The city of Colon, Panama hosts the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. Befitting such a hugely important thoroughfare for global trade, the second largest free trade zone in the world is found in Colon, Panama.
Away from the city, there are ruins of military forts both old and new, beautiful Caribbean beaches shaded by groves of coconut palms, wonderful snorkeling and diving opportunities, and extensive rainforests filled with exotic wildlife.
Although Colon, Panama is located on the Caribbean Sea, it only takes an hour to drive across this narrow section of the isthmus to Panama City and the Pacific Ocean.
History of Colon, Panama
The coasts of Colon, Panama were inhabited by the Kuna tribe and other groups in 1502 when Christopher Columbus first visited the area on his final trip to the Americas. Although he didn’t stay very long in Colon, Panama, that didn’t stop him from naming the coastal area after himself. He gave a more practical name, however, to a natural harbor where he took shelter from a storm; “Portobelo” or “beautiful port”. The town that the Spanish ended up founding at this site in 1597 became one of the most important and richest trade centers of their New World Empire.
Portobelo, Colon was used as a principle trade center for goods entering and exiting South America. Literally millions of gold pesos exchanged hands at the annual trading fairs held at this important port. At other times of the year, much of the treasures and precious metals that the Spanish took from South America passed through Portobelo and were often stored in warehouses in the town.
So much lucrative activity didn’t go unnoticed, however, and Portobelo was a frequent target of pirates. Such famous bucaneers as Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan both successfully looted and terrorized Portobelo. Due to heavy losses from pirate attacks, and brief conquest by a British fleet in 1739, the Spanish ended the trading fairs shortly thereafter and began to use the much longer but safer route around Cape Horn in southern South America.
Portobelo in Colon, Panama continued to play an important role in trade but declined after construction of the trans-Panama railroad and the Panama Canal.
At this time, the city of Colon, Panama was built and took Portobelo’s place as the most important port city on the Caribbean coast of Panama. For many years, Colon, Panama was a bustling, economically upbeat city until the 1960s when it began to decline under the military dictatorships of Torrijos and Noriega.
Although other areas of Colon province are doing relatively well, the city of Colon, Panama still hasn’t fully recovered and continues to suffer from high unemployment and crime. Nevertheless, with Panama’s bright economic outlook, things are bound to improve in this important port city.
The culture of Colon, Panama is somewhat varied with the presence of indigenous groups, Afro-Caribbean culture, villages and farming communities populated by migrants from other regions of Panama such as Chiriqui and Veraguas, and south-Asian communities in the city.
Activities around Colon, Panama
Very much like Portobelo was during its heyday, the huge free trade zone at Colon, Panama bustles with the activity of merchants from a number of countries. This sort of shopping isn’t geared towards the casual shopper as most items are sold in bulk. For merchants who want to buy large quantities of goods at low prices, though, it is THE place to be.
For those of us who don’t own a store or would be interested in buying several hundred pairs of shoes for resale, Colon, Panama still has other activities in store. It’s a great place to walk among the ruins of historically important forts and ruins such as those at Portobelo and San Lorenzo, to experience rainforest, and to go diving.
Types of accommodations available in Colon, Panama
Colon, Panama has a number of mid-range, small hotels, and an ecolodge or two. In and around the city of Colon, Panama, a few of the safer hotels with guarded parking lots are the Hotels Washington, Meryland and Carlton.
For a stay at a lodge nestled right in the jungle, try Sierra Llorona, the main rainforest ecolodge in Colon Province.
Tourism in Colon, Panama
Most of the tourism in Colon, Panama takes place outside of the city. The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal are only ten kilometers away and the rainforests of San Lorenzo National Park are a short twenty to thirty minute drive. An easy, maintained trail provides access to this national park along the main road to the village of Achiote (where rainforest guides can be hired).
Visits to the tranquil, seaside village of Isla Grande and diving trips in the Portobelo area are also popular among both locals and tourists. Although the best diving isn’t very close to Portobelo, trips done near the town are still interesting and often visit the wreckage of a sunken cargo plane.
Real estate in Colon, Panama
Colon, Panama is a great place to buy real estate in Panama because much of Colon Province has yet to be developed despite the presence of beautiful beaches, a huge potential for tourism, and the second largest free trade zone in the world. All of these factors make it very likely that Colon, Panama will become a much more popular destination sometime soon and it’s only a matter of time before employment increases in the city of Colon, Panama. In addition, with the new highway between Panama City and Colon, this region of Panama is now just an hour or so by car from the capital.