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.