Colon (Cristobal) Gatun Locks Excursion Reviews
Interesting and enlightening
Everything we had read and heard about Colon told us it is not a safe place to try and do on your own. We opted to take an excursion that visited the visitor centers for the Panama Canal expansion and the existing locks. This turned out to be really interesting excursion. We went first to see the expansion. After a 20 minute video went to two observation points to see the work being done and the construction site for the new locks. Truly amazing. We then were bussed to the existing locks, and got great views of a fully loaded container ship and a cruise ship going through. We were fortunate that there were only two buses at these sites. When we actually came through the locks the next day, there were many more people there. Getting a good viewing spot would have been a lot more difficult.
Driving through Colon, you do have to travel through some of the poorest, most rundown neighborhoods I have ever seen. It is easy to understand why the cruise people warn you not to go out alone.
There is fairly large shopping area within the "safe" confines of the cruise port where you can find a number of bars and cafes (most of which seemed to provide Wi-Fi access). In addition there is a supermarket and a duty free electronics store. It didn't seem to me that there were any great deals there.
Our final private tour (ie., just my husband and myself). Gonzalez Horna of Birding Pal picked us up promptly at 6:30 am in Colon, Panama. We were the first ones off the ship! He immediately drove us to the Gatun Locks whereby we were hoping to cross before any traffic. Unfortunately, a silly bus rushed the planks - bumped into a wall and had a flat tire, being stuck on the car path that crossed the locks. Our guide did not waste any time waiting in line though, we successfully birded the area around the locks and saw beautiful Toucans, amongst other gorgeous birds. Finally, we crossed the Dam and headed towards the Gatun Spillway (Dam) where we spotted additional birds. After the Dam, we headed towards our Target destination - San Lorenzo National Forest - Achiote Town/Road. SPECTACULAR scenery and birding! The people of Panama are very friendly and we were happy to have a private guide who lives in Colon, knows the area and knows the people.
I know many people have said stay away from Colon, be careful in Colon - but do your homework as it can be a great visit, if you hire the right person. Gonzalo grew up in Colon and we always felt safe with him. He was a great guide and I recommend him and his team of friends to anyone wanting a great excursion from the Colon port of call.
Gonzalo had us back in plenty of time for the ship. Cannot say the same for an "Official Celebrity Excursion" who were left behind and had to be flown to our next port of call, Cartagena. The ship did wait and we were an hour late arriving in Columbia - but, yes! they left behind a Celebrity Excursion!
This excursion seemed quite expensive for the things that were included. There was a brief tour of the present set of locks and then another brief tour of the construction site for the new set of locks. While it was interesting, it seemed that it would have been cheaper to just rent a taxi and go out to the sites on our own.
Colon itself reminded me of post-Katrina New Orleans. We talked to another couple who went off into the town on their own. They were picked up by the "tourist police" and brought back to the ship for their own safety.
It's worthwhile to check out the local 99 Supermarket. We picked up several bags of Panamanian coffee at a reasonable price. No need to worry about exchanging money since the good old greenback is still the official currency.