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Riding Panama’s Steel Horse

Article Summary:

Panama is emerging as a top travel destination surpassing its rival Costa Rica in many ways. One of those is a ride on the Panama Canal Railway, where rain forests and man-made wonders whiz past you to the heart of the country, Panama City.

Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

Original Article Text From Wall Street Journal:

It’s a Jungle Out There

IT’S SAFE TO SAY there’s little undiscovered about Panama or its famous canal, which has padded the country’s coffers and determined its regional relevance since opening in 1914. Yet as it eases into its centenary, the 82-kilometer-long canal—despite a multibillion-dollar expansion—is no longer the Central American nation’s only calling card.

Packed with a rich tableau of colonial-era and contemporary culture, Panama has emerged in the past five years as a potent touristic rival to neighboring Costa Rica. Along the Pacific, surfers flock to tiny hamlets like Santa Catalina to ride world-class waves. Divers and snorkelers take to the crystalline waters surrounding the idyllic Bocas del Toro archipelago on the country’s Caribbean coast.

In Panama City, a skyscraper-dense skyline now rivals Miami and Dubai for unbridled expansion, and in the capital’s historic Casco Viejo (or Old City), entrepreneurial expats are converting historic casas into chic boutique properties. In April, the area played host to the second annual International Film Festival Panama; its founder, Henk Van der Kolk, helped establish Toronto’s influential International Film Festival in 1976. And later this year, the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo is expected to open its doors to vibrantly showcase Panama’s vast ecological diversity.

Soak in the atmosphere with a night—or a week—in Casco Viejo, at Las Clementinas, a six-suite hotel set in an elegantly restored, century-old apartment building. From $250 a night; Calle 11 & Avenida B, +507 228 7613; lasclementinas.com

Along with serving as a cultural base, Panama City is also the starting point for one of the most unique journeys in all of Central America: the Panama Canal Railway. Built in 1855, the railway runs between Panama City on the Pacific and the Caribbean port town of Colón. It’s the world’s oldest transcontinental railway, though owing to its small size, it is typically described as transoceanic. Like the Panama Canal, which opened almost six decades later, the railway was built to expedite trade shipments between America’s west and east coasts in the wake of the Californian Gold Rush. Today, the railway still ferries valuable cargo across the Canal Zone—including curious day-trippers on jungle-thick journeys past man-made lakes, locks and causeways.

A century ago, the railway carried nearly three million passengers and two million tons of cargo a year. But the canal and, later, highways rendered it virtually redundant. A revitalization plan reintroduced both freight and passenger service a decade ago. The latter is modest in ambition: A single daily trip in each direction on five restored wood-paneled coaches and a remodeled 1930s Dome Car purchased from America’s Southern Pacific line. The 7:15 a.m. departure is timed to accommodate workers commuting between Panama City and Colón, home to Panama’s lucrative free-trade zone. The return train departs promptly 10 hours later. $25 each way; panarail.com

The ride itself, though just over an hour, is almost cinematic in its breadth and beauty, and forms an adventure-lite alternative to conventional boat tours of the canal. Pulling out of Corozal station, the train quickly leaves the capital behind and enters the Canal Zone, where it hugs the canal en route to Colón. Crested by rain-forest-covered hills, the landscape pairs verdant jungle with the massive apparatuses that power the canal’s intricate operations. At the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, the train chugs past leviathan-like vessels being raised from or lowered toward the Pacific as still-sleepy passengers revive with freshly brewed coffee.

Further on, the train glides through the Culebra Cut, a major waterway linking the Pacific Ocean to Gatún Lake, the 430-square-kilometer artificial lake that dominates the Canal Zone. Crossed via a slender causeway, the lake is a surprisingly pristine ecological wonder despite its man-made origins. Dotted with forest-rich islands, it is a favorite spot for tropical-bird-watchers and anglers. Before reaching Cristóbal port in Colón, the train passes the three-chamber Gatun Locks.

Once in Colón, there’s little reason to stay put; Panama’s thriving economic growth has yet to reach this mostly poor, mostly Afro-Caribbean city. Regular bus service can take you back to Panama City in time for lunch. Or, head for the tiny hamlet of Portobelo, a former silver-trading outpost reportedly christened by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and fought over by Spanish and British pirates and admirals for the next 250 years.

Today, the town’s Spanish fortifications are a Unesco World Heritage site and Europeans are buying still-undervalued real estate along Portobelo’s sleepy shores. In 2015, luxury hotel group Kempinski is slated to open a 106-room, 75-residence property just outside of town. For the moment, however, the little-known El Otro Lado, or “The Other Side,” offers Portobelo’s choicest beds. From $490; +507 202 0111; elotrolado.com.pa

Set on a private peninsula on the other side of Portobelo’s deep-water harbor, the 110-hectare property was originally built in 2006 as a retreat for an aristocratic Spanish family. In 2010, they converted it into a colorful, four-villa complex shaded by coconut palms and almond trees, and anchored by a bay-front pool. Today, the hotel is quietly cultivating a discreet and discerning clientele who favor its whimsical, modern design, attentive-yet-fuss-free service and ultra-remote setting.

“There’s not really much to do there except relax, enjoy their fantastic pool and snorkel at nearby beaches, accessible solely by a quick private boat ride,” says Miami-based Pablo De Ritis, a vice president at the Faena Group who spent four nights at El Otro Lado in April. “The hotel is completely immersed and supportive of local villages and culture,” he adds, “yet is also exquisitely designed, mixing pieces by Patricia Urquiola, Eames and Vitra with objects crafted by Portobelo artisans.”

For those looking for more active diversions, the hotel offers kayak rides along freshwater rivers, hikes to hilltop reservoirs, performances by traditional Congo dancers and visits to Señor Mono’s on-site atelier, where the remarkably dexterous octogenarian hand-carves forest animals and mini dugout canoes from indigenous tropical hardwoods. The local, seasonal menu at El Otro Lado’s restaurant ranges from ceviches and fresh seafood ravioli to salmon paired with passion-fruit sauce. Charming chefs Juan Rios and Mirna Chavarria will even prepare tropical-fruit-laden baskets for the return ride to Panama City. Just be sure to make the 5:15 p.m. train from Colón, which arrives in the capital with plenty of time for drinks and dinner.

Link to Original Article:

From Wall Street journal

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