Panama's Colon is best known as the gateway to the Gatun Locks and newer Agua Clara locks, where visitors can watch the Panama Canal -- one of the world's greatest feats of engineering -- in action. (The equally magnificent Miraflores Locks also are a roughly one-hour drive from the city.) The canal is only one of the region's many attractions, however. Colon, situated on Panama's Atlantic side, is home to the world's first transcontinental railway; its magnificent red and gold trains traverse Central America from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a single afternoon. The country's vast, virgin rainforest is home to sloths, 10,000 plant species and 900 species of birds, including harpy eagles.
Having regained control of its famous canal at the turn of the 21st Century, Panama is now steering its own boat in terms of tourism (its second-largest economy after the canal). Significant development programs over the past several years have welcomed new beaches as well as several enhancements to Balboa (another major port, on the Pacific side).
Colon itself is in the middle of an approximately $500-million urban renewal project aimed at improving the city's image and boosting tourism. (Most cruise passengers that begin or end their journey in Colon stay in Panama City instead of Colon, due to the city's reputation for street crime and lack of central attractions.)
The project includes the development of a new duty-free shopping center at one of Colon's main docking areas, Colon 2000, as well as park restoration and the construction of a new retail mall, bus terminal and hospital. Colon 2000 currently offers only a couple shops, restaurants and bars; there is also an ATM on site. Although the project's initial plans estimated its completion to be in 2019, the city still has a long way to go.
Colon's other docking area, Cristobal Pier, is smaller but offers a craft market and folklore shows. Regardless of where a cruise ship docks, visitors can experience both places, as the two cruise terminals are within easy reach of each other.
While those who aren't comfortable with exploring on their own are advised to stick with the ship-sponsored shore excursions, it is perfectly possible to explore farther afield as long as you're careful. This means using registered taxis (Uber is also an option) and following the usual safe traveler rules: Let people know where you're going and when you're due back, and don't flash cash or flaunt expensive jewelry.
The province of Colon, rich in history and endowed with pristine beaches and exotic plants and bird life, will certainly repay the effort. Yes, it has its problems, but its future is prosperous and there are as many good, honest and welcoming people there as anywhere. Plus, a visit to Colon gives you the rare opportunity to see off-the-beaten-track parts of Panama, some of which are truly unspoiled.
Cruise ships utilize two ports for visits to Colon: Colon 2000 and Cristobal Pier.
Colon 2000: As its name reflects, Colon 2000 was constructed at the turn of millennium to encourage cruise ships to bring their passengers into Panama, rather than heading straight through its canal. The port provides a clean, protected environment and well-regulated taxi services. As soon as you enter the terminal, you'll notice how its secure facilities contrast with the "rough around the edges" appearance of the surrounding area. An overhead walkway leads passengers to the facility's small selection of shops (many are closed or vacant with the urban renewal project underway) and larger department-type store with bargain-priced liquor, electronics, perfumes and other goods (including free-zone goods), as well as a few restaurants and bars.
Cristobal Pier: Cristobal Pier is about 3 miles from Colon 2000, the main port and duty-free shopping zone at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal. Regulated taxis run between the two, and the journey takes about 10 minutes. The gigantic warehouse-cum-hangar has been converted into a pleasant, welcoming passenger facility with a flea market at one end and an internet cafe and indoor/outdoor, sea-view bar at the other. There you'll find a range of wood-fronted vendors selling local craftwork (like embroidered sundresses, tablecloths, elaborate baskets and woodwork produced by local Panamanian-Indian tribes) and free-zone goods, including sunglasses and electronics at bargain prices. The shops are arranged around an indoor courtyard area where local dance troupes give folkloric performances.
Protect your wallet. Street crime is a real possibility in Colon, so don't flash cash or wear expensive jewelry.
If you're going alone by taxi (rather than taking a ship's shore excursion), be prepared to wait until the tours have departed. Taxi drivers can only pick up passengers from the port complex once the last tour coach has left.
By Taxi: Cabs are plentiful. Drivers are regulated, and their runs are closely monitored. Taxi organizers will take your name, your ship, your departure time, your expected time of return and the name and number of the driver with whom you are traveling. Look for the central desk at the Colon 2000 complex.
Drivers will also offer a printed tariff of fares: $3 will get you from either port to any point within the perimeters of Colon City, though wandering about on your own here is not recommended. Some cab drivers will offer lower fares than the official tariff if approached directly, but we'd recommend taking the official route for peace of mind.
Colon's taxi drivers offer a wide array of go-as-you-please tours, listed on a written tariff (so there should be no embarrassing haggling when you get there, though it's worth negotiating waiting time and investigating ferry fares or entrance fees in advance). Or, take an affordable taxi-based city tour, which will show you the main sights of Colon.
By Rideshare: Uber is even more affordable than taxi services, though wait times for drivers are less reliable and vary based on time and availability.
Local currency in Panama is the Balboa, which has parity with the U.S. dollar. To find current exchange rates, visit www.xe.com. Dollars are accepted everywhere, and the port shops take credit cards (though stallholders in the flea market do not). If you run short, there are ATM machines at both ports.
Spanish is the official language. Some taxi drivers and shop owners speak enough English to have a conversation, as do several employees at the grocery store in port, but the majority know only a few words. Be sure to bone up on common phrases before leaving home, download an app to your smartphone, or bring a phrasebook.
Local dishes worth trying include patacones (fried plantains) and ceviche (spiced fish, cooked with onions and lemon juice). Do have a Colombian coffee. It really is some of the best in the world.
Mexico isn't the only place where margaritas reign supreme; they're popular in Colon and Cristobal, too. Try a melon margarita -- a mix of melon juice with tequila and lime -- for a refreshing twist on the classic recipe. It's best enjoyed on the sea-view terrace of Cristobal Pier's pretty blue-and-white bar.
In Port: The cafe at Cristobal Pier can rustle up tasty bar snacks when cruisers are in port. There are more restaurants -- notably Arrecifes and Rotana Cafe -- to choose from in the Colon 2000 port complex.
In Colon: The Grand Cafe (Calle 11 and Ave. Bolivar) offers Arabian cuisine, and Restaurante Nuevo Dos Mares (Calle 5 and Ave. Central, in the Paseo del Centenario section) is a great option if you're looking for authentic Panamanian cuisine. There's also a decent mini-market at Shelter Bay Marina, near Fort Sherman.
Farther Afield: You'll find seafood places opposite Langosta Beach. Yachties pile into Portobelo, so the restaurants around its boat-dotted bay are worth exploring. Again, go nowhere on your own, and have taxis drop you off and pick you up at a prearranged time.
Beautifully crafted wooden puzzle boxes -- shaped as fish, flowers, exotic birds and other animals -- make great collectibles or presents for the folks back home. They're made from the hard wood of the Cocobolo tree, which varies in color from black and reddish-brown to yellow.
Other great options are Panama hats, which came into popularity in the early 1900s when President Theodore Roosevelt wore one on a visit to the country as the canal was being constructed. You can find them in various sizes, colors and styles at shops all over the immediate port area. Browse a bit first, though, to be sure you're getting the best price.