Officially founded by the Americans in 1852, as the Atlantic terminus of the Panama Railroad, COLÓN, at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal, is all rubble and attitude. The city is dangerously poor, with a bad record of violent crime, set in a crumbling colonial shell that begs for a renovation it is unlikely ever to see. Colón’s fortunes have fluctuated with those of the railway, and later the canal. Despite its status as Panama’s main port, not to mention the financial success of both the canal and the Free Zone (established in 1949), very little of the money generated stays here, and many people who work in these areas live in Panama City. In the face of extreme poverty and unemployment levels, the crime rate – particularly drug-related crime – has rocketed.
For many, Colón’s edginess will not appeal in the slightest, and a visit will only be a necessary evil in order to visit the nearby Gatún Locks or Fort San Lorenzo or the Costa Arriba (though even then it could be avoided entirely by changing buses at Sabanitas). Many people come solely to shop at the Colón Free Zone – a walled enclave where goods from all over the world can be bought at very low prices – and assiduously avoid the rest of the city. However, the combination of a luxurious rail trip from Panama City followed by a taxi tour of this unique and decaying place can be fascinating, giving powerful insights into what the canal and the railroad have meant physically and economically to the country.
The best and safest way to explore Colón is by taxi (see Safety in Colón), taking in the main streets, the historic New Washington Hotel and the adjacent dark-stone Episcopalian Christ Church by the Sea, the first Protestant church in Central America, built in the mid-1860s for the railroad workers. You get great views of ships waiting to enter the canal from the seafront.
The southeast corner of Colón is occupied by the Zona Libre, or Free Zone (wcolonfreezone.com). Covering more than a square kilometre, this is the second-largest duty-free zone in the world after Hong Kong, with an annual turnover of more than US$10 billion. Colón’s residents are not allowed in unless they work here, but you and your wallet are free to enter if you present your passport at the gate, though the place holds minimal interest for the casual shopper.
Near the Free Zone an enclave known as Colón 2000, which comprises a handful of souvenir shops and restaurants, has been established in the hopes of luring passengers from the many cruise ships that pass through the canal.Read More
From Colón, a road runs 10km southwest to the Gatún Locks, where ships transit between Lago Gatún and Bahía Limón. The nearly 2km-long locks, which raise and lower ships the 26.5m between the lake and sea level in three stages, are among the canal’s most monumental engineering features. The observation platform at the visitors’ centre is so close to the canal that you could speak quite easily to anyone on the deck of the ships – your best chance of having a chat is between 8am and 11am, and after 3pm. The locks can also be visited as part of a tour.
Fort San Lorenzo
Fort San Lorenzo
With a spectacular setting on a promontory above the Caribbean and overlooking the mouth of the Río Chagres, Fort San Lorenzo is the most impressive Spanish fortification still standing in Panama. Until the construction of the railway, the Chagres was the main cargo route across the isthmus to Panama City, and thus of enormous strategic importance to Spain. The first fortifications to protect the entrance to the river were built here in 1595, but the fort was taken by Francis Drake in 1596 and, though heavily reinforced, fell again to Henry Morgan’s pirates in December 1670. Morgan then proceeded up the Chagres and across the isthmus to ransack Panama City. The fortifications that remain today were built in the mid-eighteenth century. The site as a whole is imposing, with a moat surrounding stout stone walls and great cannons looking out from the embrasures, all of it kept in isolation by the dense rainforest all around.
Safety in Colón
Safety in Colón
Colón’s reputation throughout the rest of the country for violent crime is not undeserved, and if you come here you should exercise extreme caution – mugging, even on the main streets in broad daylight, does happen. Don’t carry anything that may attract attention or that you can’t afford to lose, try to stay in sight of the police on the main streets and take taxis rather than walk. Many drivers will give tours of the city (about US$12/hr); consider hiring one if you want to explore. Asking for Pablo (who speaks English and Spanish) at the Hotel Internacional is a good option.