Colón is a dump, simply put. It sits at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal and was founded by the Americans in 1850. Once a model city known for its beauty and class, it’s now notorious in Panama for its high crime rate thanks to decades of economic depression. Things have gotten better over the past few years, but there is a long way to go. There are very few reasons to go there, although many people will find themselves passing through Colón at some point.
What’s there to see? Nothing. Don’t bother walking around, but if you do, stay on streets where there are many people around. Muggings can happen in broad daylight. The main avenue through Colón, Paseo del Centenario, is lined with shops and trees with benches in the middle all the way to the Caribbean Sea, but that’s about as nice as it gets. It’s still an eyesore with crumbling buildings. At the end of the street on the Caribbean Sea is a statue of Christopher Columbus, the town’s namesake. Nearby is the once grand Hotel Washington.
The poor excuse for a cruise terminal, Colón 2000, is located on the east side of town. I found it ugly and disappointing. There are lots of shops selling souvenirs and local handcrafted goods along with others selling electronics, clothes, and fragrances. There are also several restaurants, a casino, and a Radisson Hotel. If you find yourself at Colón 2000, you have to eat at Grand Café. It doesn’t look like more than a greasy spoon diner, but they had some of the best Lebanese food I’ve ever eaten. I had the fattoush salad and zaatar and tauk wrap. Incredible.
Colón’s gargantuan free trade zone, the Zona Libre, was set up in 1948. It’s a huge walled and heavily guarded complex that resembles a prison more than anything. The complex is a city within a city, home to nearly 2000 companies where billions of dollars are exchanged every year. It’s the second largest free trade zone in the world. However, most of the stores are not set up to sell to individual customers and deal in bulk only. It’s still worth a visit if you want to see how the system works, but try not to get lost inside. You can enter by showing your passport at the security office between the hours of 9am and 5pm. If you do buy something, it will be delivered to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City because all goods bought there must be exported. Also, with all the money passing through there, not one penny from the Zona Libre seems to be invested back into the community for the good of Colón.
Colón’s hectic bus terminal is the transfer point to nearby tourist attractions such as Portobelo and the Gatún Locks. Large air conditioned buses back to Panama City’s Albrook bus terminal line up out front. A ride between Colón and Panama City takes about 90 minutes and cost US$3.15 at the time of writing.