Colon 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.
Colon 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 Colon 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 Colon and its adjacent port Cristobal, flourished as the waterway’s terminal as well.
Colon 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 nineteen fifties, Colon languished in an economic limbo until the last decade of the century, despite the Colon Free Zone which grew year by year and which now generates more than $16 billion per year in imports and exports.
Colon now seems poised for another boom. The re-built rairoad and the recently completed Panama Colon espressway has improved communications. Four new ports, the biggest (Manzanillo International Terminal) which alone is bigger than Miami, are converting Colon into a giant trans-shipment center.
Colon is also experiencing a renaissance of the cruise ship business. The cruise port, Colon 2000 and Pier 6 in Cristobal are receiving an increasing number of ships.
PORTOBELO is about an hour and 20 minutes from Panama City in the Caribbean coastal area know as “Costa Arriba”. You could stop off for a swim at the black sand Maria Chiquita beach which has changing facilities or the white sand Playa Langosta beach.
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-handed… 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.
Bananas Village Resort, tucked away on the seaward side of Isla Grande has all the charm, seclusion and luxury one could hope for in a Caribbean retreat. The open air dining room serves excellent food. Sea sports, including kayaking, are available. Accommodation is offered in 2- storey chalets on a coconut grove lining the beach. Airy rooms offer spacious balconies overlooking the pool and the blue Caribbean.
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 Gatun Dam make a spectacular sight-seeing 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.
The Free Zone
Express, air-conditioned buses leave Panama City for Colon from the national bus terminal in Albrook (in Colon the terminal is on 13 St and Bolivar Avenue) every half hour. Costs $2.50 each way. The journey is approx 1 hour. Regular buses leave from the same area, cost $1.80 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. and arrives in Colon at 8:15 a.m. It returns from Colon at 5:15 p.m., arriving in Panama City at 6:15 p.m. Cost $44 return, $22 one way. Call. 317-6070.
For those who wish to stay overnight or longer, Colon offers several categories of hotel from the lakeside Hotel Meliá or the comfortable old colonial Hotel Washington on the harbour front to the new Radisson Colon and the Four Points by Sheraton which gives acces directly to the Free Zone to more modest hostelries.
Note that goods purchased in the Colon Free Zone cannot be taken out by the purchaser but are sent in-bond from the Colon 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.