We left Gamboa at the break of dawn to head to Corozal train station, where we would catch the Panama Canal Railway north to Colón. The train only leaves once a day at 7.15am so we left plenty of time to catch it.
The train route runs parallel to the canal and Gatun Lake for most of its route, so it was very scenic. There were open-air carriages so you could get a really good view and a bit of breeze (of which sadly my hat succumbed to, and bounced down the tracks away from me).
After a quick pit stop for snacks and new hats all round…
…we visited the canal expansion site, where the canal is being widened to accommodate an extra lane of traffic and to allow much wider ships through. The huge new gates, made in Italy, will allow ships big enough to carry three Empire State buildings into the canal. I’m now basically an expert in Panama canal facts and figures, by the way, if you ever fancy being really
In the afternoon we headed eastwards along the northern coast to Portobelo.
Portobelo has an ancient and fascinating history (it was allegedly given its name by Columbus in the 16th century) and the town, with its colonial fortifications still intact, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Today it’s home to the main Afro-Panamanian (Panamanians of African descent) population in the country.
I’ll come back to the beautiful hand-painted type everywhere too. I barely saw a plastic sign anywhere in the whole country, which was pretty amazing.
We took a speedboat over the bay to our lunch spot, El Otro Lado (‘The Other Side’), a breathtakingly pretty luxurious boutique hotel. Set in lush, secluded gardens with a beautiful infinity pool and seven uniquely decorated rooms, it’s a pricey (about $500/night) but very special location with ‘honeymoon’ written all over it.
The food was really good, and afterwards we got a peek at the rooms which are all individually decorated and immaculate.
We then boarded a super cool floating bar, where we enjoyed snacks and a glass of bubbly as we had a leisurely tour of the bay.
Back in Portobelo, we found a buzz in the air, the streets full of people and kids, and music starting up: the Congo Carnival was swinging into action. We’d missed the main Panama Carnival which runs through February, so it was good to see a little bit of Portobelo’s own one.
These men and children dressed as devils were armed with whips, which they liberally used on anyone daring enough to jump into the square. They represent the evils of slavery, and the carnival ends with the devils being tamed by the carnival queen (dressed in white) and baptised. The atmosphere was really good, but we left before it got too wild.
After another long day, we transferred to our next hotel, the Miramar Intercontinental back in Panama city, and prepared for another pre-dawn start for our trip to the islands of San Blas.