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Colón is all the tropic ports of Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. Rightly so. Every street corner and bar here knows ten thousand tales as exuberant or as melancholy or as cockeyed or as ironic as any those two travellers spun.
Colón is a strange town which has relished bonanzas and endured depressions throughout its history. The town was born around the time when California-bound Fortyniners added gold fever to the other fevers that Colón endured in those days of trying to find its landfill footing on the mangrove island that had been declared the Atlantic terminal of the Western Hemisphere’s first transcontinental railroad.
Canal construction followed and Colón and its adjacent port Cristobal, flourished as the waterway’s terminal as well.
Colón then became one of the world’s busiest cruise ports as passengers from scheduled liners frolicked down gangplanks to shop on fabled Front Street.
After this boom in the 1950’s, Colón languished in an economic limbo until the last decade of the century, despite the Colón Free Zone which grew year by year and which now generates more than $21 billion per year in imports and exports.
Colón now seems poised for another boom. The re-built railroad and the recently completed Panama Colón expressway have improved communications. Four new ports, the biggest (Manzanillo International Terminal) which alone is bigger than Miami, are converting Colón into a giant trans-shipment center.
Colón is also experiencing a renaissance of the cruise ship business. The cruise port, Colón 2000 and Pier 6 in Cristobal are receiving an increasing number of ships.
The Free Zone
Express, air-conditioned buses leave Panama City for Colón from the national bus terminal in Albrook (in Colón the terminal is on 13th St. and Bolivar Avenue) every half hour. Costs $3.15 each way. The journey is approx. 1 hour. Regular buses leave from the same area, cost $2.15 each way but are not so comfortable and take a little longer. Call 314-6248.
Another option is the railroad. The train leaves the terminal in Corozal at 7.15 a.m. Call 317-6070.
Colón offers several categories of hotels ranging from modest hostelries in the town to the lakeside Hotel Meliá, the comfortable old colonial Hotel Washington on the harbour front, the new Radisson Colón and the Four Points by Sheraton which gives access directly to the Free Zone.
Note that goods purchased in the Colón Free Zone cannot be taken out by the purchaser but are sent in-bond from the Colón Free Zone to Tocumen Airport, where they are delivered to departing passengers. Normally companies can send goods for a flight the following day. On the day of your departure, leave plenty of time to get your purchases out of the customs area on the lower level of the airport before you check in for your flight.
PORTOBELO is about an hour and 20 minutes from Panama City in the Caribbean coastal area known as “Costa Arriba”. Maria Chiquita beach and Playa La Angosta beach are on the way.
If you are interested in buying a beach condo, stop at Bala Beach, worthwhile also for an authentic Caribbean meal at the Aku restaurant.
From its commercial demise when the isthmus became independent from Spain in 1821, until a few years ago, Portobelo, the Spanish Main’s richest treasure port, mouldered, a roadless fishing village with an annual flicker of life for the Black Christ celebration (still held each year on October 21 in the ancient Portobelo Cathedral). Now, approached by an excellent highway, the Spanish Main, albeit time-weary, is there for all to capture single-handedly… or in alliance with a tourist cab driver.
ISLA GRANDE After Portobelo the scenery becomes even more beautiful and in 30 minutes you reach the beach resort island of Isla Grande.
GREEN TURTLE CAY
This Marina is located at Nombre de Dios and has 70 fully functional slips, yacht club and restaurant. The project also encompasses beach homes and has many sea sport activities.
SHELTER BAY – situated at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal, this marina is well placed to help yachtsmen transit the canal. It has everything a mariner could need, including a first class hotel and excellent restaurant.
FORT SAN LORENZO is about an hour’s drive unless you have to make way for a container ship. The road crosses atop the Gatun lock gates. The locks and the spillway on Gatún Dam make a spectacular sightseeing stop, in any case.
This bastion is near the canal at the mouth of the Chagres River, once the highly strategic and believed impregnable key to the route across the isthmus. Pirate Henry Morgan sorted out its secrets after his own pragmatic fashion, enroute to Panama City.