. Our train is part of the Panama Canal Railway, and for most of the short journey, it snakes parallel with this miracle of engineering, through bursts of rainforest, along the water's edge, all the way from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean.

With an ice-cold Panamanian beer in hand, I sit back and take in the views, yet the scenery is initially confusing. I suppose I'd been expecting a larger version of the canals we get at home: a neat, even channel with steep concrete sides. Instead, we face what looks like a meandering river, with ill-defined grassy banks. At one point, the water opens out to form a wide lake, with our train traversing the slenderest of causeways across its centre. It feels more like the Mekong Delta or the backwaters of Kerala, except there — on our right — is a channel marked out by brightly coloured buoys, denoting the only area of water that's a suitable depth for the giant cruise and container ships that regularly make this passage.

The canal seems quiet today; on our entire journey, we pass four ships, including one small vessel emblazoned with National Geographic logos. But it's a wonderfully relaxing way to pass a morning, with rainforest and water always in view from our dome windows.

Onwards we chug, past Barro Colorado, a large hill that was transformed into an island a century ago, after the surrounding area was flooded during the canal's construction; through the Culebra Cut, the nine-mile channel of water painstakingly carved, blasted and dredged to link up the huge man-made Gatun Lake in the north with the mouth of the Pacific in the south. Then we hop off the train and continue by minibus, along the palm-lined Amador Causeway past Frank Gehry's typically eye-catching Museum of Biodiversity and the iconic Bridge of the Americas.

We finally stop at Balboa, at the edge of Panama City, and there, with a welcome ice cream and a newly purchased hat, I look from the edge of the harbour, out onto the Pacific Ocean. To my left, across the water, I can see the glittering skyscrapers of Panama City's financial district. To my right, I spot a couple of ships, chugging down the Gulf of Panama, towards the canal's entrance and the Miraflores locks — their captains no doubt grateful that they've just cut 3,000 miles and eight days off their journey.

Eventually, I rejoin my group — all of us passengers from the Thomson Dream cruise liner — and we begin our journey back to the other side of this tiny snake of land, which joins together the huge bulks of North and South America like a thin dash of metal between two enormous barbells. By tonight, we'll be back on board our vessel, heading east, deep into the Caribbean Sea — and this brief glimpse of the mighty Pacific Ocean will seem a distant, and unlikely, memory.


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved